Our Continental connections
Norfolk used to be joined to the Continent. Yes, really! It was only the final thawing of the last Ice Age around 5000BC that separated us, but during the past few millennia there has been constant traffic between our shores and those of Europe. Some have been invaders, pillagers or colonialists, but our ties with the Low Countries have been largely friendly, not least because of important trading links.
Through to the 18th century Norwich was the second city of England, vying with York. It was a busy cultural capital, heavily settled by those who had come over the North Sea, including the Dutch, the Huguenots, the emigres from the French Revolution.
They helped create many of Norfolk's trades, its arts, its printing achievements and its painting traditions. At the hub of Norfolk's great and farm-filled wheel, Norwich sponsored painting, writing, music and culture in general. That legacy is encapsulated in the work of the Heritage, Economic and Regeneration Trust.
The Norfolk coast is as close to Holland as it is to London and in medieval times it only took a day to sail to Amsterdam, but four days to travel to London. At that time Norfolk was isolated by muddy marshland and dense forest.
The relationship began with fish but flourished in the thirteenth century when wool was exported through the Broads to the weavers of Flanders. At that time Norfolk was at the forefront of mercantile trade in Britain – the county had one of the highest populations in the country, and Norwich was a wealthy city, second only to London. In the fifteenth century, protectionist tariffs, taxation and wars promoted domestic cloth-making – assisted in the 1560s by refugee Flemish weavers, fleeing the Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands, who brought with them their now-famous Canaries. They were called Strangers (hence Strangers Hall), but were very much welcomed.
At the same time as the refugees came, Dutch engineer Joas Johnson helped erect stone and timber piers at the river Yare at Great Yarmouth which finally secured the harbour's mouth. There had been more than a dozen attempts to make a final 'cut'. His work lasted until 1962 when 'The Old Dutch Pier' was replaced by the current concrete structure, which resulted in Gorleston losing part of its beach.
In the 1650s Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden directed major projects to drain the Fens, the first time this has been attempted since Roman occupation. Great sluices were constructed to control the flow of water, connecting villages that were formerly little islands and docks amid the marshes and seawaters of a great archipelago.
Norfolk's prosperous links with the Continent waned with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, but at least that means we still retain so many of our old buildings – they were never demolished for 'progress'. And what many people don't realise is that the Industrial Revolution was a product of the Agricultural Revolution Norfolk had helped create in the work of Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, at Holkham, who brought land reform, and Charles 'Turnip' Townshend at Raynham Hall, who brought four-crop rotation to Britain. And where did he copy it from? Waasland, in Flanders… continental Europe.