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Radical East Anglia

Peter Clark celebrates some of the ‘awkward squad’ associated with eastern England.

East Anglia is different. It is not on the road to anywhere. Norwich may have once been the second city of the kingdom but East Anglia missed out on the Industrial Revolution. A culture of being different has marked its history. It provided serious resistance to both the Roman and the Norman invasions. There has been a strong tradition of rural Nonconformity, and it has been the location for sustained challenges to the established order, from the Peasants’ Revolt in the fourteenth century, the Kett Rebellion in the sixteenth, Cromwell in the seventeenth, down to the twentieth-century Burston School Strike, ‘the longest strike in history’.

As we tour East Anglia we can pause at sites that mark Britain’s radical heritage. Many villages and towns show a legacy of an alternative, less celebrated history. East Anglia was always solid for the Protestant Reformation. The Church of England may have had the higher political influence but there was, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a welcome to Methodism and its more radical variant, Primitive Methodism. As we travel around the villages we can marvel at splendid parish churches but we should not overlook the stone or red brick chapels that claimed another allegiance. Sometimes the Dissent was divisive and disputatious. Dissenting communities split up, and often chapels of several denominations survive in one village: the record must go to Upwell in Fenland Norfolk, where there were three Wesleyan, four Primitive and three Wesleyan Reform chapels as well as a Baptist chapel. The church may have held the allegiance of the squire and the richer farmers, but the farm workers, and later on the railway workers, often opted for Dissent.

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