Visiting Denver

MENTION ‘DENVER’ and most people will immediately think of a city close to the Rocky Mountains in the American state of Colorado. Recently, we visited Denver, not the city in the USA but a village in the English county of Norfolk. This small settlement lies a few yards west of the A10 road between Ely and Kings Lynn, immediately south of Downham Market. Norfolk’s Denver derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon words, ‘Dena fær’, meaning ‘the ford or passage of the Danes’. This name dates from the time that the Danes and Vikings were invading Britain after the Romans had abandoned it. Denver is located close to the River Great Ouse that flows into The Wash at Kings Lynn. It was this river that the Danish invaders needed to cross as they headed on their way to invading parts of England.

Denver windmill

The village of Denver is attractive and is arranged around its parish church of St Mary. Surrounded by its graveyard, the walls of this mainly mediaeval edifice, mostly 13th to 15th century, are made of large irregularly shaped boulders held together with mortar and trimmed with carved stone. Many of the village’s other buildings have walls constructed similarly, a feature that we observed in several other north Norfolk villages. St Mary’s has a square tower at its western end. Inside, its nave has a wonderful timber barrel vault ceiling decorated with carved features typical of gothic design. Otherwise, the church’s interior is simple without being plain. We could not spend too much time examining the place because we did not want to disturb a small group of elderly people praying aloud.

Denver has a tall historic windmill. This is on the western edge of the village and was built by John Porter in 1835 to replace an earlier mill on the same site. In 1863, a steam powered mill was erected next to the windmill. Further modernisation followed that. The large sails of the mill have gone, but the small fantail remains. The mill forms the centrepiece of a small complex of commercial enterprises housed in buildings that were formerly part of the mill compound. These include a café and a coiffure, aptly named ‘The Hair Mill’. Denver Mill is one of several lovely old windmills we saw dotted around northern Norfolk.

A narrow thoroughfare, Sluice Road, leads west from Denver towards the River Great Ouse, which is about 1.6 miles away. The road reaches a complex of sluice gates that regulate the levels of water in the river and other waterways including the River Wissey and the New Bedford River (man-made) that meet here. Now managed by The Environmental Agency, this set of sluice gates was first established, albeit in a simpler form, in 1651 by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677). It was he who introduced Dutch land reclamation methods to England, mostly in East Anglia and the Lincolnshire Fens. He married an English woman, Katherine Lapps, and his descendants remained in England, having changed their surname to ‘Youdan’. In 1647, Vermuyden lived in Maiden Lane in London’s Covent Garden.

There are at least five modern, electrically operated sluice gates at Denver. By operating them judiciously, water levels in much of Norfolk and its surroundings can be regulated. The Duke of Bedford River was built by Vermuyden to shorten the distance that water had to travel to and from Bedfordshire. According to the season, this was either flood water or water needed for agricultural purposes. The system of rivers and canals regulated by the sluices at Denver is far from simple. So, I will not attempt to explain it, but visitors to this impressive water-controlling complex can read all about it on a series of informative panels posted next to the sluices.

Sluice Road crosses the River Great Ouse and other streams along bridges to which some of the sluice gate mechanisms are attached. Although the river system would have been quite different when the Danes invaded England, it is possible that where Vermuyden built his first sluice might be close to where the invaders forded the Great Ouse and lent their name to Norfolk’s village of Denver.

Denmark in the tropics

I HAVE WANTED TO VISIT TRANQUEBAR (now called Tharambangadi) since I first heard of the place when I was a teenager in the 1960s. Danish settlers established a fort and their first trading post in India there in 1620. I had already visited the former Danish colony at Serampore (established by 1770) on the River Hooghly, and was keen to see what remains of Tranquebar.

We drove south from Pondicherry for three hours through flat terrain, passing huge rice paddies, negotiating sprawling towns and villages, and crossing numerous rivers and streams.

Tranquebar, a sleepy little place on the wave washed shore of the Bay of Bengal, contains a sizeable collection of buildings constructed by the Danes during their tenure of the town, which finally ended in 1845, when the Danes sold it to the British.

During the Danish era, there were three main churches. One of them built by the seashore was been destroyed by the sea long ago. The Zion Church, the oldest Protestant church in India, was consecrated in 1701. It is now used by the Church of South India. It was founded by a German Bartholomew Ziegenbald (1682-1719). He was educated at the University of Halle, where my great great grandfather received his doctoral degree in the early 19th century, and was sent (with his fellow student Heinrich Plütschau) by the King of Denmark to become the first Lutheran missionary in India.

Ziegenbald was a remarkable man. During the last few years of his life, which were spent in India, he was involved in Lutheran missionary work (countering the activities of Catholic missionaries), literary work, translating the Holy Bible into Tamil, running a printing press, and conducting church services.

The New Jerusalem Church, larger than the nearby Zion and designed with its nave equal in length as its transept, was consecrated in 1717, two years before Ziegenbald died. He was buried in it. The church remains a Lutheran place of worship. Its parish priest, Mr Samson, guided us around its plain interior and told us that about sixty local families worship there regularly. The church is partly surrounded by a small cemetery, some of its gravestones bearing Danish names.

Ziegenbald’s home, now located within the grounds of a school, contains a small museum. The groundfloor contains a portable reed organ, some manuscripts related to Ziegenbald, and two printing presses that were acquired long after Ziegenbald died. One of these presses, made in London in the 19th century, was being demonstrated to a group of Tamil Lutheran visitors.

I watched as Tamil letters were covered with red ink before being covered with a sheet of white paper. The press was then operated manually. When the paper with Tamil letters was removed and shown to the visitors crowding around with cameras poised in readiness, everyone applauded. Then, the demonstration completed, the group sung a hymn in Tamil, praising God for creating such a technological miracle.

The Ziegenbal house museum is currently curated by a German, Jasmine. She encouraged us to see a small bur lovely exhibition of artworks by two German artists from Halle, where Ziegenbald studied long ago. Then, she introduced us to an Indian artist Asma Menon, who is creating a Cabinet of Curiosities similar to a very old one that is kept in Halle and contains objects collected in India long ago. Her creation that will be housed in a cabinet similar to the one in Germany will contain a series of object that captures the ‘essence’ of Germany, as she found it on a recent visit to Halle and other German cities. We spent time talking with Asma and a young volunteer from Germany.

Aaron Hall, next to the former home of Ziegenbald, is named in memory of Reverend C Aaron (1698-1745). A Tamil, he was the first ever non-European to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor. He was ordained in December 1733. He had been baptized earlier by Ziegenbald. Jasmine told us that when Aaron was ordained, there had been massive objections to this back in Germany, but the ordination took place despite these.

The Neemrana “non-hotel” hotel at Tranquebar is housed in the picturesque former British Collector’s Bungalow close to the sea shore. Unfortunately, its restaurant proved to be rather a ‘non-restaurant’: poor food and very poor service. Most of the other diners were late middle-aged Danish tourists nursing cans of Kingfisher beer. Foolishly, I ordered pasta with “aglio olio”. What turned up was penne drowning in an a virulently bright reddish orange coloured sauce that tasted as if it contained tomato ketchup as its main ingredient.

Lunch over, we strolled along the beach passing a monument recording the arrival of Ziegenbald in India. This overlooks a small harbour surrounded by partially ruined stone walls. Men were bathing in its water which was calmer than the sea around it. From where we were walking, we could see row after row of foam crested waves breaking on the shoreline that stretched away to the southern horizon.

The fort built by the Danes under the command of Admiral Ove Gjedde (1594-1660), Fort Dansborg, is still pretty much intact. It contains a small museum with an odd assortment of exhibits – a bit of a jumble. I was intrigued by several fading Maratha paintings and a 12th century Indian stone carving in good condition.

As I stood by the well in the large central open air courtyard of the Fort with the afternoon sun beating down on me at the temperature well in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the Danish settlers and soldiers coped with a climate so different to what they were used to in Denmark. I was able to dive back into our air conditioned taxi after a few minutes in the sun. This option was not available in the centuries when the Danes and Germans spent months and years in Tranquebar. Even the interior of the Fort, with its thick walls, was not greatly cooler than outside.

The Fort is separate from the former British Collector’s Bungalow and the former Danish Governor’s House by a spacious sandy maidan. The Danish Governor’s House neighbours a smaller and more recent edifice named “Danish Indian Cultural Centre”. This contains a library and a small museum. Amongst the exhibits, there are several drawings and paintings by the former Danish Governor Peter Anker (lived 1744-1833; governed 1788-1806). All of his attractive artworks on display are of Indian subjects.

The former Danish Colony of Tranquebar is in Tamil Nadu. About ten kilometres or less the coastal road leading south from Tranquebar leaves the state of Tamil Nadu and enters a part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry separated from the city of that name by over a hundred kilometres of Tamil Nadu. Like Mahe, a tiny part of Pondicherry on the coast of the Arabian Sea and Chandernagore in West Bengal, this southern territory, containing the town of Karaikal, was a French colony. Yanaon, surrounded by Andhra Pradesh, was yet another French colony and is now part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.

Karaikal became a French colony in 1674 and remained as such until about 1954. At first sight, it looks like a typical, unexceptional modern Tamil urban area with a few decaying old buildings stuck within a mass of architecturally unexceptional buildings. However, our driver, a Tamil named Pierre, drove us to see what little remains of French colonial Karaikal.

The most notable souvenir is the former French Governor’s mansion. Well conserved, the Governor lived on the first floor and his administration used the ground floor. This building, which is well over 200 years old, is now the Collector’s Office of Karaikal. Nearby, there is a French war memorial commemorating those who died in the two World Wars. The monuments single out campaigns in Algeria and Indo-China. Near this, there are a few architectural details that might have existed during the French era, but little else.

Unlike Pondicherry, which has retained its colonial charm and attracts many tourists, there is little to attract the average tourist to Karaikal. I am glad we went there because I find places like this, which hint at their largely forgotten history, very evocative and fascinating.

While I would not reccomend a visit to Karaikal, a few hours or more spent in Tranquebar will be very rewarding both to those interested in history and to lovers of the seaside.