Wednesday 27 April 2011

Plough Monday at Rumburgh Buck.

7PM Monday 10th January 2011.
If it was not the coldest night of the winter then it had to be a pretty close second.   The road sparkled with frost as we left Norwich and made our way to Rumburgh in Suffolk.  We were on our way to film the "Old Glory" Molly Dancers and Musicians who were celebrating Plough Monday at "The Buck". 

To produce a film covering the history of the Norfolk and Suffolk waterways it is necessary to look at a much broader canvas than just the rivers, broads and estuaries.  The waterborne trade relied heavily on an agricultural economy which embraced both arable and livestock farming.  To add some perspective to the film was the reasoning behind our visit to Rumburgh.  Not only did it add perspective it also added a fair helping of drama.

Plough Monday  is the first Monday after twelfth night.  Historically it was a time when gangs of plough boys would blacken their faces and haul a plough round the parish calling out  "A penny for the plough boys".   The men would blacken their faces so they should not be recognised by the landowners and farmers who employed them throughout the year.  Winter was a very harsh time of  year for the labouring classes, at a time when there was little or no work available a few extra coppers would help to put food on the table.

The "Old Glory" Molly Dancers and Musicians have researched and revived traditional dances that were once performed in and around the Eastern Counties, particularly in Suffolk.  The dancers are attired as labouring men right down to their hobnail boots.   There is an air of menace about them just like the plough boys of long ago, the flaming torches that illuminate the proccession, add to this atmosphere.  One hundred years ago any skinflint who did not part with a copper or two,  would awake next morning to be greeted by a single furrow drawn across their lawn .

The Dancers assemble at the church of St Micheal and St Felix where the plough is blessed the day before (Plough Sunday).
The church bells were ringing out as the torch lit procession made its way through the churchyard.  Everyone dressed in black gave a distinct funereal feel to the proceedings.  The dancers are led by the "Broom man" who clears the way for the dancers.  Behind him the Lord of the dance and his Lady (traditionally the lady is always a man), they are followed by the "Box Man" (with the collection box) and the "Whiffler" (the Molly's sergeant at arms).   The column turns into Mill Road and heads toward "The Buck". The plough, hauled by two black faced Molly-men, grinds and rattles over the tarmac.  "Old Glory"  not only create wonderful theatre but it re-creates the past, bringing history to life.  
  Up until the turn of twentieth century the Molly dancers accompanied the plough boys around the parish and performed dances for a small reward.  Whereas the Molly dancers are all men, the musicians are all women, they too have blackened faces and play a variety of instruments.  Their traditional music adds another dimension to the event.
 At the "Buck" a large crowd had gathered, and in spite of the "wind frost" the dancers stripped down to their shirt sleeves and performed their robust routines.   The sound of their hobnail boots crunching on the gravel of the car park in perfect time to the music has echoes of a bygone era.  They have been described as Morris dancers with menace. You can forget jingling bells and white handkerchiefs, these guys look as if they could use a pitchfork and handle draught horses if they were asked.
There is a great deal of history attached to the Molly dancers, dating back long before the reformation.  At that time the church encouraged the farm workers to collect money during this period, some of the money collected would pay for an eternal flame to be left burning in the parish church all year round.  The plough has symbolised man's dependence on the earth since pagan times and this has carried on to the present day.

If you have never seen them check their website and catch one of their performances - it is well worth the effort.  "Old Glory" only give about twelve performances each winter but they have a very large and   enthusiastic following.  "Snape Maltings", "Geldeston Locks" and "Rumburgh Buck" are possibly the most popular venues .
It was too dark to get a shot that would do justice to the the lady musicians at Rumburgh so I have included a shot from Bungay Christmas Fayre where we filmed a month earlier. 

Friday 8 April 2011

A Norfolk Sunrise,

A definite bonus for shooting sunrises around Norfolk and Suffolk is to simply experience the views and to absorb the sounds and  fragrances of an early morning.

Add a crisp frost to the golden mix, even the cold air nipping at my fingers cannot spoil such a morning.  Without a living soul for miles, surrounded only by solitude and the sounds of nature.  Through the of eye of my camera I capture the atmosphere enshrined in the brittle light.   

It is 6.30 am and I have been out for an hour, carrying twenty six pounds of equipment across Buckenham marshes.   The sky is filled with the cries of a thousand geese, but the air is still,  without a murmer of a breeze.   The reeds stand upright,  there are no ripples on the water.  If you desire tranquility and perfect peace then it is here.

As enchanting as the landscape is - there is work to be done.  The purpose of the early start is to re-create the notion of a  bygone age, a time when my great grand parents were children.   A time before telephones, computers, electricity, railways and motor cars.   In our time of plenty it is difficult to fully comprehend how difficult life was in old Norfolk.    There are very few visual reminders of  Norfolk's labouring classes apart from those found in museums.  Proof that they only took as much as they needed which was never quite enough and they left the landscape almost as they found it.   There are a few places that have escaped the onslaught of this modern age and remain relatively unchanged, they are the wetlands and marshes.  Not as wild or desolate as they once were, but still remote enough to spur the imagination to connect with a time long gone.  A time when Eel-catchers and Reed-cutters sustained large families in tiny isolated cottages.   A time when Wildfowlers paddled silently on the inland waterways and estuaries and a time when wherries glided across the rivers and broads, carrying the needs for everyday living.

Researching my family history has uncovered  farm labourers, horsemen and wherrymen.  With exception of the wherrymen, none of them probably set foot outside Norfolk in their lifetime.  They would rise with the sun and work until nightfall.  There was no unemployment benefit for them, only the workhouse.   There was no rest in retirement, they worked until age robbed them of their strength.    My life is easy by comparison, yet out on the marsh  I can share  the same sights and sounds they experienced all those years ago.   It is a bridge across time and sets the opening of the film in context.  A documentary of life and legend in and around the East Anglian waterways.
It has been a good shoot.  As I retrace my steps across the marsh skeins of wild geese pass noisily above me. The frosted meadow grass crunches gently beneath me.  I am cold but very pleased with my mornings work.   I have captured a wonderful Norfolk sunrise.

Monday 4 April 2011

St Benets by Wherry

Any film that aspires to portray the history of the Norfolk and Suffolk waterways must include the legendary "Black Sailed Traders", the famous Norfolk wherries.
On Sunday August 1st 2010 my friend Steve took me out in his boat to shoot film of the "Albion" under sail.    We planned to follow the wherry from Womack to Ranworth where arrangements had been made for "Albion" to collect the Bishop of Norwich and take him to St Benets Abbey for the annual service.
I had intended to film the Bishop's arrival at the abbey twelve months earlier when he sailed on the "Hathor" but I was unable to cover the event.
We set off at about 08.30 in bright sunshine - a truly glorious summer's day.  There were already quite a number of boats on the Bure as we made our way to Womack water and the "Albion".

At Womack we spoke to Henry, one of the "Albion" skippers, to establish what was  allowed and what was forbidden while we accompanied the wherry under sail.  From a filming point of view there were a few issues  to be addressed.  Mounting the camera on a tripod was out of the question as the engine vibrations would be transmitted to the camera and produce camera shake.   Our strategy  was simple - hand held camera - wide angle lens - get in close.
Following "Albion" out of Womack water clearly demonstrated some of the problems that would persist throughout the day.   Our first attempt to get alongside was blocked by fishing poles that seemed long enough to reach the opposite bank.   Steve, a keen angler himself, quite rightly respected the etiquette of the river and waited for a fisherman-free stretch of water.    Each time we found one there was usually a cruiser travelling toward us so all we could do was follow "Albion" until we reached the Thurne.  This in itself was not easy,  the little "Norman 20's" lowest comfortable speed was some-what quicker than "Albion's" rather sedate rate of progress.   While astern of us an ever growing flotilla of impatient cruisers and sailing dinghies swarmed, tacked and milled around us.

When we reached the Thurne it was like uncorking a bottle of champagne, craft of every shape and size hurried past us.  It  took an age until we were more or less on our own with "Albion"  and able to position our  boat and finally shoot some film.    It was no surprise that the first week in August  was going to be a busy period on the Broads but I had not expected anything like the volume of traffic we encountered.   Any clean shots of just "Albion" were few and far between, and to pass her sixty-five foot hull  kept  us on the wrong side of the river for longer than we would have liked, especially when there were  cruisers approaching us, at times three abreast.    Steve had to keep his wits about him all the time to avoid getting trapped between "Albion" and the bank while allowing dinghies to tack across our bow.

It was certainly an interesting shoot.  By far the best camera angle was over the starboard side which gave a good clear field of vision, but this meant we on the wrong side of the river for long periods.  Shooting over the port side was restricted by Steve at the wheel which meant the only angle was from amidships to astern.  The very worst angle was shooting over the bow of the Norman.  It required me to climb up and shoot over the cabin roof making sure not to get the bow rails in shot.  On more than one occasion a sudden change in direction or speed caused me to lose my balance which produced more than one heart stopping moment.   I was acutely aware that I had the security of a life jacket but the camera did not, that would have been one very expensive splash. 

"Albion" cruised serenely on her way toward Ranworth with cruisers and dinghies dodging out of her path.  We shot "Albion" from every conceivable angle as we made our way along the Bure.  At around midday we moored alongside  "Albion" for  lunch and awaited the arrival of the Bishop.

After lunch "Albion" cast off, with the bishop on board,  raised sail and headed for St Benet's.   If we thought the river was busy during the morning we had a nasty surprise in the afternoon.  The Bure was like the M25 on a bad day.   The best we could do was to keep station astern  of the old "trader" and grab whatever shots became available.
The bishop took the helm of  "Albion" and led the flotilla of assorted craft toward St Benet's.

The closer we got to the abbey the more crowded the river became.   Every available mooring was taken and the abbey precinct was heaving with worshippers.   "Albion" was directed downstream to the old quay heading that was crumbling and devoid of mooring posts.   The BA launch waved us through with "Albion" and I got the best shots of the day.

I had asked another friend  to shoot some film from the abbey precinct.   Some where amidst the melee of cameras, spectators and a brass band he was able to record the bishop coming ashore.   A storm had been threatening for most of the afternoon and the overcast sky grew darker and darker.   I am not a religious man but there was something surreal about the whole event,  St Benet's acquired an eerie atmosphere, almost biblical.    Should you ever  find yourself in the area of St Benet's on the first Sunday in August take the time to attend the service.   It is an experience you will never forget.

With "Albion" securely moored and the bishop safely ashore our days work was done.
Steve steered the Norman away from St Benets and headed for home as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled behind us.