Tuesday, 9 February 2016

In the South Downs


I do not know the South Downs, but my visit to Petersfield last week was drawn into their power. They looked grey and brooding in the mizzling weather blowing up from the south.

Locals must be familiar with these hills and the bulk that forms a backdrop to their lives: southwards towards Burriton, westwards to Ramsdean, northwards to Steep. They frame all views except eastward, into Sussex, where the Weald lies.

The hills are chalk; their summits are mostly bare and their slopes are mostly wooded. In past centuries they would have been given over to sheep, with flocks crossing the downland turf. The Downs remain but sheep and downland are mostly a memory now, as arable or tree plantations have taken over. What would the poet Edward Thomas have made of this? He lived at Steep; he walked these hills, knew their paths and people; he digested what he saw and felt, he distilled it into his ungainly yet ecstatic, wild yet thoughtful writing, in which the character of nature is blended with his own troubled soul. He chronicled the pre-War world just before it crumbled. He wrote a book 'The South Country' and filled it with his response to the Downs.

My friend Jonathan W. runs a sawmill near Butser Hill. He manages Whitelands Wood, with its modern stands of ash and western red cedar climbing the northern flanks of the hill. He nurtures a few ancient yew trees in clearings. He delights in the wood's biodiversity. Old man's beard scrambles along the fences and up the trees; Roman snails still live in the rough chalky soil. Otherwise there are few traces of the ancient downland visible on old maps and which developed here since the Bronze Age. Constant grazing is just not practical. Times have changed.

Buried path - a former downland trackway, with flints and mosses underfoot

On Tuesday Jonathan and I drove to the Shepherd's Church at Didling, with his son Bede and grey, shaggy lurcher Beaumont for company. The chalk escarpment runs east-west here, fronted by a dark ribbon of woodland; its summits are green and bare. The church stands alone, surrounded by fields and is reached by a farm track, which becomes a footpath that continues towards Didling Hill. We paid our respects to this ancient shrine before walking on, with Beaumont trotting along in a universe of smells. The day was patchy sunlight with passing clouds. I became absorbed by the hill's wooded presence as we climbed towards it. Edward Thomas's words were flickering through my thoughts: old man's beard, 'that  hoar-green feathery herb' and how the scent of its shrivelled seed heads evoked unplaceable memories; the shell of 'a little snail bleached in the grass, chips of flint and mite of chalk'; the badger, 'that most ancient Briton of English beasts', dug from his sett and given to the hounds in a dark combe with 'sliding chalk by beech and yew and perishing juniper'.

We passed a chalk pit; we entered the wood.

The world changed - ash and yew crowding around us. Deprived of grassy cover, the topsoil showed bare flint and chalk in the gloom beneath the trees, which the deer had browsed into a canopy just below head height. Brown and white earth from a badger's sett was mounded up between the roots of a large ash. A pile of yew seeds in various stages of decomposition marked a vole's winter feasting place. Beaumont was in his element, alert, alive and questing. We diverged from the path a bit, exploring tree bark with a forester's eye, reading the past written into its hard, rumpled textures. Jonathan noticed a scatter of prehistoric flint knapping debris underfoot, white shards glowing in tree shade - they would have been hidden by an overgrowth of turf had this been open downland. In places I found my feet struggling to grip on the sloping soil, the sliding chalk.


The old world of the Downs finds shelter beneath the trees. Here, we move into a different, set-aside space on a north-facing scarp too steep for farming. Root and tree, teeth and fur, flint and bone; the smell of earth and vegetable decay; animal trails, invisible. The elder world seems closer here, with Thomas's sturdy footsteps close behind us and the whisper of corduroy as he walks past, struggling with his thoughts. He has a weekend's leave from the Army; he is walking to clear his head, clear the turbulence of a homecoming to his wife Helen and their three clamouring children ten miles way in the cottage at Steep. They only remember him as he was before he enlisted. He is walking to find the words he needs, to encounter places where his own nature can do its work of healing; he strides out to forget everything on earth 'except that it is lovelier than any mysteries'. He sees a fallow deer as it watches him under the trees; it stamps then runs. He finds himself alone.

We turned and left the wood.We hadn't even reached its upper margins, where open skies and downland begin - I don't know why: I would have relished a summit view. For some reason the wood had been enough, a saturation. Beaumont trotted on across the reseeded grass ley, indifferent to its green monoculture.

Meaning flourishes in spots of diversity in the landscape, like a 13th century flint church, a pile of yew seeds between the roots of a tree, or the smell of a badger.

Such things are worth walking to find.

Edward Thomas

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Shingle Street, Suffolk

29th October 2013

I seized the day. There was blue sky this morning, but glum-looking rain after lunch put me off a planned trip to Shingle Street, near Woodbridge, to photograph the landforms. I asked the Met Office website for its prognosis: patchy sunshine but a raincloud over Woodbridge. I settled down for a doomed afternoon at my desk, but was woken from my lethargy by sunshine knocking on the window. Quickly pulling together clothing, snacks, boots and bits I set off - a roll of the dice: I was trusting to luck.

The car quietly navigating the winding early autumn roads, out through Eye, Debenham, Otley, Clopton - funny little places - passing chainsawed limbs and branches from St Jude's Storm lying beside the road. Heading south-eastwards, tracking a blue sky shot with grey.

Shingle Street is a single street of cottages with a grandstand view of the North Sea. Today the movie was sunshine and rain clouds on a westerly breeze, with a rainbow for company. The River Alde meets the sea here, and the two currents tussle and create tide-washed islands of shingle and the southernmost tip of the long coastal spit of Orfordness, 16 miles long stretching south from Aldeburgh.

Everything is pure becoming at Shingle Street; nothing stays put; all is flow - just cloud, beach, water and sky: the Heraclitean flux. For me, this is the meaning of the place.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The sources of the Little Ouse

The Little Ouse river has been a neighbour for most of my life. I was brought up in its catchment area, its villages are familiar, and I have often explored its marshy reaches on foot and via maps. Its sister river is the Waveney; both rise in the flat lands around Lopham Ford on the boundaries between the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk; they are like Siamese twins joined at the head, but each flows in different directions.

Reproduced from Ordanance Survey map 1:25,000, 1891. 

The Waveney is the more impressive river; it flows eastwards through the claylands and the Broads for 59 miles to meet the North Sea at Great Yarmouth. The Little Ouse is more modest and more obscure, and is just 37 miles long. It rises in the claylands then flows eastwards for four miles before entering the chalky and sandy confines of Breckland, through which it flows into the Fen basin. Its waters there dissolve into the Great Ouse, and hence go into The Wash. 

Swamp woodland at Blo' Norton Fen. A century ago this site was was open fen, but the progressive effects of
drainage and cessation of economic management for reed and sedge have allowed it to fall back to woodland.

In 2011, the Little Ouse Headwaters Project  (LOHP) commissioned the Sainsbury Centre to develop a creative group to explore artistic responses to this part of the valley. My contribution to this enterprise was a book. It weaves together text, photographs and images from many sources, and my fellow photographers are Gill Farlam, Mary Thompson, Sheila Tilmouth and David Whatley. We used the 19th century Albion hand press at Francis Cupiss Ltd to print the book's title.

The name of the book is 'Sources'. It is a multi-faceted phenomenology of water, touching on its ageless life in the valley and its relationship to people, places, plants and animals. It is also a tribute to the rewilding work of the LOHP in the five parishes of Blo' Norton, Garboldisham, Hinderclay, South Lopham and Thelnetham. Their habitat restoration work is stemming past ecological degradation in the valley, and helping to promote the valley's natural wealth. Its source is water.

'Sources' is published online, via print-on-demand (paperback or hardback formats), and is available at cost price.

Click here to see a book preview.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Ducking Stool Meadow

I discovered Ducking Stool Meadow when I was 15 years old. I found its name on an old Estate map of West Hall Farm; it was shown as two long fields, a small stream and a pond. The stream is unnamed, but we may call it the Rickinghall Brook. It runs through a broad, shallow valley gathering water from West Hall farm and the high Suffolk claylands beyond.

Redgrave Estate map, 1856
My bedroom window was high up, giving a distant view of Westhall Wood - a large, dark rampart on the horizon over a mile away. I knew Ducking Stool Meadow was somewhere out in the intervening farmland, but as far as I could see there was only arable in the valley: a land of barley and sugar beet.

I have never been to look for the Meadow - that is, not until today. I am now 54 years old, so it has spent the last 39 years in my imagination, as a lurid site of manorial justice and misogynistic cruelty. Today I walked local footpaths and trespassed across arable land to discover the reality.

The Meadow is gone - replaced by a sugar beet field - and the stream is just a grass-choked ditch. The pond remains, however, next to an ancient looking hedge, and show signs of recent re-excavation, with mounds of vegetated spoil either side of it. The edges and floor have a thick growth of Reed Canary-grass. A large Red Fox sprang up and ran away at my approach; a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling pic pic pic from a nearby oak tree; a young Moorhen splattered across the pond then loitered on the other side watching for a while - perhaps I was the first human it had ever seen close to. The pond has evidently a life of its own, and has been managed fairly recently, probably for duck shooting.

It is difficult to believe that this quiet spot may once have been witness to pitiful cries and jeering satisfactions. The roots of ducking as a punishment run back into the Middle Ages, as part of the justice administered by Lords of the Manor. There were three manors in Rickinghall: Westhall, Facon's Hall and Fitzjohn's. All three survive in title; the first two survive as the manorial farmsteads (West Hall and nearby Facon's Hall), but Fitzjohn's only survives as a field name. None of these sites are more than ¾ mile away from the Meadow, so perhaps the ducking stool was a joint manorial waterboarding resource.

Image by Pearson Scott Foresman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Although Sir John Holt (1649-1710) had terminated official witchcraft persecution in England, the practice was still condoned in more vernacular contexts. 'Swimming' a suspected witch took place as lately as 1825 at Wickham Skeith, a mere six miles away away. An old, itinerant pedlar called Isaac Stebbings was 'swum' in a pond, and subsequently died from his ordeal.

As I walked back towards West Hall a pair of Common Buzzards were soaring over the wood. The hedgerows were thick with autumn fruits - sloes, damsons, blackberries, elderberries, rosehips - and I passed a towering apple tree on an old field bank. I am glad to see that scraps of biodiversity still manage to hold their own in this intensively-managed agricultural landscape. Westhall Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest designated for its ancient oak and hornbeam woodland dating back to Mediaeval times, so that would be a place to visit. It is 80 acres (33 ha) in size, so I'd enjoy getting lost in its historical depths. Hopefully, I'd be able to find my way out again.

West Hall

Monday, 24 December 2012



I doubt few people from England spend their holidays in East Frisia. I had heard the area was noted for its melancholy expanses of peat moor and fen, interspersed with inhabited sandy ridges. As a visitor from East Anglia, I was keen to find out how this landscape related to the fens and heaths back home. There was also an historical dimension: parts of England had been settled by people from this area in the 5th and 6th centuries, so I hoped to encounter some East Frisians, whose language shares a common Ingaevonic root with Old English. I had pored over a few modern Frisian texts, glimpsing common ground with English; I had heard old stories that fishermen from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk and Harlingen in Frisia could understand one another. I had a few spare hours for a journey into this ancestral territory.

5th Century iconography from Gallehus in northern Frisia

I caught bus S90 from the Bahnhofplatz at Oldenburg, at 09.42 on a frosty morning. The sun seemed barely out of bed. My destination was the villages of Saterland, home to the last surviving speakers of East Frisian. Its four villages are strung out along a low sandy ridge about 10 miles long bordered by low-lying, peaty land. The journey would take over an hour, and I was not sure what I would see at the end of it, although heaths and moors figured in my imagination. The bus headed westward through a prosperous and well-kept  snowy landscape. There were no signs of wilderness; the landscape exuded an air of ordered employment. My map was rudimentary, but sufficient to track our progress from place to place: Friedrichsfehn, Hengstforde, Roggenmoor, Holtland - names which I could roughly translate into English. My destination was Ramsloh, the biggest village in Saterland.

I missed my stop. The bus had gone a mile beyond the town before I realised and pressed the red button...

The doors hissed open and I stepped down onto a frozen road. The bus drove away. I found myself suddenly alone in a bleached landscape of bare fields, woods and ditches, with a flock of black birds and a calvary for company. The moors lay somewhere to the east. Luckily, I was standing next to a signpost saying ‘Moors Experience Trail’.
"Wayfaring always overshoots its destinations, since wherever you may be at any particular moment, you are already on your way to somewhere else" (Tim Ingold: 'Being Alive'; Routledge 2011).

There is something numinous about alder trees: their bristly, purplish twigs, their watery habits and uncanny bleeding bark. They lined the road I walked along, and fringed the canal I crossed. Turbid water flowed under the bridge, stained a yallery-brown colour from ochre formed in oxidising peat. The peatlands and fens were evidently not far away, but they could not be seen through surrounding woodland. I came to a fork in the road, but frustratingly the trail sign was pointing back the way I'd come.

Woods, fields, a farm… after half a mile I began to sense I had taken a moorless road, and the map offered no clues to the local geography. Cold was clamped on the land. An enormous field a mile wide lay before me, and in the distance was the foggy shape of a village with a church spire. I decided to ask directions at a lone cottage, where a blue car had just driven up. A fair-haired young woman was handing over a packet to a short, bearded man at the gate. “I am lost; can you tell me where I am on this map, please”, I asked her in my best German. She laughed and said she spoke a little English. The two of them inspected the map, but could make no sense of it. He gesticulated and said the distant village was Scharrel. He spoke with a thick accent of some kind; his face was squarish and framed by masses of bristling, rusty brown hair; his manner was guarded. I was just thanking them and turning to go, when the front door opened and an aged man appeared in the doorway. His face was a remarkable sight: long and pale, with wispy hair like cirrus cloud, and eyes of a clear, rain-washed blue. An elaborate ceremonial wreath was leaning against the wall of the house beside him. I wanted to ask many questions, but feared intruding on their world with my anthropologist’s gaze. I guessed they were not used to strangers – particularly tall English ones. I reckoned it was time I was on my way. Thanking them for their assistance – especially the young woman – I turned and began the return journey from this, the Ultima Thule of my Frisian expedition.

The cold was beginning to bite before I had walked far; a fine hail was beginning to fall. Clearly I would have to visit the moors on some future day. Dejection was also beginning to bite. But as luck would have it I saw the blue car approaching, and my translator wound down the window to ask whether I’d like a lift. I needed little prompting to accept her offer; perhaps she could also answer some questions. This was the Feast of St Niklaus, she said, and her job was to deliver presents to old people in the district. (In England, she'd have been wearing red and white fancy dress, I reflected.) The old man and his wife at Firtree Way were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary; they spoke East Frisian at home. Would I like to visit the tourist office and get more information? She would drop me off there if I liked. When we arrived at the Council offices at Ramsloh, she reached into the back of the car and presented me with a chocolate figurine of St Niklaus - I was delighted.

The tourist office were having a quiet day at home. I was clearly pushing my German to the limits when I asked them about Ostfriesisch culture in Saterland. Luckily the man there spoke some English, and he said that his colleague, Frau Janssen, a striking, dark-haired woman, was a native East Frisian speaker. I asked why I had seen no bilingual street signs in Ramsloh. She explained that the language was dying out;  there were perhaps only 1,300 speakers left, amounting to less than 10% of the local population. Indeed, Saterland had appeared in the Guinness Book of Records, 1990, as the smallest ‘language island’ in Europe. She explained that a Saterland Alliance (the Seelter Bund) was working hard to keep the language alive, and it was taught from Years 1-4 at school. She said the East Frisians had a separate religious identity too, as Saterland was a Roman Catholic enclave in a predominantly Protestant community. I asked her if I could hear some spoken, and she kindly read me a poem. It began: Ljude rakt et fuul un Lounde / do ap Goddes Wareld stounde.  / Man wät gungt deer wäil uur Seelter, / un uur't litje Seelterlound?. Frau Janssen clearly felt passionate about her homeland. She gave me some leaflets and the contact details of a person who could tell me more about the Ostfriesen people.

The Village Lime Tree (Dorflinde)
outside Ramsloh Church.

Walking to the bus-stop, I considered what I had found out about Saterland. Its wild landscape had eluded me, but its human landscape had come alive in a special way. I had met Saint Niklaus and had been initiated into the matter of East Frisian cultural survival. I had found a mundane world touched with small acts of consecration.

Thankful for the kindnesses I had received, I wondered whether there was a future for linguistic tourism here. I somehow doubted it - but if anywhere deserved its benefits then the shrinking ‘language island’ of Seelterlound did. Perhaps UNESCO could help.

My biggest regret? Not having photographs of the people I'd met. My trip to Saterland had become a human story.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Doggerland's ghost


A train is taking me northwards to the island of Sylt in North Frisia. A spindrift of powdery snow flies past the windows as we speed through the level, desolate landscape of Schleswig-Holstein. Scattered farmsteads with long buildings and knots of bare trees are set in a geometry of ditches and banks; numb-looking sheep pull at frozen mangolds and bales of hay; towering wind turbines revolve in an easterly wind.

The North Sea is an invisible horizon ahead.


It is the weekend of Christiane's birthday, and her friend Stefi's house at Tinnum is alive with pleasurable activity. There are cakes and presents, cards and decorations; there is wine, tea and warmth. The neighbourhood is one of low Frisian houses, some thatched, some with garden walls made of boulders. Beyond them, the countryside begins: an expanse of damp fields bounded by reedy ditches and clusters of sallow and fir; to the south-westwards lies a rumpled line of dunes, like distant hills seen through a haze. A profound chill grips land and sea.

The biggest town on Sylt is the chic holiday resort of Westerland. We walked through it last night on our way to watch the sunset. It would be alive with people in summer - certainly enough to fill the Strandhotel, a colossal, 12-storey block of flats overlooking the beach, and throng the holiday shops of the Friedrichstrasse. Two hardy surfers were catching a few waves in the twilight, otherwise we had the beach to ourselves. The sand underfoot was frozen.

Die glühend rote Sonne steige
Hinab ins weitaufschauernde,
Silbergraue Weltenmeer;


Like all the Frisian islands, Sylt is one breath away from submergence. Its long, crescent shape is actively being moulded by wind and waves. Recurved 'ness' promontories are forming at its northern and southern ends, and its highest ground is a crest of frail, impermanent dunes. Sylt is a barrier island backed by the tidal mud flats and saltmarshes of the Wadden Sea, and only joined to the mainland since 1927 by the slender Hindenburgdamm causeway. 

Local stories say that Hengist and Horsa set out from the now-vanished port of Wendingstedt on their way to invade England in the 5th century. If so, they must have been desperate men, driven out by water levels rising across their territory. Historians say that Sylt only became an island since the Grote Mandrenke (literally 'The Great Drowning of Men'), a storm surge of the 14th century. Before that, it would have been part of the mainland. Going further back 10,000 years, it would have been many miles from the coast. With so much water locked up as ice during the last Ice Age, sea levels were over 100 m lower than today in the North Sea basin, and there was a plain connecting Britain and Europe, known as Doggerland.

Progressive sea-level rise in the North Sea basin: 9600 and 7200 years BP showing Doggerland
and the position of Sylt. From a display panel at the Landesmuseum Natur Und Mensch at Oldenburg.

No Mesolithic folk tales have survived about the drowning of Doggerland. Many people are likely to have been killed by the tsunami from the Storegga slide which swept over the land about 8,100 years ago. Over the generations, people would have watched their ancestral hunting grounds and sacred places being invaded by water; they would have become separated by widening tidal channels. Evidence for their camp sites, flint and bone tools now lies under the sea. Birds migrating to Britain would have found the task more challenging with each passing year. Driven by an enduring geographical instincts, we see them today clinging to the decks and masts of seagoing ships and offshore rigs, rather than to the twigs and branches of old Doggerland. 

Evidence from seabed investigations tells us something about this vanished landscape. Like the lands bordering the North Sea today, it had low rounded hills made of sandy glacial debris and wide river valleys with meres and fens. There were forests of willow, birch, alder and pine, and reedbeds. As the tide rose -  maybe a few centimetres each year - the land areas would have become fragmented into low islands fringed by dunes and saltmarshes, to be followed by tidal sandbanks and mudflats. Finally it was the gannet's bath.

Three-metre high pillar at Tinnum
showing the levels reached by sea floods

Like all the Frisian islands, Sylt is Doggerland's ghost. Standing on top of a dune and looking out to sea, I feel its impermanence beneath me. To landward, there are houses and roads, and willow trees and reeds growing in the lee of the dune belt. Beyond them, saltmarshes and mudflats breathe in and out with every tide. A few centimetres of elevation makes the difference between land and sea, but with sea level projected to rise another metre before the end of this century, I wonder how much of Sylt will survive the next great Mandrenke.

Hörnum beach

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Green Line

Skarpnäck station is a massive underground chamber spanning two platforms, carved from the living rock and painted red. Benched trilithons of polished stone serve as seating. The station was completed in 1994 as a terminus of the Green Line.

I am staying at Skarpnäck for a few days, some five miles south-eastwards from the centre of Stockholm. It is a classic ABC town in the suburbs: Arbete, Bostad, Centrum, a self-contained, social settlement offering 'Work', 'Housing' and a 'Centre' for some 40,000 inhabitants. Green-space is never far away: brick-built neighbourhoods are separated by stretches of birch woodland and ridges of ice-carved bedrock: remnants of a raw, forested, glaciated land, once risen from the sea. In Britain we have to plan Green Infrastructure into our urban development; in Sweden they have so much wild-space that this surely happens by default.
Hammarbyhöjden - Björkhagen - rrtorp - Bagarmossen - Skarpnäck.... the names of the stations on the Green Line are places absorbed by the spreading suburbs - 'Hammarby Height', 'Birch Paddock', 'Marsh Cottage', 'Baker's Moor', 'Sharp Neck' - each one a south-eastward stride from the city, each a named facet of local landscape. But thus absorbed, these country places are not as disconnected from their primal geography as Parsons Green or Shepherd's Bush in London. 

I am staying for a few days with my friend Åsa Lind. The uncluttered calm of her flat, conducive to thoughtful writing, contrasts with the chaos of my home in England. We drank champagne last night at Lena's party and got back late; it is mid-day already, and I need to get some air.

I leave the low apartment block, and meet three hooded crows inspecting a stretch of mown grass; we have suburban hoodies of a different kind in England. A three-minute walk brings me to edge of a wooded area. I am soon on an uphill track among oak, pine, rowan and bilberry. There is golden rod, juniper and meadowsweet; goldcrests twitter overhead, invisible in the tree canopy, and outcrops of tough, ice-ground bedrock drowse beneath moss and lichen. From time to time, I meet passers by, but they are caught up in their headphones, in family life or walking the dog. I am exploring the outback between Skarpnäck and Bagarmossen with fresh eyes. 

Little footpaths weave among the trees. I think this land belongs to the Kommun, but there are no signs telling me so. There are no charred remains of cars, though I do come across empty drink cans and broken bottle glass round the remains of a small camp fire. Fallen trees rot where they lie. I find an owl feather stuck into the rainbow-painted bark of a pine tree.

This wooded land at Skarpnäck is surely a small outpost of the breathtaking, ancient forest preserved at Tyresta, some 8 miles (13 km) away to the south-east. I fancy I could get there by walking a green line of my own, without once ever leaving the shadow of the trees; I should come back one day and try it.  

Mossy forest at Tyresta. Photo courtesy Lena Ohre.

Friday, 5 October 2012

The ‘Estonia’ Memorial

Galärvarvskyrkogården, Stockolm
24th September, 2012
A granite alcove shelters an elm tree: three grey walls enclosing a young trunk in a triangle of dressed stone. Open at one corner, it points south across a sloping lawn towards the water of Stockholm harbour.

The Memorial is a shard which gathers our thoughts into its geometry. Strings of names are engraved on three inward-looking panels, all 852 of them. “Magnus Andersson was on the Estonia” says Lena, “he used to be in my class at school”. I understand then that the names are codes for flesh and blood that breathed water. The walls are holding the story for us to read.

We start scanning the rows, reading each variant name, looking for ‘Magnus’ followed by ‘Andersson’. It takes three minutes to find the halves of his name and join them together. Lena pauses in a moment of recall; he breathes again for a moment in her thoughts. Then we move on, away from the crush of names, into the warm sunshine on the lawn beyond.

Deras namn och deras öde vill vi aldrig glömme’ says the Memorial. I cannot recognise all of the words, but the word 'glömme' is like a candle at the end of the sentence. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Meeting Vasa

Stockholm, Sweden
22nd September, 2012

I bought my ticket in the lobby and passed into the Vasa Museum. One goes to see a preserved sailing ship expecting to see a ship. What I saw before me when I passed through the doors brought tears to my eyes.

The Vasa story is a classic tragedy. Hubris then Nemesis. The warship set out on her maiden voyage from Stockholm harbour in August, 1628. Five minutes from shore, before a crowd of onlookers, a gust of wind struck her amidships and she heeled over, water poured into the open gun ports, and she sank with the loss of 50 lives. Simple design faults and royal ambition were to blame. Vasa lay on the seabed for 233 years in 60 m (120 ft) of water, preserved by the brackish waters of the Baltic, until she was lifted for conservation and reconstruction. The Museum has been built around these remains, using concrete and copper sheeting. There are five floors, and a visitor may choose what level he wishes to view the ship from: perhaps a grandstand from above, a side panorama, or a gaze from below. There are side displays of cannons and objects recovered from the wreck, including skulls from her skeleton crew; their faces have touchingly been restored to life in wax.

The Vasa is a huge brown hulk towering up in spotlit gloom. Carved timbers shape a curve from stem to stern. Her body is lined with gun ports, each adorned with a lion mask; her stern rises high with sculpted figures; her prow juts forward like a beak. Overhead, masts rise to half their original height, ending in crows' nests and held in place by a complex of rigging.

Resting between the worlds of the living and the dead, Vasa somehow resembles the pitted, oaken carcase of a sunken pirate vessel. She has been brought to the surface and thoroughly dried out, but still has a whiff of darkness about her: Vasa is one of the Undead.

Vasa is also beautiful. Humanity is evident in the sweep of her planking, the animation of her carving, the rhythms of her cordage and the scale of her doomed ambition. I have seen many admirable buildings in my time, but never a human construction so large and yet so fragile, so vastly venerable.

Vasa is an awesome artefact that has become a place of pilgrimage, one of the wonders of the world. People whisper round her much as they might round the casket of an uncorrupted body in a cathedral. She is a message from another world, handed over to our own for some extraordinary reason.