All posts by paulharley

I am a photographer based in Norwich, UK. I have travelled widely and this website includes some of my pictures from around the world, including Mexico, Central and South America. Closer to home, one of my favourite twilight haunts is Happisburgh on the ever-changing north Norfolk coast. I nearly always use natural light, and I'm interested in all sorts of photography. I usually like to photograph people in their natural environment.

Women and Women saints in Norfolk’s medieval stained glass

Most surviving stained glass features tracery figures. Human beings as well as angels, populate the windows; women appear mainly as Virgins, and other saints, whilst men are prophets, patriarchs, kings and clerics – and both appear as patrons.

Anne Boleyn, wife of Sir John Shelton (relative of Queen Anne Boleyn). Donor, Shelton church c1500-1505.

The most common image of a woman in Norfolk glass is the Virgin Mary, who appears in scenes including the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin, as well as multiple Nativities. There are a few images of Mary Magdalen (Burnham Market, photo) and many more of the myriad virgin saints. The most popular in Norfolk were St Margaret of Antioch, usually portrayed slaying a dragon, St Catherine the Great (with her wheel) and St Barbara (with her tower). Others include St Juliana and St Agatha. There are good examples at Cley, Stratton Strawless, Martham and Salle

The virgin Mary, part of an assumption scene at Bale.

The photos in the carousel below are all of donors and women saints:


Norfolk medieval stained glass. Apostles, patriarchs and prophets.

Most remaining Norfolk glass is from the fifteenth century. This is probably because much of the glass from the thirteenth and fourteenth century was destroyed when churches were enlarged and given bigger windows in the fifteenth century (and also during the iconoclasm of Edward vi’s reign). The earliest Norfolk glass is in Saxlingham Nethergate church, which has thirteenth century roundels of St Edmund’s martyrdom.

The martyrdom of St Edmund, Saxlingham Nethergate

There is good fourteenth century glass in Mileham west window, a couple of fourteenth century prophets in Bale.

There is a particular style in a number of windows of apostles, patriarchs and prophets. Full length portraits are backed by a three-sided screen, its height about three quarters of the height of the figures. Sometimes the quarry was decorated with the rose en soleil, the Yorkist badge.

The apostles in the windows of the Norwich Guildhall are particularly good

St Bartholomew, Norwich Guildhall (with screen and rose en soleil above)

and the finest of the patriarchs with perhaps the best stained glass work in Norfolk are found in the tracery lights  in the chancel at Salle church, where the panels are big enough to occupy the main lights of a smaller church. St Peter Hungate in Norwich has an excellent collection of glass, including some of the apostles. Stratton Strawless has a good quality window with the evangelists.

Elijah, Salle.

But the purpose of this post is not to discuss the work in great detail but to allow you, the viewer to look at the images and draw your own conclusions about the glass which was produced in Norwich in the fifteenth century.

Norfolk’s medieval stained glass. What links Martham with Mulbarton?

I have always thought that Norfolk’s medieval stained glass is an underrated legacy of the middle ages. It has a distinctive style and high quality craftsmanship as well as deep rich colours and some superb draftsmanship.

This was brought home when I first visited Martham, St Mary church where there is a superb collection of fifteenth century Norfolk glass, probably made in one of the workshops in Norwich. It has been restored to a greater or lesser extent and reset in the east windows of the north and south aisles. I hope the photo gallery below gives testament to this.

But what links the glass here to the glass in Mulbarton, St Mary Magdalen? It’s Adam and Eve. Eve spinning and fully clothed is portrayed in Martham and Adam delving and fully clothed is in Mulbarton , along with them, both naked with fig leaves on their expulsion from the Garden of  Eden.

Eve, spinning. Martham

 The story goes that a vicar moved from Martham to Mulbarton (about 20 miles) at the beginning of the nineteenth century bringing with him the two Adam and Eve panels from Martham and setting them in the East window at Mulbarton.

Adam digging, Mulbarton
Adam and Eve, Mulbarton

In his notes on Mulbarton, David King (the authority on Norfolk’s medieval glass) detects the work of  William Mudesford, a Dutch immigrant who worked for the main glazing workshop in the city from panels depicting the Passion in St Peter Mancroft (Norwich)


Scourging of Christ, St Peter Mancroft
The Entombment, St Peter Mancroft

Apart from this connection, the glass at Martham is (in my opinion) of outstanding quality – many angels including St Michael the archangel weighing souls and a number of saints, including East Anglian favourites, St Edmund (holding the arrow of his martyrdom) and St Margaret of Antioch (spearing the dragon). One of my favourites is Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist in his camel hair. And in the scourging of Christ I wonder if we see the faces of the men of mid fifteenth century Norwich and Norfolk?

One problem with looking at medieval stained glass in situ is that you often can’t get very close to it. When you see whole windows (as in St Peter Mancroft and East Harling, Norfolk’s best known examples) it is hard to see individual panels and easy to be overwhelmed by the effect of the whole, beautiful as that may be. You really need a long lens or a pair of binoculars and the best way to see the glass (apart from being up on a ladder or scaffold or seeing it when it is being repaired in a workshop) is probably through photographs. Even then a protective grill can take away from its beauty. In most of these photos of Martham I have got rid of the exterior protective grill by using Photoshop – a rather tedious process.

There are other issues with looking at medieval stained glass. Much was lost during the iconoclasm of the Reformation both in Edward vi’s reign and the period of the Civil War (1642-1660). A lot of glass simply deteriorated over time and was lost that way. It’s rare to see windows as they were, when they were created which means that interpretation of the glass is often problematic and speculative. As David King says most of the glass we see today in many churches is a “patchwork of miscellaneous fragments.” But the skill and artistry of those that made them shines through.

Further Norfolk stained glass sources:

Stained Glass Tours around Norfolk Churches. David King. Norfolk Society 1974      a series of trails leading to much of the best of  medieval Norfolk stained glass.

another excellent site including Victorian and modern examples

There is much on Norfolk stained glass here including this index and an incomplete guide but exhaustive research by David King.

The Rose window site by Painton Cowen an exhaustive guide of English and French stained glass. The Norfolk section now includes about 40 churches (largely updated by me)

Simon Knott’s excellent guide to Norfolk churches

Basque refugees, football, East Anglia, Norfolk and Norwich City.

An incredible tale of a group of refugees from the Basque country who briefly made Norfolk their home. One of them played for Gt Yarmouth, Barcelona and Spain and another played in goal for the Canaries.

In the middle of September 1937, a group of about 50 boys from the Basque country of Northern Spain arrived at the Old Rectory in the small Norfolk village of Rollesby.

At the time the Old Rectory was a disused building without electricity but it was definitely an improvement on the field they had been camping in at Hoxne, near Diss across the border in Suffolk, where they had been flooded out in late August.

Like many boys of their age (9-16) they loved football and spent most of their spare time playing. But how had they ended up in Norfolk?

In March 1937 the Spanish Civil War raged. General Franco, leader of the Fascists who were fighting the Republican Government of Spain, ordered an attack on Northern Spain.

A month later, on April 26th Guernica, the spiritual home of the Basques became the first town in history to be destroyed by aerial bombing, carried out by the German Condor Legion killing around 1,600 and injuring about 900. The atrocity was immortalised in paint by Picasso. The horror also prompted the first mass evacuation of children from a war zone with between 20,000 and 30,000 kids sent away to safety – some to Belgium and France, others to the Soviet Union and 4,000 to Britain.

unnamedPicasso’s Guernica

The British government initially refused to have refugees (no change there then) citing the Non-Intervention Pact, which had been signed by Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Italy in August 1936. PM Stanley Baldwin also claimed that ‘the climate wouldn’t suit them’ but he relented after huge public pressure. The proviso was that charities had to finance their stay.

Even though the Republican government was the legitimate government of Spain, Britain and France wanted to avoid a European war and came out with the policy of non-intervention, which was a part of the policy of appeasement.

It was certainly in accord with the thinking of the British ruling class who were sympathetic to the Nationalists and very anti communist. UK government supplied no arms and little help to the Spanish Republic. This (non-intervention) ‘passed a death sentence on the Spanish republic’ (Preston). Germany and Italy, on the other hand, had decisively helped Franco from the start despite signing the Non-Intervention pact.

The 4,000 children, aged five to sixteen and accompanied by teachers and priests, arrived in Southampton on 23rd May 1937 on a converted liner designed for only 400 passengers, the SS Habana. To make things even less comfortable, their journey involved navigating a storm to rival Ciara or Dennis.

From the chaos and overcrowding of the boat the Basque children were moved to a tented camp at North Stoneham and from there dispersed around the country.

Among the 4,000 were the Gallego brothers, José and Antonio who would go on to play football for a variety of League clubs including Norwich City – and Emilio Aldecoa who played a single game for Great Yarmouth Town before his footballing career took him to Wolves, Coventry, Athletic Bilbao, and Barcelona, where he gained a champion’s medal, as well as an international cap for Spain. He returned to England in 1960 to coach Birmingham City where he was assistant manager for two years.


The talent didn’t end there. Raimundo Peres Lazama played for Southampton in 1940 before returning to Spain where he played for Athletic Bilbao, winning the double in the 1942-3 season and retaining the Copa del Generalissimo (the equivalent of the FA Cup) in 1944 and 45.

Sabino Barinaga spent a season playing for Southampton Reserves, scoring an impressive 62 goals, before going on to play for Real Madrid, where he won three major trophies. Baringa also holds the honour of scoring the first goal at the new Santiago Bernabeu stadium in 1947.

At first the British press praised the rescue of these children from the grip of war, however the tone changed quickly and the Daily Mail (no surprise there) coined the term ‘Bad Basque Boys’. In the week of their arrival The Sphere quoted an anonymous British businessman who claimed that they were all ‘reds and revolutionary in outlook’ and that they should be ‘kept from all contact with British children’.

Later scare stories hinged on a ‘riot’ in Brechfra, Wales where, the Western Daily Press reported windows smashed and the boys carried ‘table knives filed to daggers’. Apparently a local man had booted one of them in the arse after they had touched and lounged around his car and some of the boys exacted revenge by breaking windows.

As the children were dispersed around the country other papers followed suit, The Leeds Mercury reported local fears about their arrival including ‘bedtime problems’ and ‘they are different ‘ and ‘can’t be made into little English boys’. In Elford, in the Midlands the parish council was against them staying in Elford Hall. Mrs Wylie, claiming to speak for the villagers said: ‘I think we should do everything we can to stop them coming’.

Following the moral panic in the national press about the behaviour of some of the boys, Poppy Vulliamy brought 50 of the older boys to camp, in Hoxne at Oakley Park near Diss, among them future Barca star Aldecoa.

Poppy Vulliamy and her sister Chloe were living on the Costa Brava in 1936 when the Civil War had broken out. They spoke good Spanish and were especially interested in the educational reforms of the Republican Government. The war forced their return to England but their aunt, Grace Vulliamy, an experienced refugee worker, was involved with the arrangements for evacuating the children from Spain. Grace had received a CBE for her work with Belgian refugees in the first World War.

They were the daughters of the Suffolk coroner and their activism and work for the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee ensured that over a hundred of the children arrived in Ipswich on their way to staying in a ‘colony’ at nearby Wherstead Hall with much money and support supplied by the Ipswich Co-Op, churches and Trade Unions. This process was being repeated all over the country to help the 4,000 Basque children.

Poppy allowed the boys to elect their own parliament and keep their own discipline, leading to the formation of a government, made up of a President and five ministers, each elected fortnightly. The boys were left wing (according to Poppy and the Yarmouth Independent) and adopted a dog, called Reddy.

Learning from their earlier experiences, Poppy ensured that good relationships were built with the village and the group quickly allayed rumours that the villagers were ’scared stiff of them’ by inviting local people to meet them in person.

From Hoxne, the group moved into the Old Rectory at Rollesby in Mid-September following a visit to Great Yarmouth where they were given the ‘freedom of the Pleasure Beach’, taken to the Hippodrome Circus, had tea with the mayor and mayoress and then went to a swimming gala.

PVA018 (2)aSome of the boys at Rollesby Rectory (Kind permission of University of Southampton collection)

From there, villagers were encouraged to invite the boys to their homes every Sunday and good relationships were formed. Locals from the area invited over 20 boys back to Rollesby and Yarmouth for a few days of the Christmas holidays.

The boys had already played a number of football matches where, according to the Diss Express, they beat Hoxne twice and came out best in a third game where they won 3-2 in a ‘thrilling struggle.’

They also played Brome and Oakley: ‘With the lead it was only natural that the Brome and Oakley 11 should give of their utmost to maintain it, and likewise the lads from the land of the olive to strain their footballing souls to get on terms’. The Basques won after 10 minutes of extra time.

Their final game in Suffolk was played in very wet conditions against Brome and Oakley at the Rectory ground. They lost 6-2. ‘The larger pitch and heavy ball affected the play of the Basques, who were unable to get going with the short passes for which they are renowned.’

In their two months at Rollesby the boys played numerous games against the local villages and some of them were described in the Yarmouth Independent:

‘On Saturday morning they visited the cinema at Yarmouth, and on Saturday afternoon travelled to Flegg Burgh for their return football match. Burgh, anxious to avenge their 13-0 defeat by the Basques a fortnight ago, fielded a strong team and on their own mud-patch, the scene of the defeat of the hopes of a good many visiting teams – they turned the tables on a weakened team and despite the splendid efforts of the diminutive goalie Burgh netted 5 times and the Spaniards once. This Saturday the Basques are playing at Winterton.’

The boys’ football impressed local observers with one journalist noting: ‘Their canny footwork is the result of the Spanish rule banning shoulder charging. Jose Luis Bilbao is a marvellous goalkeeper for his age and an eye is being kept on him with a view of making him a professional’.

Taking note, Norwich City manager Bob Young donated a ball and blue kit to the boys and although there’s no record of the boys attending any City matches it’s known that Poppy occasionally took some of them into the city and had them run errands for her.

Certain stereotypes of English (muscular and big and used to muddy conditions) and Spanish (skilful, canny footwork, short passing) football emerge and in one report describing a loss of 4-3 to a Filby team: ‘The standard of the Spaniards’ football was far higher than that of Filby, who were stronger and heavier than the foreign lads’ which suggests that brute strength and size overcame Spanish skill.

basqueboysatyarmouthhighresaThe Basque Boys team at Wellesley Road, Gt Yarmouth (Kind permission of University of Southampton collection)

The highlights of their football in Norfolk were the two games against Yarmouth at Wellesley Road, both of which were watched by crowds of over 1,000.

The first match in October was 8-2 to the Spaniards with Francisco Peres scoring 6. ‘The Basque boys, playing in blue shirts given to them by Norwich City had brought with them not only 30 refugees but a large part of the village of Rollesby as supporters.’

In the second match on Boxing Day they beat Yarmouth schoolboys 9-0. Emilio Aldecoa played both these games on the left wing.

The boys left Rollesby for Tythrop House in Buckinghamshire on 23rd November. The Yarmouth Independent describes ‘all the emotionalism of a Spanish leave taking…happily most of them were able to call “until Christmas” instead of “goodbye” for most of the boys will be enjoying the festivities with local families.’

A Yarmouth man, Mr Dawson reflected on their visit in January 1938. “Some people thought ‘we were harbouring desperadoes and running a risk of being murdered in our beds. Another strange attitude of mind is that which resents friendship being shown to a ‘foreigner’, which exhibits a lack of appreciation of the dreadful circumstances, which brought these children among us.”

Sadly, of course it’s an attitude that some people still hold today.

Mr Dawson continued: “There is a nicer side. A shoe repairer refused, almost with indignation to accept a payment for a job done and an equally sympathetic barber, when told the reason for a boy’s blank look to his ‘trim up or a close crop?’ declined to accept his fee. Antonio, who has five brothers, said how one of his brothers returned home from the fighting and ‘spoke with sadness at having shot a fellow country man – the tragedy of civil war’. The boys all believe intensely about the rightness of the cause in which their relatives are fighting and several of them have themselves been in the firing line. One of the three who left here last week was in the trenches for months and wounded before his age was discovered.”

Mr Dawson knew that their parents didn’t want them home but he had thought it was because of the bombing. “From Antonio I learned another reason ‘For one day, yes –but there is no food’. There was also an influx of refugees from the countryside in Bilbao …(which led)…. to an acute shortage of food and that ‘nothing could be spared for the dogs and that one belonging to a friend of his killed a cat and partly devoured it. For some weeks before he left home donkeys and cats formed part of the food of the people.” On a lighter note Antonio’s description of Christmas at home was ‘plenty wine, all drunk, me drunk’.

Most of the refugees had returned home by late 1939 when the Second World War broke out but about 400 remained in Britain, including Emilio Aldecoa, who, while visiting friends, had played a game for Yarmouth against Eastern Coach Works in May, and the Gallego brothers. It is to their story that we now turn.

Tony & Jose GallegoTony and José Gallego

The Gallego brothers, José and Antonio ended up in a children’s home in Cambridge. The brothers became known as Tony and Joe, noting: ‘The English weren’t very good at pronouncing our names’, when Antonio was interviewed about his life in 2012 by Naomi Westland for Spanish Daily, El Pais.

He recalls his mother putting him and his brother Jose in an orphanage after their house was bombed. ‘Leaving Bilbao was a sad occasion. But things were so bad I think our mother was just pleased to get us out alive.’

They were reunited with their mother and their younger sisters in 1947. ‘My mother always begged us not to go into politics. Our dad was a socialist, very active, very strong minded,” says Gallego. For many years after he disappeared, the family didn’t know what had happened to him. ‘We only found out later that he had been killed at Gernika (sic) but we don’t know how and we never had a funeral for him. We never got his body. Things were too upside-down to do anything like that.’

He says football played a big part in helping the children – the boys at least – traumatized by the war, to settle into a new country and a new language. ‘It was all we thought about. As long as we had football, we were happy,’ he says. “Football meant everything to us; it was the only thing we knew about,” Antonio continued: “We got attached to Cambridge and made a lot of friends here through playing football. If it hadn’t been for football, we would have lived a very different life.” They joined Cambridge Town and were spotted by league clubs – José was the more skilful and played for Brentford, Southampton and Colchester United, before returning to Cambridge United.

Antonio was a goalkeeper (and at 5 feet 9 inches, not a tall one). He played one game for Norwich City in the 1946-47 season, the first full football programme after the wartime interruption. Norwich were in the Third Division South at the time and finished 21st out of 22 with 28 points, forcing them to apply for re-election to the league. Thankfully this was proposed by Mr Blenkinsop of Leeds United (we have something to thank them for) and the club were reprieved.

Home attendances that season fluctuated between 11,000 and 29,000 (against Port Vale) with Cardiff City away attracting 36,000 (they were champions on 66 points). We scored 64 goals, but conceded 100 and used 35 players. Canary Citizens credits Cyril Spiers, for bringing in young players and developing a youth policy; ‘but one is left with the impression that he did not handle his senior players too well.’

Tony Gallego in goal for Cambridge United FCTony in goal for Cambridge Utd

As for Antonio, he was signed from Cambridge Town on 12th March 1947 and played on March 15th against Bristol Rovers in front of more than 18,000 at Carrow Road. According to the match report it was an exciting 3-3 draw with City coming back from a 3-1 deficit at half time and ending Rovers’ five match winning sequence.

One match report noted that Antonio: ’shaped promisingly and showed no disinclination to come out when necessary. The occasion made a big demand on a player who had never appeared in anything higher than senior amateur ranks…. though he should have saved when the third goal was scored’. Another report said: ‘he did not set the Wensum on fire but he will develop with experience’ – at least it wasn’t a Michael Theoklitos experience (he conceded 5 before half-time in a 7-1 defeat against Colchester Utd, 2009).

Sadly, Antonio never played for City again and was probably released at the end of the season to return to regional amateur football. He and José played football into their fifties, living in Cambridge to the end of their lives.

José made a living reading meters for the Gas Board and Antonio was a sweets and cigarette salesman. Their football story is very different from that of footballers today but at Norwich we have our own refugee, Mario Vrancic whose family escaped from Bosnia and then Croatia, finding refuge in Germany in 1994.

In this story we see the power of football to bring people together and among the Basque boys, witnesses to horrific events and torn away from their parents at such a young age, the power to help them get by, to heal and to make new friends. We also see how Norfolk people took them to their hearts and showed them hospitality inviting them back to stay over the Christmas period.

I carried out this research for The Havens East Project:

Havens East is investigating the lost histories of child refugees who sought sanctuary in East Anglia during the Spanish Civil War. It aims to uncover the stories of the children, who were from the Basque region of northern Spain, and the local volunteers in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk who worked tirelessly to help them. Activities will take place across the region with specialist teams working with citizen researchers, local schools, refugee groups and heritage supporters, including Basque Children of 1937 Association (UK). As part of Football Welcomes Refugees (April 2020), the project will recreate an historic football fixture. The Basque Boys beat a local Great Yarmouth Boys XI 8-2 at the Wellesley Ground, Great Yarmouth on 21 October 1937, and then triumphed 9-0 in a rematch played on the same ground on Boxing Day 1937. Havens East is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and based at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

Sources and references:

A shorter version of this article can be found on the Along come Norwich website:

Coming soon:

Out now:

An excellent look at most of the research. Beautifully designed and highly accessible.

Firstly thanks to

Stuart Mclaren who found and made available all sorts of contemporary newspaper reports.

Dr Ed Packard, University of Suffolk who has huge expertise on the Basque boys and was more than happy to share some of it with me. – comentarios

Canary Citizens, Eastwood and Davage

EDP archive

Yarmouth Independent

Diss Express

The Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston

Festival des Nomades, M’hamid, Morocco April 2019

We started in Marrakech, staying in the medina. It still feels like another world – no cars, colour, hustle-bustle, mopeds, porters pushing barrows, butchers, bakers, clothes, carpets, knick-knacks. The jostle was intense at busy times in the narrow medieval streets, where only the tourists dawdle, window shopping with wide eyes as they lose themselves in the labyrinthine streets and retire with senses sated to quiet riads. People gather in the Djemma-el-Fnaa at sunset, the elegant minaret of the Koutoubia mosque guarding it nearby. As the light fades the drumming intensifies. People mill around – story tellers, juice stalls, tricksters, snake charmers, and food stalls. It’s not yet dominated by the many tourists – still a place where Moroccans stroll and enjoy.

Ten hours south east of Marrakech by bus lies M’hamid, a one horse town at the end of the road in the Draa valley. We stopped in Zagora, wandered the palm groves and visited the Mellah (Jewish quarter), deserted and derelict apart from a shop/museum where we watched silver jewelry being made using traditional designs. Next day we visited Tamegroute, a religious centre since the eleventh century, where there’s a famous religious school and a library with manuscripts dating to the tenth century. There were texts with superb and intricate abstract illustrations on biology, the history of Fez and a fourteenth century Koran with beautiful calligraphy in Sufic script. I was shocked to see biro notes on at least two of the ancient scripts, preserved for so long by the dry climate. We also found the potteries around the mud-baked houses of the old part of town.DSC_1564Tamegroute

By chance we met Allal who kindly gave us a ride to M’hamid by the scenic route, flanked by low mountains and to the west, Algeria only 25 miles away, separated from Morocco by a ditch and the countries’ respective armies. The land borders have been shut since 1994, the traditional routes of nomads disrupted by geo-politics.

We settled in our cheap and cheerful hotel, run by the ever helpful Yaya who took us across the dry river bed of the Draa to see the opening ceremony of the 2019 Festival des Nomades. It took place in the fanciest hotel in town, the Spanish owned Hotel Kasbah Azalay where an array of people circulated and bought drinks. Eventually in a mini piece of classic desert in its grounds the opening ceremony took place. And so, in a desert cliché (and why not?). A man sat on the sand with a mint tea pot, camels and their minders, splendidly garbed in their best flowing robes and turbans formed a backdrop under the palms and sand to some ‘taster’ performances from Oulad M’hamid, a local ‘desert blues’ band and Hasna El Becharia one of the very few women to play the guembre (a 3 string bass) and lead a gnaoua band. The music was excellent and got underway after some speeches by the local establishment who watched from chairs. Then back to the main entrance where giant puppets appeared and people talked. A superb band from Burkina Fasso, the Benkadi trio wowed us with their drumming, dancing and marimba playing.DSC_1628

The festival was a three day event (and free) with 4 bands a night starting at 8pm outside the local sport centre where a stage had been erected. In a dusty space on the edge of town, L’espace moussem, there were a few nomad tents and some ‘traditional’ activities during the day. It was strange that nowhere in town (across the river from the luxury hotel) was there a stall or tent giving out information about the festival and even Yaya didn’t know what was happening and when. He said that the Taragalte festival which takes place at the end of October and happens in dunes about 5 miles from M’hamid involves the local people more – it also charges Europeans and offers a package where you can stay at the site.

We duly turned up at the stage at eight o clock and ate from one of the numerous food stands, and waited until about 9.45 before the music started. The young men in the town wore their finest colourful robes and stylish turbans. The women tended to stay near the back often with children showing only their eyes. The four bands produced joyous performances. Oumad M’hamid played desert blues rock and had everyone dancing. The Benkadi trio were my highlight with energetic dancing and a very pure sound from their marimbas and finally Nabil Otami – more desert blues, though blues felt like a wrong description for their joyous sound which had everyone dancing and the town’s teenage boys boisterously letting off steam. The music on the last 2 days never quite reached these heights.DSC_1930

We watched and listened to all the music over the three nights and although it was always interesting and sometimes superb it didn’t have the consistency of the first night. But certain bands stood out: Hasna El Becharia from Algeria, Ballet Liziba from The Congo, a percussion and dance quartet who really got the crowd going after what seemed like initial scepticism. The strangest act was the finale with Nouamane Lahlou, a contemporary Moroccan singer with a small orchestra to back him. His act felt a like a Fast Show spoof – he had a good voice, a fixed smile with very white teeth and there was a backing film of dancing girls on top of a Kasbah, cut with him playing the oud, back to women letting herbs and spices slip through their hands, cut to camels trekking the desert sands as the sun set, cut to his flashing smile and so on. I don’t think we were the only ones quietly chuckling. He had followed an interminable thanking of sponsors and local worthies who had taken a bow to the general indifference of the audience.

We visited L’espace moussem in time to see the fantasia – horsemen carried ancient blunderbusses and charged up and down a dusty stretch and discharged them in unison creating a mighty sound. Later men on camels galloped up and down with turban bedecked riders and a gnaoua band sang.DSC_2026

M’hamid is a dusty place when the desert wind blew up on the first two or three days in the afternoon, almost blotting out the sun. It continued blowing into the night. The scarf/turbans are the perfect headgear for keeping the dirt and dust out – we failed to cut the same dash as the locals with our attempts to wear them. M’hamid is not the most attractive town and has no beautiful squares or plazas, its main street coming to an end with a view of the desert. It is also a prime base for desert tourism with various companies offering trips out. Its people are curious, welcoming and friendly.

With the festival over we visited Erg Chigaga the biggest area of desert dunes in Morocco, travelling past sparsely planted tamarisk trees and herds of camels, through reddy, brown terrain with the outline of mountains on either side of us to the east and west, the Algerian border close by. As we approached the dunes there was a small oasis called Doum Laalag…it was walled and shut, a holy site which had been the last gathering place for the caravans carrying salt and other goods to Timbuktu (52 days away according to the souvenirs in Tamegroute and Zagora). It wasn’t clear why, or when it had been walled and Yaya said that the nomads didn’t like walls, implying that it had been recent. We stopped at a part of the dunes, equipped for tourism with Bedouin tents to sleep in and food and comforts laid on. As we returned the sun set and the huge shadows of the tamarisk trees spread further and further. We crossed the Draa, a toenail moon low in the sky and the constellations shone bright.DSC_2316

On Monday we had a great journey back to Marrakech. It started early and in 10 hours and 600km we passed through ochre desert and low mountains along the Draa, dotted with ancient Kasbahs and a sprinkling of date palms. Then we climbed up to the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains and down to the plain and the noisy hubbub of Marrakech.  Click on the photos below and they will  fill the screen on a carousel.

Norfolk Medieval Angels. 2 in wood and stone.

There are innumerable angels in Norfolk’s medieval churches. The county is known for its angel roofs, mainly carved between 1400 and 1520. They can be easily missed if you don’t look up. There are also angels carved in doorways, on fonts and bench ends. I have used both black and white and colour and sometimes left the same photo there in both. Sometimes the angels portray images of Christ’s passion (as at West Walton and Kings Lynn, St Nicholas). There is a selection below. For more information and superb photos of angel roofs see also Michael Rimmer’s superb book, Angel Roofs of East Anglia: For more on Norfolk carving see


Norfolk medieval angels. 1 stained glass

I have been taking photos of Norfolk’s medieval angels over the past three years and thought it was time to share them online. There are other categories to come (wood and carved stone and painted – on wood or walls). Sometimes they are portrayed as celestial musicians; there are a few annunciations and even a devil (after all, a fallen angel) as in the case of St John the Divine.

A huge amount of medieval stained glass was lost in the protestant iconoclasm (particularly in the reign of Edward vi and later during the English civil war). Often the glass has been collected together and repositioned in the church centuries later. I have isolated most of the angels although the Mancroft angels are a part of scenes from the gospels. Most of them were created in Norfolk although one or two (like Denton, I think) came from elsewhere. Some are dirty and need repair work, others are beautiful and expressive.

Norwich was a major stained glass making centre from at least the thirteenth century and often the angels were designed to fit into the pointed arches of traceried windows. Some think that the feathered angels derived from medieval mystery plays. Guilds of performers travelled the country with pageant carts enacting various biblical dramas. The angels were portrayed in suits, covered with feathers. Stained glass making took off in Norfolk and especially Norwich in the fifteenth century with newly rich wool merchants commissioning much of the work. You can sometimes see depictions of the donors in the windows (though not included in this selection of angels).

A good website for English and French medieval stained glass is The Rose Window which gives brief explanations and photos. There is an English county index with many Norfolk churches listed, including many of my photos:

For Norfolk stained glass both ancient and modern see:

Click on one of the photos -it will fill the screen and you can see the rest full size on the carousel:

Norwich weaving 1750 -1900

Norwich’s Over-the-Water district was once the centre of the weaving industry. Between 1650 and 1750, most weavers’ premises were concentrated there. Right up to the end of the nineteenth century, trade directories named 44 weavers and manufacturers in the Magdalen Street area and there were undoubtedly many more.

In the second half of the sixteenth century Low Country weavers (The Strangers) came to Norwich and revitalized weaving. They introduced what were called the New Draperies. These developed into distinctive worsted textiles in the seventeenth century, known as the Norwich Stuffs. Introducing the drawloom, the Strangers designed colourful and very varied fabrics, with flower patterns, checks and shaded stripes for a middle class market of minor gentry and merchants. Although creating mainly worsted cloth, many used other yarns, including mohair, silk, and linen. Their designs and skills were adapted quickly by local weavers.

A strength of the specialist trade was the ability of the master weavers to diversify fabrics in line with changing tastes. By the end of the seventeenth century, Norwich was the centre for ‘half-silks’ (a mixture of silk and worsted). By 1750 Norwich weavers produced a huge diversity of texture, weave and pattern using worsted yarns of very high quality, dyed in a range of bright colours. These fabrics had a variety of exotic names: tapizadoes, taboretts, camblets and callimancoes. Later, in the nineteenth century, Norwich also became known for mourning fabrics – Norwich crepes and bombazines and renowned at home and abroad, the Norwich shawl.

DSC_2994A page from an order book from the 1760s (photo P.Harley. Courtesy Norwich Museum Service)

Structure of the business:

Historically, Norwich was a city of small and medium-sized businesses, each one an independent, self-financing, family based operation with only a few looms. Typically the owner was a master weaver who would keep an eye on all aspects of manufacture and who would find a buyer for the goods himself. In the 1750s this pattern changed. Capital had accumulated as the trade expanded, especially in exports; firms merged and became larger and fewer.

The manufacturer’s residence was the hub of the operation. It was usually a handsome house with a counting house, packing rooms warehouses and a hot- pressing shop to the rear. In a skilled process, the hot-press was applied to some products to give the cloth a high gloss. The cloth was pressed by a screw press, which compressed cardboard with gum Arabic and the cloth underneath. The smooth glaze was fashionable. This process also concealed flaws in the weaving. Spinning, weaving and dyeing generally took place in people’s homes. The manufacturer could employ as many as 300-400 weavers who were paid piece rates and worked at home. Obviously, this took a lot of organization.

The long, fine, white worsted weaving wool came mainly from Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, with some coming from the Yare valley. For eight months of the year, following the first shearing in March, buyers bought up the wool clip and sent it by packhorse and canal to Boston where it was shipped to Kings Lynn and Great Yarmouth.

First it went to the woolcombers who pulled heated iron combs through it to smooth away the tangles, a skilled job, though hot and dirty. The spinners received the combed wool next and carts dropped it off within a rough radius of 20 miles of Norwich. Spinning tended to be part-time and done at home on a distaff and spindle (rather than a wheel which produced a thicker thread).

The only record of the dyeing process is from Sharps London Magazine March 1847: ‘The dye house is at least 150 feet long, under one roof, streams of liquid dye which discharge from the numerous vats are constantly pouring along and in the centre of the floor – woolen yarns, scour in ammonia and soap spun silks toss in boiling water. Loops of yarn hang dripping from dyers pins and are dipt in vats and boilers. The vats are cast iron, 6 and a 1/2 feet deep.’ Think of the stench and river pollution.

Norwich Red’- (first mentioned in 1759 in the obituary of Ben Elder in the Norwich Mercury) became famous. Michael Stark, a Scotsman, living in the city, was a noted chemist who succeeded in producing a very fine scarlet, which dyed both wool and silk the same colour, something that hadn’t been achieved before. Edinburgh manufacturers sent silk to be dyed crimson or red, south to Norwich which became for a time the main supplier of tartans to the Scottish regiments.

DSC_3011aRed damask (described as a ‘sattin’) madder dyed (photo P.Harley. Courtesy Norwich Museum Service)

A weaver then wove the cloth before it was sold on to the merchant. In most cases the weaver was a journeyman who had completed his apprenticeship (usually started at 11 or 12) but could not find the money to set up his own business (or didn’t have the ambition or inclination to set up as a master). For much of the eighteenth century the terms weaver and manufacturer were interchangeable. By the nineteenth century manufacturer seems to apply to the employers of the weavers. The process of setting up the loom for the increasingly complex patterns was of utmost importance and it is probable that in most cases it was done by master weavers.

Manufacturers/employers needed houses or warehouses large enough to store yarn, possibly with a space for a designer. Fringers and sewers could work from home or in a part of the warehouse. Last of all was the hot presser who gave the cloth a stiff glaze.


The eighteenth century was the ‘golden age’ of Norwich weaving. It brought wealth to many of the master-weavers like the Ives and the Harvey families who built some of the fine houses on Colegate. Jeremiah Ives later moved out of the city to Catton Hall.

The export of ‘Norwich stuffs’ grew rapidly. The cheaper stuffs (which were often glazed by the hot-press) were popular in central and northern Germany and the Baltic in the ‘peasant’ market (what we might think of as folk costume today). In the 1760s the trade expanded to Poland and Russia where callimancoes became popular among Tartar and Siberian tribes. In Italy lighter cloths sold well and there was a growing market in Spain and Portugal, where some were exported to Mexico, the West Indies and the Americas. There were also regular orders from the East India Company for camblets in India and the Far East. Much of the export industry was conducted from London, four days away along the ‘good’ turnpike road.

DSC_3010aStriped calamanco 1760s (photo P.Harley. Courtesy Norwich Museum Service)

In the 1760s some Master weavers wanted to cut out the profits made in London (and also the occasional bottlenecks which affected the industry in Norwich) and they began to contact foreign firms directly. William Taylor, a German scholar, writer and visitor to the city says ‘their travellers penetrated through Europe and their pattern books were exhibited in every principal town from the frozen plains of Moscow to the milder climes of Lisbon, Seville, and Naples…The great fairs of Frankfort, Leipsic (sic), and of Salerno, were thronged with the purchasers of these (Norwich) commodities’. The Masters of Norwich travelled abroad and foreign buyers visited the city. The elegant houses of this increasingly sophisticated class can be seen in Colegate, St Giles, and their beneficence can be seen in the construction of the Octagon Chapel, created from textile riches.

Threats to Norwich Industry:

Foreign wars in 1760s and 70s brought setbacks and an end to growth. In 1762 the Spanish trade was disrupted by war with Spain, and because the London warehouses had stockpiled Norwich stuffs there were cutbacks in production in Norwich, lay-offs and unemployment. The American War of Independence (1775-83) caused a lot of damage to the industry.

At home there was an increasing threat from cotton production in Lancashire, cotton goods being cheaper, readily available and easily washed (unlike the glazed Norwich stuffs).

Another threat was from the West Riding of Yorkshire where a northern worsted trade was rapidly developing (producing coarser and simpler stuffs) exporting from Hull. Towards the end of the century Halifax in particular started copying good quality versions of Norwich’s bombazines, camblets and damasks and tempted some Norwich weavers north to help in their development.

Trade picked up at the end of the American War and huge orders from the East India Company followed. Legend has it that happy weavers flaunted their riches with £5 notes in their hat-bands (reminding me of Ipswich supporters waving £20 notes at Norwich fans after Marcus Evans purchased the club).

The revolutionary wars with France (1793-1815) and the Continental Blockade put an end to trade with Europe. Foreign trade was maintained through exports to Asia and the Far East through the East India Company, which ordered between 16,000 and 24,000 camblets annually between 1800 and 1815. When the East India Company lost its monopoly in 1813, exporters started using the cheaper Yorkshire camblets. Meanwhile the highly specialised Norwich shawl, sold mainly in the home market, helped to alleviate some of the effects of the downturns in trade.

Industrialisation and mechanisation.

Norwich’s distance from the coalfields and all the technical innovation that was going on around them, put the city at a disadvantage. The invention of the throstle, for the mechanical spinning of worsted completely by-passed Norwich, East Anglia and Ireland, which sent a lot of yarn to Norwich. Machine spun yarn was far more consistent in quality than hand spun. After 1819, Norwich manufacturers turned to Yorkshire for yarn and the local spinning industry, employing 20,000 women and girls of the city and surrounding countryside, collapsed within 5 years.

 There was no attempt to manufacture machine spun yarn in the city until 1834 when the Albion Mill (still standing and now converted to apartments) was built on King Street. It was followed by the St James factory at Whitefriars (The Norwich Yarn Company), which had steam power and six floors to rent to producers who supplied their own machinery. But it was already too late.

Norwich also missed out on the development of the power loom after 1825, and the weavers lost the production of many plain worsteds to Yorkshire in the 1820s and 30s. Further developments in mechanisation in the 1840s and 50s were centred on Bradford but were not taken up in Norwich.

DSC_2999aPattern book detail, late eighteenth century (photo P.Harley. Courtesy Norwich Museum Service)

From the 1820s the textile trade in Norwich became increasingly specialised (mainly shawls and bombazines – see below) but even here there was fierce competition from Paisley and abroad. Of 850,000 spindles and 32,600 power looms at work in 1850, Norfolk possessed 19,216 and 428 respectively. Hand weaving could not compete with the cheaper mass-produced products in cotton and wool from Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Reaction of the weavers

The Norwich weavers resisted mechanization. They were a close-knit community and the workers had a well-earned reputation for organized rioting and violence to combat changes that affected their livelihood.

In 1790 (just before the French wars), when trade was booming, wage rates were fixed by agreement with employers and posted up in workplaces. This arrangement remained in force for some years and was firmly insisted on by the Weavers’ Committee, whatever the conditions of trade. When trade took a massive downturn during the French wars, any suggestion that wages should drop during difficult economic times was resisted by strikes and violent threats – another reason for the employers’ reluctance to introduce machinery.

The Norwich industry went through a protracted depression from 1825-37. By the 1830s most commentators reckoned that the average weaver was likely to be out of work for about 3 months a year. There were constant attempts to cut wages in line with severe price falls. 1828-1829 were particularly bad years when two bombazine manufacturers went bust, including the Martineaus. Selective wage reductions were broached and backed by the Court of Guardians. The weavers finally marched on the house of the chairman of the court, broke his windows and pulled down his gate. The 7th Dragoon Guards were called in to suppress the riot. And a wage reduction of 20% was put in place.

In 1830 John Wright, described in the local press as ‘one of the most considerable master manufacturers’ had vitriol thrown in his face as he arrived home. Four years earlier, weavers had attacked his house and destroyed yarn which he was sending to the countryside (for weaving at a cheaper rate). By 1838 Wymondham, a small town, 10 miles from Norwich, had 300 looms operated at cheaper prices than Norwich. There were many other instances of intimidation. Some of the master weavers left the industry – the Gurneys went into banking and the Pattesons into brewing.

The 1838 reports of the Assistant Commissioner on Hand Loom Weavers gives an insight into the sorry state of many hand-loom weavers and the industry as a whole (and not just in East Anglia).  The manufacturers laid the blame for failure to mechanise on the weavers as did the commissioner, Dr Mitchell.

But the weavers very way of life had been challenged by the constant underemployment, declining piece rates and the threat of the power loom. The 1838 report also showed how things were changing. There were fewer looms and more than a quarter were operated by women at cheaper rates. There were still 3398 looms worked in homes and 656 in factories. There were 8 textile factories employing 1,285 people using 151 steam horsepower.

These changes in the weaving industry were exacerbated by wider changes. In Norfolk, the mechanisation of agriculture displaced labour and many workers migrated to the city seeking work at almost any wage. The population of the city rose from 37,000 in 1801 to 68,000 in 1852. Living conditions were dreadful for many workers.

Developments in Norwich weaving in the nineteenth century

Developments in the early nineteenth century kept the industry afloat, in particular the Norwich shawl. Fashionable shawls were very expensive imports from Kashmir, using soft and silky wool from the Tibetan goat. Manufacturers in Norwich tried to make a similar item, only cheaper.

In 1792 Alderman John Harvey of Colegate, with P.J.Knights succeeded in weaving a seamless 12 foot wide shawl on a silk warp called a fillover shawl, because it was embroidered or filled in by women and children. By 1802 it was possible to weave the design on the loom rather than embroider it by hand. Shawls woven on the fillover loom could fetch prices from 12 to 20 guineas with the most complex designs and the finest weaving fetching 50 guineas (a guinea is £1.05p). A weaver, working at home in 1850 might be earning 45p a week, working in summer a sixteen hour day and in winter a fourteen and a half hour day.

A further development was the Jacquard loom (which was far too big for most weavers’ homes). This cut down on labour as it used punched cards instead of the nimble fingers of a draw boy. The first one used in Norwich was probably in 1829 or 1830 by Willett and Nephew.

Some of the shawls had designs printed on them (usually making them cheaper). The ones printed on leno or muslim were worn with light summer dresses. The shawls became renowned worldwide for their superb design, quality and workmanship, and sold for high prices, earning good wages when trade was good.

By the late 1840s and 50s there were at least 28 manufacturers making shawls of different types in the city. The order book of E&F Hinde in 1849 gives some indication of numbers: 26 types of shawl and 39,000 orders for the year. The Arab (either in Low, High or Superior) appears to be a semi-circular shawl with a mock hood and tassel on the straight side.

Shawl production was at its height in the 1850s. In the 1860s and 70s the firm of Clabburn, Son & Crisp created what were considered to be some of the finest of Norwich shawls made entirely of silk. The designs were flowing and have a strong feeling of Art Nouveau. Many shawls were things of beauty which carried off prizes at international exhibitions and had a reputation for quality. However, they were subject to the vagaries of fashion and competition especially from Paisley printed shawls which were cheaper and machine made. By 1870 shawls were no longer in vogue and there were only nine firms making them, in contrast to the thirty- four recorded in the 1790s.

Alongside shawls, other businesses sprang up making crepes and bombazines (for mourning). Bombazine was a silk and worsted mix made in a twill weave to give densely black appearance. Gauzes were made from pure silk. The first was invented by Mr Francis (of Calvert Street) in 1819 and christened Norwich crepe. It was of a silk and wool mix but highly coloured and finished to look like satin. Mourning clothes provided a relatively steady market in contrast to the vagaries of the fashion trade in coloured stuffs.

In 1822 Joseph Grout (first noted 1807, Paterson Yard, Magdalen Street) introduced the modern Norwich crepe (sometimes spelt crape, as in the Norwich Crape Factory established in St Augustine’s by Henry Willet and John Sultzer). Crepe was designed specifically for mourning, and made from twisted silk yarn, woven into a fine gauze, dyed black, stiffened with shellac and embossed with patterns by means of a special and at first secret crimping machine. It was the ‘quintessential expression of Victorian grief’ and made in enormous quantities. Widows were expected to wear full mourning dress for two years and there were various stipulations for family members depending on the relationship to the deceased. Grout’s business developed and  was probably helped by Queen Victoria’s patronage. Thhe Company expanded to works in New Mills, Lower Westwick Street, warehouses in London and production around East Anglia (Great Yarmouth and North Walsham in Norfolk). It was said to be the largest of its kind in the country. He also used steam power in his mills. The Norwich Crape Company closed in the 1920s, finally hit by the decline in mourning ritual.

DSC_3002aGlazed damask from a pattern book

The weaving trade had revived by 1850, but was much reduced from its former glory and by the 1870s shawls went out of fashion. In 1875, The National Mourning Reform Association was set up to campaign for ‘moderation’ and ‘simplicity’ instead of ‘unnecessary show’ in mourning attire. The skills of the Norwich weavers were overtaken by the whims of fashion and mass-production. A mark of the decline is that in 1851 almost 33% of the workforce (both men and women) was employed in the textile trade. By 1901 it was less than 7%. Many weavers had gone into the rapidly developing leather and shoe industry.


Norwich in the Nineteenth Century. Editor Christopher Barringer. Gliddon Books, 1984

The Norwich Shawl. Clabburn P. HMSO 1995Norwich, City of Industries. Williams N, Norwich Heart 2013

Museums information sheet. The Norwich Shawl by Pamela Clabburn, 1975

Norwich since 1550. ed Rawcliffe and Wilson (Hambledon and London)

The Fabric of Stuffs. Ursula Priestley. Centre for East Anglian Studies, 1990

Why this research? Firstly my interest in textiles and local history (the research was mainly from the secondary sources mentioned above) and secondly to help inform the script and songs of a forthcoming production by The Common Lot – Anglia Square A Love Story which was performed in July 2019 in the streets of Norwich and Anglia Square – more information on the sites below.

Thanks to Barbara McKeown for ironing out my English and spotting various errors.

Thanks to Ruth Battersby Tooke of the Norwich Museum Service and the Norwich Castle Study Centre study centre for showing me some of the textile collection and allowing me to photograph some of it for this article.

Do visit The Museum of Norwich which has a surviving Jacquard loom, pattern books from the eighteenth century and a skirt made from Norwich cloth. The Castle Museum has Norwich shawls in its Design for Living section.

The photos in the gallery below were taken by me and are mainly of late eighteenth century textiles and pattern books.





Uzbekistan: some history, thoughts and photos from a two-week visit

Uzbekistan was an important stage of the silk road between China and the Mediterranean, a route that carried much more than silk. It served as conduit for not only the technologies, which created amongst other things gunpowder, glass and paper, but also the slaves that fuelled the route’s economies and the ideas that shrank the globe. Its importance declined only after the great European voyages of discovery opened up sea routes for worldwide trade. DSC_8537For years Central Asia was a cauldron of terror. Nomadic tribes swept through its deserts and steppes striking fear. The legendary Alexander the Great took Samarkand in 329 BCE. The Arabs arrived to impose Islam in the eighth century. Ghengis Khan’s Mongol hoards and their Turkic auxiliaries rampaged through in the thirteenth century to establish an empire that stretched from Poland to the China Sea. In their heartland of Central Asia, they established peace and commercial recovery.

Tamerlaine (as he is known in the West) was the last of the great conquerors. Born 50 miles from Samarkand in 1336, he became known as Timur-i-Leng or Timur the lame after his right arm and leg were maimed by arrows. By his mid 30s he had established his capital at Samarkand from where he planned his campaigns to conquer the world. His butchery surpassed even the Mongols who are estimated to have killed 3 million people in their campaigns. For Timur the figure is 15 million. He overran Persia and the Caucasus and laid waste Bagdhad, killing 90,000 there. He reached as far west as Ankara, having conquered Damascus and Aleppo and left 5 million dead in his wake on his march east to Delhi. He brought back to his beloved Samarkand priceless gold and jewels along with the best mathematicians, musicians and scholars. The world’s finest craftsmen and artists built the largest and most beautifully adorned monuments, mosques, mausolea, and madrasas.

After Timur’s death on a campaign to conquer China in 1405, the Timurid state began to fragment. His grandson, Ulug Beg, who became governor of Samarkand at the age of 16, was a weak ruler, but one of the world’s great astronomers. He built mosques covered in star designs, created a madrasa on Registan Square and an observatory with the largest quadrant in the world. Here he compiled a famous star catalogue, plotting the coordinates of over 1000 stars. He was murdered by his son on his way to Mecca. DSC_9241By 1510 the Shaybanid (Uzbek) overlords of Central Asia had established Khanates in Bukhara and Khiva, though their wealth, like the silk road was in decline.

The most recent invaders were the Russians, though throughout the nineteenth century, the British, worrying about threats to India, competed for influence in what became known as the Great Game. By 1917 Russian interests dominated and following the revolution were ruthlessly imposed by the new Communist government. The current national borders were drawn up by Stalin.

In 1991 Uzbekistan became independent following the attempted coup against the Gorbachev government in Moscow. The country’s new president, former communist leader Karimov, dissolved the Communist party, and created the People’s Democratic Party. To help forge a national identity, he reinvented Timur as the father of the nation. A tightly-controlled form of Islam was revived.  Imams were carefully chosen and no one is allowed to study in the two state-controlled madrasas until they are over 20.  Afghanistan borders the country, Iran is nearby and there were bombs in Tashkent in 1999 and Bukhara in 2004.

The economy was tied to Russia but could not depend on it for subsidies. Cotton had lost its assured market and university students were compelled to help get the harvest in or lose their degrees (this continues today see HRW report: Cotton had already caused what some think is the world’s worst environmental disaster. The Aral Sea has almost dried up since the USSR channelled so much water from the two main rivers feeding it to produce cotton.

Karimov and his successor promoted private enterprise, but the state still  dominated the economy. Why was Timur promoted as national hero and not  Ulug Beg? Autocracy remains. Timur had intellectual curiosity despite being more savage than Ghengis Khan and barbarism remains a political tactic today (see Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports), but judging from the number of new brides having their photos taken in front of the many huge statues of Timur, it appears to work. The new president, Shavkat Merziyoyev  succeeded on Karimov’s death. He is keen to promote tourism and you can now get an e-visa within 48 hours. The currency floats freely and there is no black market. The infrastructure is in place with high-speed trains from Tashkent to Samarkand. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a weekly budget flight there from the UK in the next year or two. DSC_9398

My impressions of our tour. 

This was my first guided tour group holiday and despite its limitations I really enjoyed it. We were with a good group of people. Our guide, Ilhom, was excellent. He spoke great English and was very knowledgeable. We covered innumerable historic sites which we later dubbed the 4Ms – mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and museums which he explained and patiently answered our questions. I could not have covered as much ground and learnt as much about the history in 2 weeks doing it independently.

After a day in Tashkent we flew to Urgench, about 700 miles west and started our tour in Khiva, an ancient desert Silk Road town. Urgench was strange. The road from the airport was full of new buildings, but it was unclear what they were for and they didn’t appear to be used. I wondered what was behind them. This seemed to repeat itself on the main road into Bukhara too and also in parts of Tashkent – large new buildings with very little happening in them. There is an element of over-employment in Uzbekistan, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In 14 days there I came across only 3 beggars and saw no signs of homelessness. It may be that I would have seen more obvious poverty had I been traveling independently or gone into some of the villages where we had seen cotton being picked by hand in fields along the roadside. DSC_8524We only had a day in Khiva. Had I not been on a tour I would like to have stayed longer and explored the outer area of this town more. As it is, the inner city, Ichan Kala, wrapped in a mud wall since the 5th century, has the status of a museum city and only about 2000 Khivans live inside it. Some of it is restored, mainly by the Soviets (this is also the case in Bukhara and Samarkand). I really enjoyed wandering around here. We saw the emir’s palace and the Friday mosque and I really liked the ceramic work decorating these buildings, all on a very human scale. DSC_8661.jpgThe drive to Bukhara is about 330 miles and some of the road is very poor. We traveled by coach through the Kara Kum desert, north of the Oxus river (Amu Darya). It forms the boundary with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. A large area of the desert around Urgench is irrigated and cotton grown. The Oxus has a very wide channel, but very little water. This is partly explained by the time of year (November) but also because so much water has been chanelled out of it for the irrigation of cotton, a particularly thirsty crop. In April with snow melt from the Pamirs it apparently looks much fuller.  DSC_8705

Ilhom also pointed out some new housing which he said was to be given to families who adopted children. It would come with a small amount of land.

Bukhara has been occupied for two and a half millennia. Its height was arguably in the tenth century when the Samanids ruled and it was a centre of the Persian renaissance and Islamic science. It had a population of 300,000 and the most famous library of the Islamic world. The intellectual stars of the age gathered there. In 1220 the Mongols razed the city sparing only the Kalon minaret, constructed in 1127 and 48 metres tall. This Islamic exclamation mark provided a view of the desert and a look out point in times of war. During the nineteenth century the decadent emirs used the minaret as a place of execution. On market days crowds gathered to see criminals tied in sacks and thrown from the top.DSC_8847The Kalon minaret and mosque front

Bukhara’s second golden age started in the sixteenth century under the Shaybanids who built most of the 200 mosques and madrasas. Their turquoise domes punctuate the sky. Despite Bukhara’s many mosques, I only heard one call to prayer in 14 days. I never discovered why. Ilhon explained it, telling us of the influence of the Naqshbandi Sufi sect whose prayer is silent. We visited their shrine a few miles out of the city. Here women who wanted children until recently crawled under the trunk of a fallen mulberry tree – it is now fenced off, but many pilgrims were here dressed in their Sunday best. Again, I could have done with more time in Bukhara to do a bit of aimless wandering around the old medieval backstreets. DSC_8888The mausoleum of Ismael Samani (10th century, Bukhara)

Samarkand – Mirror of the World, Garden of the Soul, Jewel of Islam etc…. where the Timurid buildings are truly monumental. It is probably most famous for the Registan Square, described by George Curzon as ‘even in its ruin, the noblest public square in the world’. It has now all been thoroughly restored.DSC_9182Registan Square

On the west side is the Ulug Beg madrasa (15th century) adorned with stars on its 35 metre portal and mosaic and majolica tiles all over its façade. Opposite is the Shor Dir madrasa built a century later matching Ulug Beg’s in its dimensions, and enclosing the square is the Tillya Kari madrasa forming a huge, harmonious public space. The Soviets revived the decaying square by using it for political rallies, veil burnings and trials of counter revolutionaries. They also restored its crumbling tiles, rebuilt its domes and straightened its minarets (though to ill-effect as many still lean outwards). And yet it is all a façade – inside these former madrasas are small shops geared to tourism.

There is almost too much to mention in Samarkand, from the beautiful Sogdian wall paintings in the museum, dating to the 7th century CE to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis complex, beautiful, still a holy site and more intimate than the rest of Samarkand’s buildings.  Timur’s mausoleum, the Gur Emir, is another impressive site – he lies buried under an inner dome dripping with gold, with what used to be the biggest carved slab of jade on top of him. Outside below the huge blue outer dome we are informed that ‘God is Great’ in 3 metre high Kufic script. DSC_9174.jpgThe dome of Timur’s tomb

Finally, we reached the Bibi Khanum mosque which soared 35 metres around an 18 metre arch, flanked by 50 metre minarets with magnificent ornamentation. When he returned from one of his campaigns Timur ordered the portal to be rebuilt – it wasn’t big enough. Unfortunately, the rebuild was hurried and soon after its opening cracks appeared and worshipers dodged falling masonry. Earthquakes hastened its decline. In 1974 the Soviets rebuilt it and its three enormous domes have been tiled – turquoise-blue on yellow brick – the contrast between earth and sky. It lies next to a noisy and exhilarating bazaar. I think I was mosqued out by this point, magnificent though it is.DSC_9299 Bibi Khamun

In Shakrisabz, Timur’s birthplace we saw several brides posing by a huge statue of the man. We reached Tashkent by high speed train and travelled on its famed metro, rather let down by its poor lighting. Here we met a man, keen that we should find what we were looking for. He was a law student with a poor grasp of English (though better than our three or four words of Uzbek). We ended up in a canteen and ate food with him. I was astonished when he paid for 3 of us, utterly insistent that we should pay nothing. I had travelled a lot in Morocco (a country I really like) and had suspected that he might be after a tip for guiding us. It was one of a few encounters with ‘ordinary’ Uzbeks where people tried to help or were simply curious and friendly expecting nothing in return. If mass tourism arrives let’s hope it won’t change. DSC_9623Tashkent is very much a Soviet city, rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake with wide three lane dual carriage way roads, large parks and huge government buildings. Inevitably, a large statue of Timur had replaced Lenin. I never felt that I got my orientation  here but enjoyed our trip through the lively Chorsu bazaar and a long morning walk searching for a photography museum which we eventually found. DSC_9581The last part of our tour took us to the Fergana valley, through the Kamchik pass  (2,268 metres), from Tashkent, surrounded by mountains lightly sprinkled with the first snows of the winter. The most direct route would have been through Tajikistan, such is the strangeness of Stalin’s borders. We visited a silk factory in Margilon, and visited the amazing Sunday bazaar at Kumtepa which sold everything from hats and coats to animals. DSC_9968

It was a really enjoyable, interesting trip to a remote country of legendary cities. Some argue that their ancient buildings have been over-restored.  Early in the trip I was asking myself what is original here? That thought went away after about three days, perhaps because I was seeing so much, so quickly. I did wonder about the fact that so many of these buildings are no longer used for their original purpose (like many of Norwich’s medieval churches) and are now essentially museums with tourist stalls inside them – mere shells awaiting an invasion of tourists, but nonetheless amazing structures where local arts and crafts had been revived to refurbish them. They are an important part world history and heritage. The Silk Road is being revived too. Goods trains now cross from China to Europe and there are further plans to build new railway lines from Kashgar in China across the Karakoram into Pakistan, with additional links to Uzbekistan through the Pamirs.