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Costessey

Costessey divides neatly into two areas: the old part (Old Costessey) which lies inside a loop of the River Wensum and is full of character and New Costessey lying to the south which is a rather unattractive suburban sprawl clustered about the A1074. In fact, the name Costessey derives from 'Cost's island' or Costessia because the original settlement was completely encircled by the rivers Wensum and Tud.

Costessey Village Sign

Costessey Village Sign Showing Costessey Hall

Not surprisingly, it is Old Costessey which contains the literary connections and, over the centuries, it has been visited by two particularly fascinating writers: the first being the writer and physician John Polidori (1795-1821) and the second being the Australian poet Francis Webb (1925-73).

Polidori moved to Norwich in 1817 to set up a medical practice in the City at the instigation of  William Taylor when a member of the Martineau family stepped down. Polidori is best known for being Byron's doctor on his famous 1816 European tour and for writing the gothic novel The Vampyre - which was produced at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland - at the same time that Mary Shelley wrote Frakenstein.

On the 20th September 1817, while driving through Costessey, Polidori's  gig hit a tree and the physician was thrown out and landed awkwardly on his head. The accident rendered him unconscious for four days and when he came round he wrote the following sonnet - subtitled 'Written in the Album, at Costessey, after my recovery from an accident, 1817' :
 

Hurl'd from my car I lay upon the ground,
When death, who comes with rapid step alone
To those for whom joy spreads her gleam around,
Ran to transfix the victim 'fore him thrown.
But soon I saw of two fair forms the hands
Outstretch'd in my defence - like those they seem'd,
Whose breath had caused my happiness - no wands,
No weapons in the air around me gleamed.
Yet death recoil'd - it seemed as if he bowed
Before my guardian's will - perchance he thought
He saw in them, as in the two who brav'd
Awhile his pow'r, the Godhead's image grav'd
So bright; and though majestic, mild it showed,
As if the sov'reign fiat they had bought.

Although this isn't the most inspirational of sonnets - it is a fascinating historical record and the accident proved to be a turning point in Polidori's life as, after it, he never again prospered. He eventually left Norwich and returned to London where he ran up serious gambling debts and died in 1821 from a self-administered dose of prussic acid. It is likely that he took his own life - but the coroner returned a verdict of death by natural causes.

Over a century later, Costessey was visited by another poet - Francis Webb - who at the time was an in-patient at the David Rice Hospital in Drayton. Webb suffered from schizophrenia and persecution mania and spent most of his adult life in psychiatric care both in England and Australia. He moved to the David Rice from Birmingham in 1956 and remained there until 1960. However, as a devout Catholic Webb was allowed out to attend mass at the nearest Catholic church - which happened to be St Walstan's in Old Costessey. Webb used to walk to the church down Costessey Lane - crossing the Wensum at Costessey Mill and then turning right up Costessey Street. As a result of these walks he began to absorb a great deal about the village's history and geography - which later inspired him to write his amazing sequence called Around Costessey - which appeared in the 1964 collection The Ghost of the Cock.

The sequence begins with an historic poem called Hastings:
 

Pasture, embryo hills,
The Dwelling by the Waterside,
Cotesia, open eye.
Improvident Harold has died:
The two neutral ravenous mills
Munch apathetic rye.

The sequence then proceeds to explore other historical characters and locations. Possibly the most spectacular Costessey-related poem is The Tower - which takes as its subject matter one of the remaining towers of Costessey Hall. The hall, originally built in the Gothic manner in 1806, house, burnt down in 1925 but its remains stood for many years  - during which time it was plundered for building materials by local contractors. Costessey Hall had been the seat of the Jerningham family - a staunchly Catholic dynasty - who had helped ensure Queen Mary's succession to the throne in 1553 and had played a large part in securing the continuation of Catholicism in Norfolk. Today there is only one section of the hall left  - the Belfry Tower - which is located on Costessey Golf Course.

Costessey Hall in 1933 © George Plunkett

Catholicism was always an important theme for Webb and the sequence contains another two poems with a Catholic connection: the first dedicated to a Jesuit priest called John Gerald who helped to save Catholics the 16th Century and the second a more personal poem about the death of Father Jones who was, presumably, Webb's priest at St Walstan's.

Another feature of Webb's Norfolk poems is the River Wensum which crops up in many of them including: Gale Force, Beeston Regis and Derelict Church. It also appears to great effect in The Horses - where he also contemplates its fish:
 

With the Wensum comes consecrated ordered Wish.
From weedy tenements the spying suburban fish.
Dace, roach, carp, dart or loiter with tingling gills
In subaqueous blackout, neon,
Discuss certain shadows, suns as wool or rayon,
Choose certain baits as tranquillisers, pills.
Plucked from his element, each convulsed dreamer beats
Agony for his city streets.

Webb would have been particularly familiar with the Wensum valley for the David Rice was built (now demolished) on the valley side overlooking it.

Webb left Drayton in 1960 and returned to Australia - taking all of his 'Norfolk' poems with him and they have only recently come to light thanks to the Australian academic Toby Davidson - editor of a new collected poems - who contacted this website. This site is also grateful for permission to reproduce Webb's poems which was given by his sister Claudia Snell.


Links:

Francis Webb: Norfolk Location Photographs

 

 

 

 

 

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