Posts Tagged ‘Anglo-Saxon’

Depending on how you look at it, ofermod is the Anglo-Saxon word which equates to hubris and pridefulness to the point of destruction. It was something of a theme for the day, but thankfully not to an utterly destructive degree. (It’s also the name of a Swedish death-metal band but please don’t Google them — trust me.)

I did a bad job of getting the day off on the right foot. I somewhat foolishly went on the principle that because I could hear the oven timer on the second floor then I must be able to hear it equally well on the third floor. That would not be correct. Ofermod! In fact, the timer will turn itself off completely if you don’t get to it quickly enough and then it will just merrily continue to bake until your tender little flaky pain au chocolats look like the NFL pigskin footballs your older brother left out in the rain.

(Which brings to mind a very funny story about when my Dad was in a fraternity at Auburn and they bought a very nice leather football for use in practice for the inter-mural football games. Basically, it got a little damp and they wanted to take very good care of it so they got the oven just a bit warm, turned it off and put it in the oven to let it gently dry while they went to take showers (I believe that’s why it was unattended). Well, no one told Napoleon the frat house cook about this and he came in to make breakfast like he always did, turned on the oven to preheat and a few minutes later the oven door blew off its hinges. Eventually they convinced him to come back inside the house to keep working for them, but the guys had a history of making life hard on him, unintentionally or not. There was an incident involving Napoleon and a dead rattlesnake that I’ll have to post someday.)

Combined with the burned breakfast, all my clever programming of the water heater, which had been working for the last few days, failed and Bear had to take an ice cold shower which I simply do not understand because it had come on at 4:20 and was running, so by 5:30 it should’ve had plenty of hot water. Ofermod!! But he’s a very good sport and we just popped new pastries in the oven which at least was already hot, unlike the water, and kept rolling.

To get on our way we had to take an unusual road exchange which seems perfectly logical on the map. You would be wrong. Just because two major highways cross each other does not mean that you can get from one to another at that point. Ofermod! Sometimes I see a logic in that, but in this case it’s like I-10 crossing I-75 but you just have to wave at each other. However I’d managed to figure out that if you actually exit a few miles early (yes, miles), then you can run parallel on a smaller road and that road will let you get on the big M11 that you really want which takes you south towards London.

To try to get into the mood and theme of the day, I made two soundtracks. The first was a copy of the latest Loreena McKennitt album (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) because we’ll be going to see her in just two weeks when she plays in London. It’s a present for Bear’s birthday and because honestly I would drive much further than that to see her play. He hadn’t listened at all to the latest disc so it’s a good idea to be familiar with the material that’s the most likely to be covered at a show. The second disc was live concert versions of her other biggest songs which she’s also likely to play so we could focus more on her backup touring musicians who are pretty incredibly (the idling Porsches, she calls them) and have their own careers and albums but they just like to play with her. Hugh Marsh, the violinist and Carolina Lavelle, the cellist, really stood out to me from when I saw LM in concert a few years ago in Atlanta at the Fox Theater with Amanda DeWees. (As in, Amanda is my friend and she got the tickets, not that she as the opening act, although that would’ve been fun too. Can authors be the opening act for a literarily-oriented world music superstar?)

(Ha, you thought I was going to pick “The Mummer’s Dance” since that was a certifiable hit, but “The Old Ways” lets you see the nice interaction of violin and cello around 4:10, towards the end.)

The music really set the mood and we seemed to get to Maldon on the Essex coast on the border of Suffolk in no time. Our first stop was to the site of the Battle of Maldon which isn’t exactly the most well-known of English battles, unless you happened to take a lot of Old English/Anglo-Saxon classes in grad school in which case it’s about the only game in town. Since the fragment of the poem about the battle is only a few hundred lines long and not terribly complex with imagery, it’s one of the pieces assigned to intermediate students for translation and I even found my old translation homework on my hard drive (because I keep everything).

The reason I wanted to see the battle site was because it has an interesting physical feature to me, and also because Tolkien wrote notably about the poem (and others have written about his usage of the concept) and the theories about the intent of the author. Was it a cautionary tale about the ealdorman Byrhtnoth’s pride and hubris (AS ofermod) or was it truly the Anglo-Saxon perspective that death in battle was glorious and the more hopeless the better? Tolkien went with the former and that’s certainly how I see it from the 21st century, but the times they are a-changin’ so it’s important to try to get into the mind of the original audience as much as possible.

What’s interesting about the site is that the Anglo-Saxons were on the mainland when the Viking raiders landed on what we believe to be Northey Island but at high tide it’s cut off form the mainland. They all yelled at each other for a while, doing the equivalent of WWF pre-match posturing, and then the tide went out to reveal the land causeway so the Vikings tried to come across but a narrow bridge is fairly easy to defend. After a while:

and so began to use guile, the hateful strangers,
asked that passage to land they might have

So you might think that this would be the moment when Byrhtnoth says, “I don’t think so!” but in fact:

Then the Earl permitted in his great pride
to allow land many of these hateful people

Or in the original:

ða se eorl ongan         for his ofermode
alyfan landes to fela         laþere ðeode.

Not exactly the most strategic move ever and the result was that the Vikings killed him and all the rest of his men who remained to defend the body. The key really is the meaning of ofermod and if you go with the theory that it means something akin to Satan’s pride which resulted in being cast down, as the word was used in other places.

I was hoping at this point that I wasn’t truly falling victim to ofermod in thinking we could locate the site, which isn’t very well marked by its own admission and that rarely bodes well. We got to Maldon and did manage to locate Mundon Road and then the side road that led right up to the farm that occupies the land now. At some point it’s possible that a sign went by saying that it was a restricted road and that you had to have prior arranged permission, but honestly we were going so fast that it was a bit of a blur. I do know that it was very early on a Saturday and no one else was about.

Looking from the mainland over to Northey Island, where the causeway disappears at high tide

When we made it out to the water, I really did get a weird little thrill in my stomach to realize that I was standing on the very strip of land where Byrhtnoth and his men had stood on August 10, 991 to face down the Viking fleet which might well have gone on to raid another section of the Blackwater River if they had simply paid off the Vikings as asked.

That’s my guerrilla video of the battlefield and the water between mainland and the island. Aloura Charles would be so proud of me, she who gets to call Martin Scorsese “Marty” and kinda sorta ran over Ron Howard’s laptop once (but not really)!

Boggy for Battle

Just like it looked in 991 A.D. ... except for the telephone wires

It was high tide so I wouldn’t have a chance to see the causeway exposed, but it was lurking there underneath.

Having successfully gotten to the battle site and out again without being spotted (not, again, that I can confirm we did anything wrong), we headed off toward Sutton Hoo but planned to find the Lexden Earthworks along the way. Again, ofermod!!! Even with the help of a Royal Mail carrier, and they tend to know quite a bit since they hoof it on foot, we couldn’t locate it but it wasn’t a top item so we kept on and came into Woodbridge early enough to poke around the town first.

I think this is what they call "downtown Woodbridge"

I found a little book shop and got a pocket bird guide to Britain and Europe there for just three pounds. I’ve finally identified the swans in our river as definitely being Mute Swans, and thank God for that or we’d never get any sleep. A pair of Canada Geese showed up this week and it’s been a racket ever since. Bear asked if I was certain there would be British birds in the book and I showed him the title – Birds of Britain and Europe—which seemed to satisfy him

The window display of The Cake Shop Bakery , a fantastic little bakery

We stopped at Mrs. Piper’s Tea Room for tea and to split a fruit scone along the way because we knew we’d do a lot of walking once we got to the grounds at Sutton Hoo.

Once at Sutton Hoo, we were told everything about the National Trust by a very nice woman but she hasn’t yet convinced me to join since most of the things we like to do seem to be hosted by English Heritage. Except Sutton Hoo.

So to take a moment and explain Sutton Hoo in brief (but follow the link for a full Wikipedia article) it’s the site of an archaeological discovery in 1939 of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial that hadn’t been plundered and yielded up an unexpected amount of gold and historically significant items. Edith Pretty was the landowner and she had traveled to Egypt when she was younger and always had an interest in archaeology so she had her eye on the odd-looking mounds around the property which led her to ask for an official archaeological dig.

Probably not what Get Fuzzy had in mind with this cartoon, but Mrs. (Edith ) Pretty definitely did want to go out to the yard to see what was there and you know she liked tea.

What made what followed particularly interesting is that a) everything was uncovered right at the outbreak of World War 2 so it all had to be boxed up and stored in a subway tunnel while London was bombed, and b) Mrs. Pretty donated it all voluntarily to the nation without thinking to keep a single thing for herself. That alone makes her truly remarkable to me because the initial court findings had ruled that she could keep it.

Purse lid, something like a Scottish sporran

I had already seen the war helmet at the British Museum and some of the rest of the gold hoard found in the burial chamber, but it was really something to see it all put together along with a replica of the burial chamber itself.

Original helmet, at the British Museum

Replica, clearly showing the flying dragon pattern in gold of the eyebrows, nose and moustache

I like reading things about Edith Pretty, the landowner who first requested that the mounds be investigated by Basil Brown the archaeologist. Even though the work was later completed by teams of other people, some from Cambridge, I still think of them as the ones who started it all.

Horse's harness decorated in gold, from a another burial site on the grounds containing a young man and his horse

Replica of the ship used in the ship burial

An example of the cloisonne enamel decoration used on many of the items. (Bear knew that word off the top of his head -- I was humbled.)

Interior of the reconstructed burial chamber

We took a walk around the grounds and ended up hiking on the wrong trail (OFERMOD!), but it was a lot of fun and again we had to earn that scone.

Yellow flowers planted in the shape of the Olympic rings

Fallen trees carved and painted like dragons

Bear doing his best impersonation of Buliwyf's final scene from The 13th Warrior (I will not confirm that I watched that movie as much for Antonio Banderas as any connection to Beowulf.)

When we made it back, we then went on the actual trail we’d intended to see the burial mound grouping.

Burial Mound 2 with Mrs. Pretty's house visible to the left in the background.

Panorama of burial mound site

What lay beneath Mound 1 was beyond anyone's imagining

I had made plans to get us to a nice place for lunch in nearby Orford, but we were cutting it close for when they would stop serving lunch. Bear is a good driver though so he made the most of the time to get through the Tunstall Forest on a back road that got us to the market square in Orford with about seven minutes to spare. Thank God, we dodged the ofermod bullet on that one.

Butley Orford Oysterage -- if you're ever in Suffolk, it's worth the time to go there!

The Butley-Orford Oysterage was a real treat – a local business that has its own boats, its own oyster beds, and a smokehouse where they process kinds of fish. I had leek and potato soup with some really amazing bread which we discovered is baked in The Cake Shop in Woodbridge, the very place where I’d taken a picture of all the wonderful bread on display. Bear had a smoked sampler and I had grilled mussels which were absolutely heavenly.

Bear's Smoked Sampler

Grilled mussels (and no bad incidents, unlike the last mussels had elsewhere)

We finally rolled out the door and over to Orford Castle which was all of 150 yards from the Oysterage. I really do try to plan these things well, but it’s still a joy when it actually works out!

A very friendly girl was running the front desk and she asked us where we were stationed, which is the general default assumption whenever we meet people here. They’re also very pleased that we belong to English Heritage, as are we because then everything is free, free, free. Bear tells me that Free is my middle name. In fact, it’s my first name.

Orford Castle

Basement of Orford Castle with the well in the middle, although much of the water was gathered from rainfall on the roof

The oh so dangerous stairs of Castle Orford

Chapel on an upper floor

And where there’s a chapel, there must be a pigeon. The reason for this is that back in 1993 I was in St. Petersburg, Russia where a well-meaning interpreter asked me to look up into the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and see there in the stained glass that great symbol of the Christian faith, the pigeon. I still have the scar where I bit through my lip.

The pigeon...err, dove, the great symbol of the Christian faith

While at the castle, we read a placard about the local legend of the wild man of Orford and realized that his image had been used in the logo for the Butley Orford Oysterage.  The legend was that a bearded man had been caught in nets off the coast and brought back to the castle where he behaved ferally, wouldn’t answer questions even when tortured, squeezed all the juice from any food given him so he could drink it, and gave no sign of understanding when taken to the church. They let him swim again when surrounded by nets and he easily escaped them by swimming under, but came back of his own free will. Eventually though he escaped and was never seen again. It’s one of those things that just weird enough to have some real truth to it.

The Wild Man of Orford

They were actually closing the castle down when we had reached the top of the roof, so we came back down quickly but a little too quickly for me actually. I slipped on one of the stone steps and caught myself successfully so only my left palm hit the stones but I could tell that I would feel it the next day for having torqued myself a little. (Ofermod goeth before a fall…)

We didn’t have time to go to Framlingham Castle, but drove by it to see the outside and marked it for a future trip. We also saw another EHS site on the way as we hit some back roads.

Driving through the late afternoon Suffolk countryside, heading west:

Juliet was quite happy to see us and Bear reported that she jumped on him when he came through the door. No matter how many fun things you see, it’s always nice to come home to someone who loves you.

And now for a summary of the day from Bear himself if you skipped everything above…and really want to watch him drink tea while driving.


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After a somewhat stressful Friday at work, we ran over to Bedford for an extremely late lunch at Nando’s, which is a Portuguese-African chain restaurant. No, I’m not joking and it’s actually quite good. I had a grilled Portabello mushroom with haloumi cheese that was excellent.

They also had a bottomless soda fountain which is very much not the tradition with other restaurants.

You can almost taste it

We saw a statue devoted to John Howard, a prison reformer, in the square by St. Paul’s in Bedford. I was sort of embarrassed that I’d never heard of him since he got his own statue, but it was a fun excuse to look him up and discover more history.

St. Paul's Church, downtown in Bedford

For Saturday, we took the recommendation of Ben the car dealer and planned to go to Bury St. Edmund (which really started out as St. Edmund’s Burgh and just went from there. It actually has nothing to do with the fact that he’s buried there.

Putting the cup holder from Ben the Car Dealer to good use!

We actually wound up at West Stow, a town just north of there which was the site of an Anglo-Saxon excavation back in the late 60s-early 70s. Dr. Stanley West had discovered a group of Anglo-Saxon buildings that represented a village in the West Stow area. He led a team to undertake some experimental archaeology and re-build the buildings according to what they found in order to test their theories about how the structures were erected.

West Stow group of buildings

In the process, they discovered that the common conception that the Anglo-Saxons had lived in pit houses on dirt floors was incorrect and that they did in fact have wooden elevated flooring with roofs supported by posts rather than the walls themselves. All in all, the structures were more sophisticated than anticipated.

Weaving looms, part of what helped them determine that there were floorboards and walls because of how the burned buildings collapsed on themselves

Bear's theory: an Anglo-Saxon dog house

We met two really, really nice ladies running the exhibit and chatted for a long time with them about the research there and what else to see. They had a lot of information about all kinds of things we’d been wondering about, like the weird neon lights on semi trucks here that are all over the cab (OK, Bear was wondering about that a lot more than I was).

“Oh,” the former archaeologist said. “Well, some people just like to illuminate themselves, now don’t they? I prefer it in the dark myself.” (If she hadn’t been so earnest and very funny about everything else, I might’ve worried for her.)

We had a lot of fun wandering around the excavation area and going into the experimental reconstructions to see how the archaeologists had set everything up. It was sort of like the Junior Museum for Anglo-Saxon history nerds (if you’re from Tallahassee and over 30, you got that one). In one of the buildings, they had the embers of a real wood fire still going and I’m not ashamed to say that we stood there for quite a while, warming our hands and appreciating how much fire would’ve meant to people in those conditions. (Note to self: Fire and thatched roofs – problems waiting to happen.)

Quest for fire--achieved!


There was a very nice museum with items from the excavation and also from the Isleham hoard of bronze objects and some of the surrounding areas, going back to Mesolithic times, up through the Bronze Age, the Romans and into medieval times.

From the Isleham hoard of Bronze Age objects

There was even a replica of a helmet like that found at the Sutton Hoo excavation, one of the major Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds of all times.

Original Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum

Replica on me -- not quite as historic but just as scary and a lot funnier

I think it was a good idea. If I’d seen that coming at me, I would’ve dropped my spear and run screaming.

They also host RingQuest--what a perfect spot!

Bear had also gotten a tip from Ben the Mercedes Dealer Guy that we should see Levenham while we were there and the two Archaeology Ladies agreed. They sent us to The Swan, a very nice pub/hotel/restaurant which was also hosting a wedding at that very moment, so we got to sit off in one corner as the bride slunk past on her way somewhere reception-y and I ate some kind of goat cheese tartlet that was pretty amazing and Bear had sea bass fillet.

Only Bears allowed!

We wandered around Levanham after that and found a wildlife art gallery with a collection of Raymond Sheppard who wrote Capturing the Moment, a book about drawing wildlife which I really liked. He illustrated wildlife at the zoo until his premature death of cancer in the early 50s, but he’s seeing a resurgence. Some of the art looked a lot like what you’d see at a gallery in Panacea or Apalachicola. We also saw some of the famous Crooked Houses.

Crooked House

Also ran into the Guildhall where they were having a little sale/auction/rummage and we ran into a girl from Tuscaloosa who had moved over 7 years ago. We said, “Roll Tide” and she actually whipped out “Go Noles!” without a second’s hesitation.

The Guildhall in Levenham (originally a wool guild I believe)

While there, I spotted a nice little booklet of Hollywood film star cards from cigarette packages of Players, from 1934. It was a complete set, including cards for everyone from Douglas Fairbanks and Carole Lombard to Katherine Hepburn and Clark Gable. I was tempted but it was 35 pounds so I put it back, but this led the Alabama girl to telling us that the American airman during WW2 used to hang out at the Swan, including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable. So back we went and saw the Honor Roll on the wall in the bar where they had signed their names.

They're in there somewhere, I swear.

We puttered our way back through Bury St. Edmunds and Bear spotted a Waitrose, so we stopped to do some shopping since it’s a nicer store and we don’t have one actually in St. Neots (I later learned I was wrong about that) and we had heard that there would be snow that night, we wanted to get some supplies to make it easier to stay in if it came to that, so we trundled off, laden down with sealed packs of salmon, mussels, ploughman’s cheese, bags of kettle crisps (“Kettle crisps…kettle crisps?!?” — prize to the first one to identify that quote with context in a comment below) and milk for tea. By the time we got home it was blowing snow and starting to settle in softly, so we carried it all in and locked up for the night.

Overnight snowfall, about 5 inches

We woke up to about 5 inches of snow on the ground and resigned ourselves to a day in since it hadn’t snowed really that year and people were just now out and having their first accidents. I was still feeling really sick from the whole week and needed to hibernate, so I curled up with Juliet and did exciting things like watch the snow fall. Then Bear decided we needed to be productive.

“Let’s trim her nails and put on the SoftClaws!”

Really. Why don’t we just chase wild boars and suck their entrails out through their nostrils? It might be simpler.

It was my own fault for actually ordering the SoftClaws through and then declaring, “Oooo, look, the claws came!” If I’d just kept my mouth shut, I could’ve had a peaceful day.

Fortunately, I exaggerate. Juliet is a very, very sweet cat and docilely submitted to having her claws trimmed and then we waited a few hours to glue the nails on, just to give her time. I think we did well for our first time since we’d always had a vet tech do that for us, so we can save some money that way.

Juliet's first snow

I finally resigned myself to working for the rest of the day, trying to get a nasty set of requests done without clients needing other things from me at the same time, which actually was a relief. We wrapped up the night by making Bear’s salmon and my mussels in a white wine/cream sauce that went well over pasta and watching a movie on the computer. Which really is exactly what you should do at home on a snowy Sunday night. Except in Florida it won’t be snowing!

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