Friday, 10 April 2015

Gisleham Fossil Quarry

I recently had the chance to visit Suffolk's Gisleham Fossil Quarry, at the southern end of the EE Green building waste dump just outside the village. The village is pronounced "Gizz-l'm" and the locals know the quarry as "the old brickworks site."

Brick kilns at Gisleham

There are some impressive abandoned brick kilns, which Film Suffolk should consider renting out as a film location, something in the steampunk sci-fi post-apocalypse department.

The fossil quarry is a precarious slide down a slope, I'm told the best time to come is after heavy rains, when fossil-bearing fragments are washed down by the rain. I'd brought along some chisels, but it's all stuff you can pull out.

Edge of the quarry

I pulled out some small marine invertebrate fossils (trilobites? Crustaceans?) but they'd flaked away into powder in my pocket by the time I got home. It would require quite a patient trawl to find anything, although small reptiles as well as seashells have been pulled out of Gisleham, as well as some of the world's biggest teeth of the giant shark Megalodon.

Mesozoic sea creature in chalk at Gisleham, on a chunk of chalk too big to fit on a bike, so I left it

There's also a lot of (living) wildlife there, with rabbit holes and a rather obvious fox burrow in the sandy soil. I saw rabbits running around when I arrived, and as I left I saw a large fox out of the corner of my eye scampering around the cliffs - in broad daylight.

Gisleham was a 90-minute bike ride from my base in Dunwich Forest, including a couple of shot stops and a pleasant detour through the Benacre Estate to avoid the A12 road. It would be an easy cycle form Lowestoft of Oulton Broad stations (there's a cycle track from nearby Carlton Colville all the way to Oulton Broad and Lowestoft.) There's a bus at least every two hours to Gisleham Monday-Saturday from Lowestoft, Kessingland or Southwold.

Angry Language Brigade brighten the day of an education correspondent

English language teaching is not a glamourous industry, there very few freebies or glamorous parties to which we at industry publication EL Gazette get invited (I'm it's news editor). It's quite unexciting. There are very few occasions when you have to write your emergency NUJ legal helpline number on your arms with a permanent marker before going out on assignment.

However, in recent months there have been a couple of these. In contrast to most private sector Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (Teflers) who just whinge and tut about their working conditions and put up with them, Angry Language Brigade (ALB) have a preferred tactic of office invasions of the receptions of employees who commit "wage theft" (have issues around outstanding payment of wages). Other ALB tactics include getting all their anarchist mates to harass said employers via Twitter and Facebook.

ALB invited me along to observe and report on one of their "actions" recently, in which they charged into the reception of a language school on Oxford Street. Management apparently held the door of their office closed in an attempt to keep them out. There was a chorus of the hymn of the radical syndicalist union Industrial Workers of the World (some ALB are members, some are not) before they retired to the pub, where an email reportedly followed from management basically saying, "What do you want?" It's all here, with a suitably punk soundtrack.

What was particularly bizarre for me was that the ALB had got the wrong building on their first attempt, and it was the SAME BUILDING WHERE I USED TO TEACH ENGLISH back in 1998, when it was the premises of the Mayfair School of English! Spooky! (Mayfair moved out some time ago.) While a confidentiality agreement between an employee and management prevented ALB from naming the school, they did point out that their gagging order on the Tefler was "fairly pointless considering the English Language Gazette had got a hold of it". (See also here.)

ALB were then part of the crew then went on to occupy the premises of the Leicester Square School of English over the Christmas holidays, as they hadn't been paid. One of the teachers (one of them, not all of them) then got a letter over the holidays saying the school had closed. The occupiers found what appeared to be an attempt to cover some evidence trails - phone lines at the school had been cut, hard drives had been removed from computers, and there was a mysterious invoice from a shredding company in Manchester for "shredding services", seen by the Gazette. (Space did not permit us from mentioning it in our short article, here.)

And ALB's campaign against the school's owner, Craig Tallents, continued relentlessly. Soon he had wound up his bizarrely-named marketing company, Asparagus, and resigned as governor of Bancroft School. There were pickets outside the Drapers' Guild, where he is a apparently a liveryman, and social media attacks on his local residents' association, where he holds some kind of office. Teflers are an extraordinary timid workforce, so when managers find themselves up against the loud and relentless ALB, they don't know what's hit them.

ALB say they've also come across a proliferating phenomenon of English language teachers on "self-employed contracts," which would appear to be illegal. While the position was recently liberalised a little bit, I understand that it is only occasional lecturers and trainers who do things like take money directly from students, hire the classroom themselves, or give "occasional lectures" who can be self-employed. Teachers who do regular "timetabled hours" must be employed on PAYE contracts.

This is under the HMRC's "Work Status" rules, although after initially agreeing to help us on this story, HMRC's press changed their mind and decided they were going to be less helpful, saying they couldn't comment on either a specific case or a hypothetical situation, which pretty much rules out everything that they might be able to comment on.

They did say that teachers who believe their "self-employed contract" is illegal should contact them - in confidence - via their Reporting Tax Evasion helpline. Good luck! We think that in practice, HMRC will go after the easier-to-recover employer's contribution National Insurance that's unpaid, and probably won't bother coming after small amounts of National Insurance Class 2 contributions from teachers.

ALB and EL Gazette's editorial team would love to hear from you if you are a Tefl teacher working on "self-employed contract" (current or recent), as would Katie Grant, an education journalist writing for The Independent on "self-employed contracts" among Teflers in London, on (EL Gazette's web people warned us that the website's email was down at the time of writing, but assured us it would be back up soon.)

Thatch Coll still being quoted after over a quarter of a century

I'm surprised to find that Thatcherism Goes to College is still being quoted after all these years. (I call it Thatch Call for short, for convenience.) I was clearing out some surplus copies the other day - you can have one for £1 plus postage if you email me - and I noticed how god-awful the two-colour cover was, and how tame the scariest predictions for what would happen to education were compared to what actually happened.

The book, which I wrote in 1989, is now "historical background" to articles about the politics of education by Marxist academics (meta-academics?)

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Alderton woodwose of the Bawdsey peninsula

The woodwose on the porch at St Andrew's Alderton, on the Bawdsey Peninsula. He's less than a foot high, and he's charging with a pointed stick at a dragon or wyvern (below).

Take the road south past the edge of Rendlesham Forest, keep going through Butley and you eventually come to the part of Suffolk that calls itself "the peninsula." It's quite remote, and you'd think there wasn't much going on, but there was a surprising amount of traffic a couple of weeks even before the ferry opened for the Spring. We noticed several up-market local businesses with the word "Peninsula" in their name.

It's out of the way enough that it's still got a couple of prisons on it, a young offender's institution and an open prison where News of the World phone hackers seem to stay a remarkably short time before their release. So relaxed is security at Hollesley open prison that last year they were burgled, someone broke in and nicked industrial quantities of tobacco from their prison shop. When we pulled into the Shepherd and Dog pub in Hollesley, there were some uniformed prison officers off duty having a drink on the sofas.

On the edge of Hollesley is the Suffolk Punch Trust. The Prison Service accidentally saved the Suffolk Punch breed by using them on their prison farms. It's not open this early in the year, but we caught a glimpse of some magnificent young Punches in a nearby field.

Nearby is Shingle Street, and on the winding road down to Shingle Street, on Easter Sunday 2008, a prison officer had the peninsula's only recorded big cat sighting. Heidi Hawley saw a "giant" dark and fawn-coloured cat, initially mistaken for an Alsatian, the size of a large dog, "beautiful" with "great big eyes".

It ran across the road in front of her, clambered up a steep bank, turned round and looked her in the eye before finally disappearing into undergrowth. Colleagues were aware of "similar sightings in the area in the past. The East Anglian Daily Times caused confusion by running the story with a photo of a lynx - with the caption "A lynx - similar to the big cat seen in Suffolk", although the word "lynx" didn't appear in the text. Shingle Street would be of interest to a big cat - there are sheep (unusual for this part of Suffolk) and lots of reed beds to hide in.

Further south along the peninsula is the village of Alderton. Its St Andrew's Church is hard to find, surrounded by houses, and unlike most Suffolk churches you can't find it by looking out for its tower. Inside it's very bare, like a giant barn. It turns out it may well have been a barn at some point. An 18th century print hanging up in the porch show it as a ruin with a hole in the roof, and most of the tower is missing. There's a modern bell on some sort of scaffold just outside the tower. St Andrew's seems to have been restored by the Victorians. There's a "WARNING The tower is dangerous" sign outside.

The porch, showing the woodwose and its dragon antagonist

The woodwose is just under a foot high, and like the ones in Peasenhall, Cratfield and Badingham, he's squaring off with a dragon or wyvern (hard to tell, it's so eroded away) on the opposite arch of the porch. Unlike the other porch woodwoses of Suffolk, who tend to have raised clubs and shields, this woodwose is charging with a spear or pointed stick.

Hard to tell in the ruined state it's in whether this is a two-legged wyvern or a four-legged dragon

Down the road at Bawdsey Quay is Bawdsey Manor, where radar was invented, and Alexander's International College (one of only two accredited language schools in Suffolk, the other's in Bury), and the ferry across the Deben to the back of Felixstowe. The giant container-unloading cranes of Felixstowe Docks are visible on the horizon.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The woodwoses of Wissett and the imps in Wenhaston Doom

Thoughtful woodwose, Wissett church font

Less intelligent-looking woodwose on the same font

Damaged cross-legged woodwose

Woodwose with club, face vandalised

I discovered another Suffolk church with woodwoses in it, at Wissett, north of Halesworth. Not only does it have woodwoses on the font, there is evidence from tiny flecks of turquoise paint and from parish records, that they used to be painted. (Last painted 1492, according to parish records.) They are slightly vandalised, with the faces more scratched out than the entire heads chiselled away, as at other churches like Theberton and Covehithe.

Particularly interesting was the beard-stroking intellectual woodwose, deep in thought. (See above.)

I then went to the local pub, The Plough at Wissett. I was very proud of myself at having cycled from Dunwich to Halesworth in 40 minutes, but and two of the punters at the pub had arrived on horseback, with their still saddled and bridled horses let out to graze on the grass in the garden with the tables round the back. I later found that Wissett has two phantom Black Dogs, said to haunt the two little humpback bridges near the village, and enough ghosts to fill a book, The Wraiths of Wissett.

Soviet-style Social Realist art is alive and well on the Wissett village sign, which glorified a tractor. (The other side of the sign has a more traditional horse-drawn plough.)

Soviet social realist-style tractor image on the Wissett village sign (there's a more traditional horse-drawn plough on the other side of it)

I also stopped off at Wenhaston, and discovered something rare in pancake-flat Suffolk - a serious stretch of downhill on the way to the village. The church has the Wenhaston Doom, the Last Judgement. There's some fairly boring stuff on the left of "virtuous" princes standing naked before God, being judged by angels, and then it gets a bit more Heavy Metal album cover as you go further to the right of the painting. There's something going on with weighing souls and comparing them to the weight of imps. If your soul weighs as much as two imps, you seem to be in the clear.

See here for the "witch-weigher" in Oudewater, Holland, where they used to weigh people to make sure they weren't witches. They generally weren't. Many of East Anglia's convicted "witches" in the witch trials of the seventeenth century were convicted for "feeding imps," which generally took the form of exploding mice or ducks, giant flies, legless horned greyhounds of headless bloodsucking babies. And Black Dogs of course. These descriptions were mostly extracted under torture, with some copied and pasted from 15th century demonologies. Black Dogs were probably implanted into the testimonies to give them a bit of local colour and fake authenticity.

Imps on the Wenhaston Doom. If your soul weighs more than two imps, you appear to be in the clear.

It's all in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of Suffolk.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Big cats on BBC Radio Suffolk

Update (01/02/15) The show is no longer available on the BBC i-player. Jon Wright promised to let me have some audio clips from the programme, which I'll link from this site as and when I've got them. Much of the material from the programme will be in Mystery Animals of Suffolk, due out late Spring.

You have less than three weeks to listen to me on the I-player talking about big cats in Suffolk on Jon Walsh's New Year's Day show on BBC Radio Suffolk.

The programme is here (UK only, I'm afraid).

Fast forward through the first 41.00 minutes of banter, cryptic clues and travel news.

There then follows music with a "cat theme" (The Cure's Love Cats, The Eye of the Tiger, etc. etc.) You may, if you wish, pause briefly at 34.51 while Jon Walsh makes gentle fun of my big cat investigator's headgear, which is all over by 36.16.

The actual serious chat about big cats, recorded on Dunwich Heath National Trust reserve in December, doesn't start till 41.00 and is over by around 52.00 (timings not exact, sorry!) We chose Dunwich Heath because it's near my home, and also because the area was the location of several sightings - one by a member of staff at the reserve - of a black big cat around 2008, all of which I describe in the interview. As I point out on air, Dunwich Heath's mix of wetlands, reedbeds and dunes is, apparently, the favoured habitat of Britain's big cats - "big cat country."

At 01.09.36 hours the serious stuff about big cats in Suffolk resumes, including some more recent West Suffolk sightings, until around 01.16.20

At 01.38.40 hours into the show, the big cats in Suffolk theme starts again with witness testimony.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust warden Matt Gooch (I'd talked to him on the phone before) phones in with his account of a January 2011 encounter in the snow with a "big black cat-like creature that loped off in the marshes" near Oulton Dyke, which connects Oulton Broad (near Lowestoft) with the River Waveney, in the Beccles Marshes nature reserve. Matt added that a neighbouring landowner said he saw a big cat (Matt told me earlier the landowner didn't want to be named) and that a letter from the Broads Authority had come round earlier stating that a visitor said they'd seen a big cat.

Matt's testimony is finished by 01.56.00.

Next up is Stanley, a former RSPCA inspector based at South Godson near Ipswich in the 1960s, who described a "glut" of lion cubs kept as pets, whose owners sought advice about vaccinating them. Most of these ended up in local wildlife parks. Stanley also said a friend of his had seen "a very large" black cat near Dedham (a very short distance over the Essex border), and that as an RSPCA inspector he'd had to trap many feral and "semi-feral cats", which were generally "slightly bigger" than domestic cats.

Stanley's finished by 02.07.00, and a couple of minutes after that is my appeal for more information on big cats in Suffolk, especially form Mid-Suffolk, Babeargh, West Suffolk, and also for fairy and Black Shuck anecdotes. No ghosts please, except animal ghosts.

At 02.14.12 David in Bury St Edmunds says he's seen four big cats over the years, including one in Barham (near Thetford) while delivering as a UPS driver, and another jumping over Culford School gates in West Stow, which he saw while working as a taxi driver. As a security guard at Fornham All Saints Golf Club, with a German shepherd dog he saw yet another big cat.

Then (at 02.57.00) Charlie Haylock recounts how "eighteen years ago" (around 1996, the beginning of the first big wave of Suffolk sightings), he saw a black cat, a "big'un" a very short distance away from his car ("We were a couple of feet from each other") when he was driving from Stonham Aspall to Debenham. He reported it to the police station at Debenham. Two police officers went out in a car to investigate.

Then an email is read out from Mark Frost, who saw a shiny big black cat while "combining" (working in a combine harvester) in a field at Hemley near Waldringfield. Mark radioed his colleague, who told him he'd seen it 45 minutes earlier field signs were found - a pawprint, scratch marks and a poo that smelt "like nothing else." Msrk's testimony is over by 03.00.00 on the dot. He adds that a neighbouring landowner reported a calf killed by something big.

Finally, at 03.13.21, Kevin Wood from Woodbridge emailed to say he'd seen "a large black cat that looked at him" at about 5am on Hatcheston Road, one day around 1990 5am, before it "bounded away." Another time, Mark saw "a dead one" (a dead big cat) by the road, the body had been removed when he returned (Kevin's testimony finished at 03.13.54).

It'll all be in Mystery Animals of Suffolk, out in late Spring, from CFZ Press. Meanwhile, updates are here or more info via

Monday, 29 December 2014

Phantom black dogs alive and well and providing long-term parking on Ipswich Waterfront

Suffolk's phantom black dogs are alive and well and providing long-term parking on Ipswich waterfront. (There's also an Ipswich-based Black Shuck MCC motorcycle club, and Shuck Creative packaging design, just north of Ipswich, and the Hellhound Brewery in Bramford does a Black Shuck Porter "breakfast stout".)Photo: Matt Salusbury

Bungay's Black Dog, which - according to Rev. Abraham Fleming's A Straunge and Terrible Wunder of 1577 - ran through St Mary's Church, Bungay, one Sunday in August of that year, can be found on the "Welcome to Bungay" sign (below) right on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The current coat of arms (much more recent, from the 1950s) shows the terrifying Black Dog and lightning bolt. The motto translates into English as "Hold to the ancient traditions."

The Black Dog on the Bungay coat of arms, on the "Welcome to Bungay" sign

In A Straunge and Terrible Wunder included the black dog is the Devil in the form of a dog, during a terrible thunderstorm that featured thunder, lightning, hail and "darkness". It killed two men - "wrung the necks of them bothe" - as it ran through the church at Bungay, inflicting strange and terrible burns on other worshippers who survived. The church clock exploded. The same black dog then appeared in Blythburgh, also in Suffolk but to the South, on the same day, jumping onto beams inside the church, before slew "two men and a lad" and others in the congregation were "blasted", before it flew out.

The Bungay black dog seems to be a very different animal to the Black Shuck of East Anglian tradition. Black Shuck, terrifying though it could be, rarely if ever attacked people, and it could sometimes (as in the case of the one around Dunwich) be a protective spirit. The Dunwich variant would fall into step with walkers at night, and as long as they avoided direct eye contact with it, it would see them home safely. Others talked, like the one seen on the road into Woolpit (near Needham Market), which accurately foretold the imminent death of one person it encountered.

In the depression of the 1930s, the black dog from the Straunge and Terrible Wunder was deliberately revived in the hope that tourism would revive the town of Bungay's fortunes, with the black dog and lightning bolt emblem being placed on the town weathervane over the Market Place. It can also be seen on this sign on the door of the town's Waveney District Council offices and on the sign at the Bungay Town FC ("The Bungay Black Dogs") training ground (below), actually just over the Norfolk border in Ditchingham.

Bungay Town FC ("The Bungay Black Dogs") football team's training ground just over the county line in Ditchingham. The town's cricket club and its running club are also The Black Dogs.

There ara also scorch marks on the inside of the door to Blythburgh Church, said to be made by the claws of the Black Dog. A more likely explanation is that these have something to do with Cromwell's New Model Army, who requisitioned the church as a stable for their horses, and probably had some kind of farrier's shop in operation for shoeing horses, in which red hot pokers would have been standard equipment.

Scorch marks on the door of Blythburgh church, attributed to the Black Dog

The only fatalities recorded in any of the parish records that come close to the Straunge and Terrible Wunder story are two burials of men killed by a falling section of the belfry at St Mary's Church, Bungay in 1577, during a thunderstorm. It seems there may well have been a storm in which a lightning strike caused damage that killed people. Some have speculated that the terrible burns inflicted on other worshippers who were "blasted" could have been some kind of exotic ball lighting phenomena that careered through the church.

A similar phenomenon could have been at work in "The Great Thunderstorm" at Widecombe, Devon in 1638, in which a ball of lighting burst through the church window, tore of part of the roof, killed four and injured 60, leaving the vicar's wife in particular "pitifully burnt". (Sound familiar?) A contemporary woodcut shows a dark sky, thunder, hail, bits of the tower falling off and a ball of flame escaping from a cloud and careering towards Widecombe's church, but no Black Dogs in evidence.

The Black Dog Deli in Walberswick. While its sign makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to local Black Shuck traditions, there is a local story about Shuck terrifying a US airman and his wife immediately postwar by repeatedly ramming the wall of the hut where they lived one night.

This animal being slain by St George on a 14th century walnut wood chest in St Andrew's Church, Southwold, is clearly meant to be a dragon. But he does look awfully like a really massive dog!

It's more than possible that the Rev. Fleming made the whole thing up, or considerably embellished a garbled account of the 1577 storm that had reached London, where it was published. Fleming may have chosen Bungay as a place so out of the way (at the time) that he was confident nobody could go and check out the details. (The full title of the pamphlet is A Straunge and Terrible Wunder wrought very late in the parish Church of Bungay, a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, so the Rev. Fleming felt he had to explain where Bungay was to a London audience, so obscure was it.) Fleming - or his sources, if he had any - may have been influenced by local Black Shuck legends. It's noticeable that in the Suffolk witch trails of the seventeenth century, inquisitors took care to insert references to encounters with Black Dogs among all the clearly made up nonsense about imps in the form of headless, bloodsucking babies, exploding mice and ducks, oversized flies and legless horned greyhounds. Slipping in a bit of Black Shuck, an actual local tradition, gave their fantastic testimony extracted under torture a bit of authenticity.

Products by the Black Dog Chilli Company of Martlesham, near Woodbridge. Shown here on the shelves of the Black Dog Deli, Walberswick.

The Rev. Fleming in his introduction rails against "sin", sodomy in particular, and comments that the events in Bungay were "A spectacle no doubt of Gods judgement, which as the fire of our iniquities hath kindled". It has also been suggested that the Rev. Fleming was actually making an allegorical point about God's wrath at a particular juncture of the then unfolding Reformation. But Fleming would have been so terrified of the Queen's commissioners that he hinted at God's wrath at religious reform in such veiled terms that whatever his point was, it's been lost to us.

Blythburgh's scorch marks in close up

All this - and more - in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of Suffolk