Wednesday 16 August 2017

The Transports, by Peter Bellamy - A Norfolk Love Story?

I have lived in Norwich now for over thirty years, yet still this city throws up new stories, and new places for me to visit. Take Kett's Heights, for example. I knew the story of Kett's Rebellion against land enclosures back in 1549, and knew that Robert Kett's rebels marched upon Norwich and besieged the city. The high ground which they used to make camp to the East of the city is now known as Kett's Heights, owned by Norwich City Council but supported by the Friends of Kett's Heights who aim to maintain the area as a welcoming space for the local community and visitors to Norwich.

I first made my way up to Kett's Heights only a few months ago. There is a gateway on the right hand side as you ascend Kett's Hill from the roundabout at the junction of Gurney Road, Barrack Street, and Bishop Bridge Road. Passing through this gate, and climbing the stepped path through the trees, brings you to an open area that was might once have been an orchard. This open area is perfect for outdoor theatre performances, and is indeed where I saw local company The Common Lot perform their history of migration show, 'Come Yew In', back in July. Proceed slightly further, and you arrive at the beacon installed in 1988 to mark the anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. At this point one is treated to panoramic views of the city of Norwich, including the castle, both cathedrals and the city hall and clock tower. It is now a vital destination on any tour for my visiting family or friends.

On Sunday August 13th this year I was back again, this time to watch a performance of Peter Bellamy's legendary ballad opera 'The Transports'. Written in 1973, and released at the end of the golden age of concept albums in 1977, 'The Transports' featured such folk luminaries of the time as Martin Carthy, Mike Waterson, Norma Waterson, June Tabor and Dave Swarbrick. It tells the true love story of Henry Cable and Susannah Holmes, who were separately tried for theft in 1783.

The death sentences are commuted to transportation to the Americas but, because of the American War of Independence, they remain in Norwich Prison for a period of three years, during which time Henry and Susannah start an illicit affair, and bear a child. When transportation commences to Australia instead Henry and Susannah are destined to be separated, and Susannah is told to give up the child. A public campaign taken to Lord Sydney, the then Home Secretary, results in permission for the threesome to travel together, and for Henry and Susannah to marry. They are even donated a bounty of £20, raised by public subscription, to establish their new life in Australia.

When Henry and Susannah arrive in Australia in 1788 they become the first convict transportees to be married in Sydney, and the first to successfully sue in court (Their 'bounty' of £20 was plundered by the captain of the ship, but Henry managed to win damages of £15 against him). Henry becomes a successful businessman in New South Wales, and he and Susannah had another ten children. Two hundred years on there are literally hundreds of descendants of Henry and Susannah who can trace their ancestry directly back to that early convict ship. The story remains today as much a part of the history of New South Wales as it does of Norwich.

Whilst 'The Transports' has been performed many times since 1977, local amateur theatre group Crude Apache are one of the only companies to fully dramatize it. This year's tour has seen their production performed at various locations around Norwich over the last ten days, as well as at Wymondham, Whitlingham Park and the Geledeston Locks. This swansong performance on a Sunday afternoon at Ketts Heights was my chance to see Crude Apache's cast of ten singers and twelve musicians bring this story to life.


At just over an hour in length this is a challenging project for any amateur company to achieve, but musical director Tim Lane and director Panda Monium have managed to create a magical performance that holds our attention from start to finish. Admittedly some of the performers' voices are stronger than others, and the band occasionally falters in maintaining momentum, but for the largely seated audience on the grass at Ketts Heights, the enchantment is clear to see, helped by the dappled sunlight shining through the surrounding trees. No narrator is needed to guide us through the storyline - Bellamy's words and music and the commitment of the cast mean that we are totally engrossed in every detail of this poignant and reflective love story. Of particular mention are Gillian Dean (who plays Susannah Holmes) and Leo Oakley (who takes the part of Henry Cable).

Thank you to Crude Apache for such a scintillating and enlightening afternoon, and to the Friends of Kett's Heights for their continued work in restoring the beauty of this iconic location.

Crude Apache Theatre Company Facebook page -

Friends of Kett's Heights Facebook page -

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