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The Origin Of The Broads

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After further research, I have revised my previous web-site and given it a new title: "The origin of the Norfolk Broads - a classic case of confirmation bias".

Anybody interested in this subject will find something more substantial than turkey to get their teeth into over the holiday period at www.broadsmaker.com.

Certainly the broads are great big flooded peat pits, but the idea that it was not until the fourteenth century that the pits became flooded is patently nonsense, and it really is high time that the so-called authorities stopped perpetuating this myth.

Bill Saunders

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Got to do my Christmas cards first, but this looks worth reading, thank you.

Meantime you may be hearing from a certain Timbo. . . . .

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I hope so, Vaughan. This should always have been a subject principally for  archaeologists and historians, yet only one, Charles Green, was involved in the initial work.

Bill Saunders

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First I must admit - and Timbo will have to excuse me here - that I grew up in the days when Broads people believed that the broads and rivers were all that was left of the Great Estuary. We knew that peat workings had existed in a few places, such as Fritton, Barton and Wroxham but we did not believe this was the origin of the Broads. This thinking was still in the forefront as late as the mid sixties.

Timbo has since convinced me that this could not have been (totally) the case otherwise there would not have been any peat in the first place!

I have read your paper, and would like to read it again more slowly. I find it fascinating and as a total "layman" I cannot disagree with what you say.

As far as it goes.

My question would be "what is peat in the first place"? The natural evolution in waterlogged fresh water land is floating reed bed, which hardens up into "fen" at the same time rotting down and starting to form soil. Firm ground. On this grows "carr" which is scrub oak, alder, willows, etc. This naturally rots down and becomes compacted by its own weight (over centuries) and turns into peat. You can still see this process in action today, wherever you look on the northern Broads.

If you leave this peat for the right number of millions of years, it will become coal, or oil. In other words, the first stages of a fossil fuel. It is also true that the peat nearer the surface will have come from the rotting down of surface reed and this is separated by a level of silt alluvial clay (and where did that come from, if it was not due to a change in water level) from the deeper peat, created by the rotting down of carr, and much more viable as a heating fuel.

It follows from what I have just described, that this process must have started on dry land! So why, in Mediaeval times, were they having to dig down 15 feet or more to find the peat, which had originally been formed above ground?

Could it be because the water level had radically changed?

You have stated, as fact, that the sea level off Yarmouth is proved to have been more than 13 feet lower than nowadays, but your research also suggests that this would not have had an effect on the inland waters of the Broads and their headwaters. Here I disagree as the area in those days (dare I day the Great Estuary?) was much more open to the sea and so tidal effect would have been more or less immediate. Nowadays the waters are restricted in their flow, but not then. In other words somewhere that we now call Wroxham, or Sutton, was effectively at sea level. I don't count Hickling or Horsey since they were open to the sea anyway.

You have touched on the boundaries (Enclosures) between the various workings but I believe these were more important than we realise. After all, who owned the land? who granted the licences to extract peat, or the leases? You can't just go off into a water meadow and start digging it up! 

We are also talking about what was really quarrying, 15 feet deep, over a large area, and so there would have to be causeways for the extraction of the material, by horse and cart. Whether these natural (and political) dividing ramparts were also effective in drainage, seems un-proven at the moment.

One thing seems certain : the Broads as we know them are Man made, and so their future evolution will be up to our choice, as it always has been over the centuries. 

 

 

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Hi Bill,

You've hit the nail squarely on the head. As an archaeologist I often despair at some of the theorems put forward regarding the Broadland landscape. As you so rightly say, the problem is that the historical geographic interpretation of the landscape is not being represented to the public by landscape archaeologists and geographers but by ecologists. That's not to say that archaeologists are not putting in the work excavating, interpreting, writing and publishing. The problem lies in the archaeology does not marry up to the wishful thinking delivered by the ever so well funded ecology corner. The information is out there but archaeologists rarely seem to publish anything for popular consumption.

Your article, excellently written and argued by the way,highlights one of the many problems with the current 'popular' interpretation of the Broads landscape. Everyone seems to be plagued by the notion that 'since the Roman period' Broadland was some vast mythical estuary based on Cole's 1977 thesis aided and abetted by his tutor Furness. This concept has now been abandoned by all except 'die hard' ecologists and the RSPB. Part of the problem being its such damned hard work tracing archaeological reports, and when you do find them they cost a considerable amount of money. Another part of the problem is that the RSPB and a whole host of other organisations including the BA would see their 'vision', oh how I hate organisations with visions, as having no basis in reality.

 For example the current accepted text is 'Ol' Man River: Geo-archaeological Aspects of Rivers and River Plains (Archaeological Reports Ghent University) by Morgan De Dapper, Frank Vermeulen, Sarah Deprez, Devi Taelman'. In here you will find the latest landscape archaeology on Broadland. The thing is...it costs around £130. Incidentally The University of Ghent hosted a conference on historic sea levels. British attendees looked...well, 'gormless' is the best description when they realised they were working from erroneous information at odds with the rest of the world.

However the current agreed historic sea levels add further grist to the mill of your argument in that sea levels were nowhere near the height purported in the theorems pre 2000. Not only is your concept historically, archaeologically and geographically sound the physics more than hold up Bill!

I would recommend getting a glimpse of 'Ol man River'. As luck would have it...the preview available on Amazon has some of the section that covers The Broads and debunks Cole and Furness. Also take a look at some of the work done by Birmingham University at Geldeston, and of course Cambridge Archaeology are doing some amazing work at the moment and have reports on line. Also take a look at Francis Pryor and the work at Flag Fen and draw some comparisons. There's also some interesting work done by Peterson at UEA. The British Geograph Society also have very relevant information in the Gazette of the area...odd, but you would have thought as an honorary fellow Mr Packman should have been aware of the Gazette.

Keep up the good work Bill, I enjoyed the read and would recommend anyone interested in the origin of The Broads to take on board what you have to say!

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Oi Vaughan...'Great Estuary'? Santa won't come if you are a naughty boy!

Bill is quite right in his summation of sea levels Vaughan. Peat formation is dependant upon water. A slow and steady rise in sea levels. Swift increases in sea level gives us clay and sediment not peat.

Now just to do your head in before Christmas Vaughan...Hickling and Horsey were not open to the sea. Here we have a helpful diagram of the coast of Norfolk from the lads at the British Geographic Society in their memoir for Norfolk.

Yare.jpg

Remember this NOT A PICTURE OF WATER. So there is no Great Estuary. The dotted line shows the modern coastline. The darker grey is deposition of sediments in a marsh with rivers running through it around 1600 years before present day.

As for the transport of peat...if we look at Bill's theory...at the end of the summer diggings the shuttering is knocked down and we bring up the raft/barge/wherry and float the peat away. Next years digging is just at the end of a new bit of water that we can use for transport.

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Thanks for that Tim, it is fascinating. I had never seen that map before and did not realise how different the Norfolk coast used to be. So you are saying that the low land we call the Broads was at first land-locked, in the same way as the Somerset Levels? Certainly explains the formation of peat! Presumably the gradual rise in sea level was brought in by the tide in the mouth of the Yare.

Also interesting that the map delineates pretty well exactly, the area of the present-day Broads Authority.

I feel it must have opened up and become navigable later though, as there is so much history of Viking traders who came to settle in the area. Even Thorpe is a Danish name.

I do believe you about the Estuary (even more so today) but I think it is understandable that people like me have rather a hankering for the theory. You only have to drive a boat down the Yare from Bungalow Lane to Surlingham Ferry and look at the contours of the land around you. Those high, almost cliff-like banks to the north at Postwick Grove and the same heights to the south at Bramerton, form clear dividing lines between the river with its adjacent marshes and the high countryside around it. You can clearly see this opening up each side as you go further down to Cantley. If you have grown up with this all around you and even been taught it in school geography, it is very easy to see this as what used to be a big river estuary, with Breydon Water as all that is left of it, and Norwich as a sea port.

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Sorry, I pressed the wrong button! To continue. . . .

As to the extraction of the pits you seem to be suggesting that they started at one end with a strip dug out, let that flood so they could get wherries in and then came back next year to dig the next pit up, and worked their way across the broad like that.

This is feasible and would explain why all the strips eventually became one big broad, and were not just left as separate holes in the ground. Bill, in one of his conclusions, says "These relatively small, flooded pits must at some stage and for some reason have been joined together to create the large areas of open water that we see today" My underlining.

I can't think of any other reason except yours above, but it would have needed an overall organisation, presumably by one owner of all the land. I know that King Canute (the Danes again) granted the manors of Ludham, Horning and Neatishead to St Benet's Abbey and that the abbey got most of its revenue from the sale of peat. But was this the same all over? I am not sure how this "sits" with the law of land "enclosures". Local communities would presumably have had their own supplies of peat fuel.

The wherries you mention would, in those days, have been Danish trading vessels, rather like a larger version of the Norfolk reed barge and from which the Norfolk "keel" (a Dutch word) is said to have derived. In which case the area must have been navigable then?

I find this discussion very interesting - please keep it up. And I am sorry I alluded to the Great Estuary but at least I didn't mention the Romans!  

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I'm just on my way out to walk the dogs...oddly enough to walk through the Danish Camp, five minutes from my home, where Sweyne Forkbeard and Cnut declared their kingship. I will look out a reference for you this evening Vaughan. There is a gazette of Norfolk available to read on line that details each village and hamlet and who owned what and where. It was written by the same bloke who changed the name of the River Smale to the River Ant, but I forget his name until the tablets have kicked in. In itself it's interesting reading, but what it does indicate is the wide extent of lands controlled by St Benets. These were very extensive indeed and my position is that St. Benet's is the centre of The Broads. All 'rivers' lead here...sort of. If you take into account the extensive redirection of rivers and the digging of drains carried out by the Abbey, and by ecclesiastical orders all over England, I don't think it much of a leap to see the available expertise and administrative apparatus in the Abbey for organising such intensive use of the landscape.

 

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as a re-enactor in the past I have seen many archaeological theories that in practice fall over because they are just not practical - not the easiest way to do things by hand, Tims theory is sound, not only do you want to get the peat out, you want to then move it to where you need it, presuming the first place you would dig your pit would be close to the river near where you could get our transport. you would then work away from that point, keeping your water access as you work away from your point of origin, so rather than lots of small flooded pits later joined up, I think the broads would slowly have formed as the pits extended away from the rivers, so by the time they finished peat cutting the broads would have been there and filled with water, with no additional work needing to be done to join lots of smaller pits up, why attribute unnecessary work when the explanation can be explained as part of the job, the intervening walls of peat ma have either just been knocked down (and allowed to wash away), or the peat may have been partially recovered by some means.

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16 minutes ago, Timbo said:

I'm just on my way out to walk the dogs...oddly enough to walk through the Danish Camp, five minutes from my home, where Sweyne Forkbeard and Cnut declared their kingship.

While the dog walker is out paying respects to his ancestors (on the Forkbeard side) I have another question :

However you look at it there is a very clear difference between the low marshland of the Broads and the much higher ground that surrounds it. So if this is not the remains of an estuary, what is it, and what created it? It must have come from somewhere.

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Vaughan, your understanding of how peat is formed is very much the same as my own.

Yes, there have been radical changes in sea and therefore inland water levels since the time, about 8,500 years ago, when much more of the earth's water was contained in the polar ice caps.  Timbo will know more about this than I, but in those days I think the arctic ice cap reached as far south as north Norfolk, and it was possible to walk through wooded land all the way from Norfolk to Germany (and, better still, all the way back again). Then things started to get warmer and water levels have been slowly rising ever since.

When the ice started to melt, the sea level rose, the North Sea started to cover the wooded route to Germany, and Britannia rose from the azure main; quite deep valleys were scoured out by the melt water in the solid ground where the broadland rivers flow today. The coast lay much further to the east and for about the 1500 years, fresh water conditions prevailed in the newly formed river valleys with fen carr creating a layer of brushwood peat deposited on the gravelly floors of the valleys. Then something happened about 7000 years ago which caused conditions to change - I choose my words carefully here for fear of incurring Timbo's wrath - and over the next 2500 years or so a thick layer of clay was deposited on top of this lower peat.

Then for some reason freshwater conditions returned, and peat started to form on top of this layer of clay, initially reed peat, then brushwood peat, then, rather curiously, more reed peat, before, about 2000 years ago, something else seems to have happened - again I am trying to choose my words carefully - and another layer of clay got deposited on top of this second layer of peat, stretching as far inland as Brundall/Surlingham up the Yare valley, Beccles up the Waveney valley, Hoveton/Wroxham up the Bure valley, Barton Turf up the Ant valley, and Horsey/part of Hickling up the Thurne valley. Back to freshwater conditions about 1600 years ago, since when reed peat has continued to form on top of this upper clay, the peat getting thicker with the continuing slow rise in water levels. Although latterly the situation has obviously been complicated by the management and drainage of the fens, one would suppose that brushwood peat will again be starting to form in the carrs.

When the broads were created the sea level, inland water levels, and the surface of the peat were all about a metre lower than they are now (the bit about the sea level being 13 feet lower was Charles Green's erroneous conclusion). Such was the medieval demand for peat fuel, that in the deepest site, Fritton Lake, now seventeen feet deep, they must have dug down about fourteen feet to the gravel floor of the valley to get at the bottom layer of peat. A lot of the clay which they encountered may have been used in clay block buildings.

The ownership of land in feudal England is a pretty complicated subject, but for our purposes it seems generally enough to know that the broadland peat fens were all parts of various manorial estates, usually headed up by a lord of the manor, who held his land at the behest of a larger landowner like the church or one of the big barons, who in turn held their land at the behest of the king who actually owned all the land. Most of the medieval documents about peat come from the accounts and property surveys at manors held by the church - principally Norwich Cathedral Priory; although St.Benet's Abbey probably held more broadland manors, not so many of their records have survived, probably because they got destroyed in the Peasant's Revolt.

It would have been the lord of the manor who divided up the land on his estates, the first stage being between arable land, meadowland, grazing marsh, turbary, reed-beds, etc. Each of these different types of land would in turn have been divided up between the various people living on the estate. The lord of the manor would have kept some of each, including the turbary, for his own direct benefit, using or selling the production; it is from these "demesne" areas that the Home Farms of today gradually evolved. Some of the grazing would have been designated as common land, which anybody could use free of charge, but most of it, including the turbaries would have been parcelled out amongst the various grades of tenant on the estate. The "free" tenants would have paid rent in cash or kind to the lord; the "bound" tenants (so called because they were not allowed to leave, and could be arrested if they tried) paid rent with the sweat of their brow by performing specified "labour services" for the lord, which were unpaid (e.g. 14 days each year digging peat in the lord's demesne turbary).

So you are quite right - you couldn't just wander about the place digging up peat wherever you felt like it. You could be fined if you tried doing that in areas of fen not designated as turbary for the very good reason that digging up the land wrecked it for any other purpose. Yes, some of the walls or baulks of uncut peat would have been wider for access purposes, but for reasons you may find if you get deeper into my website, I think horse and cart or indeed any form of wheeled transport within the turbaries highly unlikely.

It's good that you are getting something out of the site. Thank you.

Bill Saunders.

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The incoming seems to be outpacing my outgoing. Forgive me, Timbo, Grendel, and Vaughan if I do my equivalent of walking the dog before returning to your interesting comments.

Bill Saunders.

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You're all wrong. They were dug out by Blakes and Hoseasons, purely for profit. There, problem solved. :taunt:

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Absolutely Ray. The Broads date right back to the early 1920's They were formed to give unemployed doctors something to do.

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With regard to your first post, Timbo,, the problem with the initial research into the origin of the broads is that, although all the people involved were all hugely clever and knowledgeable about their own specialist subjects, by accident they were not necessarily the right people in the right place at the right time.

The initial work after WW2, when everybody thought the broads to be natural lakes, was carried out by Joe Jennings, who appropriately enough was a geomorphologist. He fell in with a botanist, Joyce Lambert, who was researching anomalies in the distribution of a particular form of grass on the broadland fens, but like Jennings was taking core samples by boring into the fen; they compared noted and helped each other with data; she became interested in his project and it was eventually she who put two and two together and realised that the broads were man-made, more or less at the same time as he was publishing a paper saying that were natural lakes. He accepted her conclusions and they carried on working together.

At which point in time of course, the whole matter in principle fell out of the province of botanists and geomorphologists and into the province of archaeologists and historians. The organisation and financing of further research seems to have been influenced by Professor Sir Harry Godwin, himself a botanist, but a great proponent of interdisciplinary co-operation, who headed up the sub-department for Quaternary Research, then newly formed at Cambridge to promote just this sort of co-operation. He had a number of first class geologists, geomorphologists, botanist, archaeologists and historical geographers on his books, but no historians since they were not deemed necessary for research in the Quaternary period.

For the reasons stated on my website we ended up with the archaeologist going off on his own at a tangent, and a botanist and a geomorphologist providing the engineering solution to the problem of flooding in the peat pits. The geographer found no evidence in old maps and had to rely on old historical records. No historian was involved, let alone a specialist medieval historian.

Ever since then all the historians and everybody else have, rather lazily in my opinion, followed all the original work like unquestioning sheep. Charles Green's conclusions about the sea level have had to be corrected, but to the best of my knowledge the only aspect of C.T.Smith's work to have been queried is his opinion about the size of the medieval turf,

You clearly find frustrations in your work. Imagine how frustrating it is for me when in every article or television programme about the broads we are blandly informed that the broads are medieval peat diggings which flooded in the 14th century when the sea level rose. How does one put a stop to it? Yes the broads are medieval flooded peat diggings, but anybody who is actually prepared to look at the evidence for themselves should be able to see that the rest of what we and the next generation are being fed is a load of squit.

Excuse the rant. Thank you for your kind words.

Bill Saunders

 

 

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What I am suggesting, Vaughn and Grendel, because the evidence suggests it, is that most of the peat would have been dug from quite narrow strips, because this is how the turbaries appear to have been parcelled out to the tenants on the estates. However, most of these tenants had parcels of only half an acre, at the most an acre, which had to last them and their families in perpetuity; even the lowest of the lower orders could bequeath their land to their children, and in consequence these doles or parcels became smaller and smaller with division and sub-division. These tenants would therefore only have dug up enough peat (8000 -10000 turves) each year for their own domestic purposes; very few of them would have been so profligate with their resources as to sell large quantities of peat, even if they had time to dig it up. 

When they started the deep peat digging in the late eleventh century, earlier twelfth century, or whenever, the population was much smaller; some of the peat may have been exported to the towns, but most of it would have fed local hearths. I think the digging at most loactions would therefore have started at that part of the designated turbary nearest to people's homes on the high ground. Remember that most of the biggest turbaries were nowhere near rivers. As the annual diggings grew further and further away from the 'inland' edge of the turbary and the distance to transport the turves to homes became further and further, my theory is that they would have removed the walls between the small flooded annual pits to create channels for the small, flat bottomed punt style boats they would have used on the rivers and marshes; these would have been carted temporarily onto the turbary and used for transporting turves; they found a use for the bulk peat from the walls by shaping it into turves. All we know for a fact is that boats were used as on-site  transport in the turbaries to carry both turves and bulk peat.

By the second half of the thirteenth century and into the first half of the fourteenth, there had been a huge increase in population, much of it trying escape the increasing overcrowding in the rural estates by moving to Norwich, Yarmouth or other towns and seeking a new life there. Large quantities of peat were exported from manors' demesne areas of turbary, and sold on the markets or to large institutions. Only two pieces of evidence have survived about how this was done:

1) in 1337 the small manor in Ormesby held by Norwich Cathedral Priory dug up 105,000 turves from its demesne turbary in part of what is now Ormesby Broad. 20,000 turves were kept for use in the manor, 50,000 were sold locally, and the remainder were loaded on horse-drawn carts and taken to Yarmouth where they were stacked on the quay; here they remained for two or three days, a security guard being paid 6d. to keep an eye on them; they were then loaded onto (presumably) keels and taken to Norwich for use in the Priory kitchens.

2) in 1383 small (presumably)  boats were used as on-site transport during the production of 200.000 turves by St. Benet's Abbey in their turbary which is now Hoveton Little Broad/Black Horse Broad. 25,000 of these turves, having presumably been stacked on the bank separating the turbary from the Bure, were then loaded onto (presumably) a much bigger boat at a cost of 3d., the cost of transport by river to Ludham for use at Ludham Manor was 22d. In addition three "baskets" were purchased for 6d. for carrying the turves. (My guess is that these would have been basket weave platforms supported on poles and carried in the manner of a stretcher by two people).

Even in the fourteenth century most of the peat would have been dug up for local use. Only the manors kept any records, so what has survived doesn't really provide a truly representative picture of peat production and sale.

Bill Saunders

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4 hours ago, Regulo said:

You're all wrong. They were dug out by Blakes and Hoseasons, purely for profit. There, problem solved. :taunt:

Don't forget Bradbeers and Norfolk Broads Direct.

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I thought the Romans built them as a port for importing sultanas to put in their curry.

.

.

Hi Tim :) 

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Sorry for the delay in replying Bill. Indeed academia can be very frustrating and the structures involved in any research are ridiculously complex. A multidisciplinary approach is immensely difficult to put together, and has not become any easier as the years have gone by. The key difficulty is the definition of the research. What exact aspect are we actually looking at and for what purpose? For example your interest in 'how the Broads were made' may appear on the surface to coincide with the RSPB's interest in 'understanding the habitat'. However should a multidisciplinary team be put together to investigate...the RSPB would have a close eye on the possible repercussions of the investigation and would micro manage both the research and the results to 'fit' the hole they needed filling.

The 1970's were an exciting time for archaeologists. It had not yet become fashionable to be an archaeologist, but archaeology was starting to get itself out of the 19th century mindset in which it had become. It was in the 1970's that I first became aware of the 'complete cobblers' being spouted about the geography, history and archaeology of Norfolk. However as I was only aged ten in 1977 it would be a few years before I strutted my stuff through Cambridge. When I did arrive, of course my attention had drifted to classicism and I consequently spent my working career in 'hotter climes'.

As to how to educate the 'public', I'm afraid it's a long uphill and slippery climb. The current political climate should give you a clue as to how blinkered the 'public' can be. The last year or so has had historians banging their heads in frustration. There are two approaches you can make to introduce new material. The first you are tackling currently. To misconstrue the sentiment of Sir Arthur Wellesley 'publish and be damned'. The website is excellent but pop your research and conclusions into an article for History Today magazine, but be prepared for the inevitable flack. The way academia works is that you build your theorem, publish, then people heave bricks at your work and try to knock down your theorem. Then you either provide further research in support of your work...or abandon it.

Another approach, and one I used regularly, is to tackle the public's point of contact with history.In the case of the Broads you are looking at the good people at The Museum of the Broads and the Time and Tide Museum in Yarmouth. On a couple of occasions I curated displays, funded from my own pocket, containing accurate information and donated them to museums.

Maurice Mynah: Veni.Cenavi.Meis intestinum rectum est valde.

BaitRunner: Everyone knows the Sultanas were a swing band from Newcastle!

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Thank you very much, Timbo, for your helpful advice and kind encouragement. I do appreciate it.

I shall soldier on. The truth is out there.

Bill Saunders

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Thank you very much for this discussion and it has been a privilege to learn things from experts who take the trouble to explain a complex subject.

As a Broadsman I feel it is vitally important that we should learn as much as possible about the history of the place we all love. Its evolution up to the present day is man-made and if we can have a good understanding of how it all happened, and why, this might make us hesitate before buggering about with it in future!

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 Hi Bill

History Today Journal are actively seeking articles. I was contacted yesterday. This is a regular occurrence at this time of year but word has it at the 'old boys club' they are more anxious than ever for interesting articles for the coming year.

This is due to a current trend in history and archaeology to push 'women's history' for fear of being denounced as sexist. Take a look at the bio of any historian or archeologist these days and you can see how their specialisation has become so diverse and uniform at the same time. The average bio reads along the lines of 'specialist in pre Norman Architecture and ecclesiastical inside leg measurements before 1460, feminist, women's history'. Of course at some point the BBC will be in dire need of the opinion of an authority on ecclesiastical inside leg measurements and said historian will be trotted out. In the meantime it would not do for the historian to be ostracised from the history community so 'feminist' and 'women's history' is attached to their nomenclature. 

I have to admit here that I also took the 'Women's History' elective for three reasons. Firstly it would wind up the aggressive feminists around at the time, secondly it gave me a rounded historical perspective and finally...those were the lectures where the girls hung out!

In short the modern feminist slant on history means just one thing...history periodicals are getting boring and they are crying out for good articles that can avoid having any form of gender slant to them. Get writing Bill!

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Can I ask something?

How big are 'turves'? Do they bear relationship to modern day turves or turfs as they are called at the garden centre?

My imagination suggests that fuel would be cut in blocks but a turf is cut and rolled, then carried so to speak. Either way it is hard to look across somewhere like Black Horse or Ormesby Broad and imagine it being gradually formed year on year, strip by strip to such a scale.

A superb topic and excellent debate chaps. 

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