In Search of the Anglo-Saxons II

My Best Beloved and I are in Bury-St.-Edmonds, where, indeed, St. Edmonds is buried in the great cathedral. We are tired, and a bit footsore, and looking forward to a good curry, a bath and a good night’s sleep before heading up to York tomorrow.

My last day in Zurich was sublime since it began with croissants and coffee with Fritz Senn, a most charming man, at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich. Herr Senn looks exactly the way you’d like a Joycean scholar to look – long white hair, and those wonderful Gandalfian eyebrows some men of a certain age have, above mischievous eyes with only the faintest trace of sorrow.

He and his colleagues, Ursula, Ruth and Tanya are without doubt the friendliest people I’ve ever met in Switzerland. The foundation is on the top floor of a slanted old house on Augustinegrasse in the old section of Zurich. The floors are so tilted that if you sit in a chair on rollers, you’ll make great use of them, rolling across the floor until the wall stops you. But it’s a great wall, full of books, and so your journey will be worth it. There are a number of treasures housed in these rooms, including a couple of Joyce’s suitcases, pipes, canes, and wonderful photos.

After this second visit, I feel I’ve made friends in Zurich, and that’s entirely down to Fritz, Ursula, Tanya and Ruth. I have the feeling anyone lucky enough to have the chance to visit them would walk away feeling exactly the same. Makes me want to go home and read passages from Finnegan’s Wake again, especially since Fritz assures me NO ONE understands the terrible, beautiful, frustrating, splendid thing.

Yesterday found us in the stunning Tudor home of Eileen and Roy Thomas, in Woodbridge, Suffolk.

We went to the great Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo. It’s a mystical place, with great mysterious mounds spotting the gently sloping meadows leading to the Deben River. Nick and Jackie Wright met us there and gave us a fantastic tour, and because Nick’s a guide with the National Trust, we were permitted free access to the mounds themselves.

I haven’t completely sorted out my emotions about the site, and so I’ll wait to discuss it more at a later date. But there is definitely something special about the place. Once the hallowed burial grounds of pagan aristocracy, later, during early Christian times it was used as an execution site, where the bodies of the executed were dumped unceremoniously in holes, left to flounder eternally in what the rather silly Christians apparently thought was an evil place. I disagree. A sense of the holy is everywhere there.

Last night I had the great good fortune to meet with Roy and Eileen’s reading group, who had recently read The Stubborn Season. I can’t recall a group that met me with such enthusiasm or with such intelligent questions. I am most grateful for the chance to meet everyone, and have a number of sources for my research, including Jenny and her work on estuary birds, Nick and Jackie, and lots of other names and leads for Anglo-Saxon history.

And so, this morning it was on to West Stow, where there is a recreated Anglo-Saxon village. Here Lance Alexander, the Heritage Officer gave us an incredibly helpful personal tour, even though it was his day off. Lance is delightful in every way, and without his knowledge I suspect I would make any number of silly mistakes. Like what, you ask? Well, like rabbits. Apparently there were no rabbits in English in the 7th century. Note to self — rewrite Chapter Three, and think stoats, or weasels, but NO Rabbits!
The village itself – a number of thatched-roof houses, a hall, workshops, gardens and animal pens – reminded me so much of First Nations villages in Canada that, for a moment, it was a bit disorienting. The buildings flow organically out of the landscape and seem a graceful extension of it. All materials are, of course, utterly natural, hand-made, and of extraordinary delicacy and elegance. Even the willow hurdles around the pig pens are beautiful. There was a hominess, and undeniable air of welcome. It’s easy to envisage the family halls in the evening, with the glow of the tallow lamps and the flicker of the hearth fire making the figures on the tapestries seem to come alive. The sound of the lute, laughter from those listening to the scop tell well-known tales and riddles, voices raised in song, the lowing of the beasts.

All was not, of course, so picturesque. Famine, bone-crushing work, plagues of various sorts, unfair taxation from merciless kings – life was hard and exhausting. Still, as Lance took us into the weaving hut, with five standing looms leaning up against the walls (which would have been taken outside into the sunlight in fine weather), each with a stool in front of it, and skeins of colorful plant-dyed wool hanging all about, he had us imagine the gossip and chatter of the women who would have worked long hours here, since cloth for a single garment took six hundred (!) hours of work. I could almost see them, hands tapping the weft and weave, pressing shuttles through the threads, teasing each other, sharing secrets and tips for healing herbs and jokes about which young man might soon ask for a girl’s heart, which woman had the look of a baby on the way. . .

So much inspiration to be found everywhere, and when it’s all done for the day, a lovely cup of tea and a shortbread biscuit. Hard to ask for more. This is surely one of
the loveliest things of a writer’s life – to be able to follow one’s curiosity wherever it might lead. I have no idea how this story of an Anglo-Saxon woman trying to find meaning in a violent, unsettled time will finally turn out, but what a privilege to be able to follow the path through the woods and find out.
Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions:

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