Sunday, 13 March 2011

Searching for Munnings Country

DURING the spring and early summer of 1910 a strange trio of men would leave their lodgings in Costessey each morning and head for the hills – the Ringland Hills. In charge was a man who would later become famous as Sir Alfred Munnings, but at this time was just a promising and spirited young artist. Accompanying him was his man Bob (whose “stiff black hair, his sunburnt face and arms, gave him the look of a tinker”). Bob looked after the gear. Finally there was a youngster called Shrimp who was in charge of the horses and ponies. Munnings later described him as “a good lad, a son of the wild. He could neither read nor write and had no need of either. The best model I ever had.” These two, paid handsomely by Munnings, would decamp from The Falcon Inn in Costessey to find a suitable spot for the outdoor painting that Munnings craved. The horses were the stars of every canvas.  In his wonderful autobiography “An Artist’s Life”, he says he first  discovered The Falcon in 1908 while on a bicycle ride from Norwich – where he had worked as a lithographic artist.
“Meeting a landlord who looked like one and just a ride, had opened up a new world with fresh ideas. My first short stay at the The Falcon was only a feeler for my future painting on the Ringland Hills.”
That future painting took place in 1910 when the trio left Norwich with a van, a cart and a host of horses and ponies. Various drunken adventures ensue over the next six weeks with the countryside around the Ringland Hills providing the backdrop. “I developed a passion for the gorgeous blazing yellow of gorse in bloom,” he wrote. He invited friends to stay in Costessey, loving the relaxed atmosphere of The Bush (which survives as a pub, unlike The Falcon) where he enjoyed “the soothing, idle holiday atmosphere about its garden”.
So how is Munnings country today? Well Costessey keeps its village feel and The Bush retains its lengthy garden. The village of Ringland is also pretty and placid with one of the most elegant village churches (pictured)  I’ve seen in Norfolk. But I need your help on the Ringland Hills. We did a circular walk from Honingham Lane up into Ringland then round onto Costessey Lane, returning via Sandy Lane. The  landscape to the east of Honingham Lane looks great, but the “keep out” signs are everywhere. Next to the Wensum in Ringland, we failed to find any way of hugging the river and had to retreat to Costessey Lane with its drivers rat-running down to the southern bypass. Finally Sandy Lane, which passes the very acres claimed by the OS map to be the Ringland Hills, was a fly-tipper’s paradise, but not an artist’s. Munnings says “Ringland and Costessey on the west side of Norwich, are situated in one of the loveliest districts of all the pleasant country surrounding the old city.”
Well yesterday – albeit on an un-sunny March day – it didn’t quite live up to that description. So if I want to take a photo of a beautiful landscape so beloved of Munnings where should I go?
* More on Sir Alfred Munnings “one of England’s finest painters of horses, and an outspoken enemy of Modernism” here.


  1. Weston Road, which is south of Sandy Lane, is a bit more open, but you're on top of the hills rather than looking at them. I wonder how much the landscape has changed - the 1946 aerial photos show it as much more heath-y and less wooded, especially the bit of Access Land marked as Ringland Hills on the OS Explorer.

  2. That could explain it. You expect cities to change, but it's a bit strange when countryside morphs too. All in all I couldn't feel the spirit of Munnings. Nice pint of Straw Dog in the Swan at Ringland, mind.