Friday, 30 October 2015

Storytellers, kings and warriors

It feels like death is all around: from the graves of mighty warriors to the impressions of once solid human flesh deep in the sandy soil. And, as we walk, more evidence of death and decay—the torn, spiky remains of a hedgehog and its entrails like grey string discarded by the path, a skull complete with maggot or caterpillar (which made its way home with us), and all manner of fungi feasting on dead matter.

Sutton Hoo, world famous as a resting place for Anglo-Saxon warriors and kings—and the treasure they took with them to the grave—is a special place, mystical and full of stories to be told. But the further you explore, the more you discover that it is not so much a place of death but a vibrant backdrop to the story of a people considered the founders of the English nation.

The 255-acre estate in east Suffolk offers peaceful walks among woodland and sandy heath punctuated by pine trees, with views to the  River Deben and Woodbridge…and the discovery of the famous burial mounds that lay unprobed for hundreds of years.

Only in recent times have their secrets been revealed. They lay undisturbed for almost 1,400 years until Edith Pretty, the then owner of the estate, instigated an archaeological investigation of the mounds that she could see as she looked out of her windows at Tranmer House (at that time Sutton Hoo House). It is said that she was inspired by supernatural visions of a funeral procession amongst the mounds and an armed warrior guarding one of them.

The 1939 excavation by Harold John Phillips, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown began the excavations in June 1938. The third mound to be dug revealed some tantalising clues to the purpose of the site: remnants of ship rivets, followed by cremated human and animal bones, the tip of a sword blade and fragments of glass and textile. Brown returned the following summer and excavations resumed, starting with a previously undisturbed mound (Mound 1). Before long, a series of ship rivets were found, providing an imprint of what had been a magnificent 27-metre ship, now rotted away.

Once the enormity of the find had been realised, a team of professional archaeologists were dispatched to Sutton Hoo.

Over the course of 17 days, a treasure trove of seventh century goods were unearthed —gold and garnet jewellery, coins and buckles, silver bowls—as well as items associated with warriors—the remains of a helmet and a sword. Without doubt, the person buried here was a prominent Anglo-Saxon figure—believed to be Raedwald, King of East Anglia from around 599 to around 625. 

Replica of the helmet by User Robroy, via Wikimedia Commons

As Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, the site at Sutton Hoo was covered over, and the treasures, donated by Edith Pretty to the British Museum, spent the war years stored in the London Underground.

Later excavations revealed more, including a warrior buried with his horse and the macabre remains of executions.

A mixture of the original and replica treasures are now on view at Sutton Hoo’s Exhibition Hall, while the iconic helmet and other items can be seen at the British Museum.

It turned out to be the richest burial chamber ever found in Britain, revealing previously unknown details about Anglo-Saxon life.

These warrior-farmers were skilled in many areas – as the quality of the treasure’s craftsmanship testifies. We also know that they enjoyed entertainment such as dice and board games, lyre music and storytelling, an essential part of passing on their history and culture as the Anglo-Saxons were not at this time writing down their history. Sadly, not many Anglo-Saxon stories survive. By the time they were written down years after the end of the oral tradition, many aspects had been lost. Of course, one such story that has survived from this era is the famous Beowulf, an epic poem written between the eighth and early eleventh centuries. Perhaps we can draw some parallels between the treatment of a Danish king after death as described in Seamus Heaney’s 2000 translation and the discovery at Sutton Hoo: 

A ring-whorled prow rode into the harbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean’s sway.
They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.

 Gold belt buckle by Michael Wal, via Wikimedia Commons

The treasures themselves tell their own story: gold buckles, jewelled and enamelled clasps and fittings, a gold, garnet and enamelled purse lid, the helmet—all crafted to the highest standards and with exquisite detail. Some of the treasure was found to have originated from as far afield as France, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, demonstrating the reach of Anglo-Saxon connections. There’s a tendency for us modern folk to think of our forebears as less sophisticated than us, but I wonder if the poetry and the treasures alone say otherwise.

A visit to this atmospheric site offers a glimpse into their mysterious world and conveys a sense of the debt we owe to the Anglo-Saxons for the many aspects of everyday life they established: language and literature, laws and place names, even the names of our days of the week. And at this time of year, as the dimmer light sets the scene for contemplation and  All Hallows’ Eve draws near, you may even catch glimpses of those warriors guarding the mounds and the flash of golden treasure against the pewter sky…

See the National Trust Sutton Hoo website for more information.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Promise

Warm, busy days accentuate the longing for the soon-to-come cool nights. Colours are bright and sharp and contrast with the clear sky today, and I’m not short of company and affection. But I’ve secretly noted the discarded nest, the plumping berries and the halo of brown around the edges of the horse chestnut leaves.

Smoke from the day’s bonfire hangs in the air, gently suffocating. I seek a cooler place away from the embers and wait for the night to wake up. I’m surrounded by low, gentle sounds, each in itself unobtrusive but together a cushion that muffles the clarity of darkness. The hum of traffic a mile or so away, the low call of a train, a rustling that could be the last of the flames crackling or the wind in the leaves or some spindly-legged creature over there.

It’s not quite dark enough to see the stars clearly, though the moon is bright and in its first quarter tonight. I’ll sit here a while and wait for the fire and the smoke to subside, the new moon to appear, and the long, cool nights of solitude.

Monday, 1 June 2015

My cousin the Captain and the HMS Thetis tragedy

Today marks the anniversary of the Royal Navy’s worst peacetime submarine disaster—the sinking of HMS Thetis in Liverpool Bay with the loss of 99 men at the time of the disaster, and one later.

Thetis was built by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead. During sea trials on 1 June 1939, she sank suddenly to the seabed on her first dive.

It is believed a piece of hardened paint had blocked one of the torpedo tubes, so that when it was opened it was no longer watertight, and water flooded in.

My connection with the disaster is that my father’s cousin, Captain Harry “Joe” Oram, was one of only four survivors.

 Captain Oram

Captain Oram’s part in the story is told better than I ever could by the Chicago Tribune from 5 June 1939:

“The heroes of the submarine disaster were revealed today to have been seven men who volunteered to let their bodies serve as buoys to guide rescuers to the sunken British submarine. Three of the seven died in the attempt, four came through alive.

“The story was told to THE TRIBUNE correspondent by F. F. Shaw, one of the survivors [a Cammell Laird engine fitter], who said the greatest praise should go to Capt. H. P. K. Oram, another survivor.

“Capt. Oram, he said, was first to volunteer to try to get through the escape chamber, though the submarine was tilted at such an angle it was believed a man would be drowned before he could get clear of the hull.

“There was a chance, however, that he might get the outer hatch open before he drowned, in which case his body, floating to the surface with the exact position of the Thetis in watertight containers strapped to his wrist, would guide rescue ships.

“Oram, commander of the Fifth submarine flotilla, insisted on going first. He got through. The next three men who tried were drowned before they could get the outside hatch raised and were pulled back into the submarine. Then Shaw, a civilian technician, went through successfully, and was followed by Lieut. F. C. Wood and W. C. Arnold. 

“All had strapped on them the containers giving directions to rescuers.”

 The stricken HMS Thetis

Shaw recounted how the first sign of trouble was the sounding of the warning bell, then a terrible shudder was felt, and the submarine’s passengers were thrown forward into a heap. It was the idea of Commander Bolus, commander of the ship, for someone to attempt to leave through the escape chamber, carrying directions to the disaster which would be found even if he drowned, though he warned that the chances of survival were slim. “Capt. Oram was first to call out, ‘I’ll go,’” Shaw recalled. Six more men, including Shaw, volunteered. “Captain Oram insisted on going first,” he continued. “He got through all right. But the next three men died miserably in the chamber, and I watched while their bodies were released one after the other.” 

The submarine's crowded conditions - she was carrying twice as many men as she was designed for - meant that the air inside would not have lasted long enough to save the passengers, who were poisoned by the carbon dioxide from their own breath.

A memorial marking the tragedy was unveiled a year ago today at the River Walkway, Birkenhead, and metal plaques, one for each victim of the disaster, can be seen in the clock tower of Birkenhead Priory, St Mary’s Gate, Birkenhead. 

The submarine was raised and salvaged, and re-commissioned as HMS Thunderbolt, but sunk off Sicily in 1943…with the loss of another 99 men.

Sadly, I never met my cousin the Captain, though I recall my father mentioning the Thetis tragedy and his cousin’s connections with it many years ago. By all accounts, he was a survivor, who died in his 90s in 1986. His biography The Rogue’s Yarn. The Sea-Going Life of Captain H. K. ‘Joe’ Oram is published by Pen and Sword Books.