Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Hrēod Græf

I was in Redgrave yesterday evening, at a meeting hosted by the Culture of the Countryside project of the SCVA. We discussed ideas for creative collaboration with the Little Ouse Headwaters Projectwicker eel trap stood on the table, along with a terracotta statuette of a Mexican rain god and the prow of a Polynesian canoe. 
Including both wooded uplands and valley fen, Redgrave was called Redegrafe in the Middle Ages, from the Old English Hrēod Græf, 'Reed Ditch'. So it probably started life as a settlement down near the Fen, perhaps on on the sandy soils round Moneypot Hill. The main area would have developed later around the Green,  perhaps in the 12th century, a mile away on the clayland plateau. Redgrave has strands of continuity with the Mediaeval world, with relics that include its Green, Church and Park (which once belonged to the Liberty of St Edmund), its Lord of the Manor, and the pattern of its roads and lanes. It also has its people, many of whom may be more local than they know, and of course its plants and animals - the parish is their homeland too.

Hodskinson © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012
Extract from Hodskinson's map, 1783,
showing Redgrave Green and the Fen
How can we creatively engage with the local distinctiveness of the Little Ouse headwaters area? The river starts life as a ditch in Burgate or Rickinghall, depending on which way you are looking. It swells with groundwater seeping out of the Chalk bedrock and boulder clay. Its valley is the westerly part of a former glacial meltwater channel fifty miles long joining the Fenland basin to the Waveney. Seen from the air, it is a rank green corridor of grazing meadow and marsh, carr woodland, fen and even patches of heathland. Its resources down the centuries have been a province of the poor: it has supplied them with timber, peat and firewood; hazel and furze; wicker, reed and sedge; meat, fish and nuts; even pools for retting hemp. Like Hrēod Græf, local parish names evoke the ancient life of the valley: 
  • Blo' Norton - Blaenorton – ['North farmstead where woad grows']
  • Hinderclay - Hyldreclea – ['River fork where elder grows']
  • Thelnetham - Thelfetham – ['Village frequented by swans']

Marsh ochre © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012

After the meeting, as dusk was falling, Justin [Partyka] and I set out towards the Fen down the footpath of Mill Lane. We met Neville Culley out walking his dog. He has lived all his life in the village, and was brought up at Sandyhurst cottage near the Fen; his father Eric was the Redgrave Estate carpenter. We talked about people and places. Later, Justin and I continued towards Sandyhurst. The footpath skirts the wood, where Eric said the nightingales once used to sing so loud they kept you awake. We passed the lighted windows of the lone cottage where his widow Daphne lives. Neville clearly makes himself useful about the place: the grass in the lane is kept as immaculately as ever; its clippings are tipped in a huge navel-pile against the hedge, towering up beside a neatly trimmed ivy bush. Sandyhurst is an empire of order in the chaos of June.

Mill Lane finishes at the Fen. Dark trees give way to a gloomy expanse. A large hawk suddenly darted towards us, veered up and turned away - perhaps a Goshawk (Cully?). A crescent moon appeared between shifts of  cloud, eyeing us also from the surface of pools. In autumn, this part of the Fen is swept with 50,000 wings, as flocks of starlings twist and turn in dark acrobatic masses before settling to roost. The brooding stillness and otherness of this valley landscape challenges us to find messages that people will want to hear. It is liminal and borderline; its messages are unhuman. Would our tribal ancestors have seen it any differently?

Picking our way back up to Redgrave, the cottage windows were now in darkness.

© Justin Partyka 2012
Photo courtesy Justin Partyka

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