Northeye Liminal

It’s a warm July afternoon on the southeast coast, the sun bright off the sea. I’m walking across a field in a train of people on a guided tour, bouncing on thick grasses combed flat by the wind. We’re  heading towards a marker post in the distance, a post painted mustard yellow, easily visible against its backdrop of velvet hedgerows and even darker trees. Though patchy sections of grass reveal parched earth, a clay soil cracked by the heat, this is a landscape defined by water, a marsh now drained and criss-crossed by ditches. On the horizon is a gentle rise crowned by a patch of nettles. This is the site of the deserted medieval village of Northeye, East Sussex.

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Northeye is a ghost, a remnant, a shadow in the pasture, a flicker on the tongues of cattle. But this has not always been the case. Recorded as Nordeia in 1188, Northye or Northie in 1264, Norzie in 1341 and Northey in 1724 it was probably already established as early as the eleventh century, its church perhaps one of the two in Bexhill mentioned in the Domesday Book. Its tiny chapel dedicated to St James was rebuilt in the thirteenth century and served by a priest until the sixteenth, after which it fell into ruin. The stone was gradually robbed out and reused by locals. In 1857 an artist recorded its last standing section of masonry, the drawing later engraved and published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections. This shows a sorry piece of masonry top heavy with vegetation, ‘the walls … composed of flint boulders and very thin bricks’, its rubble core exposed, a small window like an open wound. Two years later even this had gone, and by the time the twentieth century rolled into view only the foundations remained.

Then come the murky excavations, two of them, one in 1938 by a local school under the direction of an enthusiastic teacher, the other in the early 1950s. The first ends abruptly with the outbreak of war, the  second unpredictably with the loss of most of the finds and the original report. A photograph from the latter shows the men in thick flannels and tank tops, hair slicked back, a plan or map open before them. In another sections of carved architectural stones are stacked up beside the trench as they stoop to light a pipe or lean on a shovel. What happened to these fragments? Are they really, as some rumours suggest, beneath someone’s driveway? The other finds? Even the archaeology has been bent to the will of the place, contributing more stories, more half-truths. In a transient landscape expect nothing solid it seems to say. Northeye is a place of disappearance.

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Despite growing up in Bexhill, only couple of miles and a seven-minute train journey away, I’ve never been out in the marshes to look for the original Northeye before now. The name has always intrigued me though. Northeye. A small hill of Wadhurst clay peeping above the once waterlogged levels. Trace the contours on an OS map and its possible to reconstruct the medieval coastline. There are several ‘eyes’ or islands in this part of the world: Horse Eye (the island for horses), Manxeye (the monk’s island), Langneye (the long island). Sometimes they are spelt without their final ‘e’, like Pevensey or Rickney. Each only a few metres above sea-level, most simply small areas of permanent dry land in the marsh big enough for a few houses or livestock.

Post-medieval Northeye must have been an increasingly melancholy sight. Lumps of houses, drifting livestock, a crumbling chapel silhouetted against the silver sea. Today the most successful inhabitant of the levels is the rare and internationally protected Fen Raft spider, a generous-sized semi-aquatic species able to swim and catch small fish. If the water has disappeared into ditches and drains, managed by pumps, it has nonetheless left behind a legacy of secrets. HMP Northeye (1969–1992) was built on high ground a mile or so north east of the medieval site on a former MoD radar station. In my developing mind the marsh was a land of escaped prisoners and empty old buildings, a place where the real and the fantastic overlapped. Perhaps this is because deserted places and ruins are like flashpoints where the undercurrents of the past threaten to surface. These unstable locations, seesawing between the known and unknown and open to perpetual re-interpretation, generate a kind of gravitational pull. I’ve always been drawn in with the prospect of standing in a different moment, outside the present, or at least in a different stream of it.

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In the deed of endowment of the chapel, drawn up in 1262 between John Clymping, the Bishop of Chichester, and William de Northeye, it is written that ‘the said chapel be illuminated with three pounds of wax tapers annually on the Feast of St James’ and that this  ‘be in force forever’. The feast of St James falls on July 25th, a few days after our excursion into the heat of the marshes. The lights went out over five hundred years ago, but I’m tempted to wonder if there isn’t some imprint of their lighting in this summer pilgrimage. We walk back past edgy cattle and through yellow vetch to a path fringed with head-height nettles and welcome trees. In the carpark at its end mirrors and windscreens and metal glitter with spikes of sun.

Star Patterns and Stonemasons: West Chelborough, Dorset

‘West Chelborough is a village so far from the haunts of men’, wrote the eminent surgeon and author, Frederick Treves, ‘that the visit of a stranger causes some unrest’. Treves authored one of the most popular books on the county, Highways and Byways in Dorset, first published in 1906 and reprinted numerous times throughout the twentieth century. Having gained fame and fortune as Royal Surgeon to Edward VII, operating on his appendix and saving his life just two days before the planned date of the King’s coronation, Treves retired aged fifty and turned his hand to travel and memoir writing. As the reprints suggest, at this too he was a success. He cycled over 2000 miles around the county to research his book. It says much about his pioneering spirit that in the early years of the 1900s one of the most famous men in the British Empire might be found negotiating a rough chalk track deep in the Dorset countryside on a bicycle, in order to visit remote stretches of coast and largely undisturbed villages. (more…)

Missing: The Romanesque Tympanum from East Teignmouth

A significant piece of Romanesque sculpture has gone missing from the garden of a house in Dawlish, Devon.

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This was it in November 2011 when I visited to research an article, due to be published in this year’s Transactions of the Devonshire Association. The twelfth-century tympanum, originally above the north door at St Michael’s, East Teignmouth, had occupied this position in the grounds of Shell Cove House in Dawlish since the early 1820s. During the first wave of restoration of the medieval church, between 1821 and 1823, the sculpture was moved here by the Reverend Charles Phillot, curate of the church from 1811 and developer of the house (then known as Clevelands). (more…)

Ancient and Modern in Toller Fratrum and Stoke Canon

There are two signs tucked into the hedge at the side of the A356. One says Toller Fratrum, the other indicates that the road that will take us there is a dead end. We turn left onto a single-track lane bounded on each side by a wire and post fence and bump along into the gentle valley, underneath a railway bridge and over a narrow river, then up the other side. I’d heard that the manor house had burnt down and here it is, where the road ends in mud, cloaked in scaffolding, emitting occasional groans and squeaks as the wind catches in its roof of plastic sheeting. Adjacent and serene is the church of St Basil, the path to it through the churchyard lit by daffodils. It is a simple building with a commanding view across soft, pale green hills fringed with smudges of trees. (more…)

Sculpture at Hartland

I’m out on the north-westerly tip of Devon at Hartland. At Hartland Point grey cliffs erupt from white water hundreds of feet below, monumental sections of slate themselves folded into waves, syncline and anticline, by earth movements millions of years ago. Look west and it’s an uninterrupted view towards America. The tower of the church of St Nectan at East Stoke, inland by about a mile and the tallest in North Devon at around 130ft, is swallowed up by the vast sky. (more…)

Church of the Storms

‘Close to the sea, but sheltered from it by a bluff’ wrote Nikolaus Pevsner in 1951 in his trademark terse prose. Such understatement does little to introduce this building, the church of St Winwalloe at Gunwalloe on the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula. It is fortunate that the volume’s later contributing author, Peter Beacham, editing and updating it in 2014, adds exactly what Pevsner had missed but what appears obvious to even the most casual visitor. ‘Even for Cornwall’, the sentence now begins, ‘an especially romantic site for a church, on its own on the edge of a sandy cove but sheltered from the sea by a bluff’. Without this giant rock and its attendant spikes of slate to break the waves I doubt the building would last much more than one Cornish winter. ‘So close is the building to the shore’ wrote the vicar in 1870, ‘that the waves have frequently broken away the walls of the churchyard’. A neatly-lettered sign hangs above the door in the porch: St Winwaloe, it says (one ‘l’), The Church of the Storms. (more…)

Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery by Robert Harbison

Robert Harbison’s exploration of the discontinuous, the broken and the forgotten in the arts reveals how we connect with places and physical objects to find a home in or among them, uneasy as that often is.

‘What is it in the air of the present that makes us suspicious of works or histories that are too smooth, too continuous?’ So begins Robert Harbison’s meditation on fragments, architectural, sculptural, textual and otherwise. Like ruins and fragments themselves which reveal the bones beneath the architectural artifice or hint at the existence of wholeness elsewhere, Harbison’s narrative is a thoughtful inquisition, peeling back the visible to question the invisible at every turn. Profound are some of the answers too. In terms of creativity, imagination and simply finding a footing in the physical world it seems that ruins have much to offer.

‘We live in the midst of ruin without realizing it’ he writes, ‘until the backing in a cupboard falls away revealing old wallpaper like a pixillated embroidery of flowers and leaves, or we notice that an unsightly lump high on a wall was the mounting for a defunct gas meter’ (pp. 94–95). Throughout this book the question of how we might inhabit the present when the ghosts of the past exist all around shadows the narrative. Implicit in the concept of ruination and fragmentation is a selective process of remembrance. Which fragments are to be kept and which discarded? Which ruins will be ‘maintained’ and which left to crumble?

The clue is in the subtitle: at its heart this is a book about stories and how, through their telling, we invest physical objects with meaning. In terms of narrative ruins are a special case for they represent a paradox, being more of the present than the past to which they seemingly direct our attention. Open to perpetual re-interpretation and accretion of new stories ruins and fragments represent unstable moments in time, both authentic and fake at once. As a result they enter us into that rare, questionable space of standing outside time, undermining its very construct as well as appearing to substantiate it and offer us comfort within it. Perhaps for these reasons they lend themselves so well to the imagination.

Imagination is in fact the unsung hero of the text, with the various examples collected here revealing us to be more inclined toward the fantastic than we might like to think. From works of literature to modern art Harbison illustrates this propensity that absence or partial presence has in inspiring creativity via numerous means, some traditional (architecture) others less expected (eighteenth-century literature; contemporary graffiti). Indeed I would urge anyone interested in heritage (and particularly those who work within related fields, for example buildings conservation) to read the closing chapter ‘Dreams of Recovery’ for a nuanced exploration of our quest for ‘authentic’ histories.

My suspicions on picking up this book were quickly confirmed: it is about far more than the title might at first suggest. In Harbison’s hands the concept of ruination and fragmentation go way beyond appreciating an ivy-clad castle or a decaying tower block. The text is peppered with evocative headings: ‘A disassembly line for the self’; ‘The spaces between words’; ‘Against restoration’; ‘The allure of the index’, all of which allow different ways in to a vast and seemingly limitless subject. Harbison manages to keep the words light despite the profundity at every corner, sifting through the layers of accumulated debris to reach the gold. This is a real skill and brings a poetic element to the text.

The processes of decay and loss are king, the ‘archetypal place of ruin’ the grave (p. 187). Ruins offer us a way to visualize and cope with time; perhaps this is why we long for them still. There is a human scale to their rough edges and unofficial histories in which the imagination can take root. And this, I feel, is the point. Here, in Harbison’s easy prose, ruins and fragments are lit from within, the reflected light revealing the contours of our obsessions and predicaments otherwise flattened by modernity’s fluorescent glare. The ruin is a story half-told, forgotten, remembered, lost; a fibrillation on the axis of memory.

Like the best poetic enquiry Ruins and Fragments is a challenge, not just to how we conserve and understand ruins but to how we think about them in the first place. It is an extraordinary book. In its will to explore the lesser-explored aspects of the subject it will not be easy reading for some. For others, myself included, it will be a text to refer back to for its insight, playful intelligence and ability to interpret the shadows that these monuments and artworks cast.


Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery (2015) by Robert Harbison is published by Reaktion Books and is available here.