Friday November 18, 2005
[This is part of a ‘travelogue’ project’. To see an individual picture in the text, click on it for a larger version.]
Sometime around 800 AD, Spillir the Dane, tiring of rape and pillage as a way of life, led his long boats up a river over the Lincolnshire marshes until he reached firm ground, weighed anchor, and said something along the lines of “This is it, boys. Make yourselves at home.” He established a settlement, known in Viking-speak as a ‘by’, which was later joined with his name to form ‘Spilsby’, and my present home town was born. Leastways, that’s the way popular history would have it.
Whatever the actuality, I motored into the town for the first time some 1200 years later, like good old Spillir in pursuit of a place to live, and fell in love with the place. It’s not a grand town. It’s rather a plain little town. But it’s awfully easy to love in spite of the streets crowded with far too many parked cars and the run-down appearance of many of the buildings. The thing is, you see, it’s a living town. Spillir started it and it goes on in its own sweet way, adapting and changing but still, at heart, a good place to weigh anchor and settle down after a busy life. Or just to stay a while. The locals are friendly, and will always budge over a little to make room. They’ve been doing that for an awful long time.
Ordinarily, I seldom make much effort to photograph my home town. It’s a ‘tomorrow’ activity, you see, always being put off for better conditions, not too hot, not too cold, not raining, not too busy… And the months go by until you find you’ve stopped seeing it as anything other than a nice, comfortable place to visit for local shopping. Today I decided to put an end to all that so I grabbed my camera and went off to Spilsby, aiming to produce a small photograph album to record what is presently my home town against the time when we move back to Somerset. I dug around in my archives, too, to find a few photographs I’ve taken since moving here.
First thing you notice as you drive into the town in search of a place to park is the larger than life statue of Sir John Franklin in the market square. He is Spilsby’s most famous son, born in 1786 in the house just a few steps down the road that now holds the bakers. He was an adventurous lad, too much so to be contained in a small town, so he took himself off to join the Royal Navy when he was only fourteen years of age. He fought in two major sea battles, Copenhagen in 1801 and Trafalgar in 1805, was decorated, and knighted, and went on to become the governor of Tasmania. That done, still restless, he embarked on a new career as discoverer, exploring the Arctic, and died there in pursuit of the North West Passage.
Shouldn’t be cynical, I know that, but I think it a little unfair on good old Spillir that the only statue in the town is of a bloke who couldn’t wait to get away from the place. I’d love to see some public and visible record of the old guy who came, and stayed.
Look back over your shoulder and you’ll see a perfect example of a small English parish church—St James the Apostle, built originally in 1348 and extensively renovated in 1847 when the present outer stone skin was applied to protect and extend the medieval structure. If you have time for a moment of peace and quiet, go and have a look inside. Don’t forget to drop a couple of quid in the collection box as you enter, though. These places are ruinously expensive to keep going.
Walking down from the statue, you’ll pass the town’s filling station, a good example of the way Spilsby has adapted to the modern age. Fitted into a relatively new building—a mere 200 years old or so—it sells not only petrol and oil but also ‘biodiesel’ fuel. Makes yer think, does that.
Anyone who knows me will know of my waistline-busting love of traditional British fish and chips. Well, you won’t find a better example of the good old fish and chip shop and restaurant than the one just by the market square. They’ll do you a nice take-away, wrapped in paper, which you can enjoy sitting on one of the benches close by, or you can sit down and experience the real McCoy at one of the formica-topped tables in the café section, along with a helping of mushy peas, a cup of steaming hot tea and a slice of bread and butter. They do a special deal for pensioners, too, which I’ve often found invaluable towards the end of the month when my pocket money is running out.
Spilsby has five or six pubs, each with its own character. The strangely named ‘Nelson Butt’ suits me well enough, being small and friendly, just right for a lunch-time pint. Providing someone else is doing the driving, of course.
Occupying what is reputed to be the oldest standing building in Spilsby, built in the 13th century, ‘Little Italy’ is a restaurant with a fearsomely good reputation among those who know about these things. There are other eating places in the town, of course, but this one is rather special.
It’s easy when wandering around a busy little town to keep your head down as you manouvre your way through the crowd and around the parked cars. Look up, though, and you’ll see just how old the buildings are, many with wobbly old tiled roofs that’ve been patched and propped over the years, and good for another couple of centuries with a bit of love and care. Always providing some ill-informed mortgage provider doesn’t insist on replacement, that is.
The ‘Butter Cross’ is one of the strangest little market crosses I’ve ever seen. I’ve not been able to find out much about it but it’s at least 700 years old, much battered and worn, and still presiding over the weekly market. The name, I suspect, has more to do with barrel-making than dairy produce, and could easily be linked to the name of the ‘Nelson Butt’. You don’t see too many barrels or barrel-makers for sale in the market these days.
These narrow alley ways lead away from the market square and, in the days before the motor car, were of major importance in getting about the town. Wide enough for a small cart and horse, or a pack horse, the buildings were often enough used as warehouses as well as dwelling places. Witness the loft and its wheel hoist.
These rather run-down cottages line a stony, un-developed lane at the edge of the town, behind the doctor’s surgery. Full of charm and potential once the damp and nastiness is removed, they are presently in the process of “gentrification”, following on which they’ll make lovely small homes with a new lease of life. Another example of the way Spilsby adapts while keeping in touch with where it’s been.
There’s been an officialy sanctioned weekly market held in the central town square for well over 700 years, where local farmers, growers and manufacturers may display and sell their product. I suspect the same activity went on long before it became official. It’s still the place to go for good, fresh meat, baked goods, fruit and vegetables, and bargains of all kinds. Held on Monday mornings these days, the town square is emptied of parked cars to make way for market stalls, and the town buzzes into crowded life, summer and winter.
You don’t just go to market for provisions, you also use it as a good time and place to meet up with family and friends.
In the summer, providing you get there early enough, you can buy a punnet of fresh-picked local strawberries, fat and luscious, still with the morning dew on them, almost. The Lincolnshire way of enjoying them is to drown them in cream and sugar. I don’t go for that, never have. My method is to dunk each fruit in a glass of champagne and eat it whole while still dripping.
While it’s important and healthy to use fresh fruit and vegetables in season, the market is also the place to go for good quality imported produce. I reckon these bananas, like other foreign fruit, are at least two days closer to being fresh than those you buy in the supermarket.
Following a practice going back as long as the market itself, there’s an auction each week where you can bid on everything from local garden produce to spare tractor parts. If you can wriggle through the crowd, that is.
And that, for today, is a view of my home town. I’ve had a lot of home towns in my time, and fully expect to enjoy one or two more before I’m done. I may be a wanderer but I have a love of these old places, where things are still done much as they have been over the past thousand or so years, or longer.
Spilsby is a perfect example of the rural English market town, small enough to be appreciated fully but with a history as good and rich as any in the Kingdom.
The surrounding villages, including the one in which I live, have a relation to Spilsby that is reflected in ancient footways and tracks over and between the fields. Kings, princes and commoners have trod them and they’re still there to be explored today. Walk gently as you pass, though. No-one knows where Spillir was laid to rest but there’s always the chance you may be treading on his bones.