In years past, I used to take a cottage in the small town of Great Walsingham not too far in land from the north Norfolk coastline. The town, which was really more situated around the neighbouring Little Walsingham, was deserted in the autumn season; its several houses now almost entirely devolved into lettings for short breaks and holidays and filled on a seasonal basis only. I had developed a habit of taking this cottage whenever in need of a break, preferring it to planning excessive trips abroad since it was only a reasonable journey out from London. The cottage, known as Ash Cottage, lay on Binham Road, eventually connecting to the Holt Road inland and, if followed north, connecting to the Stiffkey road leading to the coast and Wells-Next-The-Sea. My visits were so regular outside of my semester time lecturing that I become well acquainted with the owner who let the property to me, an old man named Richard Avery who, so he proudly declared whenever I picked the keys up from his farm property on the same road, had always lived here.
Sometimes on my trips to Ash Cottage, Avery would pay the occasional visit, very rarely prepared or asked for. He would often let himself in when I was there, his presence always first denoted by the thud of a plastic bag of vegetables gifted to me to eat from Chalk Hill Farm. I would always humour this kind gesture as the vegetables were always on the pale side and seemed to be malformed, almost as if they had struggled in growing within the East Anglian soil. In Ash Cottage there sat a small bookcase filled with the typical fare of unreadable books, designed for a visitor’s casual perusal before no doubt finding better things to do on the Norfolk coastline. I had rarely looked at this presumably unchanging selection of books, usually because I brought along my own to read and because I was mostly out for all of the daytime, walking many miles around the frosty paths of the flat, endless landscape. On my penultimate trip to Ash Cottage, however, something caught my eye on this bookcase one afternoon. Sat slumped besides several garish crime novels was an incredibly old looking folder. It was made of dark brown leather and battered around its edges. Unlike the other books on the shelf, it felt a part of the cottage.
In the folder were a variety of old photographs, some maps and what seemed to be photocopies of old looking texts. I laid the objects out on the table and I remember looking through them, at first casually but then with a growing interest. From having read various bits on antiquary in my undergraduate year, I instantly recognised one of the photocopies to be that of the seventeenth-century scholar, Sir Thomas Browne. Furthermore, another of the scans was very clearly of an illustration which I knew to be from one of his books. It showed four varying pots or urns clearly of Roman origin with subtle designs and a caption in Latin that read “En sum quod digitis quinque levatur onus.” I began to try and remember what I could about Browne and the location of his particular interest, so to speak. I could only recall his living in Norwich, where I knew he moved to after finishing his medical doctorate at Oxford. He had become a cult figure of some status in the circles of my undergraduate work but the interest had lapsed among my peers and for myself as our studies progressed into post-graduate work.
Browne’s work, I remember assuming, must have brought him further north out of Norwich and, once back after this trip, this was confirmed fully by reading a copy of his essay, Urn Burial, which actually named Walsingham as the place of unearthing of the urns in the picture. He wrote that “In a Field of old Walsingham, not many moneths past, were digged up between fourty and fifty Urnes, deposited in a dry and sandy soile, not a yard deep, nor farre from one another…” However, I was only to have this knowledge confirmed after my visit. Before that, my curiosity went unsatiated, especially regarding the other photographs which, whilst being very clearly of age, were obviously much younger than Browne’s writing. What’s more, the photographs detailed several strange goings on which I could not describe at first, at least before the detail was supplied to me later by my temporary landlord. Assuming that Avery would call round with his usual batch of limp vegetables at some point the following the day, I deliberately waited for the hobbling old man to appear. My preparation for his arrival took him by some surprise, the roles taking a rare reversal where I saw him first.
Drawing him into the living room with small talk, I sat him down near the small fire which I had lit due to the autumnal cold seeping in through the single-glazed windows. I pushed the folder towards him on the wooden table that sat in the room, almost, quite by accident, with an accusatory gesture. I told him that I had some small knowledge of Sir Thomas Browne and was intrigued by the folder, desiring more detail as to its content. I remember the distance that Avery seemed to show to the photographs, briefly moving each aside from the little pile I had gathered them into, before sighing and beginning to talk. The old man in the photograph was, in fact, his grandfather, so he said. Robert Avery was the first of his family to take over the farm, having brought it at a remarkably cheap price from the previous owners in the very late 1800s. Though the farm was bought cheaply, so he continued, his grandfather had never questioned why it was until he had started to tend the land.
I looked at the photo of his father and noticed the surprising similarity between him and Avery; both shared an abundant beard and the habit of smoking a pipe, the smell from Avery’s being a pleasant and warm ghost that followed him around. The land, so Avery continued, had been overgrown with weeds and also a surprising bumper crop of hay when it was first bought, left by the unseen previous owners. In fact, the crop was so overgrown that the new farmer had quickly hired several farmhands to scythe and store the crop ready for the coming winter. I looked at a picture of the farmhands but couldn’t quite place the crop in context of the land all around which I knew well from my walking. By all accounts, the land was virtually dead, and not simply because of the biting frost that lay on the ground every morning at that time of year. Even during my spring visits, the land had always seemed barren and I later found that Avery in fact grew the few vegetables he brought to my table in several pots and containers away from the ground.
That crop, so Avery said, was the last of its kind as if, so he told me, the land had played a trick in order to acquire a new owner; seeming bountiful in the year of sale only to prove a useless wasteland the following year. My grandfather, so Avery said, struggled for years to try and temper the earth, to make things grow once more but to no avail. Avery’s father had only been a young boy then and the pressure, so Avery concluded as he began to stoke a fresh pipe, was mounting to feed and look after his family and employees. It soon became clear that the land had historical interest and, though my grandfather was not a learned or well-read man, he found out about the land’s connection to Thomas Browne. Locals from the village claimed that the field of Chalk Hill Farm was, in fact, the place where several of the urns that Browne had written of were discovered and unearthed. In fact, so Avery continued, there were claims that Browne himself had visited variously from Norwich of his own accord in the late 1650s when his interest in this specific antiquity grew.
I looked towards the picture of the urns again and something about them seemed to speak out; as if they could only have come from the ground of Walsingham. Avery continued on with a melancholic tone, suggesting that, in his grandfather’s desperation, stranger solutions were gradually sought to reverse the fate of the farm. My grandfather, so Avery said, began to look into older remedies and potential maladies of the land. He consulted the village wise-woman at Little Walsingham who suggested that something in the land had soured the soil and, if removed, would solve the problems of the ground’s fertility. Some of the photographs on the table began to make more sense as they showed both Avery’s grandfather and several others partaking in some unusual practice using pieces of wood. They are dowsing, Avery said, but not for water as in the common practice but for something else. Whatever Browne or others had found, contrary to the excitable work on urns already discovered there, the general perception was that there was one that had been deliberately left in the ground.
I found all of this information quite startling and looked nervously out of the window at the field beyond. With this new perspective, the field, with its typically East Anglian haze and early blue hues of oncoming autumn skies, did now seem to possess a quietly malevolent tone. There was not much more to tell, so Avery said, except that his grandfather and father both passed away incredibly poor and it was only through the letting of this property that his family finally managed to earn a living. I looked at the assortment of documents on the table once more, considering the unusual and increasing desire to put it all back into the folder and, rather shockingly so I thought, to throw it into the fire. Avery packed up the photographs into the leather folder once more and took it with him as he left, back to his house on the farm down the road.
Later that afternoon, I wandered over the road and through the field, taking my steps slowly so as to pay particular note to the ground. Strange thoughts pervaded my mind regarding the soil, as if the clods of earth were staring back at me. I began to feel very much uneasy, the only description of the land around that I found fitting being that of vile. It occurred on my return home that I would research further into Browne’s desire for urns and interest in the science of death, and I endeavoured to walk further out to the coast in order to avoid the place. I paid particular attention to a segment later on in Urn Burial to which he suggests that “We whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations. And being necessitated to the eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the considerations of that duration, which maketh Pyramids pillars of snow, and all that’s past a moment.” Browne was, so I now consider, admitting more here than most scholars realise.
As the months passed, I forgot about the unusual story that Avery had told and carried on with my work as normal until the following spring when, through the usual spate of overworking, I required a break. I arranged a week’s rest at Ash Cottage once more via letter – though took little notice of the reply from someone who was not Richard Avery – and looked forward to walking around Norfolk in the springtime. Yet, upon my arrival to collect the key from Chalk Hill Farm, I was greeted, not by Avery, but by a much younger woman. I expressed my surprise as I was unaware Avery had moved but, as she told me when inviting me in, Avery had not moved but had, in fact, passed away in late autumn. The woman was Melissa Avery, the daughter of Richard, who, so she said, had come back to the property from her work in Norwich after the death of her father to see to the estate. She must have noticed some detail in the log book that showed the regularity of my visits and so, assuming I was acquainted with her deceased father and wished to know more, invited me in for a drink.
Once sat in the dusty living room, Melissa Avery related the death of her father. He had, so she said, been found in the field in mid-October, the nineteenth in fact. The early, biting frost had virtually frozen his body to the ground and he was not found for several days until a rambler had spotted him. She had had little contact with her father that autumn but had noted his unusual behaviour and his rekindled desire to make the land fertile once more, she said; a desire he had supposedly not had since he was a young man. Melissa could not understand why this desire had come about once again, especially since the business of letting the cottage had brought them a respectable income. I felt a twinge of guilt, seeing the synchronicity between my finding of the file on my last trip and Avery’s subsequent change of heart. Saddened by the news and my potential slight role in its happening, I kept quiet with the hope of leaving Melissa as quickly as possible. I feigned tiredness, made my excuses and went to leave. Walking out into the hallway of the farmhouse, something caught my eye. It was an old urn, still dirty with soil that had since dried into a powdery dust from being indoors, sat ominously on a windowsill. Enquiring after it with a nervousness that I couldn’t hide, Melissa explained that it had been found with her father’s body who seemed to have been digging that day and that the local Shirehall Museum had expressed an interest in taking it for their collection.
I stared at the urn for a while, the object exuding such a vile nature that I was surprised Melissa did not notice it too. As I was leaving, she asked about the regularity of my stays with politeness and suggested that the property would soon be up for sale and have different owners entirely. She expressed a slight remorse but also suggested that the cottage I stayed in may very well no longer be available to stay in. I also expressed regret but knew that I would not return after this particular trip. I suggested, when walking away, that it would be a hard property to sell considering how arid and barren the farmland around it was; seasonal income from letting was a precarious business. Melissa merely shrugged , so I remember, and suggested that she had actually seen several saplings already growing from the neighbouring field in the previous few weeks since spring had arrived. I couldn’t quite believe it and turned left into the field on my way back to Ash Cottage, taking in the faint but definite green hue of the land as the first sprouts of a new crop clearly and timidly grew again from the once dead soil.