Author Archives: Graham Palmer

Cracked Objects at the Museum!

On Monday 9 October, Graham held a workshop at Royston Museum with ten students from Meridian School. We explored the stories behind objects and students chose objects they would like to write about in their own song cycle.

We can’t wait to help them develop their ideas further…

Many thanks to Royston Museum for welcoming us in (even into their storeroom!).

Not knowing… (Part 3)

Rabbits (and tools for up-cycling the past…)

This is about rabbits. Not your fluffy Easter Bunnies, but General Woundwort’s thugs from Watership Down, red-in-tooth-and-claw. The bullies who think they have all the answers. As they manically excavate their bunkers and scratch out secret passages, they blindly discard treasures and truth. Things of no value. Flints and buttons and fragments. Priceless incidental things.


Part of my job when writing poems for Cracked Voices has been to sift this detritus, to try to find meaning and restore its worth. To glue things back together. Refitting other people’s lost stories. It’s turned me into a sort of historical up-cycler.

I recently ran a workshop at Royston Arts Festival where we briefly examined one such scrap of overlooked ephemera. It was a postcard produced in a time when new technology and reduced costs meant that local cards like this had become the instant messaging medium of the day (a sort of Edwardian Instagram). It shows a large scale military funeral in Royston in 1914.

Military Funeral, Royston (1914) (Image courtesy of Royston & District Museum)

The street running up into town from the railway station is lined with people: some in flat caps (railway workers and men from the flour-mill that is just out of the picture), a group of women (maybe from the nearby alms houses, reserved for widows) and, on the opposite side of the street, one or two middle-class men, distinct in their straw boaters –  all watching the soldiers with their reversed rifles, followed closely by the military band, the coffin (wheeled on a bier which can still be seen in Royston Museum) and the two carriages of official mourners. This was no silent affair. The march – a piece of music by Handel – lifted  the onlookers hearts. It was the same patriotic piece as had been played at Admiral Nelson’s funeral.

My immediate question was, ‘Who was this man?’ Lots of people died in World War 1, why was he so special? 

A search through the local paper turned up this unexpected headline:

Albert Reeve was a 25 year old Sergeant in the Territorial Force (the volunteer reserves of the British Army) but he had died doing his day job, maintaining track on the railway just outside Letchworth. He had been highly respected by his comrades in the TF and fellow railway workers  and there may have been some disquiet at the way that Reeve’s body had been handled – the inquest into his death commented that a mortuary should be built in Letchworth as Reeve’s corpse had had to be kept in a stable. But that wasn’t solely it.

It was the date. Friday 17 July 1914.

Britain was not yet at war but in the grip of the ‘July Crisis’. Arch-Duke Ferdinand had been assassinated on 28 June but it would be another seventeen days before war was declared on Germany. That July, people knew war was coming and were scared.

In Royston a show of pomp would prepare the way for the great sacrifice. As Rev. J. Harrison declared at the graveside, ‘They had come there to pay a last tribute to one who was good comrade, a good son, and a good fellow. To them it seemed that his end had been untimely, but when men were on active service, they carried their lives in their hands, and must be prepared for that great change. He wanted them to remember that they were all enlisted in one great army, which was captained by Christ Himself.  What was the secret by which they might live and be ready? Their secret was faith in the Captain Himself, the blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’

Royston War Memorial and Church

So Reeve’s funeral was used as a rallying cry to all the good sons. Soon Britain would need them all. The railway-worker had been mythologised. He wasn’t special at all, but his death had been invested with meaning. It was to serve a function. This was less Instagram and more Fox News.

Have a go…

The context is the story…and, thanks to the rapid advance in cataloguing and searchable databases, context is easier to establish than ever before.

Why don’t you find yourself a story by downloading the image of an old postcard from e-bay and then looking into its context? Remember, if it interests you, it’ll probably interest someone else.

There’s all sorts of useful research tools out there:

Newspapers: British Newspaper Archive (free at Hertfordshire Libraries)  [includes Herts & Cambs Reporter (Royston Crow) 1878-1910] or National Library of Wales (Welsh papers often reprinted articles from England): This is free to access anywhere.

Maps:  Free

Trade directories: University of Leicester, Special Collections Online  Free

Local history section in your local Library

Research sessions run fairly regularly in local museums and archives

Family history: Findyourpast & (free at Hertfordshire Libraries)

Second-hand books:

Go on, save a fragment from General Woundwort’s thugs and up-cycle the past…

Related posts:
Not Knowing.. (Part 1)
Not Knowing… (Part 2)

Everything Changes: book your writing workshop place now

Booking is now open for Graham’s Royston Arts Festival creative writing workshop: Everything Changes: a writing workshop exploring place and time. It will take place at Royston & District Museum & Art Gallery on Saturday 23 September 2017, 2- 4.30pm (£5, Book your place now. )

About the workshop: Whether you’re a beginner in creative writing or a more advanced writer looking for ideas, this half-day workshop will help you shape a setting for your story, blog or poem. Using historic photos from the Museum’s storeroom, it will provide an opportunity to discover how a sense of change and place can inspire your own writing.*

About the workshop leader: Graham Palmer is a member of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) who has published three books with CUP. He is currently working on a historical biography and a sequence of poems which will form the basis of a new song-cycle, Cracked Voices, with local composer Jenni Pinnock.
*This workshop may also prove useful to those preparing for the Creative Writing element in the GCSE English exam.
Age 15+

ðereuelde | Therfield  

The riddle of the heath

 Royston Heath is a riddle.

This strangely-shaped piece of wasteland stretches east to west over the OS Map like a sleek cat stalking a stray town-rat. On the ground it seems huge but, from its eager head to the tip of its tail, it measures just 21/2 miles. If you’re lucky enough to view it from the front seat of one of the biplanes that regularly buzz Royston from nearby Duxford, the heath looks tiny.

Perspective is everything.

Though the cat nuzzles up close to the town, a parish boundary means this is Therfield – not Royston – Heath. A century ago the Victoria County History (1912) proclaimed it the ‘recreation ground of the town’.

Look a little closer and you will discover something far more intriguing.

Not that that matters to most people who (like my friend Peggy) come out every day to walk their dogs, support the footballers or rugby team, fly kites with their kids, go jogging or toboggan down the hills, slicing through winter snow.

Bee Orchid, Therfield Heath (copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

Bee Orchid, Therfield Heath (copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

English Heritage says the Heath is ‘one of the best surviving prehistoric landscapes in the region’ and Natural England that this small plot of land nurtures ‘some of the richest chalk grassland in England’. It is the last tattered remnant of an open heath that bordered the ancient Icknield Way and was littered with hundreds of prehistoric burial mounds (now ploughed out), a borderland where the chalk hills rose up and, at Royston, confronted the low marsh of Bassingbourn Fen.

On his Great Map (1815), the geologist William Smith marked the Royston Downs as stretching from Newmarket to Dunstable, edged by the clays, gravels and sand of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.*

When so much historic and ecologically important heathland has vanished, how on earth has Therfield Heath survived?

To answer that riddle you must go back to the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. These incomers held everything they seized (including the former inhabitants) as common property and soon established vills across the country. Land was not ‘owned’ as we understand the word, but the householders were granted rights to use it. In return, they were expected to fulfil communal duties (house-building, service in the militia etc) and support the king’s court with food rent. Disputes were settled by custom or consensus at a moot (village meeting) and the village granted each householder a house, kitchen garden and strips to cultivate in the shared open fields.

At ðereuelde the open field was portioned into named ‘shots’ (from the Old English sciat, meaning a nook or corner) and these were divided further into strips. A huge and beautifully drawn map of the Therfield Common Field (1725) shows that many of these Anglo-Saxon shots survived for centuries and lists their intriguing names: Cats Holes, Claw Buck Shot, Chalky Dane Hill, Tumbelow Shot and over a hundred more. The map’s most noticeable feature is a very large splat of bright green paint, indicating the open grazing land that is now the Heath.

The idea of land ownership only developed over the next five hundred years as Anglo-Saxon kings passed their right of local food-rent to the new monasteries and abbeys which grew up with the conversion of the country by Christian missionaries. This accumulation of wealth did not go unnoticed by the Vikings and led to many bloody clashes, culminating in the eleventh century with an invasion from Scandinavia that put the Danish Cnut on the English throne.

One legend from those days centres on the humble Pasque flower, a purple gem that still flourishes on the Heath. The tale goes, it only thrives where Viking blood was spilt. True or not, in Therfield it was a Dane who first staked a claim to own the heath. The local reaction was predictable…

Much further north, on a island in the marshes at Ramsey, an abbey had been established. In the same year that the abbey church was completed (974) a terrible earthquake shook England, bringing down houses. The quake – or simple subsidence – weakened the building and within ten years major cracks appeared. After much soul-searching, the monks were forced to tear down the church’s central tower and rebuild it. Fortunately, the problem did not affect the church’s west tower which housed a light that guided people in across the marsh and the bells that signalled the changing Holy Hours and were believed to echo God’s voice.

The abbey’s monks lived their lives according to St Benedict’s strict rule which emphasised stability, conversion of manners, and obedience. Boys from respected families were taken in and educated there but it was difficult for some to adjust to the ways of the cloister. The Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis (The Ramsey Abbey Chronicle) records how one boy proved a particular challenge.

Gargoyle, Ramsey Abbey

Etheric was still young when sent to Ramsey and he and three playmates – Athelstan, Eadnoth and Oswald – soon fell foul of the abbey’s rules. One day they got it into their heads to sneak up the west tower. Who touched a bell rope first? When the bell rang out there was no way back. Egging each other on, the boys became more and more exuberant.

Now bell ringing is an art. Done wrongly it can cause all sorts of trouble and, at the height of ensuing cacophony, Etheric’s bell cracked. The boys were shocked, the monks furious. They wanted the culprit flogged but the Abbot held his hand, realising that Etheric and his friends were truly sorry and more good might come out of their penitence. He was proved right as all four went on to become pillars of the Church: Oswald became a monk and poet, Athelstan succeeded as abbot, and Eadnoth and Etheric became some of the most powerful clerics in England. As Bishop of Dorchester, Etheric commanded King Cnut’s ear and was to reward the abbey with untold riches, including the vill and lands of Therfield which were currently held by a Dane…

The Danish settler was not very comfortable in his possession. In fact, he was in fear of his life. There were bandits in the area and villagers had taken so badly to his ways that the Dane could not sleep unless four men were standing guard nearby. The Ramsey Abbey Chronicle tells how, one night, he overheard his guards plotting to kill him. If they could not hand him over to the bandits, they swore they would relieve the village of his abominable existence by sticking a knife in his bowels.

A later portrait of Cnut the Great.

That night the terrified settler crept away to the safety of his a friend’s nearby vill. Punishing the guards was not an option as the villagers would retaliate and it would be impossible for one man to evict a whole village. The Dane had no choice but to make his way to London to consult the king.

In the meantime, Etheric’s local agent (apparently based at Ashwell) got word to him about the trouble and Etheric, who was in London, persuaded both Cnut and the settler that the land was worthless while the villagers were in rebellion. The obvious face-saving solution would be for Etheric to buy the land (at a knock-down price) as a gift for the Abbey at Ramsey in recompense for a broken bell.

Therfield (and its heath) remained with the monks at Ramsey right up until the mid-sixteenth century when Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey and seized all its lands. The manor passed briefly to Katherine Howard as part of her marriage settlement but within thirteen months she had been beheaded and it reverted to the king. Two years later he exchanged it for lands held in Essex and Middlesex by the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s and for the next four hundred years the Church of England held Therfield in its possession.

Enclosure came to the open fields in the mid-nineteenth century but the green splurge on the 1725 map was retained as common grazing, the site of Royston town gatherings, celebrations, fairs and the occasional prize fight.

Racehorses on Therfield Heath (Copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

Racehorses on Therfield Heath (Copyright Graham Palmer 2017)

The management of the heath – with its various petty disputes – proved increasingly troublesome to the Church Commissioners who felt ownership should pass to a body more in tune with local needs. By the 1890s a body of trustees (or Conservators) made up of Royston rate-payers and wealthy local land-owners, who retained rights to graze their sheep, took control of the Greens of Therfield and its Heath. ‘The Award’ also enabled John Francis Fordham of Thrift Farm to exchange an isolated patch of land he owned in the centre of Therfield to create a playing field in return for which he got the part of the Heath between his farm and what is now the A505, lopping off part of the cat’s tail and substantially altering the boundaries of the ancient grazing land for the first and only time.

Students from Cambridge had briefly established a golf course on the Heath years earlier but it was not till 1892 that Royston Golf Club was formed. The Conservators now maintain the Heath using money earned from renting out large parts of it to the golf club and the horse-training gallops.

*Published in 1815, it was the first geological map of Britain and the subject of the bestseller The Map that Changed the World. An original hand-coloured map is on display at the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge and a replica can be seen at the Natural History Museum, London.

Breaking through…

The migraine and the goddess 

At Ashwell in Hertfordshire some not-so-ancient concreted steps lead down to the village’s liquid heart. Here the springs bubble up onto gravel or trickle through cracks, draining off the chalk escarpment to the south. Apart from the steps, the scene has not much changed since Nathaniel Salmon described it in the History of Hertfordshire back in 1728:

“… the River Rhee…breaks out of a Rock in this Vill from many Springs, with such Force as to form a Stream, remarkable for being clear, and  so cold, that it gripes Horses not used to drink it. Around the Spring Head grow Ash Trees very kindly, which gave occasion to the Name.”

Officially, Ashwell Springs is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest but it has always been of interest to those of a more mystical nature. Coupled with the ash (a sacred tree that linked the waters of the lower world with our own world and the sky above), the springhead has fascinated us for millennia.

It was not so long ago that such springs and ponds were considered sacred and were even, on occasions, known to yield treasure (old votive offerings from long dead people to the water-giving spirit or god). Perhaps this is why the shallow dew pond (now vanished) which watered animals at the foot of nearby Therfield Heath was once known as the Golden Bog. No treasure survives there now, just a patch of dry nettles thriving on soil enriched with the manure and sediment from the pond’s bottom.

But mysteries are still unearthed. In 2002, some distance northwest of Ashwell’s wellhead near the bank of the Rhee, a metal-detectorist called Alan Meek was sweeping a field at Ashwell End when he came across an extraordinary cache of  metal objects that had been hidden in the ground over sixteen hundred years ago. It proved a spectacular rebirth as nearly thirty offerings to a previously-forgotten Celtic goddess appeared from the soil. Many were marked with the name Senuna and there was also a shattered silver figurine of the goddess herself.

There are various mother goddesses known to be associated with springs but little survives of Celtic Senuna. Many of the offerings from Ashwell End show her accompanied by an owl and armed with a spear and shield, suggesting that when the Romans invaded Britain they may have assimilated her into the cult of Minerva. At that time, as Julius Caesar noted in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the worship of Minerva (or her native equivalents) was prevalent in the Celtic continental heartland of Gaul. Minerva was the Roman goddess of water, healing, warfare, crafts and wisdom and was usually depicted with a sacred owl, a symbol of wisdom but also a harbinger of death.

This Roman goddess had a penchant for creative destruction which stemmed back to her strange birth. She had been born from the union of Jupiter (the sky-father who carried a thunderbolt) and a female titan. When the titaness fell pregnant the prospective father was not overjoyed because it had been prophesied that his own child would eventually overthrow him. His solution was to swallow his lover whole before she could give birth. Trapped inside Jupiter, the titaness set about forging weapons and armour for her soon-to-be-born daughter. The stress and the racket of his ex-lover’s new hobby gave Jupiter such a migraine that he persuaded Vulcan to split his head open with a hammer and, lo-and-behold, out of the cleft jumped Minerva, fully-grown and armed to the teeth. But Minerva was destined to become a goddess of wisdom as well as war, so she made things up with her father…but that’s another story.

There are displays on Senuna at both at the British Museum (Room 49) and at Ashwell Village Museum. Given the similarities in names, it has been argued that the lost British river Senua mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography (a geographical work written by an anonymous cleric in Ravenna in Italy around AD 700) may well be the Rhee. Certainly, Ashwell was known much further afield than it is now. One of the offerings of jewellery to Senuna found in 2002 bears the simple inscription,

“Servandus, son of the Spaniard, willingly fulfilled his vow to the goddess.”

So much is buried, hidden deep from us. Who was this Spaniard’s son whose name means to watch over, preserve or save? What was he doing in rural Hertfordshire? What was his vow and why had he made it?  History is full of such uncertainty. Trying to break through to some sort of understanding can cause us all sorts of headaches. Just ask Senuna-Minerva.

‘Those who wait’, the first song in Cracked Voices, will revolve around the relationship between Sevandus and Senuna.

We want to write your song…

Cracked Voices is all about telling the stories of unheard of or forgotten local people. We’ve had a few ideas…a dog-walker, a shop-keeper and a local musician (No, not Alison Balsom)..but now we’d like your help! 

Who should we base the final song on? We are not looking for the great and the good…just an ordinary person, someone who went unnoticed. Someone who made a difference to your life. Maybe a relative or friend.

Go on, you know someone like that, Why not make your suggestion here?

Suggestions should be submitted before 30 June 2017. Anyone submitted must have been born or lived in the Cracked Voices area (North Hertfordshire, South Cambridgeshire and East Bedfordshire) and passed away at least five years ago.

The finished song will be included in the Cracked Voices song cycle, which will be professionally premiered in Cambridge and featured in a Royston concert in the spring of 2018.

Not knowing… (Part 2)

When two heads are better than one

For a writer, there’s nothing scarier than a blank piece of paper or screen. It accuses you with its glare, ‘Think you can beat me, do you? Who are you kidding?’

That first scribble or tentative tap of the keys can be the most difficult. What if there’s nothing to say? Or, if there is, what if I just can’t say it?

Sometimes you just have to face your fear down. Sometimes you just have to write.

Get over it – it’s not life or death! What you write may not be any good – it almost certainly won’t correspond to the beautifully-crafted phrases in your head. Quite frankly, it will probably be rubbish. But as someone else said, you can always edit a bad page – you can’t edit a blank one.

I start with a scrap of information,  a gut feeling, much research and a few scribbled phrases. And lots and lots of walking. Mind-time: it’s one of the two things you can’t do without. (The other is a space to sit and write in.) The process is a messy one and can be infuriating. This is how one of the poems behind Cracked Voices nearly ended up in the bin, only to saved by some well-timed criticism…

A scrap of information
In the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge there’s the skeleton of a hippopotamus that was dug up at Barrington. (I know this because we chanced upon it there when my kids were small. I’d taken them into the museum to see the dinosaurs.) It was discovered during the Coprolite mining rush that swept across south Cambridgeshire in the 1860s and 70s. Both the hippo and the diggers are now largely forgotten.

A gut feeling
Apart from the obvious, there must be something deeper that linked this hippo to the fate of the men who mined the ground. These people needed their story digging up!

Much research
A search on Google threw up the works of Bernard O’Connor who has written extensively on the coprolite quarries (along the way rediscovering the words of a folksong written at the pits in the 1870s by one of the diggers), Royston Museum came up with a copy of Richard Grove’s book from 1976 and a search through the British Newspaper Archive came up with name upon name of men who had been killed digging out the fossils. It was shocking to read how so many men were crushed to death, quite literally buried alive. Further research in the censuses showed that it was not unknown – probably out of economic necessity – for the widow of a digger to marry one of his workmates. Louisa Seabourne at Bassingbourn thus became Louisa Sell and then Louisa Starr.

It was about this time that the Sedgwick Museum came back to me with some serendipitous news. The hippo was not a hippo at all. Bones from several hippos had been stuck together. This was a composite animal.

A few scribbled phrases
the ground demands its fill / a man of many parts / like the bones of the hippo they found in the pit, it’s a puzzle to know where each scrap of you fits

On a walk it came to me that this should be a two voice poem. One voice should be that of a dead coprolite digger (based around the skeleton of the folk-song) and the other that of his wife or lover. The fossiler would sing for all the dead diggers and give them a composite voice.

Some of the works of art that I love most have never been finished. There is something in their incompleteness that is deeply satisfying. When I was Inter-railing I chanced upon Michelangelo’s unfinished slaves in the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. They are breath-taking as they struggle to free themselves from the blocks of marble. Drafting is just like that. You take an idea – a plan often only sketched out in your head – and then you start tapping away at it, incorporating the imperfections into something that may end up far better or, in most cases, far worse than what you originally had in your head. But gradually something emerges…

Michelangelo's prisoners or slaves

Image courtesy of

The novelist Tim Winton (two-times Booker Prize nominee and four times winner of the Miles Franklin Award) refuses to type, claiming typed drafts look too much like the finished thing and fool you into thinking you’re done when you’re not. Instead he writes the old fashioned way in order to slow himself down enough for the idealised words in his head to translate into real words on the page, not with a pen but with a pencil. The marks a pencil makes are more tentative, easier to cross out or erase. I do both interchangeably…tending towards the computer as the final few drafts emerge…and one of the things I have learned, is not to be too precious. Just look at the drafts of Wilfred Owen’s poems, with Siegfried Sassoon’s scribbled alterations. Sometimes the writer is too close to the original. Sometimes two heads are better than one.

Wilfred Owen

My initial plan for this poem was to echo the form of the original folk-song (which has a young man thumbing his nose at his previous employer) but also make it a conversation between two people who aren’t really listening to each other…a sort of delayed call and response. Once I had it nearly finished, I shared a draft with my nearest and dearest as I had niggling doubts – it was not quite there. My son was to the point, ‘The first bit feels a bit like a middle class parody of a folk song!’ He was right. Despite being only slightly altered from the original nineteenth century song, it didn’t feel authentic. I went back and rewrote it (still not right) and then sent it winging through the ether to Jenni. ‘I know it’s a duet,’ she replied. ‘One thought that immediately popped into my head was to make the male and female parts work together, so the last two stanzas could be repeated together – what do you think?’ I looked again. Whether she knew it or not she had hit the nail squarely on the head. It was not just the last two stanzas that needed to work together…it was the complete thing. By cutting up the two monologues and pasting them together it became a dialogue with some unusual linking. Instead of a parody it had become a modern composite and somehow, along the way, the blank paper had spawned a poem. Job done.