A Thunder and Lightnings walk by @WaywardRhymes
Like many people, I first encountered Thunder and Lightnings when it was read out to the class by our teacher at junior school in the afternoons. Then I lost it for many years.
Adolescence erased the title and the names of the characters. Other books in that slot – Jill Tomlinson; Diana Wynne Jones; Roald Dahl; Forrest Wilson – were more fantastical, operatic, epic or hyperactive. Drawn boldly, they were more likely to pop up in “Do you remember…?” conversations. The eidetic photorealism of Jan Mark seemed to belong to a different part of the memory.
Despite its tiny scale, the book had held me, not because it offered escape from routine, but because it walked alongside me at the recognisably slow pace of real life. I knew I wasn’t really a gung-ho superhero, but one who waited, gazed, dawdled, daydreamed. My constant sense of vague puzzlement and my questions about the world were things I also saw in Andrew. Like him, I knew I was an observer and a thinker, not a protagonist.
CHANGE AS A CONSTANT
An observant child learns about the world and builds a static mental model of it, such that when that world changes, and the model goes out of date, it feels enormous and personally disruptive. Through lack of experience we assume many things are constant but have to learn that only change is. This applies not just in our own lives – where as children we’re used to our own malleability – but everywhere.
Change dislodges things that seemed fixed; destabilises truths that seemed transcendent. We learn that indivisible nations fall apart; glory burns out and that beloved heroes, civilians and sovereigns all die.
With this comes curiosity about how things were different in the past and why they changed, especially when something big changes unexpectedly. For Andrew, this is prompted by his physical displacement: exchanging familiar Kent for country that runs to different rules. For Victor, stable in one place, it’s the heartbreaking retirement of the plane that overflew his childhood. It is perhaps also a growing awareness that he is different.
LIGHTENING THE WAY
Andrew’s answer to his changed horizon is to attach himself to someone kind who understands Norfolk, and to make himself their pupil. Victor shows him the ways to go quickly (and Sloley) through it.
I think it was my answer to change and uncertainty, in London in my mid-twenties, to seek out Jan Mark again and notice how her wry quotidian focus had preserved a part of my own unhurried rural childhood, which I had only just noticed slipping irrecoverably away.
Later, when middle age had made life comfortably slow and stable again, 2020 intervened to prove there is no inoculation against history. Discombobulated by the lockdowns, I began to take and record walks – at once returning to the familiar and finding anew the edge of my horizon. It was inevitable I would return to Thunder and Lightnings and make it my guide, as Andrew had Victor.
So this article is about when I went walking in Norfolk to try and find all the settings from the book, to see what Jan Mark described, and to compare the reality with what I’d seen in my mind’s eye, sitting sleepily on Friday afternoon in the summer heat of my junior school classroom.
FINDING OUT THE SETTINGS
The great thing about Thunder and Lightnings is that there are plenty of clues as to where things are set that you can deduce purely from the book. In Chapter 11, Andrew gets out a map of North Norfolk and the boys pore over it to find Coltishall, Polthorpe, Pallingham and the coast. All someone like me needs to do is get out a similar map online and start to zoom in on the details.
From the descriptions, I quickly found Ingham, and the nearby Palling Road, which told me that Pallingham had been portmanteau’d out of the two, and by extension that nearby Stalham must be the Polthorpe from the book. Other places are given their real-life names, which helps.
Even if it hadn’t been so easy for me, I later found that others had done much of the same work before, and after I’d worked out a rough route, I was able to refine it through the pre-existing Jan Mark walk, as put together through the Friends of Stalham Library and featured on this website.
Day One: Happisburgh, Ingham and Stalham
The existing Ingham-Stalham Jan Mark walk was going to be part of my route, but I wanted to go a little further, to reach the edges of the book, and for this I needed to go beyond Polthorpe and Pallingham to the former RAF Coltishall further inland, and perhaps also as far as the coast.
As soon as he has absorbed the immediate surroundings of his new house in Chapter 1, Andrew runs upstairs and looks as far out of the window as he can:
By leaning out of the window he could see two church towers, a windmill and yet another tower painted in red and white stripes. He wondered if it could be a lighthouse and guessed that the flat place where earth met sky was the coast.
So here was an excellent far-off starting point: Andrew is clearly seeing the lighthouse at Happisburgh. So that is where I planned to begin, which from Norwich meant the 5B to Stalham followed by the 34 that loops around to North Walsham.
Although Andrew and Victor never come here, it’s a place of significant change. Happisburgh is where the coast erodes under the punishment of the North Sea faster than almost anywhere else in the UK. Thunder and Lightnings is a land-and-sky book (earth and air), also featuring the flaming jets and guns of RAF planes, present and past (fire). Water is represented only by the staithes and broads of which Victor is so dismissive, and by gloomy summer rain. The sea, just beyond Andrew’s ken, doesn’t really get a look in.
There are some initial reminders here of the aviation in the Second World War, too, as in Chapter 2.
‘… I shot one down, once.’ ‘One of them?’ said Andrew, pointing to the gap in the sky where the jets had gone. ‘No. During the war. Ack-ack,’ said the old man.
To find the second church tower, I had to walk south via Eccles-on-Sea and try out two possibilities. One is the suitably named St. Andrew’s at Hempstead.
It certainly looks the part for the book, even down to the vapour trails crossing the sky above the church tower, which put me in mind of Andrew’s first direct observation of a Lightning by Pallingham church.
He hardly saw what it looked like, a black bat that whipped round the church tower so closely that he was sure that it would hit it. When he looked up again, though, the tower was still there and the aircraft had vanished, leaving only an angry rumble behind it.
Further inland, though, is the isolated and even taller church tower of Lessingham, still with the lighthouse on the horizon.
It is taller than St Andrew’s and decided me that this had to be one of those visible from Andrew’s house’s window.
Unlike Ingham (Pallingham) church, it contains an unspoiled example of the kind of grave Victor identifies there.
‘There’s that grave I told you about. The one that looks like a bed.’
INGHAM AS PALLINGHAM IN CHAPTER 1: LOW FLYING
South of Lessingham lies the “home” location of the book, Ingham (Pallingham), which I approached via a beet field. Outside his new house, Andrew “noticed a rat prancing through the beets”, but all I could see was the aftermath of a hungry rat instead.
Jan Mark’s house is on Sydney Street in Ingham, complete with its field opposite and its custom blue plaque in honour of the author, but without the road-facing hedge. It’s also not called Tiler’s Cottage. Mark tweaked a few other details, like detaching the house’s neighbours (compensating them by making them the book’s dedicatees) and adding an imaginary roof window that is Andrew’s way of looking out at his new world.
The semi-detached houses themselves give us evidence of change, with different colours of brickwork suggesting they’ve been extended both ends as well as out the back.
Down at the bottom of the road I found a house that much more closely resembled what is described in the book (but without a line of sight to the loke) so perhaps this, or other nearby houses, was in Mark’s mind when she romanticised her own semi-detached place.
INGHAM (PALLINGHAM) CHURCH IN CHAPTER 2: OPEN COUNTRY
The route from the house to Ingham (Pallingham) church is a little easier than in the book as it runs directly across a grassy field – not a wheat field – behind the house.
A little way past the house a footpath was marked in red. It snaked across blank, white fields and ended in the churchyard. Andrew decided to try to follow it. The journey by road seemed rather too long to attempt on his first trip. Ten minutes later he found himself alone in the fields with a shopping basket and the map. When he set out, the house had been on his left and the church straight ahead. Now, the house and the church were on his right. Somewhere he had left the path and strayed…
Here I was retracing Andrew’s footsteps from Chapter 2, finding my way around the little village.
Andrew gathered speed across the wheat field and ran through the iron gateway, into the churchyard. An old man was kneeling by one of the graves, cutting grass. When the second fighter went over, Andrew ducked against a headstone but the old man went on snipping, as though nothing larger than a butterfly had passed.
‘Do they always fly so low?’ asked Andrew.
The old man shrugged. ‘Sometimes they do,’ he said, ‘and sometimes they don’t.’
‘What was it?’ said Andrew.
‘An aeroplane,’ said the old man, going clip, clip, clip, very carefully, round the bottom of the gravestone.
Andrew went on, round the corner of the church. There wasn’t a house in sight except for the two opposite the churchyard gate, and one of those was a pub. The other was the shop, so he crossed the road and went in.
The shop was divided into two. One end was a post office and the other was fitted out like a supermarket with long shelves and wire baskets although it was no bigger than the kitchen at home.
ANDREW AND VICTOR’S WALK HOME FROM SCHOOL IN CHAPTER 4: VICTOR
After meeting the eccentric (non-neurotypical?) Victor in Chapter 4, Andrew gets a chance to know him better:
When school was over he began to walk home alone. Once out of town there was no pavement on the Pallingham road so he climbed the bank and teetered dangerously along the top of it, his feet on a level with the roofs of passing cars. After a few minutes he felt someone punch his foot, and looking down he saw Victor drawing alongside on a bicycle…
There are two candidates for the wall that the boys leap over on their way home through the churchyard. This wall looks the part when shot from the right angle, but is on the wrong side of the churchyard and doesn’t have a drop on the other side, nor a pea field.
Victor led the way round behind the yew trees to a place where the graves were so old and mossy they were sinking back into the ground. Victor sat himself astride the wall. ‘There’s a big drop on the other side,’ he said. ‘I’ll go over first and you lower the bike down to me.’
He dropped out of sight and Andrew, looking over the wall, saw him land, eight feet below, knee-deep in what looked like pea plants.
This one is in the right place (opposite from the gate), but the drop over the wall doesn’t land in a pea field, but in the back garden of the pub, which leads out to the local cricket pitch.
However, if we rearrange Ingham a little and borrow a crop field (maybe peas?) from north of Sydney Street, we can put it down between the church and the end of this little loke off Sydney Street, which is surely a candidate for Victor’s house, especially as it seems to have a line of sight to the front of the Marks’ house, standing in here for Tiler’s Cottage.
‘That’s a loke.’ Andrew looked.
‘It’s a lane.’
‘That’s not. Lanes go somewhere, lokes stop halfway…
‘This is the loke,’ said Victor as they came out of the pea field and through a gap in the hedge. ‘That’s our house, half way down.
Passing through Ingham in person produced several nuggets of information, including the fact that also on Sydney Street there is a house made of a train carriage, installed by one Ephraim Harmer before the war, still living there at the time Jan Mark and family came to live on the street. At least two Harmers are buried in the local churchyard.
I also managed to discover that the book’s dedicatees, David and Faith, once Mark’s neighbours, had moved away, albeit recently.
From here I could follow the established Jan Mark walk to Stalham, following Andrew and Victor to school.
STALHAM INFANT SCHOOL AS POLTHORPE MIDDLE SCHOOL IN CHAPTER 3: FIRST DAY, WORST DAY
This building is the old Stalham Middle School from Jan Mark’s day, since repurposed for the infants instead. It abuts the Churchyard both at the front and the side, too. By my reckoning the prefab classroom from which Andrew looks out at the gravestones is to the one on the side, and the third photograph is what I reckon he could see.
Note that we are in the second graveyard of the book. This is already quite a high quotient for children’s literature, even the realist kind.
STALHAM (POLTHORPE) IN CHAPTER 5: VICTOR LUDORUM
A little further up the road is the sports field attached to Stalham (Polthorpe) High School where, in a key character moment, Victor’s persistence wins third place in the mile race, after dyspraxic athletic ignominy.
On the last lap many of the runners began to fail. The order of the day seemed to be that if you were going to lose you lost spectacularly. People meandered from one side of the track to the other, collapsing decoratively among the crowd like marathon runners entering the Olympic Stadium. Victor opened his eyes, skipped nimbly round the bodies of the fallen, passed the head boy and came in third.
STALHAM (POLTHORPE) IN CHAPTER 9: THE GRAVE FISHERMAN
Victor and Andrew make two efforts to access Polthorpe Library, described in the book as “”a clanging tin shed behind the church”. In real life it’s located elsewhere, and is a little more substantial.
Unfortunately, I missed the post-Covid reopening by a week, so didn’t get to see inside. But then the boys miss out the first time they visit it too, as it is only open on a Tuesday, and they pick a Wednesday. It’s also not long before relations with the librarian are so bad that they can’t visit again, so that’s something I avoided.
Instead they walk to the Staithe, full then as now of boats and lifestyles belonging mainly to outsiders.
‘Look at them,’ said Victor, with great scorn. ‘Wearing those silly hats. They think they’re on the QE2 and then they get stuck under Potter Heigham bridge.’
Even throwaway part-sentences reference real places. I even found the cinder path the boys take on their way up to the churchyard before they meet artist J. F. Coates in the churchyard, although there’s no mention of the former Fire Engine House that is now a museum.
… and here I found the best match I could to this setting, although you can see that the illustrator added visual interest.
‘He’s behind that big stone that looks like a table,’ said Andrew. ‘Let’s pretend we’re just walking through and have a look as we go by.’
He tried to take in a quick glance as he sauntered past but Victor propped himself against the tombstone and stared.
The man under the umbrella was drawing a picture. It seemed not to be a very good picture. Andrew thought this might be because the man was drawing mainly with the side of his thumb.
STALHAM (POLTHORPE) IN CHAPTER 10: A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE
The boys revisit the graveyard in Chapter 10 (by now we’ve visited the two graveyards of the book twice each and spent a lot of time with the boys there – we have yet to visit the third).
There they discover a series of graves with the name Sutton, lined up along a wall, although in real life these are Silcocks, lined up along the path.
Andrew moved round him to the next stone. ‘This one is William’s son, Thomas again. I think they’ve got the whole row to themselves.’ They followed the Suttons, alternately Thomas and William as far as the church door.
The final part of Stalham I encountered was the old, closed railway – a Beeching cut. Like many such railways, the trackbed has become a footpath, which I took to my overnight hotel, ready to make, via Sloley, for the locations around the former RAF Coltishall the next day.
Day Two: RAF Coltishall and Scottow
The whole walk I took from Happisburgh to Wroxham is about 28 miles, so in theory it could be done on a single long summer day, and certainly on a bike. From Stalham I went to Worstead, where I stayed, then set off past Worstead station and via the north part of Sloley to approach the runway from the North side.
Of course, Andrew and Victor do it on bikes and straight from Pallingham, so their route was less meandering than mine, and it meant they saw things in a different order to mine. I’ve tried to show their order here.
They turned their faces to the wind and rode on until they came to a pub, painted pink and with an aircraft propeller fixed to the wall. Victor turned off the road and led the way down a lane. ‘Nearly there,’ he said, but Andrew could see no signs of an airfield. Tall trees grew on either side and there was no sound except for the wind blowing through them. They came to a war memorial and turned right again.
The pub with a propellor is no longer painted pink, and is no longer a pub. All the same, as I discovered by reference to a local memories Facebook group, it remains on the Tunstead Road, in the tiny village of Scottow. The war memorial retains its status, as there’s not much else it can change into.
RUNWAY NORTHERN END
They had stopped at a field of cabbages. Across the field, in straight lines, stood rows of lights on tall, yellow posts. Although it was daylight and the clouds were beginning to clear, Andrew found that it hurt his eyes to look at them. ‘That’s the approach to the runway,’ said Victor. ‘The road go through the middle of them. The rest are on the other side.
This cabbage field, though at the time of my visit denuded of a crop, is for me the most dramatic setting of the book, where huge aircraft come into land over the boys’ heads: freely accessible entertainment in a landscape where not much out of the ordinary happens.
The scenes at the runway have always felt very tangible to me, whenever I read or was read the book. So it enchanted me that years after aircraft stopped calling here, a sign still remains, worded almost exactly as recounted in the book. So does the fire gate itself.
They’re so clean and vivid it’s tempting to believe they’ve been maintained, like someone refuses to let the memory fade.
This felt like a benignly haunted place. It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand somewhere you’ve known and had the feel of since you were about nine, despite never having visited before.
Given the closure of the airfield and the silence of the sky on this hot late Summer afternoon, it was easy to feel a sympathetic sense of loss, akin to Victor’s, that although I had made it here, it was too late to hear or see any plane, still less a Lightning.
Not even a Chipmunk “grinding endless circles overhead”.
Victor turned back, down a lane so narrow that only one car at a time could have passed along it and grass grew in the middle on the part where no wheels ever ran. The airfield was out of sight again, behind the trees. In the little, rutted lane, there was no way of knowing that war planes took off and landed a hundred yards away. They passed a farm and a field where three quiet horses looked over the hedge and it was a shock to hear Victor say, ‘That’s it, up ahead. Firegate Four.’
The atmosphere at Firegate Four, unlike at the north end of the runway, is now a little diminished. Because the gate is boarded and because the airfield beyond is now covered with solar panels, it’s hard to capture the view that Victor and Andrew have of the planes in Chapters 8, 13 and 16.
Still, this is a pilgrimage, and faith (or imagination) can supply the missing experiences. By getting on the bank I could just about make out the control tower amid a vista of solar panels, the runway long since hidden from view.
The field that once sent English Electric Lightnings into the sky now makes sky lighting into electricity for the English.
As Victor says, and as we’ve been observing throughout this walk, “Everything go.”
Or almost everything. Just down the lane is what looks like an original, unboarded Firegate, so I had some of the atmosphere of this setting that I could soak up.
THE CHAPEL AT SCOTTOW VILLAGE CEMETERY
On their second visit to Coltishall, Andrew’s curiosity about a low-lying building across the cabbage field brings Victor into contact with a place he hasn’t thought to visit before. It is the book’s third graveyard.
‘What’s that little house over there?’ he asked. ‘Why is there a light on the roof?’
Victor looked, without interest. ‘That’s got a light on because that’s near the runway. I don’t know what that is, though. I never bothered to look, before. There was always so much else to look at. That little bit of ground round it is a sort of cemetery.’
‘It’s a funny place to have a cemetery,’ said Andrew. ‘What’s it like? I’m going over to have a look.’
‘That’s only old graves,’ said Victor.
The cemetery lay behind a thorn hedge and a tall iron gate. Between the road and the little building the graves lay warmly in the sunlight, bedded in tidy grass. It seemed a nice place to be buried in, if you had to be buried at all. He forgot that it was almost on the runway.
They went up to the building. Its wooden doors were locked firmly against them.
Andrew walked round to the side where there was a window with little diamond panes. He put his face close to the dusty glass and looked in.
All he could see was the window opposite, old chairs…
…and a curious vehicle that looked like a wide wooden ladder with high wheels, one each side of it.
Victor looked over his shoulder. ‘That’s a bier. That’s what they put the coffins on.’
The tiny chapel at the cemetery looks almost exactly the same now as described in the book, and it’s clearly been a long time since anyone but spiders and – less fortunately – flies frequented it.
It was eccentric, neglected and macabre 45 years ago and it is now too, locked up and only viewable through dusty windows and its keyhole.
The boys’ time in graveyards and places of the dead is key to their sense of a past only available in clues.
These places are mute, deserted; mourners long since gone, abstracted.
It’s difficult for the boys to link them with the unselfconscious vitality of their childhood summer.
THE WAR GRAVES
Chapter 13, disguised as an interlude, is a key moment in which the boys begin to synthesise different ideas they discover tangibly juxtaposed here.
There are older, local graves, like those in Polthorpe and Pallingham, but the cemetery is in two distinct halves. The other side is devoted to deaths in the more recent past, ones that connect to Victor’s obsession with Spitfires, Hurricanes and the air battles of the Second World War (75-80 years ago to us but just 30-35 years back from the boys).
Victor’s naïve notion of Britain versus the rest is initially complicated by a closer look that discovers foreign insignia among the allied fallen: New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians… and also Czechs.
‘Did they die in the Battle of Britain?’ said Andrew.
‘Some of them maybe,’ said Victor, tracing a name with his finger. ‘Not most of them, though. A lot of these dates are much later.’
‘They aren’t all English,’ said Andrew. ‘This one came from Canada and flew with the RAF.’ He moved to another row. ‘This one was in the Australian Air Force.’
‘Look at these,’ said Victor, up ahead. ‘These are properly foreign. I can’t read the names at all.’
He was standing by a row of stones a little different from the others. Instead of bearing the encircled wings of the RAF they were carved with small crosses.
Andrew bent to look at the names. ‘I think they’re German,’ he said.
‘Germans?’ said Victor. ‘Buried here? The enemy?’
‘They couldn’t not bury them, could they?’ said Andrew. ‘They must have been shot down over here in a battle. Once they were dead they weren’t the enemy any more.’
‘Just think,’ said Victor. ‘This chap here,’ he pointed to one of the English graves, ‘might have been killed by that chap there. And now they’re buried beside each other.’
‘Not quite,’ said Andrew. ‘The Germans are in a row on their own. There are three more over there, but they haven’t put anyone else beside them to finish the row.’
‘Perhaps they didn’t think that would be right,’ said Victor.
He paused by the middle stone of the row. ‘What do this one say? That’s not quite the same as the others.’
Andrew looked. On the middle stone it said only: Ein Deutscher Soldat.
‘They didn’t know his name,’ said Andrew. ‘I think it means, a German soldier. No one ever knew who he was.’
‘Perhaps the others were his mates,’ said Victor. ‘I don’t suppose anybody ever knew what happened to him; his family, or anyone. He just didn’t come home. And we know he’s here, but we don’t know who he was.’
Here are the other four stones with the names of the known soldiers.
Andrew observes, “in real life it hurts just as much whichever side you die on. And you’re just as dead afterwards.”
You feel the boys both grow up a little in that moment.
I barely noticed it when I first heard this story, but as an adult it struck me how much time the boys spend thinking about death. But of course it makes sense.
The graveyards are an insistent drumbeat through the book that finally crescendos into Victor’s climactic emotional protest at Fire Gate Four:
Ingham graveyard, new section
Standing in all these woebegone locations now in the last glow of the Summer of 2020, it strikes me that the book is a sort of beautiful funeral for childhood innocence.
Of course, it’s also a hesitant welcoming of the life beyond it. We brush constantly against incipient grief, but Mark refuses to leave us with its bitterness. That we save for adulthood.
And the fact that the graves we meet are deaths long since adjusted to, all the drama and trauma now mossed over, I suppose is where the book’s message is really located: the survivors got over that; you’ll get over this.
It’s wise to stand awhile with the reality of sadness: a little time in the clouds, and a little time on the ground.
And so, by the end of Chapter 17, Victor has converted his cry of the heart into something more like gratitude and acceptance.
As a last straggling Lightning does death-defying tricks in the sky, he gives us a grin and a message that change can be acceptable after all.
‘What a way to go out, eh? Whaaaaaaaam.’
I agree. I’m glad I went out and recorded what remains, before everything go.
Text and photographs (c) @WaywardRhymes, 2021
@WaywardRhymes tweets about walks he’s taken.
The complete route of this walk is available on Ordnance Survey online.
All of the photographs, showing more of the places visited are available on Google Photos: