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Eastern England

Eastern England has been shaped by many influences over the centuries. In prehistoric times there was an extensive Bronze Age civilisation, as revealed in excavations at Flag Fen near Peterborough. After the Romans invaded in 43AD they established their first city at Colchester, and as such Colchester can claim to be Britain's original city. Ironically eastern England also saw Britain's most vigorous resistance to Roman rule, resistance which saw Colchester's destruction before peace was restored.

Following the Roman withdrawal in the fifth century, there were invasions of Anglo Saxon tribes from Germany. Anglo Saxon history can be explored at Sutton Hoo and at West Stow Anglo Saxon Village. Following the Saxons, the next wave of invaders came in from Scandinavia late in the eighth century, taking over eastern England and establishing a separate kingdom known as the Danelaw. Then in 1066 the Normans invaded, and the largest Norman castle keep in Britain can be seen at Colchester.

Later in history eastern England figured in the upheavals of the English Civil War. The Cromwells were a landowning family from Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. Oliver Cromwell became MP for Cambridge, and led Parliamentarian forces in the Civil War. Many of his fearsome "Ironside" troops who defeated the royalist forces of Charles I were from England's eastern counties. Later, following Cromwell's death, the exiled Charles II returned to the throne in 1660. The Restoration is well known for its reaction against Cromwell's austere rule. Once again eastern England played a central role. This time it wasn't the home of revolutionary leaders, or the recruiting ground for armies; instead it was where Charles II would go to forget the worries of government, travelling to Newmarket whenever he could to enjoy horse racing.

Charles II went to Newmarket to relax. Newmarket was far enough away from London to feel he was getting away from it all, but not so far as to make it an awkward place to visit. Eastern England still combines a sense of remoteness without being too far from the biggest population centres. This combination of accessible remoteness is well illustrated by Tilbury Fort in Essex, largely built, coincidentally, during the reign of Charles II. Tilbury, on the north bank of the Thames is only a few miles from London, but strangely it has the feeling of a wild frontier. Paul Pattison, Senior Archeological Investigator at English Heritage says as much in an interview you can listen to at Tilbury Fort: "It can be a wild, cold and forbidding place, even today, and we're only a few miles from London. It is still a bit of a frontier in many ways." Eastern England's remote accessibility has often been used by the military, wanting to keep facilities out of the way, and yet conveniently close to hand. One of Britain most important, and until recently most secret weapons development establishments was located at Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast. Radar, a crucial technology in the Battle of Britain was developed here. Many airbases were also established in East Anglia during World War Two, fittingly commemorated at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford in Cambridgeshire.

 

 

King's College, Cambridge

The opportunity for peace without travelling too far perhaps explains why scholars decided to make their home in eastern England. Cambridge from the beginning of the thirteenth century became one of England's two centres of learning. It was in 1209 that a group of students ran away from Oxford, following a disturbance during which a townswoman was allegedly killed by a student. After King John gave permission for students to be executed by the townsmen of Oxford, many scholars decided to flee, and a number ended up in Cambridge. Students lived in lodgings, and houses were used for teaching. Monastic teaching orders, the Carmelites, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, moved in. In 1286 a hall was built specifically for students, using money left by the Bishop of Ely. Parts of this original building survives as the dining hall of Peterhouse College, the oldest Cambridge college. Students have been taking meals in the hall at Peterhouse for over seven hundred years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flatford Mill

Eastern England's convenient remoteness has been useful to the military, to students, and also for people simply seeking relaxation. Charles II, as we already know, found this to be the case in his frequent trips to Newmarket. Today's royal family still go to eastern England to relax and get away from it all, at their Sandringham retreat in north Norfolk. The idea of East Anglia as a rural retreat was certainly part of the appeal of nineteenth century artist John Constable who lived at Flatford Mill in Suffolk. He produced paintings in and around Flatford Mill, paintings which have become world famous as images of rural peace. Constable, however, was also a realist, and just as the work-a-day world was not far away from eastern England, hard work was also close by in Constable's pretty landscapes. In a picture such as Flatford Mill: scene on a navigable river of 1817 he presents a scene near the lock at Flatford Mill. Initially it seems that two boys in the scene are playing, with a rope and a horse. On closer inspection it becomes clear those seemingly carefree boys are working, preparing to help pull a barge down the river.

This reality of work behind the rural idyll is demonstrated today by the famous Norfolk Broads. This complex of gently flowing rivers in beautiful Norfolk countryside is one of Britain's most popular tourist destinations. People are actually relaxing on and beside the remains of vast peat excavations carried out in medieval times, which then flooded. Obviously some of this peat went to heat houses, but a huge amount of it probably went into boiling down salt water to produce salt; and the salt was used to preserve vast amounts of herring caught during the autumn spawning season, and landed at eastern England's ports. As long ago as 1336 Philip IV of France was advised to attack the Yarmouth herring industry in autumn. He was told he would find six thousand fishing vessels there. The Domesday Book indicates that in 1086 there were one hundred and eighteen salt works in south east Norfolk, producing salt to preserve herring, and all these salt works required peat fuel. Sadly the herring industry was eventually to decimate a seemingly endless population of fish in the North Sea (see Domesday Herrings by James Campbell in East Anglia's History ed Bill, Rawcliffe, Wilson). Today thousands of people every year now cruise on flooded peat workings, created by the demands of a centuries old fishing industry. Holiday makers seem to be far away from it all, when in fact echoes of industry are all round them. As ever eastern England is remote, and closer than we think to the things we seem to be escaping from.

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