Burnham Thorpe — Nelson’s Birthplace

I left Burnham Market around 8 a.m. and headed down the road to Burnham Thorpe.  Norfolk appears to have missed the UK highway building boom, and the road to Burnham Thorpe was one of those narrow country lanes that are particularly harrowing to someone accustomed to driving on the right-hand side of wider roads.  Fortunately, the village was only a short drive and there was no one else on the road.  In fact, until the last minutes of my two-hour visit, I saw no human beings except the driver of a distant farm tractor.  Burnham Thorpe village is tiny as well as sleepy — only 144 people today, a decrease from Nelson’s day.  I should not have been surprised, as Nelson’s father is credited with saying about Burnham Thorpe, “All is hush at high noon as at midnight.”

Nonetheless, Burnham Thorpe does more than a credible job of honoring the immortal memory.

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I began my pilgrimage at Nelson’s birth site.  Nelson was one of at least eight children born to Edmund Nelson and Catherine Suckling Nelson.  Several of his siblings died in infancy, including a previous Horatio.  Nelson was named after Lord Horatio Walpole, one of his mother’s relations.  Edmund Nelson owed his rector’s position at Burnham Thorpe and several others to his wife’s Walpole connection, and the Suckling-Walpole “interest” proved vital to Horatio’s career on numerous occasions.

The old rectory was “pulled down” in 1803, but the Nelson Barn remains (now a B&B).  Along with the trees, outbuildings, and stone walls, they give a good sense of the place where Horatio spent much of his first twelve years.

 

 

During Nelson’s time a country pub called The Plough existed in the center of Burnham Thorpe.  Nelson visited there often during his Burnham Thorpe sojourn from 1788-1793.  During that time Nelson lived in the Rectory  with his wife Fanny, a widowed mother whom he married during his tour of duty in the Leeward Islands.  The Burnham Thorpe sojourn was Nelson’s period of near-poverty.  Throughout the Burnham Thorpe years Nelson continually sought a naval command, difficult to obtain for half-pay officers during a time of peace.  Despite his quick success and patronage, he had also made a few enemies during his early career.  Still, from all accounts during the Burnham Thorpe years he was a dutiful son and husband, purportedly making a number of improvements to the property.

The Plough, pictured below, became The Lord Nelson after Nelson’s victory at the Nile in 1798.  I had hoped to lunch there, as the internet had good reviews of it as an authentic country pub with much Nelson memorabilia.  Unfortunately, The Lord Nelson closed in 2016 and its future is uncertain.  The inside was empty and its present owners have stripped even the hanging pub sign from the front.  From what I can tell, The Lord Nelson’s exterior hasn’t changed much over the centuries.  There are stories of how Nelson held a celebratory recruiting banquet on the second floor when he finally got appointed to command HMS Agamemnon in 1793, as war clouds gathered between Britain and revolutionary France.

Left in disappointment by The Lord Nelson’s closure, and anticipating an early exit from Burnham Thorpe, I scouted around the village and glimpsed All Saint’s Church in the distance.  I set off on foot and was rewarded for my efforts.

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All Saints’ Church, from the center of Burnham Thorpe.

Along the walk to the church I passed the Manor House, a lovely 15th century building that was extensively modified during the 18th century.  The Manor owner was Lord Orford, although the building eventually passed to Lord Walpole, Nelson’s mother’s distant relation.  Nelson must have visited here, although I couldn’t find that confirmed anywhere.

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All Saints’ Church is a 12th century building that has been renovated many times since.  Although still the parish church, it has also become a museum to Nelson and his family.

Although no one was present when I visited, the church door was open.  The day was May 7, a propitious day as I found when I viewed the copy of Saintsbury’s Royal Navy Day by Day opened on a table inside the church.  Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, HMS Victory, was launched on that same day in 1765.

 

Inside, the church contains a number of panels explaining Nelson and his family’s connection with Norfolk and Burnham Thorpe. The sanctuary itself has a wonderful open feel, aided by the morning light.  The lectern is made from wood taken from Victory and the walls contain Nelson’s correspondence,  commemorative plaques, and a Nelson bust.  It also contains the Nelson children’s commemorative plaque for Edmund upon his death in 1802, which you believe must have been largely financed and authored by Horatio.

 

Other commemorations to Nelson date from the 20th century.  Naval officers contributed to repair the All Saints’ bell, and the battle ensigns from HMS Nelson, a WWII era battleship, are hung in the sanctuary.

As I walked away from All Saints to my car, parked at The Lord Nelson across the village playfields, I left feeling I had obtained a sense of Nelson’s origins and one of the few places on land where he had established roots.

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Into Nelson Country

After an unrelated trip into North Wales, a picked up a rental car at Heathrow and headed towards Norfolk and Nelson country.  On  the way I stopped at Sandringham, the royals’ summer home.  The house itself is a bit of a Victorian hodgepodge, but the grounds are spectacular.

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I found that there are many great country houses in Norfolk, but that was not the Nelson family heritage.  Nelsons had lived in Norfolk for generations as middle-gentry, mostly farmers and clergymen.  Nelson’s mother had upper-class connections, and those would serve him well throughout his career in a time when patronage proved paramount.  Young “Horace”, as he was then called, spent two periods of his life in Norfolk:  his first twelve years before he went to sea; and later, from 1788-1792, when he was on half pay during one of Britain’s rare periods of 18th century peace.  He always claimed to be “a Norfolk man” and many of his followers came from that region.

The heart of Nelson Country is the five Burnham towns: Burnham Market, Burnham Norton, Burnham Deepdale,  Burnham Overy Staithe, and Burnham Thorpe.  None is more than a few miles from the sea.  I made Burnham Market, the largest of the towns, my base and stayed at the Nelson Country Inn.

IMG_0592_The Nelson Inn B MktBurnham Market is a quaint and affluent town that appears to be a destination for  holiday travelers from London and the South.  During the bank holiday weekend I was there, they crowded the town and took advantage of  an unseasonably clear and hot day.  The town is charming.  The architectural blend of brick and cobblestone found on many of the local buildings is particularly remarkable, and I found this pattern throughout Norfolk.

There are plenty of reminders of the immortal memory in Burnham Market:

Most impressive was the Nelson collection at the Hoste Arms, formerly known as the Pitt Arms during Nelson’s time.  When in its former incarnation, Nelson rode there frequently from Burnham Thorpe to read newspapers and see if he had any news of a ship.  The current owner has Nelson interests and maintains a small exhibit on Nelson’s life within the inn and restaurant.

The exhibit comprises a few pieces of Nelson memorabilia and a nice scale model of HMS Victory under another Nelson allegorical painting.

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The Inn’s namesake, William Hoste, had a Nelson connection himself.  Also from Norfolk (and the son of a parson), Nelson took him to sea when he was 12 and he eventually became a naval officer.  Hoste was known as “Nelson’s Doggie,” because he was a Nelson protege and because he captained Nelson’s dispatch ship when Nelson commanded in the Mediterranean.  Hoste served with Nelson at Calvi, at Santa Cruz, and at the Nile, but missed Trafalgar while on detached duty.  Hoste later showed the “Nelson Touch” at the Battle of Lissa.  While commanding a frigate squadron in HMS Amphion, he signal-flagged “Remember Nelson” and won his own signal victory over a superior French force.

Hoste’s successful exploits as a frigate captain in the Adriatic also served as the source material for a number of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, including The Ionian Mission (Book 8) and Treason’s Harbor (Book 9).  Later, in The Hundred Days (Book 19), O’Brian has several characters relate tales of Hoste’s actions in the Adriatic.

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Geoff Hunt’s Cover Art from Treason’s Harbor

Burnham Market was just an introduction, however.  Nelson’s birthplace was down the road and I planned to spend the next morning there seeking the source of the immortal memory.

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Collioure: One More Stop on the Aubrey-Maturin Immortal Memory Trail

The next stop on my Immortal Memory Trail occurred in 2017, and it was in Collioure, a harbor town on the Mediterranean about 10 miles north of the Spanish Border. Nelson must have sailed offshore Collioure on one of his many Mediterranean tours of duty, but I could find no reference to him ever visiting there. Collioure is best known as Patrick O’Brian’s home where he wrote the entire Aubrey-Maturin canon. A pilgrimage to that source became the reason for my visit.

Collioure is part of French Catalonia, and readers of the Aubrey-Maturin series know that Stephen Maturin was half-Catalan and owned a castle somewhat south of the French-Spanish border in Spanish Catalonia. O’Brian certainly learned the Catalan culture and terroir during his time in Collioure.  It infused his writing in both an earlier novel and his portrait of Stephen Maturin.

The town itself is magnificently picturesque, a former fishing village and artist’s colony turned tourist destination.  One of O’Brian’s artist friends called it “the last stronghold of free spirits, errant poets and painters thirsting for pure colors.”   O’Brian and his wife moved there in 1949. He made it his home until his death.

Armed with an article that noted his homes and haunts during his time in Collioure, we stayed in a hotel overlooking the harbor, drank in Les Templiers, the bar he often frequented, and drank in the spirit of the place (the bar had the more prosaic name of Cafe de Sports during O’Brian’s life). The following photos show the combination of history, charm and scenery that is Collioure’s draw.

Of course, no pilgrimage is complete without paying homage to the hero’s final resting place, so I was able to find Patrick and Mary’s grave in the “new cemetery” in the hills overlooking the town. Many “lissuns” had come there before me and I similarly paid my respects to the learned, but odd little man that has given me so many hours of reading pleasure.

The Immortal Memory Trail in Canada

Nelson Monument (1809) in Place Jacques-Cartier - Montreal… | Flickr ...

Two years after my October trip, I visited Montreal and knew that there is a Nelson Monument in Place Jacques Cartier (pictured above in a stock photo from the Internet). Originally the site of a castle’s gardens destroyed by fire, Place Jacques Cartier was the site of Montreal’s public market until the 1950’s.  It’s now one of the main tourist sites in Montreal’s Old City. Montreal citizens erected the monument in 1809, several decades before the Nelson column in London’s Trafalgar Square.  Montreal’s Nelson column has apparently been controversial among the francophone Quebecois, but it has survived several attempts to remove or relocate it.

As you can see from my photos, the column and base are currently undergoing restoration and only the copy of the Nelson statue is visible (the original was removed to a museum in 1997).  From Nelson biographies, it appears that the closest Nelson ever got to Montreal was in 1782 when, as captain of the frigate Albermarle, he briefly dropped anchor in Quebec City. Nonetheless, as one of the earliest commemorations of the Immortal Memory, Montreal’s “monument Nelson” stands as a daily reminder of Nelson’s impact in a former part of the British Empire.

O’Brien set only one of the Aubrey-Maturin novels in North America, but it’s one of his best (The Fortune of War).  Neither Jack nor Stephen ever travel to Montreal, never getting any closer than Boston and Halifax.

Fitting Finale to the Trail

After leaving Gibraltar I arrived at Heathrow and had a next-day flight back to the U.S.  I decided a trip to Trafalgar Square would be a fitting finale to my historical pilgrimage and arrived at Piccadilly Circus on the Tube around 10:30 p.m. with only my I-Phone for a camera. As I watched the tourists climb on the lions surrounding Nelson, I wondered how many of them knew much about the man up on the column and how many of them would preserve his memory.

For me, this journey’s end rounded out a welcome diversion, but more importantly, my trail of the immortal memory brought home the lesson that Richard Snow articulated in his 1991 review of the Aubrey-Maturin series for the New York Times. He wrote that the best of historical fiction, “reminds us . . . of the most important of all historical lessons:  that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.”  How true.

From henceforth every October 21 I will make a special effort to remember and toast, “The immortal memory of Nelson and those who fell with him.”

Gibraltar — The “Rock” and the Immortal Memory

“There Gibraltar surprisingly was, grand and grey in the dimmest north-east distance. . . we had been smelling the land-breezes of Portugal, . . . we had Cape St. Vincent in view through the periscope, . . . and all night Cadiz Bay had been invisible but somehow palpable on our port hand.  Now . . . at daybreak we had Cape Trafalgar and the Spanish coast in sight to the north of us, and to starboard the mountains of Africa thrusting away to southward behind Cape Spartel.  All these names were an incantation to raise the immortal past, and the spirit of Nelson moved about the ruffled face of the water.”

So wrote Edward Young, a World War II English submarine captain, evoking the immortal memory upon seeing that unforgettable rock profile. I have always linked Gibraltar more to World War II than Nelson — Force H, convoys to Malta, and Britain barely holding on when the dark days of late December 1941 made the Mediterranean nearly an Axis lake. Gibraltar has been British since 1708 and remains British to this day, in law and in spirit.  It was a bit of a disappointment to me after Malta and Menorca.  Present-day Gibraltar has tried to preserve its historic past, but it is short on space and the high-rises and touristy bric-a-brac make its naval heritage more difficult to discern.

Nelson undoubtedly anchored in Gibraltar on more than one occasion, and he may well have come ashore during his life but I could find no indication of it.  Questions also remain as to whether his body came ashore after Trafalgar or not, although HMS Victory spent some time there after the battle undergoing repairs before sailing home with Nelson’s body preserved in a cask of wine or spirits.

The Gibraltar Heritage Trust also has taken pains to connect itself with Trafalgar, which is about 40 miles away as the crow flies.  The Trafalgar cemetery, just outside the city walls, was renamed after the battle and holds the graves of several officers who died of their Trafalgar wounds.  The cemetery also contains a 1992 memorial to Trafalgar, with Collingwood’s victory dispatch.  Just outside is a Nelson statue erected on Trafalgar’s 200th anniversary.

The remains of fortress Gibraltar and its topography remain its major attraction, although the Gibraltar Apes vie for attention in many spots.  I found walking the Upper Rock Nature Preserve trails the most rewarding part of my brief stay in Gibraltar, with unparalleled views.  My overwhelming impression was how much closer Africa and Algeciras were than I had ever imagined, and how compact a space Gibraltar Harbor and the city occupy.

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Gibraltar City and the Moorish Castle

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Gibraltar City Looking South Along the Rock

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At the Top of the Rock Looking Northeast

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Africa and the Straits of Gibraltar

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Gibraltar City and Its Only Natural Harbor

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Algeciras Bay from the Upper Rock Nature Preserve

Naval Base

Gibraltar Naval Base with HMS Ocean at the Quayside and Algeciras in the Background

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Trafalgar Cemetery

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Grave Marker

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Trafalgar Grave Marker

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1992 Trafalgar Monument

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Collingwood’s Dispatch

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2005 Nelson Statue

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The Apes Are Still Present, So Presumably Gibraltar Will Stay British for Now

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Fortifications on the Rock

The timing of my visit to Gibraltar was auspicious, for HMS Ocean, the largest surface ship in the Royal Navy, was docked at Gibraltar after undergoing exercises with a French Squadron (small irony there).  Her presence throughout my visit gave me a small taste of what the Gibraltar Mole must have looked like with dozens of grey warships present, as would have been the case for many years of Gibraltar’s history.

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Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean, with Algeciras in the Background

Menorca and Nelson — Faint Traces of the Immortal Memory

The photo above is of “Golden Farm”, a beautiful building high on the northern slope of Port Mahon Harbor. Some reports say that Nelson stayed here while visiting Minorca in HMS Foudroyant.  Menorca tourist guides and and the occasional publication will also refer to it as Nelson and Lady Hamilton’s “love nest.”  The fog of legend once again clouds the immortal memory.

I tried to sort through this issue while I was in Minorca (the historic name of the Island until recent time).  Nelson did visit Minorca in 1799 for the purpose of convincing Minorca’s military governor, General James Erskine,  to give him troops for the siege of Malta.  Nelson’s diary indicates that he arrived in Mahon on October 12 of that year.  It’s also clear that Lord and Lady Hamilton stayed behind in Naples.  There’s correspondence between Nelson and Ambassador Hamilton where Hamilton reports on his wife’s health and passes on her greetings to Nelson.  Nelson’s diary confirms that, except for a visit to General Erskine and the Naval Yard, he did not leave his flagship.  As one historian concludes, the documentary evidence shows the story about Nelson and Lady Hamilton enjoying a romantic sojourn in Minorca to be “a fairy tale.”   Still, it’s a good story and an 1813 map identifies the place as both the St. Antonio convent and Golden Farm.  Unfortunately, my stay in Minorca missed the weekly tour of Golden Farm, so I only saw it from afar.

Port Mahon Map Showing Collingwood House (1813)

Port Mahon Map from 1813 showing Golden Farm (top center) and Collingwood House

Plenty of real naval history occurred at Minorca.  Along with Gibraltar, the British took over Minorca in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession.  One of the Royal Navy’s blacker episodes occurred there in 1756.  England was engaged in one of its seemingly interminable wars with France, and it feared a French invasion of Minorca.  The admiralty sent a relief squadron under the command of Admiral John Byng.  By the time he arrived at the Island, the French had conquered all but Fort Saint Phillip,  a fortress at the mouth of Port Mahon, where a British force still held out under siege.  Byng joined battle with a roughly equal French naval squadron and fought it to a draw, but then withdrew his battered fleet to Gibraltar for refitting.  Shortly thereafter Fort Saint Phillip capitulated.  Byng became a scapegoat for George II, the government, and virulent public opinion.  Far worse, he was court martialled and executed by firing squad.  History regards this episode as an injustice and a disgraceful stain on a naval officer’s life and honor.  Voltaire famously wrote that Byng was shot “to encourage the others.” Rightly or not, some attribute the Nelsonian fighting spirit as a reaction to the Byng affair.

On a more positive note, Minorca became the location of Collingwood House, a mansion overlooking the harbor that now survives as the Hotel del Almirante, where I stayed during my time in Minorca.  The house and hotel take their name from Cuthbert Collingwood, who succeeded Nelson as C-in-C Mediterranean after Trafalgar.  The current owner has turned the hotel into a museum filled with art and antiques celebrating Collingwood and his Royal Navy heritage, including a touching story about Collingwood’s dog, “Bounce.”  It doesn’t matter too much that Collingwood actually spent very little time there. Although he was stationed at Port Mahon for various times between 1798 and 1810, he spent most of the time on board ship.  It appears his longest time in the house came at the end of his life when, ill and worn out from his duties, he stayed two weeks before setting sail for home and his family.  Alas, he died the next day within sight of Minorca.  A grateful nation buried him next to Nelson at St. Paul’s.  Several Royal Navy warships have taken Collingwood’s name, and the current Maritime Warfare School is HMS Collingwood.

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Hotel del Almirante Sign

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Hotel del Almirante (Collingwood House)

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Harbor View from Hotel del Almirante

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Collingwood House (Hotel del Almirante) from Port Mahon Harbor

Collingwood's Telescope & His Ships

Collingwood’s Telescope & His Ships

Second Floor Hall & Stairway

Collingwood House Hall & Stairway

Music Room on Second Floor

Collingwood House Music Room

Collingwood House also claims a U.S. Naval Heritage.  Knowing of my interest, one of the hotel staff kindly pointed out the following painting showing a U.S. frigate at Port Mahon.  I thought it was probably in the Mediterranean as part of the U.S. Navy’s efforts directed against the Barbary pirates and my subsequent research showed that was the case.  Apparently, there are dozens of U.S. sailors buried in the Anglo-American cemetery at Port Mahon and the U.S. Navy has made efforts in recent years to schedule port visits there.

Painting of US Frigate at Port Mahon

The Stars and Stripes flying from the Jackstaff of a U.S. Frigate in Port Mahon