In search of East Anglia



A feature on the BBC news website last week made me smile.  It was about East Anglia, a region of England I’ve studied in twice, worked in once and lived in for a total of nearly two years.  The feature posed this question: where exactly is the place?


The location of East Anglia became a national news item in 2002 while, coincidentally, I was working in what I assumed was East Anglia’s southern half, County Suffolk.  This was during the broadcast of the third season of the TV reality show Big Brother.  Notoriously, that season’s most famous Big Brother housemate, the brash but not cerebrally over-endowed Jade Goody, claimed that East Anglia was somewhere ‘abroad’ – possibly next to Tunisia.  (East Anglians weren’t the only victims of her cluelessness.  Not a great advertisement for Britain’s geography teachers, Jade also thought the United States was a non-English-speaking country, Portugal was a part of Spain and Rio de Janeiro was a bloke.)


However, if we know East Anglia is a region of England, why is there any mystery about where it is?  Maybe the mystery is really about what it is.  Personally, I’d always assumed East Anglia consisted of Counties Norfolk and Suffolk in the rump-shaped part of England east of the Wash.  However, in terms of landscape, I suppose you could stretch the definition to include the Fenland district of north-east Cambridgeshire.  Here, you get the same flat, damp and spookily featureless Fens that appear in eastern Norfolk, that are commonly associated with East Anglia and that have inspired countless cruel jokes about yokels, inbreeding, webbed hands and duelling banjos.  The Fens extend westwards across Cambridgeshire as far as the town of Peterborough.



Actually, that accords with something said in the BBC feature by Vic Morgan, who works at the University of East Anglia’s Centre of East Anglian Studies.  He points out that the Kingdom of the East Angles in the 7th century “covered what we now call Norfolk, Suffolk and a bit of Cambridgeshire.”


But as the feature also observes, the concept of East Anglia can be more elastic than that depending on whom you speak to.  The Visit East Anglia website covers Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire – and County Essex to the south.  The East Anglian Orienteering Association has members not only in Norfolk and Suffolk, but also in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, most of Essex, northern Buckinghamshire and southern Northamptonshire.  And the East Anglia Air Ambulance Service covers Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire during the day while at night it caters for Essex and Hertfordshire too.



I’m sensitive about the subject of East Anglia’s boundaries because of something that happened seven years ago, while I was studying for a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk’s county town, Norwich.  As well as studying there, I regularly wrote articles for the UEA’s student newspaper, Concrete.  One day I wrote a piece for Concrete’s travel section about the Suffolk coast.  I made a throwaway remark about Felixstowe being the southernmost coastal town not only in Suffolk but in East Anglia as a whole.  Immediately after this was published, Concrete received a letter from a foaming-at-the-mouth reader who came from Essex.  He condemned me for my ignorance.  Did I not know, he raged, that East Anglia includes Essex, which means the region has coastal towns south of Felixstowe, like Harwich, Clacton-on-Sea and Southend?


Concrete’s editor asked me for a reply to the letter, so I did some research into the topic.  I asked a mate who until recently had worked as a farmer in the Norfolk countryside.  Yes, he said, the East Anglia branch of the National Farmers Union represented Essex as well as Norfolk and Suffolk.  And when I popped into the Anglia Television building in Norwich, the receptionist told me that the station broadcast as far as Southend in southern Essex.



However, most definitions I heard or read said East Anglia was ‘chiefly’ or ‘generally’ Norfolk and Suffolk, while Essex’s status as part of it seemed second-class at best.  Wikipedia, for example, said that “sometimes Essex is also considered part of the region”; while a British Council webpage mused that “some even argue that Essex is now part of the region” (my italics).


When I inquired at the Norfolk Heritage Centre, I was told bluntly that East Anglia consisted of Norfolk and Suffolk only.  Essex didn’t qualify because “it borders on London, so it’s considered one of the Home Counties.”  The point was also made that historically East Anglia and Essex had been two separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which was another reason to make a distinction.


But what clinched it for me was the fact that back in 1992 I’d actually spent six months working in Essex.  During my time there I never saw anything or heard anyone say anything to suggest that I was in East Anglia, or that the people around me considered themselves East Anglians.


East Anglia is one my favourite places in Britain.  I love its landscapes: the Broads to the east, the Fens to the west, the salt marshes along the northern coast, the ‘Constable country’ at the very south.  And its historical monuments: Norwich and St Edmundsbury Cathedrals, Orford Castle, Castle Acre Priory, the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo, the many out-of-the-way little churches.  And its historical and supernatural legends: the lost city of Dunwich, Matthew Hopkins, Margaret Catchpole, Black Shuck, the Wild Man of Orford.  And its literary connections: M.R. James, Agatha Christie, George Orwell, P.D. James, Graham Swift and Philip Pullman, Oh, and it’s produced a couple of great heavy metal bands too, like Extreme Noise Terror and Cradle of Filth.


What adds to the place’s mystique is the fact that it feels distant and apart from the rest of England.  And it would lose that mystique if it extended right to the edge of London.  So sorry, Essex men and Essex women; but when I think of East Anglia, I don’t think of you.



A rude end to rood screens



One of my favourite parts of England is East Anglia.  Too far north to be part of the London commuter belt, and removed from the main transport routes between north and south (e.g. the East Coast rail line running through Peterborough), the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk often seem to exist out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the rest of the UK.  But they are choc-a-bloc with delightful things.


Sutton has its tracts of ‘Constable Country’ and the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ground, while Norfolk has the Broads in its east, the Fens in its west and the greatly underrated city of Norwich.  Both counties’ coasts are dotted with hamlets, villages and towns that, in their different ways, are picturesque and often spookily atmospheric: Felixstowe Ferry, Orford, Aldeburgh, Dunwich, Happisburgh, Wells-next-the-Sea.  (Parts of that coast, alas, are disappearing or in danger of disappearing due to coastal erosion.)  Also, as you wander about the countryside, you quickly realise that there is a bewildering array of small but gorgeous churches tucked away in the region’s rural — often remote — parishes.


East Anglia’s little country churches are also of historic value, maybe no more so than for their rood screens.  These are the ornate and painted partitions that in late medieval times separated the nave from the chancel, forming a symbolic barrier between the public area of the church, used by the congregation, and the clerical area of it, used by the priest.  The rood screens in East Anglia’s churches were usually made out of oak in the 15th and early 16th centuries, often had images of saints, kings and Christ’s disciples painted on their panels, and could stand three or four metres high.  Estimated to number about 400, these rood screens somehow survived the destruction wrought both by the Reformation and by the English Civil War.


The rood screen in the photographs stands inside St Mary Church in Worstead, which is an uncommonly large church by East Anglian standards and which I understand dates back to the late 14th century.



It was a shock, then, to read an article in the Guardian at the end of last month that claimed many of East Anglia’s rood screens are under threat.  Half of them are apparently in a ‘serious’ condition.  Not surprisingly in an area like East Anglia, which at times can seem pretty waterlogged, damp is partly to blame.  Sudden shifts in temperature, with church heating systems being switched on and off to accommodate congregations, don’t help.  Other culprits include ‘fungal attacks’, ‘bat faeces’ and ‘death-watch beetles’, and unwitting damage caused by church staff, worshippers and workmen who often don’t realise the value of the screens.  Meanwhile, because congregations at many of these churches are shrinking, it is becoming harder to raise funds locally to carry out much-needed repairs to the buildings and their contents.


There is now a project underway, with the involvement of the Church of England and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, aimed at conserving the region’s rood screens.  However, its current funds — £40,000 — are a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed.  I’m afraid it doesn’t bode well for the future of these 400 little-known, but historically and culturally precious, pieces of Britain’s national heritage.