What brought James Bond author to Norfolk?
12:40 24 October 2012
The lure of hidden treasure led James Bond to visit Norfolk in the 1950s to the ruins of a medieval abbey said to harbour golden riches. As part of Bond Week, STACIA BRIGGS finds out why author Ian Fleming was the spy who loved archaeology.
It was the day James Bond came to Norfolk to search for buried treasure at an atmospheric location close to Nel-son’s birthplace at Burnham Thorpe.
Bond writer Ian Fleming was obsessed with the thought that England was awash with undiscovered hordes of treasure and wrote a letter to the Sunday Times in 1953 –signed “James Bond” – beseeching readers to inform him of “well-substantiated” stories of hidden booty.
Written just a month after the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, had been published and the second, Live and Let Die, had been drafted, Fleming’s preoccupation with treasure led him on a hunt that took him to one of Norfolk’s most beautiful ruins.
Having recently been welcomed on Jacques-Yves Costeau’s former second world war mine sweeper to help him excavate what was thought to be the wreck of a third century Greek trading vessel, Fleming was well and truly bitten by the archaeological bug.
The pair had discovered two trading vessels filled with antiquities which Fleming described enthusiastically in a series of articles for the Sunday Times.
He joined the crew who “hurled to the dripping muddy pile of gifts like children unleashed on a Christmas tree…sorting, cleaning, panting under the weight of the objects.”
The memories of his adventures, which saw him attempt a dive to the wrecks which was thwarted when the pain in his ears forced him back to the boat, were still fresh in Fleming’s mind when he wrote On Her Majesty’s Service nine years later.
Back in London, a sack of correspondence awaited the Bond author. There were suggestions of Viking hoards, Elizabethan ships and treasures hidden in deep, dark wells.
He finally decided to concentrate his efforts on Creake Abbey in Norfolk, partly due to its “spectral name”, and travelled to the county hopeful of finding hidden riches that would unlock the site’s incredible past.
Ably assisted by Peter Kirk, he was fascinated by the story of Creake Abbey’s first treasure hunter, an unfrocked Benedictine monk, William Stapleton, who excavated burrows at the site in the early 16th century and was even said to have attempted to raise the spirits of the deceased monks.
Stapleton’s efforts were fruitless, but Fleming was more determined.
He enlisted help from the Royal Engineers whose Sappers were using sophisticated metal detecting equipment thanks to the legacy of unexploded bombs from the second world war.
Keen to test the equipment further, the Sappers agreed to help at Creake Abbey in return for a technical report on its performance and Fleming put together a team, including Corporal Hogg of the bomb disposal squad, a former German prisoner of war called Emil Schneider and Captain Hough.
Having already taken part in an archaeological excavation at a former Trinitarian priory at Knaresborough, the Royal Engineers came prepared with a bomb locator and a Polish mine detector.
The former identified iron objects to a depth of six feet, the latter (which resembled “a vacuum cleaner”, as he told Sunday Times readers) worked to a shallower depth of two feet but could identify a wider range of metals.
Covering the floor of the abbey church, the cloisters, the site of the chapter house and the abbot’s lodgings, the site was extensively surveyed and labels were attached to areas where the machines detected there was metal to be found.
Fleming eagerly awaited the results of the subsequent digs and the subsequent treasure that would be unearthed for the first time in centuries.
He was, sadly, to be somewhat disappointed. His haul included 30 nails, one mole trap, one oil drum, sardine tins and about 50kg of miscellaneous scrap iron. No medieval gold, no treasure.
Somewhat gallingly, a further search in 1997 at the same site – using far more sophisticated equipment – by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit uncovered a medieval seal matrix, strap ends, a belt end, a post-medieval mount, a buckleframe and jettons. There had been treasure, simply buried too deeply in the earth for Fleming’s 1953 hunt to discover.
But the Bond writer’s search had been significant: by the time Fleming excavated the North Creake site, only a handful of such searches had been carried out, marking him as an early pioneer in the field of archaeology.
Creake Abbey was to be Fleming’s last archaeological adventure, but it certainly didn’t mark Norfolk’s last influence on the most famous spy of all time.
* Tomorrow: The EDP investigates the allure of James Bond’s favourite car - the Aston Martin DB5.