I sometimes think that writing has driven me insane. Why else would someone drive halfway across the country to find a place that doesn’t exist?
It has happened before. I know I should do the research first, but several times I have written about a place and, for whatever reason, visited it only after the book was written. At least this time I had an excuse – the excuse that everyone now uses to explain whatever hasn’t been done – COVID.
I’m not sure why I used Maldon as the main venue for Death at the Mint. Perhaps the battle where Byrhtnoth died many years later inspired me to find out what the place was like at that time. Perhaps it was just that I needed someone to kill off and Maldon had a Mint at that time, and the moneyer had a name, Abonel, although he was not killed, in fact he was still working years after I killed him off. I fact none of the characters I invented as suspects or involved with the investigation were real people.
It probably had something to do with the fact that I had visited the town, many times. I lived not far away and would be taken shopping there – it had good shops! It was also the place to go for a trip out, usually at times like Boxing Day or New Years Day when you wanted a walk to blow away the cobwebs. More recently, after they put up a statue to Byrhtnoth, I had another excuse.
I didn’t “know” the town though and it seemed like the ideal place to go for a short break after the long lockdown. Nothing spectacular but with plenty of reasons to go, research, family history and family memories – and a sword! I had learned that a sword had been found. Described as a Viking sword, but in fact is could be Viking or Saxon, they would have been similar, but I suppose Vikings are more attractive (boo) and it was exactly the right period for the Battle of Maldon. I have mentioned this sword before, but I wanted to see it in the flesh (preferable a Viking’s flesh, but that’s another matter!)
We had to book a time slot to visit the Combined Military Services Museum, but in fact we were waiting outside when it opened, and it was not busy, so I could get close to the sword, and ended up having a long chat with the staff. The rest of the museum was more interesting than I expected. There were walls full of guns and pointed weapons which don’t really interest me, but there was a fascinating display of spying equipment, miniature cameras and secret poisons – they had the umbrella that was used to assassinate Georgi Markov in 1978.
Eventually we left to get some lunch and continue our tour of the town. We had downloaded some online walks that were a great help and discovered some interesting facts about the town, but what about the town that Wulfstan visited? Were there any clues? Very few. I had done a bit of research but did my imagination fit reality?
Maldon is an ancient town, first mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. It’s name was Maeldun, or monument on a hill, well I can confirm the hill – I wonder what the monument had been – perhaps a cross. Being in Essex, it was in a part of the country that had been invaded by the Great Heathen Army and when King Alfred eventually made peace it was on the “other side”, of the DaneLaw. After Alfred’s death the border was strengthened by his son Edward the Elder (and daughter Aetheflaed, in Mercia) by the building of Burhs, or fortifications to protect the borders from invasion. In 912 /913) King Edward stayed in Maldon while building the Burh at Witham and returned in 919 to fortify the town. But where was it? Nothing remains today, but apparently banks and ditches were still visible in the eighteenth century. In 1986 the Maldon Archaeological Society published a book investigating the site and came to some general conclusions As one might imagine, it was on top of the hill, perhaps the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, reused by the Romans for whom Maldon would have been an important place.
The burgh was roughly oval and lay either side of the main road. In my book, Wulfstan climbs the steep hill to a gate, where guards let him in. I didn’t venture a detailed description, but had the road run through the middle of the burh and out the other side then continue down to the river. This road is now the High Street.
We were staying at the White Horse, at the top end of the High Street, ideal placed for exploring, the first night, after dinner (the food was very good, if somewhat too plentiful), we went out for a short walk. I set out uphill, not , to my husbands confusion, towards the shops. The road eventually turned a corner and we entered a small square. I immediately recognised it – it was where Wulfstan had entered the town. I pointed to the innocent houses opposite, “That was where the burh was!” I discovered later that I was correct.
Quoting from the book (I don’t think I’m giving away any plot spoilers), “Gradually the road widened, and the houses became larger, surrounded by plots of land. In one, a man was digging, turning the soil ready for planting. He rested, leaning on his spade and watched them pass. He raised a hand as Wulfstan wished him good evening.The road opened out. To one side was a wooden church, with a large stone cross beside it. Wulfstan walked his horse over to take a look. As he admired the intricately worked stone he heard a familiar voice behind him.”
In fact he had just reached the White Horse. This is the view from our bedroom window.
All Saints Church, Maldon was built 13th/14th century, but there are records of an earlier Norman church on the site. Why not an Anglo-Saxon one? The monument is a WW1 war memorial, but an ideal place for the ancient memorial that gave Maldon it’s name. I didn’t mention the horse trough, but I’m sure Sleipnir would have appreciated it.
We visited the church the following day. An interesting building, with statues of famous Maldonians on the outside – including Byrhtnoth! It upset me to find him with a pigeon on his head, which I had to drive off before taking my photos.
But we must return to Wulfstan, and the book. After his conversation, he continues down the High Street to the river. It seemed a bit further than I had imagined it, but perhaps that was because I was walking, and not on horseback. Down yet another steep hill and Wulfstan reached The Hythe. “Slowly he rode down the rutted road and out onto the dock. He knew he had been here before. Beside him was an alehouse. It was full now. Men spilling out of the brightly lit doors. The smell of frying fish swirled around him, almost drowning the permanent stink of mud, and he realised how hungry he was.“
It was not difficult to imagine this scene. It can’t have changed much – the old Thames Barges tied up the dock, the busy workers, now tourists, and the pubs. Even the Jolly Sailor that I remember was now flanked by a fish restaurant.
Over the years I have taken photographs of the river here, and for some reason, the tide always seems to be out. This visit was unusual – no boats leaning in the mud, and the sun was shining. We had to see more, so we carried on to visit the modern statue of Byrhtnoth – the one I don’t like. The road peters out and the path turns into a promenade. There is the attractive Marine Lake, that many years was used for swimming – I remember the slippy muddy bottom. Further along, on the right is Promenade Park, with children’s entertainments. To the left is the river, with views across to Heybridge and the water lapping against the walls. It is a popular place for dog walking.
And right at the end, when you can go no further, is the statue. He is supposed to be looking down river the river toward Northey Island, watching out for invading Vikings
It was getting warm, so I sat down and had a serious discussion with Byrhtnoth about the site of the Battle of Maldon . Had he had made a mistake, I asked, and they had landed elsewhere. I didn’t get much of a reply, so I gave up and walked back and had an ice cream. Should I have bought him an ice cream as well?
The only other information that I wanted to find out, for the book, was where the Mint was. Someone suggested that, of course it was in Silver Street, a narrow street next to All Saints Church However, to me it must have been within the walls of the Saxon burgh, and according to what I had discovered, although Silver Street was close, it would not have been with the walls of the burgh. Perhaps it was where the local silversmiths had their shops, close enough take protection in case of attack. Or maybe the the theories are wrong. After all this time who know what is right. All I know is that by the end of the trip was satisfied with my research.
I said at the start of this post that writing had driven me insane. A final example: we went out for a drive, along the Old London Road towards Danbury. We drove through what would have been the burh, down the hill that Sleipnir disliked. Then I shouted “There’s the pig farm!” My husband nearly drove off the road! I explained that I had recognised the location and calmed down. And if you want to know the significance of the pig farm, you will have to read the book.
If you do read it, and happen to know Maldon, please let me know if you find my theories correct, and I am not going mad.