All in a Garden Green / The Great Blast of 48

Written in 1999,  'All in a Garden Green' won second prize in a local new writers competition.


All in a Garden Green


Upon awakening he reflected upon  his  divine yet amusing dream. Bestirring prompt, Doctor Thomas Browne led his family in morning prayers. He instructed his man-servant to make ready his dappled mare, placed with great care a thin, freshly printed volume into a leather satchel, and reminded his wife of his intention of calling upon the Bacon's of Gillingham.


Passing underneath Ber Street's brazen gate, the City's noisome and noxious air dissolved remarkably. Relief descended upon him, often called out to attend the sick at inopportune hour, he was rarely ever free from his medical duties. His journey from Norwich to Gillingham,  would take several hours, requiring rest and watering for both man and beast. He, however, was not to be hurried today, nor wished to exert his well-serving mare, so rode at a moderate pace, slowing to observe lapwings ascend and wheel upon warm rising winds. A gentle gust rippled waves through ripening barley, fluffy willow-herb seeds drifted by, became entangled in a sweet-brier hedge. The wide open space, fresh air and unmolested morning were most welcome recreation. He relaxed, allowed his equally happy mare to break into a canter along a sandy track, and at sight of water-meadow sprinkled with buttercups and clover, his mood turned to sober joy.

Upon this sunny morning there was abundant evidence confirming the glory of the Creation. Accompanying the feathered chorus of small birds in antiphonal song, the booming call of a 'bittaur' could be heard. It was indubitably skulking in reed-bed, or else hiding in one of the many 'plashes' of water the region afforded. He halted his mount to hear the water-fowl's peculiar 'bumping' sound better. Its booming call punctured the air far across field.


The bird had once interested him enough to capture, to observe at closer quarter. He had done so in order to prove that its strange call was made, not by the creature immersing its beak in water and blowing, as commonly believed, but was of a vocal laryinx origin. He duly informed readers of his enquiries into presumed truths of the fact. While recollecting this triumph of occular enquiry, along with the satisfaction of brisk sales of his encyclopaedia, a patch of celandine caught his attention. He dismounted, tied riding reins to a mossy branch. Approaching the herb a gaudy breeze-fly lighted upon it. He watched closely as it probed the yellow starry flowers with its quivering proboscis. the sunlight created an irradiant shimmer upon its emerald and purple markings, then the shadow  of a cloud fell, its wings snapped shut and transformed it into a leaf silhouette. It flitted off jerkily.

He began to cut the herb's leaves. The juices extracted contained medical properties restorative to liver complaints, according to the doctrine of the 'Luther of Medicine' the Swiss physician Paracelsus. He wrapped his sampling carefully in cambric cloth and after considering at length the optical effect the light had played upon the 'breeze-fly'  removed from his satchel his common-place note-book. With brief, rapid strokes he proceeded to scratch with a quill. Truly, he mused, the world contains signs and signatures of the geometric wisdom of a most sensible botanist, then zestfully he exclaimed - 

'Ah Nature! That universal book of God which lies expansed to all. Those who have not found God in his Holy Scripture must surely discover Him in the presence of Nature'

His mare pricked her ears and looked askance at him.

Passing a yeoman hoeing a vegetable-plot who mistakenly greeted him  as 'Your Reverence', he savoured the sweet scent of honey-suckle entwined upon a garden trellis, with delight. Its fragrance wafted far, engendering speculations upon smell's healing properties. On reflection upon odour  and memory's relationship however, he remembered another day, with a far less pleasing smell.

Informed  of a large whale washed up on the beach at Wells, he had ridden out to examine it. The Norfolk coast with its long stretches of low-shelved shallows and sands can disorientate migrating whales, sometimes with fatal consequences. The marooning of these gigantic creatures were seen as portents of ill-omen by fishing communities and included in zealous priest's sermons as signs of God's imminent wrath upon the impious, and stared at with astonishment by ruder heads.

The journey to the remote north-west of the county was a bleak affair, a cold persistent drizzle blew off an icy North Sea. He began to question the wisdom of satisfying his curiosity, wrapped his riding-cape tighter around him, bowed head to wind and urged his loyal mare onwards.

A spermaceti whale, victim of treacherous sands had laid in the shallows of Brancaster Bay for almost two months now. Although he'd viewed  copper-plate engravings of such creatures in fine dutch folio editions, he was near overwhelmed by the creature's immensity. His mare bridled at the sea-monster's odour and had to be soothed somewhat. Measuring sixty-five paces the whale's colossal bulk dwarfed the fishermen's hovels huddled in nearby dunes. Its ribs, curved like vaulted roof-beam arches protruded through shriveled flesh, textured and scarred as an ancient battle-map. In its jaw were a single row of sharp teeth, not unlike those of a pike. a tiny eye, absurdly small to its proportion gazed coldly, almost reproachfully upon all spectators, including two fishwives who lewdly gawped at its enormous pizell.

                                                                                        

3 Beached Whales 1577

The putrefying carcass emitted an abominable scent. He tied a pungent nose-gay underneath his nostrils, as during pestilence, but the stench was inescapable. Impossibly large for Noah to have sheltered in the Ark, was it therefore exempt from punishment of the Flood? how had Jonah dwelt inside its belly three days and three nights, as writ in Holy Scripture? how could the perfection of the Creation be revised by Deluge? He couldn't begin to fathom what the creature's nutrients were in the ocean depths. An old mariner stinking of fish disrupted these disquieting thoughts and began to chatter upon tide and moon. The unlettered prattler with his rudimentary knowledge of the heavens conceited himself a whole sphere above his soon weary listener.

The doctor commenced his anatomical investigation with precursory incisions around the whale's skull, an extract of ambergris was easily procured. The loquacious fisherman noticing the plentiful quantity, offered to sell him first a threadbare sack, then a half-darned net, and undeterred , a cracked pot. But the unwholesome stench the creature emitted, the old sailor's  incessant jabber, the ceaseless crash of waves on shore and his perturbed meditations induced a sense of nausea inside him. He resolved to depart and rode off ; a lump of the milky jelly-like substance wrapped in coarse canvas and the prodigious piece of nature etched firmly in his memory.

The antediluvian leviathan raised many queries which persisted, even during solitary prayer. Biblical authority and rational conjecture conflicted and clashed in his soul. And although his seashore anatomical enquiry provoked acute spiritual angst, he duly reported of it in the new edition of his encyclopaedia. 

Some lumps containing about two ounces, kept ever since in water, afford a fresh flowery smell. Distilled it may prove of good medical use.

As he recollected his traumatic encounter with a whale, globular pyramid clouds with flat leaden bases swelled, forming vaporous  mountain-chains on the horizon. The sun, now past its zenith, lit up lofty pinnacles with rosy-tints; Majestic alpine scenery of snow and ice by a master draughtsman scrolled across the soft turquoise sky. Dark chasms, glacial valleys and dazzling white peaks floated in the air.

Gillingham Hall's observatory tower came into view. Perched high and dry above the river Waveney's extensive marshes, the Estate had acquired a favourable reputation throughout the county. The worthy physician rode through its sturdy oak gates, admiring its ornamental hedges, lawns, orchards and vegetable-plots. In its gardens Greek and Roman sculptures of heroes wrestling with fabled beasts stood beside spouting fountains. the eye-pleasing sight of hollyhocks, lupins and the Marvel of Peru in full bloom greeted his arrival. All was precisely ordered into splendid geometric patterns.

 The youthful squire wearing a smock and straw hat, laid down his pruning-hook and welcomed his guest heartily. Squire Bacon, like many English gentry, spent much time gardening. His vegetable-plot, with its rhubarb and asparagus beds were envied by rustic neighbours who aspired to master the horticultural art. Upon this glorious summer afternoon he radiated health and happiness, and though several years junior to his guest, he nonetheless shared an equal interest in botany, astronomy and optics. The worthy doctor dismounted his steed. The purpose of his visit, the heart of the matter, was at hand. After allowing his mare to be led away, he removed from his satchel a thin volume, his new philosophical Discourses, 'Hydriotaphia' and 'The Garden of Cyrus'.  Alternating between formal dignity, pride and modesty, he addressed his patron.

You have been so long out of trite learning, that it is hard to find a subject proper for you. Subjects so often discoursed confine the imagination. Expect herein no mathematical truths, for in this garden discourse, we range into many extraneous things in art and nature.

Cooled and refreshed by the colours and scents of the paradise-like garden, the physician unbuttoned his worstead doublet, and in good humour joked at the expense of his host's gardening passion.

In Garden delights 'tis not easy to behold a mediocrity, that insinuating pleasure is seldom without  some extremity. The Ancients delighted in flourishing gardens. Many were florists that knew not the true use of a flower, some commendably affected plantations of venomous vegetables! You Sir, are a branch of a noble family, as confirmation of our friendship, knowing you to be a serious student in the highest secrets of nature, I offer this small gift to add to your treasures.


The modest doctor began to blush, gracefully bowed and offered his gift to his patron which Nicolas accepted. speechless with gratitude, he perused the thin volume. Sundry observations upon botany, geometry, music, architecture and astronomy appeared. He apprehended that a whole network of connections upon the number five and the Quincunx pattern were woven within its pages. 


For in truth, while some of Norfolk's gentry occupied their leisure-time  with gardening, music-making or falconry during Oliver Cromwell's dictatorship, Doctor Browne had penned a mystical hymn of praise upon the secrets of the Creation. One gathered spiritual solace wherever one could during the the severe decade of Puritan rule of England.

Promenading the paved path which led towards the stately Hall, Nicolas announced that a consort of viol-players were to attend that evening. the musicians were to air fantasies, galliards and pavans composed by those most rare English masters of music, William Byrd and John Dowland. A carriage had been sent out to collect the distinguished guests, including the composer, lyre viol virtuoso and onetime royal court musician, john Jenkins, 'the mirror and wonder of his age'.
"Ah! Music", exclaimed the doctor, " it unties the ligaments of my frame, takes me to pieces, dilates me out of myself and resolves me into heaven," for truly he delighted in Pythagorean harmonies and had heard the music of the spheres.

Nicolas proposed that they retire indoors and informed his guest that he'd recently acquired a full folio  edition of Helvelius' maps of the moon. He enquired as to whether his learned guest would care to peruse it, his own private library was, as ever, available. Refreshments would shortly be served. Nicolas was desirous to read more of the curious garden discourse graciously dedicated to him. As the two friends entered the Hall they met the Baronet, a morose, senior aristocrat whom Doctor Browne had once treated for a gouty toe. They gave him their respectful salutations, then made direct to the walnut-paneled library to play Chess until eventide, when musicians and guests would arrive...... 

  Another story on the same historical theme.

 The Great Blast of '48




He lifted the kitchen pantry trap-door and stepped down a small stair-case. Once a lamp was lit the outline of a roughly-hewn chalk cavern became visible. Many old Norwich dwellings possess these hidden cellars, some are vast cavernous grottoes which run the length of several streets. But for what purpose these so-called undercrofts were built, whether abandoned chalk-workings or for the hiding of wealth or persons, no-ones exactly sure , Doctor Browne used the undercroft underneath his home as his 'elaboratory'. 

A few steps down led to a stone-flagged floor, chequered as upon a Chess-board. In the near darkness a large phosphorus stone glowed a faint, eery green. Resting upon a long work-bench were several contemplative experiments he had assembled - a revolving circular alphabet with a magnetic pendulum suspended above it, a wooden camera obscura box , and a crude clock in which air softly bubbled as it slowly wound round a labyrinthine circuit of coiled glass tubing. It was upon this bench that he had made experiments upon the properties of static electricity, magnetism, frog spawn, bubbles and poisons , all of which he recorded in his encyclopaedia. In the centre of the floor squatted a small furnace, a crucible and a trough of water. Scattered beside them were pincers, funnels, beakers and other assorted accessories to Vulcan's art; Shelves crammed with collection of bird-eggs, dried mushrooms, vivid yellow lichens and mosses, pickled frogs and moles, jars stuffed with dried herbs came into light as he hung the lamp upon a hook . A sparkling purple amethyst crystal and a stuffed pelican with its beak gawping wide open as if it were raining fish came into view .In a corner stood a large pyramid-shaped funnel shaped in thin metal; He called it a formica phone, and by placing a number of death-watch beetles stored in small boxes upon its stretched tight pig-skin drum and positioning ones ear near to its leather ear-trumpet one had the auditory experience of hearing sound magnified a hundredfold. He experimented with a wide variety of insects; bees, wasps, flies and ants when placed upon the gigantic, drum-like membrane gave the auditory illusion of crazed musicians scratching upon antiquated viols and a previously unheard world of the microscopic in Nature became audible. The slightest fraction in variation of sound, micro-tonalities and the effects of musical modes upon the temperament were of interest to him and gave confirmation of the wisdom of the Greek sage of Harmony and Number, Pythagoras. 


He placed a handful of slithering earth-worms upon the phone's drum, solemnly knelt, pressed ear upon its pig-skin drum and heard such strange sounds amplified that he felt as if the very 'music of the spheres' were present. Even at rest its weird acoustical properties conjured sounds of roaring surf and stormy beaches as if a magical conch.

He approached the work-bench and mixed salt-petre, sulphur and brimstone in correct proportion, gingerly lit a tapered fuse and retired a pace away. The powder fizzed then spluttered out. What effect would result if confined , he wondered and tried again after mixing a greater quantity of ingredients, he poured the powder into a wooden-box.This time he was lucky not to be hit by one of the many fragments of wood which flew in all directions with great velocity. His clothes had become singed and there was a smell of burning hair in the cloud of chalk and dust. Slightly shocked by his miscalculation he decided that on this particular occasion it was probably better to consult books and began the long climb from undercroft to attic. 


Whenever the rigours of his profession abated, the worthy physician could be found in his library. A dedicated book-lover, he had selected the attic as the most suitable place for the storage of his many volumes for it was less likely to be attended upon by that arch-enemy of the printed word, damp. Encased in sturdy leather bindings in fine quarto and octavo folio editions were the products of the growing printing industry of Leiden, Frankfurt, Paris and London each perched motionless upon shelf awaiting its pages to be opened, and its words of wisdom to fly into the mind of beholder. As he began reading upon gunpowder’s properties as described by the Italian pyrotechnic Birringio it seemed to him that unlike the printing-press or mariner's compass, Gunpowder appeared to be devoid of any redeeming qualities whatsoever and apprehended that its fearsome power, could be unleashed and cause devastation and death, wherever fanaticism, masquerading as religious or political belief. Such had been the intention of the 'gunpowder plot' conspirators, led by Guy Fawkes, fortuitously caught from blowing up the houses of Parliament. Verily, it was a 'bombulastic' force which either Government or anarchist could unleash to further their cause and he imagined scenes of blasting and bombing, of savage murder in strange, foreign future lands, and trembled. Yet, he reasoned, even this Devil’s brew could be exploited to aid Mankind's development. Perhaps if wisely used it could enable mining excavations to reach new and precious metal-ores. The whole purpose of science and invention, the understanding and mastery of natures substances and distillations was to aid Man in his development, not a means to inflict pain and suffering upon others. But, he realised, Scientific knowledge would always be a two-edged sword in man's affairs, used for evil intent as well as for good... Having consulted the Italian scientist he decided to counteract his anxiety with a perusal of his favourite volumes and placed a selection of books upon the table. Pages of detailed copper-plate engravings; the splendid geometry of the Pharaoh's tombs, diagrams designating musical modes to planetary orbits, detailed lithographs of snowy and frozen landscapes inhabited by rare beasts and fowl and the architectural wonders of ancient Rome swam before his eyes. As he gazed upon such delights he forgot the hour until his heightened intellect, retentive memory and vivid imagination could absorb no more and he fell asleep. 


Suddenly there erupted a thundering boom. Startled, he awoke to witness books tumble from shelves; a small avalanche of soot rumble down the chimney, and most extraordinary of all, a leather riding-boot fly past the window and land with a soggy splat on the cobbled stones below. He rubbed his eyes, put aside the thin volume, 'Of the Marriage between Philology and Mercury,' and conjectured upon what he'd heard and seen. Truly, he pondered, unless ones sensory-organs are well conjoined unto the cognitive faculty one is vulnerable to deception, or else, perchance, the cause of such a resounding concussion of air was that of the ignition of gun-powder within close proximity. He peered through the gable window to observe that a great number of dwellings had lost their roof-tiles and glass , and that several chimney's had been dislodged; a black cloud of smoke rose in the direction of Bethel Street. Looking down to the stable-yard he saw a riding-boot oozing dark-blood over the cobblestones.

Armed with clubs and cudgels and in protest against the arrest of Mayor Utting who sympathized with the Royalist cause, Dan Bullock of the Butcher's Guild and Ned Turner of the Tanners led their apprentices, along with tradesmen and the discontent with the ineffectiveness of the City corporation roamed the streets of Norwich throughout that fateful April morning in 1648. They visited leading members of the gentry’s homes to enquire whether Parliamentarian sympathizers resided there and only desisted their thinly diguised intimidation when terrified occupants indoors sent message that they swore allegiance to King Charles or distributed cakes and ale. The rumour that a Parliamentary Regiment barracked at East Dereham, some fifteen miles away were on their way to restore order in the City spread and the County Committee Room at Bethel Street, where a large arsenal of weapons and gunpowder were stored, became the focal-point for the rioters. During its under-manned defense a young boy was shot dead in the cross-fire . This outrage fueled great anger and the ranks of those attacking the Committee house swelled . At the same time as the County meeting Room was being stormed and ransacked for muskets and powder, the Militia arrived outside the City walls and demanded that Saint Benedict’s Gate be opened and its portcullis raised. The rioters hearing of the Round-head troop’s arrival, and preparing for a long conflict , hastily distributed muskets and breached open several barrels of gunpowder, some even scooped up spilt gun-powder into their hats. What happened next is unclear. A small fire began, unattended it spread then several small detonations occured, followed by one great roaring blast, 'which did shake the whole City, and did break the air most violently' . It was an explosion which was powerful enough to fling those closest to the powder kegs high into the air , eye - witnesses spoke of it raining arms and legs upon the market-square.


Doctor Browne stepped outdoors, a noxious smell of sulfur hung thick in the air. Glass, broken roof-tiles, and stolen items from ransacked houses, lay abandoned in the streets. Debris from the explosion was scattered over the market-square. Upon viewing the many injured he began to pray.. A few bodies were so badly burnt that they would not be easy to identify he realised and several severely charred corpses still hissed and bubbled. For the rest of the day he did not cease from numerous delegations, impromptu instructions on how to apply a tourniquet, and appeals for clean bed-linen for bandages. Much to his anguish those who suffered from severe burns seemed fated to an agonizingly slow death, for he knew of no treatment that could heal their burns . The situation demanded the utmost of his medical skills and privately he called upon He who as part of His ministry, wandered around Galilee curing all manner and divers sicknesses. That evening the peals of the Church-bells signaling that order had been restored were accompanied by the shrieks of pain of those undergoing crude surgical amputation. 


In total, the riot, the heavy handed Calvary charge of the Militia's restoring of order, the fire and explosion, resulted in over one hundred dead. The day shocked and exhausted him profoundly in much the same way as two years earlier He shuddered at the memory of the shameful day in the City's history. In the name of religious reformation, the Cathedral’s fittings, ecclesiastical vestments and music-books were exhibited as examples of popish refinement. A blasphemous parade and a dragging of the mangled organ-pipes to the market-cross then occurred. Hymn-books, carvings and garments were heaped up and a grotesque bonfire of the vanities lit by the victorious Puritans. That day as today, deepened his understanding of the spiritual nature of his medical vocation. 


Late in the evening returning home with heart-felt sadness he saw the damage caused to the Church of Saint Peter's. Its east window, an exquisite stained-glass rose window, created by master craftsmen  had been shattered by the explosion . 

The Norwich 1648 Royalist uprising and gunpowder explosion engulfed the City into fierce debate upon the Nation's  government  but Doctor Browne cared not a fig for politics. During his ten year's residence he'd acquired a reputation for being of a tolerant disposition in both political and religious matters and with true Christian meekness he’d twice been obliged to duck from hurled vegetables when passing the market-place. However, due to a judicious distribution of his medical skills, treating the poor of his parish for free, as well as several of Norfolk's influential and wealthy gentry for a healthy fee, he had, with his other-worldly air and reputation as a highly learned scholar of European fame, effectively managed to inoculate himself from the political strife which tore the English Nation apart and ushered in the Rule of Cromwell. From the quincunx latticed window, he noted the Hyades star cluster ascend, heard his pet owl hoot in the yard below. Once more he retired to his library to complete amendments to his encyclopaedia.