Bread or Blood

The gap between the buildings has never been seen before. It seemed so much of another age, and something grim and dark was suggested in this narrow space. It was not just the lack of light, but the claustrophobia of the space, just wide enough to enter, but it would be crushing to the body and the soul. It was only through later research that it was discovered that this was once the site of the George Inn, and it was there that so many of the enclosures in the area of the Brecklands were decided in the nineteenth century.

These were strange threads to weave together in a few days over Christmas. The enclosure (or ‘inclosure’) of the common lands in the area, written in legal-ese language, which even now is hard for commoners to understand. Notices printed in newspapers but with a population largely illiterate. An invitation to come and disagree with the changes being proposed. But who would be brave enough to do so, what if one had no independent means, had to rely on squire and yeoman farmer and the local hall for work and fragile existence? What would be the objection to, for poor landless labourers who did not understand the jargon being used, nor the exact forces which faced them?
Did the carriers of those forces know what they were working for? Or was the way that money moved them just enough?

These are just bricks now, and the makers of those bricks and the builders of those walls now gone. But it feels as if it wasn’t just the actions of people involved here, but of bigger, more invisible, more powerful forces. Of capital, and money, and accumulation of land, and land as a source of wealth, and wealth as a source of power.

The Ordnance Survey map marks this field as Merton Common. Was the tree here when the enclosure happened? Where there other trees and what sort of common might this have been? There is no trace now of an older time, apart from this tree, and trees which have been driven back into managed spaces.

Agriculture is yet another industry which has developed from labour intensive to capital intensive. People in the fields are rarely seen, but the land is productive, and there are vast profits to be accumulated in both the sale of land and the use of land for dgrowing crops and cattle and sheep raising and for selling, to build houses and infrastructure. But none of this is obvious from the stillness and the quiet of a wintry afternoon.

And the former times of the land have been ploughed away, dug up, the rude buildings demolished, the people who once lived here driven off the to the towns, or further afield in migrations and transportations. Little written record of their lives, not much left of an oral tradition in the villages which was dynamic and alive for centuries. We imagine that only the greater beings of the twenty first century must be able to appreciate nature, but there is some evidence that people in earlier times did so to.

 

SURVEYORS HAVE MADE/
THEIR LINES ON THE LAND/
TRAPPING ALBION IN A
/NET OF ROADS A TAUT
/WEB ON THE EDGE OF
/EMPIRE

 

 

The relationship of the people with nature was much closer. Those rough, untended groups of trees would be a source of fuel and nuts, rose hips, crab apples, blackberries, rabbits, squirrels, game birds. Dangerous to poach, but hungry stomachs will at time take the risks of branding, gouging, amputation, hanging, deportation. Hedgerows would be abundant with many herbs and plants which could be eaten, boiled into effusions, used to alleviate aches and pains and wounds and disease.

If we travel back far enough in time it was all once free and the story of how it became un-free should be carried by much louder voices than it is. But not only has the land been taken from the people, but the voice of the people has been taken from the people, and the history written by the victors, all sanitised and biscuit tin, and nostalgia for an age that never was. And lost, hidden, white washed over, written out in endless mis-representations and lies, the real story of the land, and how it was enclosed.

I walked along the Peddar’s Way and around the edge of the army training area. There are warning signs to stay out, and should one stray, even louder notices insisting that you do not touch anything which looks like a military object, because, ‘…it could explode and kill you’.

The vision ahead is of a primeval forest, dank and dripping, silent apart from the occasional fall of a crab apple and isolated and sporadic bird song. One is immersed in nature, or rather one is immersed in the sensation of fields, muddy tracks, tall pine trees, fallen branches, a squirrel which stops still and then darts upwards on the crooked branch of a dead tree, and then jumps and a hanging branch sways to one side and another, and then the grey beast is gone.

St Martin’s Church at Thompson originates in the thirteenth century. It had fallen into disarray when it was rescued with the help of Prince Frederick Duleep Singh in 1913. Singh was the representative in East Anglia of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and thus, a connection with William Morris is established. And can we not use a little historical imagination to guess that he would have agreed with the assessment that this is a magnificent building?

There is something both primitive and very sophisticated in this interior. Primitive because the wood seems so old and plain and there is little in the way of immediate ornamentation. There is little stained glass in the windows but the whole aspect can be described, deliberately, as glorious.

 

 

The nave roof is of a ‘rare five cant scissor-braced’ construction and the ceiling seems higher than the outside of the church suggests. But what a fascinating door, and this detail of a carving in the tower, and the carving in the chancel. One of the faces has been damaged; during the Reformation? or the Revolution and Civil War?

 

 

This is adorable stone work. There is no indication of the weight of the stone; instead the impression is of lightness and movement, as if it were all sculpted out of blocks of sugar. There are no geometrically straight edges – Ruskin would approve – and the sense of sculpture but not of carving, as if this were all fashioned by the hand alone. This is dream time too, inside this church, lost in falling through time, absorbed in nothing else but such fine craft.

There is a poignant war memorial to the men of the village who did not return from the First World War; and also a memorial to those who did return. It is a long list of names for such a small settlement.

There is a path alongside the church, and that leads northwards. By the side of the path, are what looks to be the archeology of a strip field system. Who owns this land, and how has it survived so long without being consumed by capitalist agricultural relations of production? Is there some secret hidden the parish chest inside the church, a curse, an oath; pandora’s box. The peasants left little behind but the results of their labour. Here in these fields, here in the carving of the church, here in the wooden chests they built to keep the brief records of their births, marriages and deaths, and of what they owed in tax, and what they paid.

And once at home again, I was re-acquainted with my library and able to consult A.J.Peacock’s excellent book, Bread or Blood – The Agrarian Riots in East Anglia: 1816.

There is much more to read about enclosures, and to explore.