Norfolk has a lot of churches: climb the rickety stairs to the top of a tower and you will probably see half a dozen more within just a few miles. Not that you’re allowed to climb many of them anymore: ageing ladders and restrictive safety policies, combined with ecclesiastical thefts and diminishing congregations have left most of the churches locked. Remnants in the landscape: mementoes of an age when redemption came through the Sunday service and a larger church was a badge of pride, not a heritage site.
Our beliefs shape our landscape: as medieval communities congregated they carried flint and mortar, timber and thatch to build a space, to consecrate ground for a purpose. To shape their landscape to meet their needs. They planted hedges and built walls to surround the churchyards and buried the dead with wooden then stone crosses. Memorials: lichen covered, eroded through time. More picturesque than legible when you go back more than a hundred years.The barn at Waxham, the largest medieval one in Norfolk, is vast, it’s thatched roof took a year to redo when it was renovated recently. Three cavernous sets of doors open onto the open interior: the threshing floor where the harvest was gathered and processed. A symbol of status, built to outdo the neighbours, it is, itself, recycled: one of the vast roof tie beams is actually a repurposed mast from a shipwreck. The stone frames of the doors are recycled from two local Abbeys, dissolved by the King and sold for scrap when religion changed focus and changed the landscape once again.
No longer housing the harvest, today the barn is empty: renovated as a community space complete with cafe and audio tour. Recently a bike hire shop has colonised one wing of the outbuildings.
The audio tour: “press 212 to find out more“.
A formal narrative (“press 10“, “press 20“, “press 30“) is supplemented by informal stories and reflection. Social learning approaches through a technology that already seems antiquated. Walking around with my Google Glass, i feel too self conscious to record a video, lest i disturb the church like silence of the echoing interior. In the future, i hope parties of children will record, curate, share their stories and co-create a new meaning for this dry space.Norfolk reed is the best type of thatch: notoriously hard wearing and, in olden days, freely found lining the waterways. Thatching is a profession: you spend a lifetime to master it, consigning yourself to an outdoor life of ladders and rain, scorched summers and twine. Skills of a bygone age. I’m sure you can do an course on it now. The thatch of the barn matches the thatched roofs of the churches, several of which lie in easy view. The buildings create the panorama of the landscape: individual elements combining to form the view.
Waxham is fortunate: just down the road and around the county are many other barns, derelict, collapsed, stood in states of forlorn and twisted majesty. Others, converted, repurposed to residential or commercial use: Wroxham Barns, once home to hay bales and cows, today boasts craft shops, a pottery, several artists, a children’s petting zoo and restaurant. An ariel photo in the toilet shows the old, derelict buildings from the air. History consigned to it’s place: the new subverts the old. A very Social Age trait.
But Norfolk can’t hide it’s past: the landscape is written through the history.
It’s a flat county, the biting North Sea winds rattling through in winter: a natural habitat for windmills, whose carcasses are dotted around, interspersed between the churches and barns. Triangulated between harvest and consumption.
Mills are full of machinery: cogs and belts, timber and iron.
Never iron against iron though: the cogs are made of metal, but the teeth wooden. If two cogs jam, the wooden teeth will break, necessitating replacement, but much easier than rebuilding your mill. There’s another reason though: flour, when suspended as a fine dust in the air, is highly explosive (have you never done that experiment with custard powder, an ice cream tub and a candle…?). A spark from metal against metal would blow the top sky high. “Something needs to give”, we say. Better that the wooden tooth gives.
The National Trust owns Horsey Mill, restored and displayed, complete with gift shop and embryonic coffee shop. A favourite haunt, you can walk out along the side of the Broads, Horsey receding in the skyline. As you do so, a mirror image comes into view: the red brick and white gleaming timbers of Horsey reflected but corrupted in the mill ahead: slumped to the side, it’s roof blown off, the timbers of the sails rotted but stabbing defiantly to the sky. It’s so picturesque (the most photographed mill in the County) and so ridiculously, comically, derelict, the contrast becomes abstract. One mill preserved, frozen, the other slowly decaying, but resplendent in one last burst of glory. Not to go quietly into the dark night.
The heritage preservation effect sterilises landscapes: but dereliction is impermanent. We always strive against change, but at what cost?
We go sailing: a long drive down to Blakeney, past many of these farms and churches, villages and towns. Walking out into the estuary at low tide, i capture scenes through Google Glass: snapshots of picturesque tourism and decay. At low tide the sun bleached bones of a long dead boat curve out of the mud. I have to queue to take a photo: like visiting the pyramids, the majesty on one side is betrayed by the KFC behind, although in this case it’s a middle aged couple with a distressingly complex SLR camera, clearly beyond the wit of any of us to figure out.When my turn comes, i frame the shot with my head, then stop to run my hand over the timber. Paint still flecks the surface: layers of it. Blue, white, stained with rust. I can still see the skeleton of the boat, it’s the skin and refinement that’s gone. The purpose has vanished, but the traces remain. Beyond restoration, it’s a living museum now, a technology of wooden boat building largely subverted and subsumed by modern GRP and fibreglass construction. But beautiful: like the barns and mills, slipping into nothingness, it’s glorious in it’s final recital.
Out on the water, i’m less reflective.
Sailing is an immediate activity: the wind catches, the sheets pull, blistering sodden fingers and palms. The sail is an extension of your self. The boat pulls, tips, cries out: as we tack, the jib sheet at the front loses the wind, flaps furiously, cracking and spitting in the rain. It’s alarming, the sound of lost direction. But momentum carries us through the turn, the sail finds the wind and fills, gloriously, magnificently, changing from a wild beast to a mathematical curve.
Hannah, our instructor, is a marine biologist by training: as we jitter over the choppy waters, we discuss plankton, wikipedia and the cost of education but, like a good teacher, she has one eye on the sail, one on us, offering advice, taking control, letting us make our mistakes but in a safe space. With Hannah in the boat, i feel safe, even though it’s my hands on the tiller, my hands directing the power. She doesn’t push me: she lets me push myself.
The experience of sailing is created in the moment: afterwards we have photos and memories. Not wanting to risk Glass to the elements, i use the GoPro to capture it: rugged technology, fit for purpose. No fancy interfaces here: it’s the windmill of it’s time. Functional and direct.
Modern life is often about the new: with my iPad and Google Glass, i work with organisations that are changing, adapting to the new, striving to find relevance and purpose in the Social Age. But the past shapes us: our landscape and thinking, our culture and purpose are all shaped by what has come before. We need to reflect on where we have come from to know where we should go.
Change often feels like it’s about facing forwards, but without space for reflection, we are just falling behind. Many organisations are struggling to find their balance: toxic cultures, broken social contracts, a loss of social justice and equity. We lose what is good without ever realising it. Trust, once broken, is hard to build.
Even as our lives become ever more connected and digital, we shouldn’t lose our connection with our environment, our landscape. It gives us perspective and insights.
I could be writing about any number of things today, but time taken to reflect is always valuable: understanding how the landscape evolves, understanding how technology becomes redundancy, how culture is shaped by nature and power, understanding how permanence is illusory, all this can help us chart a course.
When the wind fills the sails, when we feel the immediacy of the momentum, we can get caught up in that. But we exist in a landscape that has evolved over time and, to remain relevant, we have to evolve sympathetically alongside and within it.