King's Lynn in the 19th Century
We must begin with abject apologies to Jan Morris; that great writer, doyenne of travellers, and Celtic poet, whose book title we have unashamedly nicked and amended for the title of this essay. But we did so with good reason.
Morris had several cities that she held in particular affection. The best known is Venice; she went there many times, wrote about it often, wrote a spell-binding history of it, and was permanently and helplessly associated in the public mind with La Serenissima. But it was not her favourite city, in so much as she had a favourite; that was a little further east, at the north-east corner of the Adriatic Sea, the (now) Italian city of Trieste. Many of her journeys began in Trieste, garnering a mention as she set off elsewhere; and she was a frequent visitor to the almost forgotten seaport of the lost Hapsburg empire. Finally, she got around to writing a book about it, published in 2001: “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere”. Read it if you can; it is a romantic, almost mystical, book, meandering through Trieste’s streets and history, pondering the many and various who lived there, resting in its cafes whilst considering its complex history and strange geography. And go there. But if you have not the time or the funds or the patience to deal with modern travel complexities, here pro tem is an alternative: King’s Lynn.
You may object that this is the most absurd comparison you have heard since the choice between Trump and Biden. But abide with us; you may well be convinced. Of course, England’s King’s Lynn has not the delightful cuisine and culture that Trieste enjoys, sitting at the fusible point between the delights of Italy, the Alpine peaks and meadows to the north, and the cosmopolitan underpinnings of the nations of the eastern Mediterranean. But there is more sophistication to Lynn than you might think. It sits at the landward end of the Wash, that strange melding of North Sea tidal water and flowing river water, of salt, sand and mud, that penetrates deep into the flat lands of East Anglia in the no man’s land, or no man’s water, that divides Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Here man has for centuries dug and straightened, shifted silt, dredged rivers, drained salty land; and so the Wash has shrunk and the surrounding Fens are now some of the best arable land in Britain. Many of Britain’s vegetable crops are grown here, in deep black soil protected by the pumping stations that lift water from farmland often below sea level. Roads and houses wave and recline in the shrinking peat beneath them; speed on these roads and you can easily find yourself bounced into a dyke or cabbage field.
And on the very edge of the Wash, between sunken plains and the flat grey North Sea, sits King’s Lynn. This is not an ancient town; no Roman or Saxon settlement was here. It was founded by the local Bishop of Thetford in 1101, when the Great Ouse was diverted to flow more directly into the Wash, and thus created a navigable and safe channel suitable to create a port. The Bishop was astute in his investment. In a very short time Lynn was the leading port of England, serving the increasingly productive, newly-drained agricultural hinterland, and particularly the wool trade. The sheep of East Anglia created almost unimaginable wealth – unimaginable until you look at the number and size of the extravagantly decorated churches that still grace Norfolk and Suffolk (although alas the wealth to maintain them seems in increasingly short supply).
Much of England’s trade with Europe went up and down the new navigable rivers which form a network over eastern England, stretching to Cambridge and beyond. At the end of the Wash it was an easy transfer to sea=going ships, which left from the wharves of Lynn, sailing east with the prevailing wind to the Baltic and Germanic shores, and returning with large profits (and German wines). Lynn expanded, both in port facilities and in the architectural glories of the wealthy town behind the quays. As in Trieste, the merchant classes, the merchants, traders, and bankers, lived close to the sources of their wealth, and built behind the wharves great complexes of houses, warehouses, stables, counting houses and staff accommodation, not least to display their great wealth.
For both Trieste and for King’s Lynn life continued without much change for hundreds of years. Rivals ports arose, of course, and Lynn‘s importance declined. It stayed busy but remained largely a medieval and Tudor town, albeit with Georgian facades and redecoration. Then in the mid-nineteenth century came disaster. The first blow, to both King’s Lynn and Trieste, was the arrival of the railways. Both were at the end of the line, literally. They were left out of the new trade links. Trains created much faster and more reliable land-based connections between domestic markets and producers. Almost overnight these remote ports ceased to be commercially significant – Lynn in particular saw a catastrophic collapse in business from 1850 onwards. The merchants, traders, and bankers left. Trieste suffered a second blow after the First World War when she became an Italian possession, no longer the gateway to the greatness of the Austro-Hungarian empire, just a town without a role.
Lynn went into steep decline, dependent on the Baltic timber trade, and the fishing fleet, though even some of that moved down the coast to Lowestoft and Yarmouth with their faster rail connections to London and the Midlands. The new tourist trade did not come here either; no sand, just mud; and no sea views from the quays, just the mudbanks of the Wash. The town was like the herrings in the fish factory, pickled. There was very little Victorian building in King’s Lynn and the social and cultural life no longer filled the assembly halls and hotels in the two market places.
At the beginning of the twentieth century a new type of visitor came. Not many of them, it is true. But with the rise of English music and the culture of the folk-song, a number of composers realised that Lynn, poor and cut off, had preserved a working class and fishing population who clung to their old ways and old tunes. The most dedicated visitor was Ralph Vaughan Williams, then in his early 30’s and starting to build a distinguished reputation as the most English of composers. He spent much time in the slummy pubs and broken-down cottages, persuading the fisher folk to sing, with he writing down words and tunes.
Out of this came a huge number of folk tunes, most famously “The Captains Apprentice”, which was taken up by Benjamin Britten to become that most heart- rending of all his operas, “Peter Grimes” (though he moved the location to Aldborough in Suffolk).
Then the distinguished musicians left and two world wars came and the town became noted as a sink-hole of unemployment and poverty. In the 1950’s it was resolved that something must be done and in the way of the times it was decided that the best thing would be to demolish large parts of the town, build factories and swathes of new housing on the outskirts, and build a major road round to let the holiday traffic sweep past on its way to the Norfolk beaches.
How Lynn was saved from at least part of this fate is a long story; the factories, housing, and by-pass did get built, but the intended bulldozing of much that was historic got stopped by one of the first major conservationist campaigns. One of the most important rescues was of Clifton House, the largest merchants house in the town, sitting on C12th wine cellars. Bizarrely, it was in the 1960’s the district engineers offices for the area and from here the destruction of all around was plotted (including a proposed multi-storey car park immediately to the south), but that turned out to be a plot that failed. Now it is a fascinating private house (occasionally open). The historic centre has survived, but, unusually, it is not a tourist trap. It has a life centred around music and increasingly art, and its traditional role, now much recovered, as being the county town of west Norfolk. It is a quiet, rather shy town with an enormous sense of what is past; there is little actually going on but it has an air of restfulness, of the importance it had in the past, that it shares with its much bigger Adriatic brother.
In short, it is Nowhere, but a wonderful nowhere in which to stroll and ponder and be surrounded by past energies. Go to Trieste; but do not omit King’s Lynn. The writer must admit he has not yet got himself to Trieste; there is everything he desires in Lynn.