230: Eye

OS Explorer map 230, Diss & Harleston: East Harling & Stanton – I now own this map, but hadn’t visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 19th January 2020.

Attentive readers may remember that in February 2019, I went on a trip to Cley and Blakeney in North Norfolk, looking at churches in the company of my dear friend Millicent, who is very knowledgeable about and interested in such things – churches, local history and the like – making him a great person to explore the country with. Millicent and I realised, a little under a year later, that it had been far too long since we did such a trip, and so this one was planned!

This destination was actually chosen specifically for being in a map area I’ve never visited before. Oddly, given that I have a blog about visiting all the OS Explorer map areas in the country, I’ve never actually done a trip specifically for the purpose of ticking off another map before – it’s always just been that, I like travelling a lot to fun places, and this often takes me to new map areas. For this trip, however, all we wanted to do was “go to see some nice old churches somewhere”. Given that there are something like 10,000 medieval churches in England, and around 800 just in Norfolk, I thought I might as well use my maps goal to help narrow down Millicent’s options.

Map of Eye, showing the castle, church, and ruined priory. (From OS Maps Online)

We left our Cambridge home shortly before 10am for the slightly-over-an-hour drive to Eye, during which Millicent told me a little of its history and why he’d chosen to go there. Eye has a nice church and the sort-of-remains of a Norman castle (more on this later), as well as being the site of a somewhat notable medieval priory. The castle and priory are the doing of William and Robert Malet, Norman father-and-son duo: William, a friend of the Conqueror of the same name, recieved the Honour of Eye (i.e. a load of land and rights in the region including Eye) as a reward soon after Hastings.

Looking up at Eye castle

It wasn’t long before we arrived in Eye, parked up, and went looking for the castle. The castle site is right in the middle of town, but despite parking very near the road that leads up to it, we walked right past it and did a loop of the town centre before eventually finding it again.

We enjoyed the mild suggestion of the Great Reform Act as villainously cheating Eye out of its rightful second MP. Also, “Crinkle Crankle Wall” is a great name!

We eventually arrived at the gates to the castle area, and found them locked. A small sign directed us to, in such an eventuality, seek out the occupant of one of a list of nearby houses to be let in, which we duly did, managing to avoid knocking on doors by finding the inhabitant of one such house out trimming her hedges.

Eye Castle – or rather, Eye Castle mound and the Victorian folly

The original Eye Castle was a Norman motte-and-bailey affair put up within a few years of Hastings. The castle was breached in the 13st century and abandoned, and lay in ruins from the late medieval period. Misleadingly, however, these aren’t the “ruins” we see on top of the mound today. The current structure is actually a folly (i.e. a decorative ruin) built by one Edward Kerrison, a local Victorian notable. Furthermore, it was an inhabited folly – he had it built for his old batman (i.e. military valet), in thanks for having saved his life at the Battle of Waterloo; the batman in question lived in it for many years. One has to wonder what the poor chap thought of the whole thing.

Down in the bailey area, there was a timeline of the castle etched into stones laid in the ground, which was sort of strangely incongruous – the style of the thing, like the font, illustrations, tone and so on, were very “The 8-year-old’s Bumper Book of Fun History Facts”, which was interesting to see set in stone!

We climbed up the mound into the folly (it looked more obviously non-medieval from the inside). The questionably fortunate batman had his own bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room up here, apparently at the time with lean-to roofs invisible from below. There was a little platform installed that one could climb up to to appreciate the view of Eye and the surrounding countryside, which was glorious.

Looking at Eye Church (and the medieval guildhall to its left) from the top of the Castle mound

After our time in the castle, we went for a walk a little way out of Eye itself, to visit the site of Eye Priory. The priory is no more, with all that’s left nowadays being some kind of associated stable or granary type thing, which is now used as an events venue; and old monastic fish ponds scattered about, visible easily on the OS map, but mostly obscured by woodland preventing our access.

Now Millicent (along with Erithacus) at this time worked in the Cambridge University Library. In preparation for this trip, he had managed to locate in the library an edition of the cartulary of Eye Priory – a cartulary being a medieval manuscript that’s a compilation of charters relating to a place (or institution, family etc.). He had borrowed it [1] and brought it with him, and had been reading to me from it on the drive over from Cambridge, from which we learnt various interesting things.

The woodland obscuring the Eye Abbey fish ponds!

Eye was founded as a dependent priory, under the authority of another foundation, namely Bernay Abbey in Normandy. Normally, Millicent told me, such priories would be reasonably tightly controlled, the parent house appointing the prior, monks frequently moving between the parent house and the priory, preventing the opportunity for the priory to develop mch of an independent identity or community. Apparently, though, the charters show an unusual degree of independence for Eye, with them being, for example, free to choose their own prior. (In the 14th century Eye became independent by a charter of Richard II.) Other interesting facts included that the priory had a position of hereditary porter, which was filled by the same family for many centuries.

So yes, we walked over to the priory site, even though there wasn’t much to see. The walk was very pleasant though, particularly when walking back through open fields to the north-east of the town.

After our walk, we stopped for lunch in The Queen’s Head, which was a nice little pub. There was a dog that enjoyed walking around spending time with diners, and I had a meal that despite being a single menu item, came on a great many plates: my roasted vegetable pasta that came with goats cheese, salad, and cheesy garlic bread, each dished up separately. Their dessert menu seemed to come straight from the standard pub playbook, being a chocolate brownie, sticky toffee pudding, apple crumble and crème brulée; but it was really nice food!

From the pub we walked over to the church – the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Eye – to have a look in there before heading home.

Some nice medieval woodwork on the old guildhall next to the church

The church was very nice! There was some interesting flint-work on the outside, arranged in artful patterns, which wasn’t something I knew could be done. Inside the church it was very Anglo-Catholic, with some gold icons, censers dangling here and there, the Stations of the Cross (not that I knew what the latter were until Millicent told me about them). There was a nice painted rood screen, medieval (though imported from somewhere Continental in the C19th), which Millicent spent a long time inspecting, identifying the portrayed saints.

I spent a long time looking at a memorial at the northwest corner of the church. It was sort of shaped like a dining room sideboard, with a long wide platform, above which was a set-back sort of wall bit with the memorial inscription on it. The church had placed some nativity scene statues on the table bit, which somewhat obscured the inscription, but I could crane my neck around them easily enough.

What I was looking at, though, was the intriguing graffiti on the memorial. Lots of it was just individual letters, probably people’s initials or things like that. But some of it seemed to be attempting to blend in with and alter the main text – see the photo above, where someone has added what looks like “IB” to “ILLE”, making it “IBI” something. I wasn’t able to work out what it was trying to do, but it was a fun puzzle. Millicent has a book called Medieval Graffiti, which I must borrow at some point! While I had my nose sticking into the memorial, the priest approached me, and I was afraid I was about to be lightly castigated for taking photos with a flash or something – but fortunately he was just interested; apparently he’d never noticed the graffiti before.

We also found a pleasingly cheerful little photo album of the adventures of various people in the community, with amusing captions like (the one I remember being) “Father Guy and Eileen drooling over a vintage car” – clearly it was intended for viewers who who knew the people in question, and was just a nice indication that they have a nice little community going.

And that was that! After the church, our visit to Eye was done, and we got back in the car and headed home, stopping only at the Tesco outside Stowmarket for Millicent to buy a bottle of wine for dinner that evening. A most pleasant day!

[1] Cambridge University Library is one of the UK’s six legal deposit libraries, meaning that it has a right to request a free copy of any book published in the UK. Unlike the British Library, it doesn’t do this for quite every book that’s ever published here, but it does for an appreciable fraction, meaning that its holdings are extremely extensive. It also means they receive loads of new books all the time – part of Millicent’s job was looking through newly received legal deposit material, and determining what is notable enough to remain on the main site, and what will be sent to off-site storage, to be brought out only on request.

The Cambridge University Library is special though. Unlike any of the other legal deposit libraries – the BL, the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, and the libraries of Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University – it allows most readers borrowing rights covering most of the legal deposit material. This includes undergraduate students, all alumi of Cambridge graduate courses among others. In Oxford, for example, no-one can borrow from the Bodleian Library at all; everything has to be read on-site (or via interlibrary loan). So for this trip, we were lucky that we had access to the Cambridge University Library!

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