Walking on the Beaches…in Norfolk

hunstanton

If you enjoy a bracing walk by the sea, Norfolk’s coastline risks spoiling you for any other. There’s traditional resorts where the beaches are home to sunbathers, deserted miles of sand backed by tufted-dunes, and sheltered rock-pools formed from the foot-beds of cliffs.  Many of the counties beaches are popular with beachcombers who are attracted to the ancient stories embedded within the rapidly changing coastal landscape. You might recall that a caravan of King John’s treasure was lost to a rising sea in 1216 while he was attempting to cross The Wash between King’s Lynn and Long Sutton. The treasure supposedly includes crown jewels, jewellery and gold coins. Farther down the coast, the cliffs have given up the fossilised remains of elephants, the foot-beds of fifty human footsteps preserved in clay and a multitude of other strange and mysterious creatures. Here’s my list of favourites and please do leave a comment if there’s any you think I might have left out.

Hopton on Sea
Hopton on Sea

Hopton on Sea, a curve of white-sand beach south of Great Yarmouth in South Norfolk, the beach is divided by large groynes, a sea defence system and backed by maram-covered cliffs that provide shelter from the winds. Flights of concrete steps offer a safe ascent. Popular with riders, kite flyers and walkers, the Scroby Sands offshore wind-farm is visible from the beach and local boat trips will take you out to see it up close, a sight that takes the breath away. Also common are the seal colonies, their slippery-sleak heads popping up like buoys to accompany your boat. Hopton is part of the ‘walk4life’ campaign and information display boards between Hopton and Gorleston beaches have details of timed walks.

Bob Hall Sands
Bob Hall Sands

Bob Hall Sands I will probably be taken out and shot for publicising this truly secret Norfolk beach among the salt marshes near Wells-next-the-Sea. A thorough knowledge of the tide timetables is required because that tide needs to be going out to enable you to motor through the marshes which  remain passable 3 hours each side of high tide (under normal wind and pressure conditions). You must also beware the low lying fog which can be very disorientating and once on the marshes, you’ll have to leave your vehicle and walk. A mile or so of sand between the dunes and the sea is thus revealed. The terrain is deserted, and in winter becomes the roost of thousands of pink-footed geese who soar over the broad terraces of sand-flats that are exposed at low tide. Let your eyes rest on the expanse of mud and sand where shallow channels of silver-water rush to return to the North Sea.

Weybourne
Weybourne

Weybourne has banked and pebbled beaches-  the start of the cliffed region of the Norfolk coast extending all the way to Happisburgh. Weybourne is a fishing resort situated in the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it makes a fantastic start or end to a day here if you travel via the North Norfolk Railway, spend some time in the village itself (very attractive) and watch the sea fisherman, huddled against brisk onshore winds. Surrounded by farmland, woodland and heathland, the area is excellent for walking too. Nearby Kelling Heath is dark skies territory and a popular gathering point for astronomers and star gazers with several events planned over the year. A nearby campsite provides accommodation, food and company for those not wishing to spend the night on the beach.

Overstrand
Overstrand

Overstrand draws plenty of admirers of the amazing views of beach, sea and horizon from the cliff top path which is eroding rapidly, Offering panoramically lovely walk to Cromers along the top, about one and a half miles away, there is a path down to the beach which is a lovely spot for sunbathing. When the tide is out, the sand is perfectly flat and very compacted down making it good for ball games, running and walking although the tide comes in right up to the promenade so do check the times before departing. There is a cliff top car park with a small cafe, toilet facilities and ice cream van in the warmer months

hunstanton-reflection
Old Hunstanton Beach

Hunstanton, two miles of Blue Flag Beach in the locally nicknamed “Hunny”, the Sea Life Centre, a comprehensively equipped swimming pool, donkey rides, rock shops and amusements keeps Hunstanton firmly up there in the best trad resort stakes. However walk a little way and you’ll arrive at Old Hunstanton with its beach pockmarked by rock pools and shelteed by red sandstone cliffs- famously striped as a result of layers of fossil-studded sediment, they are breathtaking at sunset and sunrise. The only west-facing resort on the east coast of England, this melange of classic Victorian resort and modern attractions can be seen in its entirety by riding on the seasonal land train. This carries visitors from Searles Leisure Resort to the Lighthouse and back again for a small charge. The driver has been very amenable to emergency pit stops for children’s loo breaks, the purchase of ice creams or to take photographs. There are large soft dunes, miles of golden sand both providing the kind of background to a traditional seaside holiday. However the sea comes in slowly and provides enticing shallow waters for kids to explore and play in: because of this islands can form and care should be taken that you and youngsters don’t become cut off. (There are no lifeguard patrols here as there are on the main resort beach.)

Scolt Head Island from Gun Hill
Scolt Head Island from Gun Hill

Scolt Head Island, at  just under four miles long, has one of the most inaccessible and beautiful stretches of sand in the district, namechecked by those Norfolk folk in the know as one of the best places to escape to. High dunes and soft sands tufted with Marram grass lie at the end of a walk from the quayside on the east side of the creek, all the way along the raised sea wall and offer shelter from the sea breezes. If you have little ones with you, the ferry from Burnham Overy Staithe, operates either side of high tide and is a great way to see the coastline from another perspective- that of the famous seals that make this their home. The beaches are littered with shells, lovely to hunt for and admire. The island belongs to the National Trust and Norfolk Wildlife Trust and is a non-intervention reserve where coastal processes are allowed to naturally occur without any interference from man The west of the island is shut off to the public during much of the summer season so that breeding birds are not disturbed.

Brancaster Beach
Brancaster Beach

Brancaster’s strong tides makes this pretty coastline of salt marshes and intertidal flats not the safest for swimming and it has seen its fair share of tragedies over the years. Sadly members of my own family joined the official search for a family of children who sadly drowned here some years ago so please do take care. However, the soft sand is perfect for sandcastles and at low tide it is rippled with coastal lagoons which are safer for children with their warm water and sealife waiting to be discovered. The beach is backed by a golf course (what a view as you tee off!) and at low tide the 1940s shipwreck of the SS Vina emerges from its sandy, watery grave, barnacle-covered bilges and superstructure fully exposed. Avocets, oyster catchers, terns and seals lounge and bob about making this a nature-spotters paradise. For hungry people, ice cream is sold from a booth on the beach and there are decent pubs nearby too.

Holkham
Holkham
 Holkham is truly an awe inspiring beach, backed by nature reserves and the watery border of the large Holkham Hall estate. Behind the shoreline lies a  shallow half-moon basin, which, at very high tides, rapidly subsumes into a shallow lagoon. Perfect for children because of the wide expanse of soft sand and gently shelving beach, salt-water shallow pools, sand dunes and wooden boardwalks to clatter up and down, you will be transported back to the Blyton-esque seaside adventures of your own youth. The beach is edged by a ridge line of piney-woods where pine cones crackle and sizzle on a hot day as the heat encourages them to split open and drop their seeds. Children can run amid tall trees that let in dappled sun – ideal on a hot day when you need shade but do not fancy a trek back to the car-park. In addition the dunes provide plenty of shelter. The nature reserve is incredibly diverse with tangles of creeks and saltings- shifting, yellow tongues of sand spits taper off into the salt-marsh and woods of Corsican Pine, their stepped and branched trunks piercing the skies and forming a perimeter around the acres of  green pastures and grazing marshes. Sit in the bird hide or alongside Salts Hole at dusk and hear the reserve come alive.
Holme taken by Tony Foster
Holme taken by Tony Foster

 Holme next the Sea marks the start of the long distance footpaths along the North Norfolk Coast, running all the way inland to Thetford called the Peddars Way and Norfolk Wildlife Trust manages the Holme Dunes Nature reserve. Located on the counties northwest corner, where The Wash meets the North Sea, Holme Dunes is superbly located to attract migrating birds (over 320 species) as well as other wildlife species including natterjack toads, butterflies and dragonflies, many visible from the three bird hides. The little village perched on the far north west point of the county has a small pub and church but boasts a sandy beach popular with holidaying families seeking that classic bucket and spades holiday. A second Bronze Age wooden circle discovered on a Norfolk beach at Holme has been dated to the same year as its neighbour, known as Seahenge. Archaeologists have been testing wood from the second henge and believe it was also built using trees felled in 2049BC. You will have to pay for a daily membership to the Wildlife Trust but you can then drive a mile down to the Wildlife Centre and wander through the reserve forest to access the beach further down- the golden sands will be pretty much deserted.

seals
Horsey Beach

 Horsey is home to thousands of wintering seals on a beach accessed via a gap in the very necessary sea defences in this flat part of the region. The famous National Trust owned Horsey Windpump is worth a visit as is Horsey Mere, a wildlife watery reserve open Spring to Autumn.  A voluntary beach closure is in place until the end of January – by which time it is expected that most seals will have left – to help keep them safe. In warmer months there is a kiosk at Staithe car park selling a range of drinks and snacks. Behind the beach you will find a trail along fields and dykes to Horsey Mere, one of the few expanses of water in the Broads owned by the National Trust.  Carry on along the path and you will arrive at Horsey Windpump where you can admire views over the countryside and beach after climbing to the top. There is a cafe too.

Wells next the Sea by Scenic Norfolk
Wells next the Sea by Scenic Norfolk
Wells-next-the-Sea has a coastline which gradually merges into the beach at Holkham, making a glorious walk. Driving along the road to the car park the glorious views are kept secret until you are nearly at the beach car park. From the far side of it, choose one of the footpaths over the tree-covered ridge and you will emerge onto one of the most secluded and self-contained beaches on the Norfolk coast. Yet more pine-woods shelter the pretty beach huts and a very popular beach cafe where sandy feet are welcomed. The food here is amazing and the views are of those woods and the beach. A lovely dog shower means four legged friends are welcomed too. Some strong currents at sea mean summer lifeguards need to be on their best game but the creek is perfect for swimming at low tide and is a crabbers smorgasbord at other times. Check the tides before leaving as high tide sees the waters lapping the base of the beach huts.
Cley
Cley

Cley, a long stretch of stones and shingle, diverse bird life (another twitchers paradise this) and a beautiful walk from the village with its landmark windmill. The sea is deeper here so it is for competent swimming as opposed to miles of paddling in the shallows. Not the place for resort type facilities, this is where to come if you don’t want the kids to be pestering for ice creams, donkey rides and amusements because there aren’t any. The beaches are backed by miles of wild and uninhabitated marshlands, home to many species of birds and it isn’t just the beach that is a haven for paradise. Divers have discovered the remains of a prehistoric Oak forest  just 300 metres off the Cley coast. Eight metres under the sea, the forest could have been hidden since the ice age and stretching as far as the continent. It now provides a safe environment for a multitude of creatures and a great diving experience.

Beach_Huts_on_Seafront,_Cromer,_Norfolk_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1508508

Cromer, like its neighbour Sheringham, is a blue-flag beach. The famous pier with the even more famous End of the Pier show is the towns landmark and deservedly so. A great place to drink hot chocolate and admire the skies of Norfolk or drop a crab line or two, the pier is the icing on the cake of a well-managed, sandy beach. Lifeguards and water sports zones ensure that bathing is as safe as it can be. No dogs on the beach from May to September though. West beach (left of the pier) is a mix of sand and stone and tends to be less busy, especially towards East Runton. Swimming is best at low tide because of the expanse of hard compacted sand which is exposed- much kinder than the stones upbeach! You’ll see the rock pools all the better too. Avoid swimming east of the pier under and around the first breaker because of a strong riptide.  Huddled below the historic town is East Beach, stretching below the 62 metre high cliffs and with those views of the historic old buildings ranged far above.

Cromer has no harbour, so the fishing boats are pulled onto the shingle by the cobblestoned Gangway which is close to a fabulous shop selling the eponymous crab that is justifiably famous because of that extra-sweet flesh, attributed to their slow growth on the chalk reef just off the coast. Nearby is Cromer Pier with the historic Pavilion Theatre and cafe selling good hot chocolate at its end. There’s great walking here too- start off at the Esplanade and walk east towards Overstrand, or west to the large beaches of the Runtons (where elephant bone fossils have been found by beachcombers). Or climb the 200ft high Beeston Bump, beyond which is nestled Cromer’s sister coastal town of Sheringham and The Mo, another seafront museum.

Sea Palling to Waxham
Sea Palling to Waxham
 Sea Palling is situated on a part of the Norfolk coastline that is permanently under threat of erosion and submersion. This is a blue-flag stretch of yellow sand, flecked by shingle, larger stones and spined by dunes; the defensive stones hunker along the beach, providing irresistible climbing for kids. A sea-defence scheme, built in the mid-1990s by the Environment Agency, incorporating some man made reefs, helps to mitigate some of the flooding. Zoned for watersports, the reefs also help keep a lagoon-like glassiness to the water in the summer, making it gentler for swimmers and there is deckchair hire, lost child and first aid services on the beach. The town has a pub, the Reefs Bar, situated at the foot of the ramp leading to the beach, cafes, amusement arcade, a Post Office and general store, farm-shop and a stall which sells fish caught locally.
Waxham
Waxham

Waxham, just to the south of Sea Palling is home to nearly as many seals as human visitors and they often bask on the sand; a likely site should you decide to walk between the two resorts. The resort (if you can call it that) is hidden away amongst trees and sand dunes, has no regular car park (just park along the side of the road) and no amenities close to the beach, making it a bit of an insiders secret. Part of an AONB, the views stretch for miles. A restored barn-cum-cafe keeps people fed and watered and enjoys a sheltered location behind the grass tufted dunes. The village is tiny and houses the Old Hall inn with a separate kids dining area should you wish to use it. Lobster and crab are seasonally available, there is a beer garden and several bedrooms to stay in should you decide to make a weekend of it.

Mundesley Beach
Mundesley Beach

Mundesley Beach with its decent sized waves attracts surfers and other water sports fanatics but that’s not all. A beautiful sandy stretch of coast backed by beach-huts with lifeguard cover and shallow waters at low tide make it popular with families too. Only twenty miles from Norwich gives it added flexibility for a quick trip and this long stretch of sandy beach continues to Bacton and Walcott along the coastal road between Cromer and Caister. Although Victorian Mundesley lost its railway, it still retains the charm of those times, avoiding the excesses of other resorts. On Walcott beach cliff top you’ll also find high quality ice cream van for miles; Mark’s Lamarti van is always there serving homemade ice creams with a great selection of toppings.

Winterton on Sea
Winterton on Sea

 Winterton on Sea was mentioned in the Domesday Book and is another pretty, sandy beach backed by dunes and nature-reserve grasslands that are also home to the Natterjack Toad and a colony of around 30 to 40 seals. Only eight miles from Great Yarmouth, the beaches are kept safe by an active coastguard lookout tower which has been moved onto the dunes as a result of erosion and is part of the Sea Safety Group that has five stations across East Anglia, all manned entirely be volunteers 365 days a year. Populated by a wide variety of birds including terns, the beach seldom seems busy and back onto an AONB which helps temper any attempts to busy things up. There’s a small cafe nearby though with a sea-view terrace.

Gorleston
Gorleston

Gorleston Beach is another triumph of the Victorians: 3km of resort with every amenity a person could want. Gorleston’s two beaches – north and south – sit in a bay between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, overlooked by promenades that ascend the cliffs. North Beach has that Victorian feel with immaculately-kept gardens leading down from the hilltop and the beach is backed by a rock armour-protected concrete sea wall with timber groynes. Built in 1927, there’s a paddling-pool and a large boating-lake, reflective of a time when yachting was a popular hobby for children. South Beach is is an unspoilt and wide beach, part sand, part shingle, quieter and part of the ‘trim trial’, with its system of timed walks. The beach has a manned RNLI lifeguard lookout tower due to its strong current and pretty large, rolling waves.

Aerial view of Gt Yarmouth
Aerial view of Gt Yarmouth

Great Yarmouth’s pleasure beach and Golden Mile offers that classic British mixture of sand, sea, beach-front promenades and its amusements, a mixture of high-octane rides, penny arcades and family fairgrounds spread over more than nine acres. The Greater Yarmouth coastline stretches along 15 miles of beautiful sandy beaches backed by dunes and pierced by the two piers. At the northern end the Britannia Pier is built above the beach and has donkey rides departing on the sands below it. The Wellington Pier is located further down Marine Parade towards the southern end of the strip and  trips to see the seals at Scroby Sands leave from the shoreline between the two piers. The Central Beach is a another sandy beach between Britannia and Wellington Piers adjacent to Marine Parade; all have life guard cover.

Scratby
Scratby

Scratby Beach near Great Yarmouth is a wide curving, ochre-coloured, quiet sand and shingle beach found at the base of low sand cliffs, protected by a row of huge boulders there to protect the sand dunes from erosion. Popular with dog walkers, sunbathers and families, the northwards walk along the cliff tops offer panoramic views over the sea and of the cliffs covered with indigenous plants, and the many windsurfers who are especially prevalent in the winter months. The beach can be reached via a slope and steps and there is parking and public toilets on the cliff top.

Caister
Caister

Caister is another popular holiday destination for families  with its own independent lifeboat-station which marks the start of the resort’s South Beach zone. Wide dunes lead down to a glorious, golden-sandy beach with views of the Scroby Windfarm. Drinks and ice-creams are sold from a beach-cafe and a large free car-park is behind the lifeboat station. Another Winter surfing destination, the offshore southwesterly winds make it particularly popular. The North Beach is near to Great Yarmouth and has a long concrete esplanade and sand-dunes leading to another sandy, golden beach. There’s a small free car-park alongside the beach along with public & disabled toilets and wheelchair access is easy on the esplanade although further access onto the beach is limited.

California Beach
California Beach
California Beach merges with Scratby Beach and offers wide, sand and shingle beaches at the bottom of low and sandy cliffs. The beach is accessed via steep steps down the side of the cliff or can be walked to from Caister, along the beaches. Refreshments are available at the beach entrance point along with public & disbled toilets but public parking is very limited. Disabled access is by steep slope and stairs and may not therefore be suitable for all levels of disability.
Hemsby
Hemsby
Hemsby Beach near Great Yarmouth fronts a lively resort with shops, amusements, attractions and cafes alongside caravan and holiday parks. Wide, golden sands backed by dunes make it versatile and safe with RNLI lifeguards patrolling between the red and yellow flags in summer, 10am and 6pm. Hemsby Beach is also home to the Inshore-Rescue and takes part in events such as the Herring Festival and the new Viking festival in June.  All amenities are within easy reach along with deckchair hire, public & disabled toilets and paid parking via a large car park lies next to the beach.
Burnham and Burnham Overy Staithe
Burnham and Burnham Overy Staithe
Burnham and Burnham Overy Staithe lies along a series of inlets, creeks and fimbrels of gullies, interspersed with small, pebble-beaches and larger expanses of sand that overlook Scolt Heads Island. Pure-white sands are speckled with dune-hills and marram grass and from the west end locals swim and canoe across a narrow and deep channel to the island; a fabulous uninhabited nature-reserve, and England’s only desert island. Return via those mud-creeks and swimming-holes on the Cockle Path.
Happisburgh
Happisburgh

Happisburgh Beach was the location of the first known occupation of Britain, a Paleolithic marvel which has yielded all manner of fossilised clues to the creatures that roamed this ancient place, including us, man. Standing sentinel is its famous lighthouse, all candy red and white stripes (which can be climbed, affording amazing views). Locals recommend going a little way beyond Happisburgh to Cart Gap where there is a car park and easy access to the beach.  It’s similar to Sea Palling with wide sands that are perfect for picnics and sandcastles plus pools of blue seawater at low tide for children to splash in. And those spectacular views have to be seen to be believed! Stay aware of the cliffs which are subject to sudden falls and slips: layers of brown clay can slip away to reveal the claggier blue which is hell to remove from clothes, hair and shoes. Just down the beach from Cart Gap lie the last remains of Eccles, one of Norfolk’s lost villages, whose ghostly remains could once be seen on the beach at low tide and where tales are told of the church bell ringing under the waves. The Dunwich of Norfolk, so to speak.

Sheringham
Sheringham

Sheringham Beach is an old fishing village that developed into a resort when the railway arrived in late Victorian times. It has a lovely safe beach for small children which holds the European Blue Flag award for cleanliness and all the amenities of a resort town with a colourful annual carnival and festivals celebrating local seafood. Wonderful views of the coastline and surrounding countryside can be seen from a trip on the North Norfolk Railway between the town and Holt.  The surrounding woods of Upper Sheringham (including Sheringham Park), have views over the sea, and miles of bracken-covered undulating uplands, smothered with gorse and purple heather.

Trimmingham Beach
Trimmingham Beach

Trimmingham Beach is just east of Cromer and is reached via a cross country stroll through fields and woods followed by a bit of a scramble down a slope that might be best done after a period of dry weather. Drive towards Trimingham, heading towards Cromer and keep an eye out for a large hill with a military base that has a dome resembling a giant golf ball. Before you reach this and half way up this hill there will be a small right turning called Vale Lane. Follow this down and then take a sharp left at the interception to a Tarmac Road. This will eventually take you down to the beach with a large amount of parking space at the bottom. The beach is truly deserted and local speak of a shipwreck here years ago and of lost treasure. Trimmingham has the youngest chalk substrate on the United Kingdom mainland and a few shells can be collected from the small cliff face. The chalk has actually been tilted and folded by glaciation, and is a geologically important site.

West Runton
West Runton

East and West Runton Beaches, the latter is most well-known for the Elephant, or woolly mammal, which was discovered in 1990, dating back to the Ice-Age and one of the oldest fossilised elephants to be found in the UK. The remains were found in the cliff-face which is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and now, for this reason, an important Norfolk beach. As you’d imagine, the beach is a big favourite among fossil hunters and low tide reveals lovely hard sand, excellent for walking. You can easily walk from West to East Runton (about a mile), but only at low tide and keep an eye on it, otherwise you’ll get stranded as when it comes in, the corner is cut off. You can also walk to Sheringham, but again, beware of the tide. The rolling nine-mile-long glacial Cromer Ridge that runs beside the coast is responsible for the less than flat contours of the countryside and its apex, at Beacon’s Hill, is just a 15-minute walk south from West Runton, and rises to 338 feet above sea level.

Snettisham
Snettisham

Snettisham Beach backs onto the Coastal Park with reedbeds, scrub and marshland behind the shingle beach, and is also adjacent to the RSPB Snettisham Reserve. It sits on the Wash and is composed of shingle and, although the tide does go out quite a long way, it leaves mudflats, as opposed to hard sand, making it something of a feeding ground for coastal birds and site of amazing sunsets.  Snettisham Coastal Park was established in 1984 and is owned by the Ken Hill Estate, comprising heathland, marshland, reedbeds and scrub. It  extends to Heacham and is a popular wildlife walk. A wooden bridge takes you from its carpark onto the walk proper, over a pretty bridge. October 2014, saw a new public right of way added to Snettisham Beach and you can walk along the sea-bank from the beach car-park heading left towards the RSPB Reserve.

Walcott
Walcott

Walcott sits right on the edge of the coastline, with a main road running parallel to the beach and is the only Norfolk village where this is the case. A tiny village on the far point of the east coast, it is pretty quiet and has been repeatedly attacked by the forces of the North Sea -badly damaged in 1953, 2007 and 2013.  In 1953 The North Sea flood resulted in the vast majority of the village being lost to the sea and in bad weather the road is not passable. There is a particularly good local fish and chip shop too. Not the most spectacular of beaches but worth a drive past and a look.

Blakeney Point shingle beach looking towards Morston channel
Blakeney Point shingle beach looking towards Morston channel

Morston Quay and Blakeney Point-  Morston is around 1 mile west of Blakeney – a lovely walk along the coastal path and its quay is situated just within the shelter of Blakeney Point,  a wonderful backdrop to the quay area with its salt-marshes in the foreground. Seal spotting boat trips depart from here year round alongside a small scale seafood and fishing industry and there are all kinds of water-based activities based here too. Blakeney Point is a nature-reserve, an impressive 4 mile long stretch of coastline home to a fantastic spectrum of wildlife which lives on its sand and shingle spit, salt-marshes, dunes and surrounding sea. Common and grey-seals live and breed here too. Visitors can walk out along the shingle-spit towards Blakeney Point from Cley Beach- about a three and a half mile walk but very exposed to coastal winds and the cold air. Tidal flooding can also affect the area. Parts of Blakeney Point are closed for portions of the year to visitors on foot to protect wildlife and this is the time to access it via boat from Morston Quay. Toilet facilities at the Life Boat House on Blakeney Point are generally closed October to April.

Salthouse
Salthouse

Salthouse -The small village of Salthouse is set beside a high ridge above the salt marshes that border the North Norfolk Coast. In times gone by there would have been salt pans and large piles of salt crystals ready for transport, although no more. The beach is a large pebble bank with little shelter from the penetrating north winds and severe weather. The village contains the attractive church of St. Nicholas, a post-office/shop and a lovely pub overlooking the marshes. Worth a visit for Cookies Crab Shop which has been selling quality shellfish for over 3 generations and serves seafood based meals and snacks in its gardens overlooking the marshes or for eating on the beach.

Eccles beach

By Evelyn Simak /Creative Commons
By Evelyn Simak /Creative Commons

Rimmed by deflective sea-defences and graced by dunes and glorious sand, the greatest and most mysterious aspect of Eccles beach lies underneath it- a lost village which has been overwhelmed by the deposition and erosive action of the might of those North Sea waves. All that is left of Eccles is the Bush Estate – a collection of pre-war bungalows and caravans tucked behind the sand-dunes and on January 25th 1895 St. Mary’s church finally tipped into the sea. Those of us who visited the beach in the 80s will remember the tower stump of the church which appeared at low tide but the subsequent building of an off-shore rock reef by the Environment Agency resulted in an elevation of sand levels, thus obscuring it. However, pieces of flint masonry from the tower can still be found along this section of coast and in Norfolk Life, Lilias Rider Haggard (1892-1968) recalls visiting Eccles when she was a child and witnessing the gruesome sight of skeletons exposed in the sea-washed graveyard. The line of lost villages and the land they sat upon starts from Hopton and continues past Winterton on Sea but for now, what we have left is a lovely and wild stretch of coastline which, when the summer holidaymakers fly back to their winter grounds, becomes ours again to stroll, birdwatch and enjoy picnics on, well wrapped up against the winds which are responsible for those lovely dunes.

Holme Dunes

large-1617-holmedunes

A Norfolk Wildlife Trust site with dunes, freshwater pools and marshes which are home to more than 320 bird species including Avocets and Oystercatchers. Located on Norfolk’s northwest corner, where The Wash meets the North Sea, Holme Dunes is superbly located. The visitors centre is open daily from April- October’s end and at weekends for the other times of the year. The coastal footpath runs through the site, bordered by silvered clumps of Sea Buckthorn ablaze with orange berries as the summer draws to a close. Interest young children by telling tales of the military remains from WWII that can be seen around the reserve, including the remains of a target-railway used to train artillery. The half-hidden relics of our past date back even further too and include Roman pottery and, in 1998, a well-preserved Bronze Age timber circle, which became known as ‘Seahenge’. The circle was uncovered by strong tides, having been hidden for some 4,000 years (no longer at Holme, the structure was removed for preservation purposes by archaeologists).

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Taking the Waters- Norfolk & Suffolk

Some well known, others not so, here are some of the loveliest places to visit either en famille or for some much needed down time alone by the water, in it, above it or doing things on it.

(1) Blakeney Point in Norfolk 

Tourists viewing seals from boat, Blakeney Point, Norfolk.
Tourists viewing seals from boat, Blakeney Point. Photograph: Alamy

The best way to arrive at Blakeney Point, a sand and shingle spit stretching out into the sea from the heart of Blakeney national reserve, is on a boat trip from Morston Quay. You not only get a chance to see grey seals basking on the sandbanks, but you leave the boat at the blue Old Lifeboat House, home to National Trust rangers and now a visitors centre packed with information. From there, you can explore the rare habitat and its inhabitants, which range from sandwich terns to otters and yellow-horned poppies. The more energetic might opt to walk back to Morston , a worthwhile though demanding tramp across four miles of shingle back.
 Nearest train station: Sheringham, then get the CH3 bus to Morston. There is restricted access to the western end of Blakeney Point from April to mid-August, to protect birds nesting on the shingle, and from November to mid-January during the seal pupping season.

(2) Lackford Lakes, Nr Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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A man made landscape of reclaimed gravel pits in the valley of the river Lark, Lackford Lakes is owned and managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and boasts a year round programme of family events. Walk around this ever changing landscape of reed beds, meadows, pastures, woodlands and wetlands and watch Kingfishers, bitterns, otters, cormorants and many other creatures as they go about their business from one of the bird hides cleverly positioned to give access to different habitats. The sailing club SESCA is based here too should you wish to learn in one of the UK’s most beautiful environments. We often come here at dawn or dusk, a time of great animal activity and sit quietly watching bats pour in and out of their converted pill box home overlooking meadows full of grazing cattle and Jacob’s sheep. A well equipped visitors centre offers drinks, cakes and ice creams plus a bird viewing window and also sells bird food and other equipment.

(3) The Little Ouse at Thetford & Santon Downham, Norfolk and Suffolk borders. 

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The River Little Ouse, a tributary of the Great Ouse, once had more than one natural course and runs alongside a popular walking trail that runs between Thetford and Brandon and traverses Thetford Forest via Santon Downham. To the North is Grimes Graves, the amazing Neolithic flint mining site which is  reachable via forest tracks or from Santon Downham Village.  These same forest tracks lead to High Lodge and Go Ape!, both popular places for activities, picnics and family fun.

The Little Ouse runs through the Brecks, one of the most fascinating and unique habitats in the country- tranquil forests, open sandy heaths ablaze with sulphur yellow Gorse in the summer and a patchwork of agricultural land. The Brecks cover 370 square miles, has the rare nightjar and stone curlew as residents and bears the marks of the Ice Age that created this landscape of Pingoes and scrubby low growing plants, ancestors of those which were once all that could  grow in the Permafrost that characterised the Ice Age.

Alternatively, stay in Thetford and sit or walk by the river from St Mary’s Priory to the fishing lakes (photographed above), watching skeins of electric blue dragonflies dart above the riverbank. Occasional kayaks and row boats pass by too, trailing ducks in their wake. A beautiful place to take a picnic, a sandwich and a book, we often come here just to relax and get away. Ten minutes is all it takes to recharge.

(4) The Lido at Beccles, Suffolk 

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Sadly becoming an endangered species, outdoor pools are something to treasure and we encourage not only their patronage, but donating whatever spare change you have to their funds for upkeep. We have such warm memories of the sadly defunct Sudbury swimming pool with its competition height diving boards, pool side tiers of concrete sun decks and hut selling post swim cups of hot cocoa.

Beccles Lido is run by a community run charity who bought the Lido from Waveney District Council and re-opened it in 2010, restoring the 1m springboard, installing a slide, all-weather awning and a fun giant inflatable aquarun. Canoe hire is also available and there are separate toddler and paddling pools, also heated. With paved and grassy areas for sunbathing, as well as picnic tables, chairs, sunloungers and a covered outdoor eating area, families are well catered for and a well stocked Splash Pool Bar sells hot and cold meals and snacks, cold drinks, icecreams, delicious Fairtrade teas, coffees and hot chocolate.  

(5) The Kings Lynn Ferry Ride, Norfolk

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Photo by visitnorfolk.com

Got a boat mad child or fancy a trip across river yourself? A trip on the Kings Lynn Ferry after exploring the towns maritime trade, its fishing communities and its famous navigators via the Maritime Trail, will give you a different take of the architecture of the town from the west bank of the Lynn. This town with its royal links was originally known as Lin and in 1101, Bishop Herbert Losinga (the same Bishop that established Norwich Cathedral) founded St Margaret’s Church and the town became known as Bishops Lin.

Trade built up quickly around the waterways and a few years later a second settlement was established to the North, each with its own church and marketplace. In 1537 King Henry VIII decided he would take control of the town from the Bishop of Norwich and it became known as King’s Lynn; the town growing rich from trade within Britain and abroad. By the middle ages, the town ranked as the 3rd port of England and was considered as important as Liverpool. Although the town’s importance then declined, King’s Lynn today is a still an important regional centre for a largely sparsely populated part of England.

Fishing has always been a strong part of Lynn’s history. Queen Elizabeth I granted Lynn fishermen the right to “free and uninterrupted use of the Fisher Fleet for ever and ever.” Lynn’s whaling ships would sail to Greenland every March and return back here in July with their catch. On their return this quay would be full of excitement; today it is an attractive place to sit and watch boats sail by from wharfs converted into bars or restaurants and a visitor centre. Mid-way along King Street you will find Ferry Lane leading to the  ferry service.

(6) Sea views from the summit of Muckleburgh Hill, Norfolk

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Got children who enjoy a physical challenge? The hill may only be a few hundred feet high, but it is a spectacular view from the summit of the coast and glorious Norfolk countryside in all directions, making it a great adventure to climb for people of all ages. Dense woodland, at the base of the hill makes finding the path to the top a bit of a puzzle, but when you do find one of the network of woodland paths and climb it, you are rewarded with views over Weybourne andSheringham  to the east and Salthouse and Cley next the Sea to the west. Immediately below Muckleburgh Hill is the Muckleburgh Collection, a museum of military hardware.

Nearby Weybourne, a pretty village, is home to the North Norfolk Railway station and goods yard. The station has a workshop and is home to various railway vehicles that adults and children will enjoy looking at. Steam trains regularly pull into the station and you can ride the “poppy line” to Holt in one direction and Sheringham in the other. It is easy to stop off at the villages and towns along the route, catching a later train back. This means adults can leave the car behind and enjoy some libations at some of the excellent village pubs, many spectacularly beautiful with corresponding views.

(7) The Rodbridge Picnic Grounds, Nr Long Melford, Suffolk

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A proper river side tramp where kids can run amok over the scrubby grassy paths and fields, splash through the muddy woodland tracks and paddle, it is best to put the littlest one in the back carrier or fit mudguards to the all terrain buggy when you come here. Walking boots or wellies are also advisable. Rodbridge Corner is a place we adored as kids where we’d hurtle up and down the  hummocks dotted with rabbit warrens (a kind of mini race track), eat our fish and chips in the car park then walk the river path, stopping to smell the scent of the river as it bumps over the weirs. A wonderful place and free to use. Might be an idea to avoid the car park from dusk where local people have reported a problem with it being used for more nefarious purposes (dogging) although we haven’t had any problems yet, have seen nothing and wouldn’t advise walking along an unlit river path at night anyway.

The nearby towns of Sudbury and village of Long Melford will provide those fish and chips should you not have brought a fancier meal!

(8) The Croft in Sudbury, Suffolk

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An embarrassment of riches awaits the river lover in Sudbury, embraced in a loop by the famous river Stour.  Captured so often by famous artists and possessed of many bucolic stopping off points for paddling, boat sailing, water sports or simply musing or walking along the path, the railway walk (the railway line follows the river for many miles) or water meadows also offer hours of outdoor exercise and beauty. Just keep an eye on the cows that graze the common lands and don’t let your dog worry them.

The Croft offers an old boating lake, the ‘washing machine water’ aka Weir, a cow pond around which you will find groups of picnickers and the old bridge populated by generations of ducks kept fat by generations of locals. Park quality grass for sunbathing (although keep an eye out for duck poop before you sit down), stands of trees and bench dotted tarmac paths make this popular because it is less then 400 yards from the town centre. A short walk down the riverpath leads you to The Mill, now turned into a hotel and complete with walled up cat (an ancient practice), or you can walk along the Railway walk in the other direction to Brundon Mill where the swan feed, resplendent with a hundred or more swans, awaits. The meadows around Sudbury are the oldest continuously grazed land in England and are crossed by many footpaths, making them excellent for walking.

The Croft is just off the Sudbury one way system, past the fire station and St Gregory’s church and can also be reached from North Street. Turn left at Argos, pass the short stay car park and turn right by the entrance of the Waggon and Horses pub. The Croft is across the main road. As you cross the bridge at the Croft, keep an eye out for the poignant memorial to the left, set with flowering plants. A tribute to a family from nearby Great Cornard who died in the Yugoslav air disaster in May 1971, we always stopped here to lay flowers because our grandmother taught the children at playschool. Roger and Margaret Green and their sons, Simon and Ian, were on board the Tupolev-134 which crashed at Rijeka airport when attempting to land in a heavy rainstorm; 78 of the 83 people on board were killed. Simon was a member of the Round Table and his fellow Round Tablers cleared the land of bushes and scrub.

(9) Sea Views at Wiveton Hall Cafe in Norfolk

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Slip off your shoes, sit yourself down on one of the candy coloured outdoor seats, exhale and look out to sea from this playful cafe which is nonetheless deadly serious about the quality of food it serves. The views out over the marshes to the sea are superb and, under the pine trees; sand and pebbles underfoot, you will think you are in the Med. Take a walk along the beautiful Norfolk coastline before or after your meal, pick fruit on the estates fruit farms or wander around flint faced, Dutch gabled Wiveton Hall, built in the 17th century on what had been monastic land where the sea once came almost to the door. Should you decide never to go away again, the hall offers accommodation in either its spacious wing or self catering farm cottages.

(10) Wild Swimming in the river Waveney, Suffolk

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The Waveney was much beloved of the nature writer Roger Deakin who used to live in Mellis and who was one of the ‘pioneers’ of the new Wild Swimming movement. A two mile loop around Outney Common starts and returns from Bungay, one of Suffolk’s tiny towns where you will still find independent stores and good places to eat.  With its own river meadows at the bottom of Bridge Street that are ideal for a swim and a riverbank picnic, there is also canoe hire at the Meadow Caravan park, next to the river itself. Should you swim at dawn or dusk, keep an eye out for the otters- they live happily here. Grid reference: 52.4572, 1.4413

(11) Peer at the view from a Pier

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Fly over the coastline of East Anglia and you will see venerable examples of the quaint Victorian habit of building out to sea; a perfect example of follies on a grand scale for what else would you call a pier- those curious testimonies to holiday frivolity on stilts? From Cromer and Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk to Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Aldeburgh and Southwold in Suffolk, our counties have worked hard to maintain and develop their piers resulting in yet another generation of coastal visitors who enjoy their very British charms.

Southwold Pier boasts the  the famous ‘Under the Pier Show’, an assortment of bonkers Tim Hunkins creations- Steampunk crossed with Victoriana; a penny arcade, the Clockhouse cafe and pizza place plus those wide planked boardwalks to walk along and sit on, looking out onto those stupendous Suffolk sunsets and sunrises. Tasteful to attract the Notting Hillers, this pier doesn’t have that brash gaudy seaside appeal of other resorts (which we also love) – think Enid Blyton as opposed to the local fair.

Gt Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier carries on another great British seaside tradition- that of the live show, amusements and carney style food- candy floss, doughnuts, rock and hot dogs and is none the less enjoyable for it. Attracting hordes of visitors all year round, the piers original wooden structure was designed by A.W. Morant, opening  in July 1858. A wooden construction leaves piers at risk of fire and Britannia Pier has certainly had a fair share of these- the first in 1907 and the second in 1914, badly damaging the newly built pavilion. Ironically, both the ballroom and pavillion survived the war, only to be both destroyed by yet another blaze in 1954 and subsequently rebuilt where they thrive to this day. Felixstowe Pier is very similar with amusement arcades, a lovely boardwalk, plenty of food and proximity to safe clean beaches.

Cromer Pier boasts and end of the pier show and claims this to be the last remaining true show of its kind. Opened in 1902, Cromer Pier was damaged by the 2013 storm surge and is newly repaired in time for summer where the famous Cromer crabs can be caught from the sides. The decks are lined with buckets and lines and on fine days, fringed with children and adults all hoping to net the big one!

Lowestofts Claremont Pier can be found between Lowestofts Award winning beaches to the south of the town and has an award winning restaurant, a family-orientated amusement arcade and luxurious casino area. The latest additions include a large wooden floored roller skating rink and a contemporary multi-purpose venue. Like all piers, it was seen as a possible security threat during the Second World War and  in 1940, with the Axis Forces sweeping across the Continent, the Royal Engineers blasted a hole in the pier to stop the Luftwaffe using it as a possible landing place. Visitors will be relieved to know that this hole is now repaired!

(12) Or look out from high from a Lighthouse

imagesDue to its long coastline, East Anglia has always had a strong connection with the sea, and this has led to the building of some fine lighthouse. Many of these have been adapted over the years and not all have survived. Some lighthouses have been converted to private homes and are no longer available for public viewing from inside. However, some classic examples of these famous seaside icons still exist and they are well worth seeking out.

Although Happisburgh Lighthouses (there are a pair of them) are privately owned, they do open on particular weekends to the public – Easter and Bank Holidays. Built in 1791, the pair formed leading lights marking safe passage around the southern end of the treacherous Happisburgh Sands but it was not always effective, as the graves in the churchyard show. Inside, the 96 stone steps wind their way up the inside to the light at the top (134 feet above sea level) and when you reach the top, you can see the working lamp, some 500 watts of light, and visible for about 18 miles. The views of the coast and village are spectacular – on a clear day you can see for about 13 miles.

Other great lighthouses to visit are Southwold Trinity Lighthouse which can be explored and one in Hunstanton which is now a private holiday home and sits near to the ruins of St Edmunds Chapel on the cliffs.

(13) A steam launch ride through the Broads

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The lovely Museum of the Broads offers rides in their own steam launch down to Barton Broad, giving visitors a taste of Arthur Ransome style nostalgia. The only museum to be actually located on the waters of the Broads, the museum can be found at Stalham Staithe. Find out about the boats of the Broads and see how peoples working lives shaped the landscape with activites for all the family and a cafe to keep them well fed too. ‘Falcon’, their Victorian steam launch runs hourly from 1030 – 1430, conditions permitting and because she is an open boat, you will need to dress warmly in waterproof clothing. Booking ahead is advisable and to avoid disappointment, please telephone 01692 581681 to book seats. The photo is courtesy of the Museum.

(14) Or be ferried across a Suffolk river

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The Walberswick to Southwold Ferry is a much loved Suffolk institution, carrying locals and visitors across the mouth of the River Blyth for decades. The route is understandably a seasonal one and the timetable is available on the link- dogs go free of charge too and adults only pay a pound. The seaside here is backed by a thousand acres of heath and marshland and is protected as an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB). The seaside town of Southwold is a short stroll away with its quirky cinema, ice cream and cake hut by the dunes and a plethora of independent shops. Walberswick is famous for its crabbing and used to hold a well attended festival. Both will provide you and the kids with an unforgettable day out.

Books to Help Children Cope with Loss

Incomprehensible to an adult, how on earth can we expect a child to get a handle on death and bereavement, especially when their parents and family may well be struggling themselves? These books are not a substitute for loving human contact and explanations (no matter how clumsy or incomplete these may be) but what they can do is provide a breathing space for grieving adults who might be struggling to put words to their pain. The child is helped to understand that death is universal through the written experiences of others and there are a myriad of ways by which we experience and understand it. And shared reading will help both parent and child to cope.

Sad Book by Michael Rosen 

 

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The pairing of two of Britain’s former Laureates, and chronicling Michael’s grief at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis when he was a teenager, this is a moving combination of honesty, sincerity and simplicity which acknowledges that sadness is not always avoidable or reasonable. We like this book because it makes those complicated feelings plain on the page, with the illustrations of Quentin Blake expressing that which cannot be communicated verbally- whether that be through the weight of pain or there being no words. It wasn’t made like any other book either; Michael Rosen said of the text, ” I wrote it at a moment of extreme feeling and it went straight down onto the page … Quentin didn’t illustrate it, he ‘realized’ it. He turned the text into a book and as a result showed me back to myself. No writer could ask and get more than that.” And Quentin Blake says that the picture of Michael “being sad but trying to look happy” is the most difficult drawing he’s ever done… “a moving experience.”

Children and their parents everywhere have grown up with the work of Michael Rosen. When bad things happen we turn to the familiar because it makes us feel a little safer in a world that has tilted on its axis and is less dependable as a result. To read the words of an author that we love and trust brings comfort and for us, that is this books greatest strength, even if it strikes us as grossly unfair that such pain should be visited on a man who has given us so much.

Duck, Death & the Tulip by  Wolf Erlbruch, Penelope Todd and Catherine Chidgey

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This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully. The author,  Erlbruch is a much respected man in Germany and his subjects emerge from the less cosy side of childhood, a place filled with edgy creatures and difficult themes. You won’t find a fuzzy bunny or a little bear who can’t sleep in Duck, Death and the Tulip and the story is simple. A duck notices that she is being followed. She is scared stiff, and who can blame her, for her stalker is an eerie figure in a checked robe with a skull for a head.

Erlbruch gives the impression that he is incapable of sentimentality, but his drawings are delicate, beautiful and convey a sweet humour that helps us cope with the immensity of the subject. “You’ve come to fetch me?” asks the terrified Duck. But Death demurs, explaining that he has always been close at hand, in case of some mishap.

Duck strikes up a friendship with Death which is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence, eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock and there is something infinitely tender in the way Death strokes her ruffled feathers into place, lifts her body and places it gently in the river, watching as she drifts off into the distance. “For a long time he watched her. When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.”

Care is needed in the telling of this story because it could inspire nightmares in the more ruminative and sensitive child. We found it difficult; the depictions of death are not cosy although the comfort that death can bring to the old, the tired, the sick and the sick of it is acknowledged. Death comforts the dying duck and is comforting to those of us who can understand that life can be a burden- whether your child can grasp this is your call.

The Bear and the Wildcat by Kazumi Yumoto and Komako Sakai

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Bear is grieving for his little friend, Bird. He has gently laid him to rest in a box lined in the softest moss,leaves and feathers and has a desperate need to talk about Bird with his other friends but they all urge him to move on. Bear doesn’t want to and is not ready to move on either. He wants to both mourn and celebrate his friendship and feels isolated by his grief from his friends and from the World.

One day Bear meets a Wildcat sitting alone next to a violin shaped box and after asking about its contents, confides in Wildcat about Bird, “You must have loved Bird very much” is all Bear needs to hear to unlock the torrent of love, longing and memories inside him; memories illustrated beautifully by the vignettes of Bird’s life- a life well lived. The celebration and commemoration continues as Bear decorates Bird’s box with bright leaves as his new friendship grows and we see those vivid memories come to life. In this, children learn that eternal life can mean living on in the hearts and minds of those left behind, irrespective of religious belief.

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The messages in this book are wonderfully pragmatic, healing and heartbreaking for both parent and child. We are slowly guided to the realisation that memories must be cherished, celebrated in an every day manner and friendship never dies. Grieving is honourable and a new friendship is not a betrayal- it is part of honouring those that have gone before. Indeed we realise that the best way to love again is to have loved before.

We would recommend this as a supervised read for a child (and adult) who have recently endured loss and it will help stimulate age appropriate chats about feelings and experiences at a difficult time. The book also serves as useful preparation for pet owners, especially of creatures with short lives who provide our children with an early experience of loss.

The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic and Illustrated by Olivier Talliec

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We were most jolted by the  anger we felt when we lost our Grandfather so this book, dealing as it does with the anger of a little boy whose mother has died, is important in the way it represents a full range of human responses to death. The little boy is overwhelmed with sadness, anger and fear that he will forget his mother, shutting all the windows to keep in her familiar smell and scratching open the cut on his knee to help him recall her comforting voice. He doesn’t know how to speak to his dad any more, and when Grandma visits and throws open the windows, it’s more than the boy can take – until she shows him another way to hold on to the feeling of his mum’s love. With tenderness, touches of humour and unflinching emotional truth, Charlotte Moundlic captures the loneliness of grief through the eyes of a child, rendered with sympathy and charm in Olivier Tallec’s expressive red-infused acrylic and pencil drawings.

Read it to yourself a few times before sharing with a child; while we advocate sharing feelings of pain and loss with your children, we advise being prepared first because the rage, pain and isolation of this little boy can be very hard to bear but so many children have reported finding this book a solace and realistic depiction of their own feelings that it is worth persevering with.

Still Here with Me: Teenagers and Children on Losing a Parent by Suzanne Sjoqvist

 This book is a moving and thoughtful anthology of the experiences of thirty-one children and teenagers who have lost a parent. In their own words, children and young people of a variety of ages talk openly and honestly about losing their mother or father. They describe feelings of pain, loss and anger, the struggle to cope with the embarrassed reactions and silence of others, and the difficulties involved in rebuilding their lives. They also share happy and loving memories of their parents, and talk about the importance of remembering while learning to accept their parent’s death. The accounts cover a variety of circumstances in which a parent died, including death from cancer, heart attack and involvement in an accident. Taboo experiences which are often avoided are also covered, including death through alcoholism, natural disaster, war, suicide, and domestic violence. The book displays a courageous and insightful group of children and young people who prove that it is possible to talk openly about these subjects without stigma. Still Here with Me will be a valuable source of information and comfort to young people who are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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Illustration by Jim Kay

A simply stunning book for older readers that challenges the reader emotionally and intellectually- it deals with a child experiencing the death of their mother and spares nothing in its steadfast honesty and sensitivity. The story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy who is continually visited by a monster while his mother is dying, Patrick Ness has taken an original story from the gone too soon writer Siobhan Dowd, (who died of breast cancer at the age of 47) and produced a book most worthy of her. The monster – part wild yew tree, part giant man – tells the boy three stories. These confusing tales pale into comparison to the true monster in the home- the death of Conor’s beloved mother and the mystery of death, terrible in its unknowing-ness.

The hardback copy has illustrations by Jim Kay and these amplify the beauty and emotion of the text. Although you will be sliding down a wall, sobbing by the end of the book, it is a cathartic grief and so I would recommend this book for those months when people have ceased to acknowledge your loss or expect you to have ‘dealt with it’.

Fred by Posy Simmons

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We can never know all the details of somebodies life, no matter how close we are to them. Even if we are well acquainted with a persons biography, they will always have a secret inner life, that intrapersonal relationship that they hold very close and this book cleverly reminds us of this.

Fred is a family cat with owners who think he is the laziest cat in the world, but who knows what goes on after dark? The family and children grieve for Fred after his death and night after night, hear the mewing of cats in the garden “Meaow meaow, meoooo, oh waily waily woooo….” as they mourn the passing of the Fred they knew- a cat pop star with a secret life.

Using a comic strip format, we watch as Sophie and Nick join in the funeral celebrations with his friends and fans who have come far and wide to pay their respects to a very cool cat and, in the process, we see his owners learn all about the life of a cat they thought they knew. In this, the book proves a useful jumping off point to the idea that when somebody dies we all have our own relationship with that person, our own memories and together, they go some of the way towards true appreciation of a person and their life. None of us have true ownership of another loved one and understanding that we are not the only ones to grieve might help a sad child feel a little less alone in their bereavement.

Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson

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The guilt and anger felt by children when somebody they love dies are profoundly unsettling and frightening and in this superb book, Wilson ensures that Vicky, killed in a car accident, can also show anger at her own life being cut short. Jade, the friend left behind struggles with guilt, wondering if their argument triggered Vicky’s death- a classic display of magical thinking so common in children. Wilson personifies this in the form of the dead Vicky continuing to inhabit the life of her friend, following her around, trying to remain involved inserting herself into her new friendships and hindering her attempts to adapt to the loss of her best friend. Eventually Jade comes to the realisation that as much as she loves Vicky, she also has to move on with her life, a decision which can invoke yet more guilt for any of us in a similar situation. Vicky realises that her idealisation of her dead friend denies the essential truth of her- she was a human with all of the glorious and real flaws of that condition. When she accepts this, she is set free and able to find a comfortable place in her psyche for the memory of her dead friend.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

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Award-winning picture book star Oliver Jeffers explores themes of love and loss in this life-affirming and uplifting tale. Once there was a girl whose life was filled with wonder at the world around her then one day something happened that made the girl take her heart and put it in a safe place. However, after that it seemed that the world was emptier than before. But would she know how to get her heart back?

In this deeply moving story, Oliver Jeffers deals with the weighty themes of love and loss with an extraordinary lightness of touch and shows us, ultimately, that there is always hope.

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford Smith

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With a design that is clearly influenced by the two Williams- Morris and Blake- the Fox and the Star is a children’s book which adults will be moved by and enjoy too. It is particularly inspired by Blake’s poem Eternity – “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy; / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sun rise” – and Bickford Smith’s story tells of the forest-dwelling Fox, who loses, and mourns for, his friend Star. If you hold onto something you value too tightly, you risk losing it but learning the lesson that when you love deeply, you have to let the love object go is a hard one and especially hard for Fox.

Teeming with life and haunted by isolation, the contrasts between the two and the pain this can cause us is an important and central theme to the story. Fox is an innocent creature, trying to carve a space in the world and a total opposite to the traditional depiction of foxes in literature- itself an important lesson about stereotyping.

 

 

 

 

 

Great Norfolk Walks – #1 Salthouse Marshes

 

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Photo by Norfolk Wildlife Trust

It has taken four months to open the North Norfolk Coastal Path after the winter storm surges and there remain some diversions from the original route but this glorious walk along one of the most beautiful and nature abundant coastlines in the UK is well worth taking, detour or no detour. Pack some lightweight rainwear and remember that outside of the warmer days, the winds can give you a bit of a frozen jaw; a collar that turns up and warm hat will never be a bad idea. An all terrain buggy is advisable or use a backpack or wrap for smaller children. It is ideal for families though and can be broken down into shorter walks with the promise of a beach acting as lure for more reluctant walkers.

Back in earlier times, this part of low lying Norfolk would have been clotted with silt which eventually cut off Salthouse from the sea and life as a port but now Salthouse Channel has been reclaimed by careful landscape and nature management, resulting in a half mile of marshes, threaded with creeks, lagoons and brackish water and teeming with life. Many families walk with pockets stuffed with sandwiches, flasks and binoculars (it is a bird watchers paradise) but for those of you wanting to stride unfettered, Cookies Crab house looms at the journeys end offering the most unctuous of crab and seafood delicacies, pulled from the waters barely hours ago.

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Glorious Cookies

From Salthouse to the beach you will find pathways radiating outwards and those aforementioned storms mean that turning left atop the shingled bank that guarded the marshes is not an option at the time of writing (July 2014). The Norfolk Coastal path now runs along a lower bulwark demarking the line between sea and sky. A mile later, you will arrive at Cley Marshes Nature Reserve where the bird life gets even better- an embarrassment of riches in the form of Bitterns, Marsh Harriers and every winged feathered creature of the sea and coastal margins. From here the coastal path turns inland, looping around the windmill at Cley next the Sea and you can take your choice of footpaths that shadow the coastal roadway back to Salthouse.

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Directions-

Walk the beach road from the A149 just east of Salthouse to the shore, then follow the coastal path west all the way to Cley village. Take the main road east for a mile, then head along a footpath south at Snipes Marsh and fork left over Sarbury Hill back to Salthouse.

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Cookies Crabshack serves a mean lobster, crab or mixed seafood platter alongside other sandwiches. Sit in the garden or take onto the beach- what’s a crab sandwich without a bit of sand too? Having had to close after the December storms, Cookies is now thankfully open for business until at least 7pm every day although if you notify them in advance, they will stay open later. Not licensed to sell alcohol, they are happy for you to bring your own wine or beer.

The Salthouse Dun Cow is a bit of a foodie destination although they define themselves as first and foremost a pub.

The Maldon Soap Company

Made over the border in Essex, the Maldon Soap Company makes all of its soaps, shampoos and cosmetic products by hand. Ingredients are sourced locally where possible and include the very famous local Maldon Salt alongside honey and home grown calendula (marigold) for their lip balms and lotions.

Pure aromatherapy quality essential oils are included as these have a long and proven history of beneficence for the hair and skin and for the same reason  palm oil, parabens, SLS and extra foaming agents are avoided. Vegetable glycerine from palm free sources is used because of its importance as a humectant- its ability to attract water from the environment and from the lower layers of skin (dermis) which  increases the amount of water in the surface layers of skin. Another aspect of glycerin’s benefit is that it is a skin-identical ingredient, meaning it is a substance found naturally in skin. In that respect it is one of the many substances in skin that help maintain the outer barrier and prevent dryness or scaling.

Of additional interest to us is the colour of a product and how it is obtained and reassuringly, the Maldon Soap Company uses naturally derived products such as beetroot, paprika and spirulina and minimally too- no lurid shades here to permanently stain your bathroom grouting, bath or skin.

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First off the bat was their Pure Almond Soap, log cut and a beautiful buttermilk colour. Made by soaking organic almonds overnight to eliminate their skins, they are then blended with distilled water to make almond milk and then blended with sweet almond oil and scented with almond extract. That is all. Scented like a natural marzipan, this soap foams up exquisitely and cleaned our skin leaving it not tight and stretched (the poor mans Botox perhaps?) but supple and soft. We would be happy to use this on children too and as a kitchen hand cleanser because it is quite neutral in scent.

Husband comes home like Pigpen from Snoopy at times, trailing great gouts of dust that also become ingrained and that is why we were keen to road test the Coconut & Oat Soap on him. He is understandably not keen to sandblast himself with grit sharp exfoliants and scrubs having sensitive skin and being desirous of a bath and shower experience that is soothing after a long day. But something too gentle simply won’t get the grime off so he can then rewash with the more fouffy products.

 

Tan in colour with a proper natural scent of coconut as opposed to the Hawaiian Tropic razzle dazzle scent (which is not natural) the soap slab feels incredibly silky to the touch and works beautifully as a scrub for mildly grubby mitts and body BUT we wouldn’t recommend it as a heavy duty product. Best for scrubbing dry elbows and feet, gentle enough for grubby kids with a propensity for dry skin and it didn’t leave our skin feeling as taut as a well tuned violin like a lot of scrubs can.

 

My favourite blast from my hippy teenage past is the scent of patchouli and the memories it invokes of the local ‘head shop’ (known as the Purple Shop in Ipswich) with its luridly painted exterior and clouds of incense billowing out of the door which permanently scented every product we bought. This soap is glycerine clear, far removed from the headache inducing heavy orange yellow of the patchouli oil that stained the neckline of my gypsy blouses and with a light scent that captures patchouli in a very modern way. The scent lingered on my skin for hours afterwards- brilliant in hot weather when a lot of perfumes feel too heavy or use bergamot fixative which is reactive in the sun and stains the skin. Earthy, complex and oddly relaxing, this soap wouldn’t smell right on small children in our opinion. It is very grown up.

 

Translucently pale yellow, coloured with Turmeric and assertive,  True Litsea Cubeba soap is fragranced with the uplifting citrussy scent of Litsea Cubeba (May Chang), a small pepper like tropical plant native to China, Indonesia and Taiwan. Used to relax and useful for meditation, this scent is used to uplift the senses and revive the spirits with a clean almost ‘fizzy’ fragrance- most definitely a morning soap. To us it smells as though pure lemon juice, lemongrass and elderflower have been distilled into solid form and is also so reminiscent of the spice blends used in the cooking of these regions. The soap foams well but not excessively, handy when you are in a morning hurry but I wouldn’t use it as a kitchen hand cleanser because it is not neutral enough- it will scent ingredients when you handle them.

One of my favourite cosmetic companies is Guerlain because of their violet scented products- lipsticks and Les Meteorites face pearls, so we were delighted to receive a little block of Parma Violet soap. Greyish in colour because it has not been artificially coloured a lurid shade of purple, this soap is very silky in the hand and subtly perfumed. It doesn’t hit you like a sledgehammer when you open it, something we did fear might be the case because so many cosmetic companies miss the point of violet scents-they are not the heavy hitters in a garden; rather they are shy, elusive in scent and want you to come in close.

Dry and powdery, violet scents disappear and reappear like magic because they are anosmic, stimulating scent receptors then temporarily shutting them off completely. Violet cannot be smelled for more than a few moments at a time, then, after a few breaths and a period of time, the scent magically reappears. Because the brain hasn’t registered it in the preceding few moments, it registers as a new scent stimuli. In Hungary, they call violets “árvácska” which translates to “little orphan”. this may or may not reference the fact that Parma Violet plants were originally sterile and therefore have no parents. They have to be propagated via other means.

Parma Violet soap again was not drying, left my hands and face feeling satiny and I’d most definitely use this soap before going to bed. It has that slightly soporific scent, alluring and we’ll say no more.

I don’t have feet, I have hooves. After a long old winter in clumpy boots and thick tights, I am an inch taller with the dry skin (sorry TMI) I have accumulated and after using the Footner foot sock, I needed something to keep my foot care on the right path, especially as I now have to wear punishing heels due to being an inch shorter after my hooves were treated. The Minty Scrubby Foot Scrub was a good place to start, not overpoweringly menthol in scent,  trembling and slightly jelly like in the pot and flecked with little bits to scour away the debris of the day. Releasing an invigorating smell as I used it, the particles (salt? sand?) are tiny enough to work their way into small cracks and crevasses, helping to break down dry skin and smooth them down. I don’t like larger grained products because it is easy to scrub too hard and end up with sore, abraded toes and soles. This product feels precise and because of the texture, doesn’t run everywhere (expensively wasted down the plug hole usually), stays where it is supposed to and as long as your feet aren’t too bad, it’ll do a good job.

I soon ran out of the skin saving face balm because it is bloody brilliant and better than Elizabeth Ardens vile smelling ‘Eight Hour Face Cream’ which to me smells like something you’d use on an old horse. Slathering the skin saving balm on my elbows, knees, sunburned ears (oops), chafed bits, nose and even using it to soften the inside of a stiff pair of leather shoes (my tip of the day because after all leather is skin right?) this is my absolute recommendation for everyday keep-on-the-desk usefulness. Slightly sticky and very emollient so you will have to wash your hands after using it (don’t use it if you are wearing silk and viscose until it is absorbed), this works incredibly hard on problem areas and I’d suggest using it as a kind of Scud Missile balm- when you want to spot treat an isolated area as opposed to slathering it over your entire body. It doesn’t really have a scent per se, just a slightly medicinal smell so that must mean it is healing right?

Made from cold pressed avocado oil, orange flower water, shea butter, beeswax, avocado butter, citrus and vanilla fragrance, this hand and body cream couldn’t really be anything other than super moisturising could it? Contradictory in its thick luxurious texture yet easy to spread onto skin and settling in well with not too much lingering ‘slip’, my poor old lady looking hands really need some attention. Faintly herbaceous in scent, not Avocado-y as such but vegetal and gentle, it doesn’t leave you smelling of last nights guacamole, even when the sun heats your skin up. If you have more mature skin this is the cream we’d advise as mine positively sucked it up and within minutes, it had disappeared leaving something a little more imbued with youth than before. I cannot be certain but I have noticed that my skin springs back a little easier on the back of my hands and they don’t appear so crepey- I have always had old looking mitts: even at aged ten my palms were dry so I have grown up believing this to be irredeemably genetic. Maybe not.

The Glycerine & Lavender Handcream has been applied to a very peachy babies bum with mild nappy rash and also to other body parts  and mum reports this cream has definite possibilities as a multi purpose one, not just for adult hands. Using the moisture attracting and sealing Glycerine and packed with calming, soothing and soporific Lavender, what better way to get anybody to relax (and sleep in the case of babies) than with this cream? Working well for burns, scalds, blisters and all manner of grazes, we’d use this as another all purpose cream too. It is thick,makes a good barrier cream and will  grease mark clothing so needs to be applied before dressing or very carefully and we’d again caution its use after cooking because the lavender is very penetrating but in a good way. Being a fan of lavender in food- our favourite cheese is a ewe’s cheese spiked with lavender sprigs and our favourite macarons are lavender and honey, maybe cooking whilst wearing this is not such a bad idea after all?

The Maldon Soap Company

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Broads national park: a ranger’s guide

From the best places for boat hire and day trips on the Norfolk Broads to spotting its wildlife and finding great places to eat and drink, ranger Robin Allard has the lowdown.
Canoeing on the Broads

Canoeing on the Broads. Photograph: Julian Claxton

What’s new?

A canoe trip can be a real family adventure and a chance for that “taster” of the Broads. This year we have developed our canoe trails that extend from the Broads’ canoe hire centres. Visit enjoythebroads.com to find out how you can explore; you’ll see that each trail offers options for the length of your route. The trails are mostly on the less tidal upper reaches of the rivers with an opportunity to get close to nature.

Park highlights

The areas of Heigham Sound, Hickling Broad, Horsey and West Somerton have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and are a haven for wildlife. You are bound to see the Marsh Harrier over the reed-beds looking for its next meal. You may be lucky and see an otter or if you venture up to Catfield Staithe you can happen upon the kingfisher darting along the river banks. There is a lot to do,Horsey has tea rooms, a wind-pump to visit and lots of walks, you can hike to the beach and watch the seals basking on the sands.

If the canoe hire option seems daunting then you can hire a dayboat from the yards of Martham Boats in Martham or from the Potter Heigham yards of Herbert WoodsPhoenix Fleet and Maycraft. I prefer the electric launches, in order to preserve the tranquility of the experience.

If you don’t want to sail/paddle/drive yourself then the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has trips out from its visitor centre at Hickling in an electric powered reed lighter (two-hour trips, adults £10, kids £6). The trip includes a visit to an 18m viewing tower with fantastic views over the reserve and staff on hand to answer all your questions. Hickling Broad is also the home of the Hickling Sailing Club a windsurfing club. It is a fantastic sight to see a large variety of dinghies and sailboards racing across the broad with their multi-coloured sails and spinnakers.

My favourite spots

An historic Norfolk trading wherry Albion on the River BureThe Norfolk Wherry Trust is home to the historic Wherry Albion. Photograph: AlamyA good viewing spot – and one that is often missed by people – is to climb to the top of Ranworth church for its sumptuous vistas over the broads. My own billet (meaning where I keep the patrol boat!) is next door to the Norfolk Wherry Trust. For an extra special treat you can charter a wherry with your family and friends and experience this iconic and historic mode of transport.

Where to eat/drink/sleep

Coltishall is a good place to eat, with three pubs, chip shops and more. My favourite is the Fur and Feather Inn (thefurandfeatherinn.co.uk) at Woodbastwick village. To get there you should walk from the moorings at Salhouse Broad. The pub is home to Woodfordes Ales and for me, as a real ale fan, it is a proper treat. Brewery tours are available.

My best wildlife encounter?

Over the years I have had all sorts of encounters with wildlife but although I have heard the unusual “booming” sound of the elusive bittern, I have yet to actually see one!

 broads-authority.gov.uk

 

 

The Museum of East Anglian Life

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Set on a  beautiful 75 acre site with nearly 3km of woodland and riverside nature trails surrounding it, The Museum of East Anglian Life deserves to be known as one of the best museum attractions in England with a seemingly endless list of exhibits and things to do and see. Consisting of over fifteen historic buildings and collections of over forty thousand objects telling tales of East Anglian life, we’d definitely recommend a return visit because one day is not enough- especially if you wish to walk more of the beautiful Gipping Valley of which tantalising glimpses can be seen from the beautifully maintained meadows and mowed paths traversing the grounds. A  footpath runs alongside the river Gipping, through the town of Stowmarket, taking walkers along the Gipping Valley to the docks in Ipswich.

Entered via gift shop, visitors then pass through Abbots Hall with its displays depicting the seasonal nature of food production – from bird scarers used by children, to beet forks with knobbly ended prongs onto a wide grassed area around which stand cart lodges packed with displays, the toilets, Osiers Cafe and the meadows leading to the other parts of the museum. Easy buggy trails have been laid and highlighted around some of the displays, the babychanging and toilets are well laid out and clean and throughout the site you will find little ride on toys to transport tired little legs. These have (and can be) left where you like after you have used them.

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The enamel blue skies and warm temperatures on the day of our visit were a bonus with such a large part of the site being open air and many exhibits requiring outdoor walking to get to them; we would recommend sturdy waterproof shoes and a light jacket for inclement weather and plenty of sunscreen on hotter days. Children will want to take advantage of the outdoor playground, safe and well maintained with slides and climbing frames plus a fenced and grassed tractor race track furnished with plastic ride on toys to charge around on. Picnic benches, grassy hummocks and acres of mowed meadows made this area safe for children to run around with respite from the sun provided in the form of mini thatched cart lodges.

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Further down the meadow is a small allotment surrounded by pens of rare breed animals- sheep, hens, rabbits and ducks; chickens, Suffolk black pigs and various goats, the latter tantalisingly close to the herb and vegetable patch. The sight and smell of it must have driven them demented, goats being goats. Wander past this, cross the small lane and ahead of you lies the Eastbridge Windpump surrounded by a wildflower meadow, hedgerows heavy with elderflower and cobnuts. A wooden bridge over the river leads you towards the towpath, pastures dotted with cows and Stowmarket picturesquely framed in the middle distance.

 

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Skeins of families moved from exhibit to exhibit in ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ style crocodiles; from the Blacksmith shed (originally built in Grundisburgh)  and cart lodge filled with restored Romany caravans and a vintage Airstream that we coveted, to the Boby Building with its jangling steam belching giant engines, wheels higher than my head. Manned by cheery gentlemen wearing neckscarves and broad smiles, the children swarmed around these huge beasts of the road whilst around them lay sheds full of tractors, snowploughs and vintage cable laying equipment. In one corner of the shed could be found a child sized workshop complete with overalls hanging on pegs, mini hard hats and toy tool kits ready for junior handypeople. Interactivity is definitely encouraged here.

 

The same applies to all the mini exhibitions which are well curated and expertly explained via information boards and have a go displays. The ‘Toys Past & Present’ has a primary coloured corner encouraging children to play and adults to write about their toy memories seguing into displays of home environments from the past- a 50’s sitting room and kitchen with textile patterns  reminiscent of those by iconic designer Lucienne Day; the atomic age, natural phenomena such as bark and the Memphis School all exerting their influence. A further display of a Victorian parlour, a kitchen and a bedroom contrasted with the obsession with plastic and modernism typical of the 50’s.

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As we explored the site further, the discoveries were never ending. Inside Edgars Farmhouse with its bucolic and verdant garden and cutesy chocolate box exterior we found an interior stripped back to the architecture so as to tell the story of its construction. The first recorded owners of the farmhouse were John Adgor and his wife Ascelina. In 1346 they held nearly 40 acres of arable land, 1.5 acres of meadow, 1 acre of pasture, a rood of wood and 3 acres of alderwood in Combs. The farmhouse was saved from demolition in 1970 and reconstructed on the museum site. Built unusually in the style of an aisled hall with passing braces (as you’d more usually see in a church), there is an interactive cross brace joist for visitors to take apart and (attempt to) rebuild; a great way of demonstrating how ingenious these simple construction techniques are.

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The Alton water mill was packed with things to read, look at and explore from bowls of different grains to an actual grindstone where we could add wheat and grind our own flour as shafts of sunlight highlighted the dust motes floating in the breezes. The mill works on water pumped up from the Rattlesden river and although no longer in commercial operation, is regularly operated for demonstrations.

Especially charming was the Moulton Chapel- a tin tabernacle, the ‘flatpack’ style of chapel often found in East Anglia, Wales and the West Country and of no affiliated Protestant denomination. Containing an empty baptismal total immersion pool, a side room used for Sunday School with tiny ladderback chairs, little hymn books and its humble, pared back vibe, it serves as a reminder that faith requires no adornment. The tabernacle was home to ‘Tell it to the Bees’- an mini installation demonstrating why bees are an important part of English folklore and why these traditions still echo through to today. No creature has provided man with so much wholesome food; nor has any inspired so many beliefs and superstitions. Bees, hives, and beekeepers appear in paintings and sculpture, on coins, jewelry, and Mayan glyphs; and carved into African tree trunks. The Greeks called amber Electron, and associated it with the Sun God Elector, who was known as the awakener. Honey, which resembles amber, was also known as an awakener, a regenerative substance that was revered across the ancient world. The resemblance of honey with amber led to the Bees exalted status amongst ancient man and secured its favor over other fossilized insects.

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‘Telling it to the Bees’ references the importance of these creatures to the rural economy and families – bees would be the first to be told of a family death, their hives draped in black cotton and the first to be told of good news too. The underpinning common sense was of avoiding disturbance to the hives. A family busy with the business of bereavement and burial might lack the time to attend fully to their bees so covering them keeps them quiet and reduces the chances of swarming because they feel unsettled.  Inside the tabernacle a mini beehive acts as repository for the secrets and hopes of children as they write their news onto slips of paper, posting these through the slot.

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Happy to meet up with an ‘old friend’ we took a moment to sit inside the ‘Settling House’,  also known as the Round House, Tally House, or Counting House which sat at the heart of Bury St Edmunds cattle market for over 130 years. The Victorian Gothic building, with its distinctive octagonal design, was rebuilt on the museum site in 2011 and contains depictions of the Bury St Edmunds market by David Gentleman who also illustrated books by George Ewart Evans.

The Settling House was originally used by traders to complete their business, with the toll collector given permission to sell ginger beer and buns. The building soon became the central hub of the cattle market, the place where traders met and tickets to the auctions were handed out. We remembered this building well firstly from the bustling market where traders with cages full of rabbits and chickens would chat to farmers en route from the livestock market behind the Settling House, to the produce market on Buttermarket. The close of the livestock market was the death sentence for this building and for a decade it stood neglected and marooned in a sea of parked cars until it was rescued by the Museum and rebuilt on its site.

Having recommended you stay the day here, we can also recommend the on site cafe, Osiers, which is a delightful spacious place to sit and eat cake (home made), snacks (home made) or full meals (home made- get the picture?). With its sun trap courtyard shaded by trees and parasols, picnic benches and army of not too bold ducks, this is a safe place to stop mid visit, eat and allow the kids to try out yet more ride on toys that are everywhere here too. Over in the corner are cart lodges, birds flying in and out of sedge or thatch, airstream caravans with the sun glinting off them and games such as croquet for loan.

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Finally, we meandered over to the Abbots Hall and Gardens, a Queen Anne style house built in 1709 by Charles Blosse, a local gentleman and merchant and boasting a perfect walled garden that is framed beautifully from many of the deep silled windows inside. For us, this was the icing on the cake with its expertly curated displays and timely interactive child friendly activities, each linked to an ongoing display. Amazingly helpful staff are there to help you understand the context of each exhibition and their expertise in passing on their knowledge really enhances the visit.  In this imposing yet friendly space the rooms are arranged and designed to explore concepts of home in East Anglia and the feelings these instill and provoke within us. Our sense of place, of self, our attachments to our traditions and the landscape; what we remember and what we pass on to others forms the backdrop to the often deeply moving exhibits. The room dedicated to the local asylum St Audrys and the ways in which it formed  home, sanctuary AND confinement to its residents elicits very powerful emotions with patients belongings- wallets and spectacles, the tokens used to exchange for goods (Token economy) records and artwork by local people. If you are interested in finding out more, we can recommend the St Audrys Project and ‘Telling it Like it is’.

For children we saw a wonderful dressing up corner in the exhibition ‘The Good Life’ celebrating all things 1970’s and most definitely mining the Tom and Barbara ‘look’ and a great little interactive gardening task which related back to said same self sufficiency movement during that venerable decade- children and adults were invited to write on little tags what their garden meant to them and hang them on a grid. Plastic tubs full of nature inspired toys- watering cans, little bugs bore labels inviting children to explore and play with them in a room overlooking the stunning gardens.

 

The history of local Romany families begun by their beautifully restored waggons outside is enlarged upon inside Abbots Hall with a travellers view of the home and amazing funeral floral tributes to local community leader Dannie Buckley. Tackled too are less edifying facts; a glass display tackles discrimination and the name calling and discrimination often experienced by travellers, looking at words like ‘chav’.

 

We have long been supporters of the tradition of oral history (or testimony) and the museum interweaves the testimony of local people in several exhibits; in the St Audrys exhibit where we hear the accounts of people who have worked there or lived in the region. Movingly, the accounts of patients are missing because St Audrys dates from a time where the service user movement had yet to develop and mental illness was buried in layers of taboo, shame and silence. There is also a room dedicated to the work of George Ewart Evans, the father of British oral history. Sound recordings preserve local dialect and idiom, the table is set, books by regional nature and local history authors to the right of each plate and photos document the Yeoman and field worker heritage of East Anglia. Ewart Evans, author of one of our favourite books, ‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’, also broadcast and published countless articles on the old traditions and became a pioneer of oral history in Britain after moving to Suffolk from his native Wales. As the artist and illustrator of many of his books, David Gentleman says;

“The scope of George’s work is complex and hard to define. His books might seem on the surface to be simply about subjects: the countryside, and the past. Much in them is indeed remembered: old people talking clearly and vividly about how things were, in their recurrent phrase, ‘at that time of day’ – that is, when younger. Certainly one can enjoy the books in a spirit of nostalgia, and take pleasure in the charm of the rural subject matter. But George was too clear-headed and too objective for nostalgia, and one quickly finds out – as he did – that the lives and times he recorded were far too hard for anyone with any humanity to wish them back. Rather, he used the past as a way to understand the present.”

A quote that applies as much to what the Museum of East Anglia is doing too.

The Museum of East Anglia

Suffolk & Norfolk by authors and artists

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The dramatic East Anglian scenery inspires.

Reading What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge as a child, I was struck by Katy Carr’s determination to embark upon a literary tour of England and Scotland in 1886, when she came over here via steamer on a trip given as a gift from a benevolent family friend. Describing us as ‘storybook England’ Katy paid tribute to our great writers by planning pilgrimages to many places associated with them.  Visiting the grave of Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey and travelling to Winchester Cathedral so that she might have the privilege of seeing the grave of her beloved Miss Austen, Katy’s chance meeting with an oddly Dick Van Dyke like cockney verger by Austens grave, deals with a favourite cathedral legend- that the staff had not a clue who Jane Austen was, although if they’d read their own 1854 handbook all would have been clear. Katy’s outrage at our lack of appreciation for a writer she deemed the greatest of all was very amusing to me and a great twist on the popular misconception that Americans have little awareness of anything outside of their own national boundaries.

Our beautiful, historic countryside under wide East Anglian skies have seduced many a writer and artist. Writers such as Rafaella Barker claim the peace of the Norfolk countryside allows her a creative space she would struggle to find anywhere else  “I live near the sea and I like the limitlessness of the horizon and being on the edge of the British Isles” and many local artists have placed East Anglia firmly as subject and theme of their work (Constable and Gainsborough). Cedric Morris, the famous painter and horticulturalist was co-founder of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Dedham in Norfolk. Morris took over the lease on The Pound, Higham, Suffolk, in 1929, and acquired the freehold in 1932, creating one of his most accomplished gardens. A number of artists stayed there, including Francis Hodgkins, Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping and their costumed parties were legendary. They remained there until 1940 when, after the fire at the Dedham Art School, they moved to Benton End. Morris inspired and supported Beth Chatto to develop her beautiful garden in Elmstead Market, now world famous and was a collaborator and peer of Ronald Blythe, writer of ‘Akenfield’ who now lives near Wormingford.

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Bottengoms Farm in ‘At the Yeomans House’ by Ronald Blythe

Blythes subsequent body of work draws deeply upon his surroundings, his home ‘Bottengoms Farm’, his position as lay reader at local churches and love of nature, history and theology. Meditative, opinionated and thoughtful, his “Word from Wormingford” diary for the Church Times has been written every week for two decades. Blythe was born in Suffolk. His family has lived here for centuries; even his surname comes from one of its river’s, the Blyth, and his farm was once owned by the painter John Nash whose wife invited him to see the place in 1947. In ‘Akenfield’ Blythe gave voice to a people previously neglected by nature and social history writers- the working class countryside folk. Blythe stated; “If you read John Clare, he makes you realise that they weren’t just lumpen creatures, even if they couldn’t read and write. They had dreams and visions which we don’t know about.” 

The wheeling gulls and tandem cries of children; the eddying of water through sandy rills, fingered inlets and maram grass covered islands at low tide…. Arthur Ransome has a long association with both counties, first visiting the Norfolk Broads in the thirties and using it as inspiration for his children’s books Coot Club (1934) and The Big Six (1940). These two books centre upon the Broads village of Horning and touch upon the coming of change with the increasing use of motorised boats. In Coot Club, the ‘Hullabaloos’ on their motorised craft The Margoletta’ are the villains in the story and Ransome makes no bones about letting us know his opinion of their actions. Spending too much time in the riverside pubs, they ignore speed limits,make a lot of noise, are racketty and uncouth as they chase the gentle wind powered boat, ‘Teasel’.

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Horning Ferry Mill

“‘And so, rejoicing in their freedom, the outlaw and his friends sailed on their way, through a country as flat as Holland, past huge old windmills, their sails creaking round, pumping the water from the low-lying meadows on which the cows were grazing actually below the level of the river. Far away over the meadows, other sails were moving on Ant and Thurne, white sails of yachts and big black sails of trading wherries.’

 We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water are set in coastal Suffolk and Essex, with the former involving a voyage to Flushing in the Netherlands and the latter the exploration of the islands of Hamford Water near Walton-on-the-Naze. Made famous in ‘We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea’ the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the River Orwell overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if the beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.

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Peter Duck

Occasionally Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brings it to Suffolk for events (Felixstowe Book Festival on 28th June being one of them) and people can see for themselves the craft that inspired his writing craft.

 

The very famous I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has its origins in her glimpse of an ancient medieval moated castle in 30’s Wingfield, Suffolk and her love of the classic Suffolk pink wash thatched cottages, the ruined manor houses that were once the heart of our villages and the families living in gentile penury- trying to maintain an appearance of a life they can no longer afford. Describing life for these families as one where ‘the past is like a presence, a caress in the air’, presumably a comfort in the hard times of the present, all is ‘drear, dank, depressing, boggy and raining’– an image of Suffolk we have little truck with. Even in the colder months, there is a seer, monochromatic and dramatic beauty; the moving tracery of bare tree branches as the unforgiving winds straight from Siberia swipe across the fields; the standing black edge of copses on a ridgeline beneath a dome of slate sky; the soft swells of fields and deep cuts carved into the earth by the many rivers and streams feeding them. It is a different kind of beauty to the bucolic and abundant green of summer but it is still beauty nonetheless.

books and literary images

We East Anglians have found easier and more functional ways of living with a past that is often wrought vividly upon the present- our surroundings are full of history which still impacts today. We find it less oppressive than Smith’s protagonists although accounts of beaurocratic skirmishes with local planners are writ large upon our regional newspapers each week. Does anybody recall the saga of the lilac painted house in the village of Clare which went on for months, divided villagers and caused no end of fury among historical purists?

Many places in Suffolk are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment. Their stories tells themselves, stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place. In 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaelogist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and complete feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum. Tiny fragments showed that rich textiles once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen overshirts to shaggy woollen cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the acidic soil, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king.

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The mask of a King?

The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship and extensive international connections, spanning Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of great halls, glittering treasures and formidable warriors described in Anglo-Saxon poetry was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s story Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister story about a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world.

The dry and sandy Brecklands yielded treasure of their own, inspiring Roald Dahl to travel to Mildenhall to interview the Ploughman who unearthed the remarkable find of Roman silver, now displayed in the British Museum. This formed the basis of a subsequent story ‘The Mildenhall Treasures’ where Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. The curator of the British Museum, Richard Hobbs writes about his association with the story and the treasure- “I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.” Dahl’s account is now accepted as a true account of their discovery.

Arguably the most famous visitor to Aldeburgh, (even more famous than Sir Michael Gambon who tried to solicit one of my chips whilst sitting next to me on the benches of the White Hart Pub next to the famous chip shop), Orlando the Marmalade cat was the star of a series of books written for children. Written by Kathleen Hale, who spent holidays in the town, Aldeburgh is renamed ‘Owlbarrow’ and many of the illustrations in the books feature landmarks in the town, most notably the Moot Hall. In this charming series, based in 1952, Orlando brought his wife Grace and their kittens to  stay on the beached ship the Iona, now no longer in existence but depicted in the illustration below.

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Orlando on his boat, located in Aldeburgh (Owlbarrow)

Kathleen Hale’s books have been treasured by children and grown-ups since they were first published; the illustrations being rich in detail and painterly enough to appeal to parents too. Only two of the many titles are still in print: A Seaside Holiday and A Camping Holiday, both stocked by the Aldeburgh Book shop which now owns the merchandising rights from Kathleen Hale’s publishers Frederick Warne at Penguin.

With its setting in the deepest reaches of the mysterious and watery Norfolk Fens, The Future Homemakers of America’ is the story of six young women in postwar Norfolk by Laurie Graham. Five are US Airforce DWs (Dependent Wives) living on the Crampton base, baking cookies, cakes and pies while crew-cut, square jawed All American husbands master the skies in fast and horribly unsafe machines that were deemed to be at the cutting edge of war machine technology. With dependable narrative tropes in its women, including Kath, a doughty Fenland woman alongside an historical background of those turbulent post-war years, illustrated by facsimiles of newspaper pages including some scarily lurid Jello salad and cake recipes, this is an easy read of a book that does manage to capture some of the culture shock felt by our USAF influx and those who came into contact with them. The Future Homemakers of America officially began in June of 1945, working to combine and unify hundreds of home economic clubs in high schools across the US and sought to unify young Americans across the land to become strong leaders in their families, careers and communities.

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In 1945, when the first Future Homemakers of America chapter was founded, the mission and curriculum were basic: preparing young women to be homemakers. In recent years, more males have become involved and interested in the organization and finally, in 1999, the organization’s national chapters voted to change their name to Family, Career and Community Leaders of America to more accurately reflect the organization’s mission and to disassociate its leadership-building programs from societal stigma that the term “homemaker” has developed over the previous five decades. .

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The historical connections between Norfolk and North America began in the 17th century, when a large number of migrants moved together to the newly-created colonies including the family of US president Abraham Lincoln who came from Hingham. Actors James Stewart and Walter Matthau were both stationed in Norfolk whilst serving for the United States Army Air Force (USAF) during World War Two and Reis Leming, a member of USAF personal based at RAF Sculthorpe, saved the lives of 27 people in the Norfolk Floods of 1953. He was awarded UK and US medals for bravery. The Eighth in the East’ project was established to document the story of the 8th United States Army Air Force in the East of England and is a great place to start should you wish to find out more about this fascinating period of history.

In complete contrast to this cosy tale of young American women going about their domestic (and not so) lives is the ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by the writer M. R. James. The story tells the tale of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery. When blown, the whistle unleashes a supernatural force that pursues and terrifies its discoverer.

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The untamed and shifting coast of Norfolk and Suffolk inspires stories of mystery and ghostliness

From the age of three (1865) until 1909 the home of MR James, if not always his residence, was at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk. This had also been the childhood home of another eminent Suffolk antiquary, “Honest Tom” Martin (1696–1771) “of Palgrave.” Several MR James ghost stories are set in Suffolk, including “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (Felixstowe), “A Warning to the Curious” (Aldeburgh), “Rats” and “A Vignette” (Great Livermere). The wild, unearthly and limitless skies, beaches and horizon of the Norfolk and Suffolk coastal areas are effective backdrops for what James described as “putting the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me.”  The shifting clifftops and shingle beaches, eroded by winds and tides and dunes that appear and disappear as if they were in the Sahara, often form the most incongruous of obstacles to total annihilation by the waters. Danger is covert and safety is illusory on the literary frontier of the British continent- the shoreline.

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This oddly porous and shifting boundary between land and sea inspired author Jeremy Page to write ‘Salt’ and set it among the Blakeney saltmarshes of North Norfolk and the fens near the Wash. What forms a person, the surge and ebb of family history as it reaches into each new generation, shaping and eroding, forms the broad theme of this novel. Here, the sea gives up the half drowned body of a young German soldier after the Second World War where he is rescued and sheltered by Goose, a reclusive and mystic who predicts significant events by cloudwatching. Fed on Samphire, a coastal plant with spears that carry the essence of the sea, he impregnates her and sails away on a boat after she gives birth to their daughter. The repercussions permeate the story as do the other worldly descriptions of a landscape that gets under the skin of all who encounter it with its tangled and indistinct boundaries between land, water and sky.

Saturated with another kind of Norfolk- that of an 80’s childhood in the neon brashness of a seaside resort is ‘Weirdo’ by Cathy Unsworth, believed to be based upon the popular holiday destination of Great Yarmouth with its thin veneer of holiday gaiety. Think gaudy funfair, amusements and  wide promenades festooned with bags of candy floss and racks of striped rock; the Harbour, model village and the dunes; Bernie Winters, Tarbuck, Orville the Duck and Jim Davidson appearing on the pier. Gaggles of teenagers fizz with the anticipation of kissing under the pier and can be found dotting the sea, top halves visible as they sway, buffeted by sand brown waves and cries like seagulls; their limbs yet to be bronzed by the sun and held aloft the water, pale and supplicant.download (34)

There is another side to all towns though and revisiting Great Yarmouth through Cathi Unsworth’s narrative introduces us to the seamier aspects of seaside life – the pubs, the bed and breakfast DWP benefit residents, the bail hostels, drugs and the prostitution. This crime story, switching between events in the early 1980s and 2003 where a former cop turned private detective, Sean Ward, is hired to look into a brutal murder that occurred two decades previously, really hits home. Seaside towns have always attracted a transient, migrant population and Gt Yarmouth is no better or worse than any other British town in this respect where hard working residents have just the short summer season to earn enough to sustain them economically through the other six months of the year. When you find yourself living in a town on the edge of the country, the sense of having nowhere else to turn is brought into even sharper relief and, should life not have gone the way you intended it to, the sense of being washed out to sea by rivers or washed up onto the shoreline by the tide is intensified. This is depicted perfectly by Kazuo Ishiguro’s in his novel Never Let me Go, which ends with Kathy in a Norfolk field, “thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.”

Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of ’22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here. “Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.” With a well established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband  Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says; “I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”

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Appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for many books set locally and in ‘The Swimmer’ by Roma Teague we are thrown straight into the tale when 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain. While he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair. When tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.

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Creeks and marshes surround the landscape around Orford

The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around Orford where the book is set with this becoming a stunningly beautiful and brooding backdrop to the story. Shaped by conflict, affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum.

Former resident of the tiny Suffolk village of Mellis, situated on the ‘High Suffolk’ claylands where Oliver Cromwell once exercised his troops on the largest English area of unfenced common land, Roger Deakin was one of the Worlds most respected nature writers. Part of a distinguished group of East Anglian writers, artists and aesthetes that includes Richard Mabey, Adrian Bell and author of ‘Akenfield’, Ronald Blythe; J A Baker (author of ‘The Peregrine’) ,Cedric Morris the artist and plantsman based in Hadleigh, Robert MacFarlane, Mark Cocker and Patrick Barkham, Deakin sadly died in 2006 leaving a wealth of archived material and three stellar books- ‘Waterlogged’, ‘Wildwood’ and the posthumously published ‘Tales from Walnut Tree Farm’.

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The late, great Roger Deakin

In Waterlog, he writes of  his watery journey around Britain: an attempt to discover the country afresh by swimming through its seas, rivers, lakes, fens; its swimming pools and secret bathing holes in a manner both earthy and highly aesthetic. Deakin has the soul of a poet and writes so beautifully that I grieve his loss afresh with every word. Inspired by a rain splattered early swim in the moat surrounding his Mellis home, he experiences life through a ‘frog’s eye view of rain on the moat” and watching each raindrop as it “exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst” which inspires this watery odyssey.

Deakin swims the Hampstead swimming ponds also frequented by an eclectic group of dedicated wild swimmers from ladies left over from more genteel times and people having a pre or post work swim to young university students. He recounts a chasing off by an angry Winchester College river jobsworth and crawls along the brackish creeks of Cornwall like a cross between a mudlark and a catfish. And weeps over the brutal concrete incarceration of the River Lark upon his arrival in Suffolk  ‘I stood outside the Bury St Edmunds Tesco. Here, the Lark had been treated with something less than reverence as it flowed through the forecourt car park […] The hapless Lark, which once meandered gently through water meadows here, had been neatly packaged in an outsized concrete canyon. No water vole would dream of venturing here, nor otter, purple loosestrife or figwort’.

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From dreaming about water to dreaminess once in the water, Deakin expounds upon an alien and magical environment within which we are all at sea despite having spent forty weeks gestating with no need of lungs or gills. As he says “No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born.” Then he contemplates the strangeness that can be found in the water as opposed to our strangeness within it- ‘In the night sea at Walberswick,’ Deakin observes, ‘I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through neon waves like dragons.’ This other worldliness and an existence of which we retain no conscious memory of is shot through with a more practical acceptance of these mysteries- “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,but there is also a third thing, that makes it water and nobody knows what that is.” He is content to not know.

Sadly not all have found the watery, flat and strikingly desolate scenery of the Fens inspiring or feel their peculiar beauty. Author Anthony Trollope painted a grim and unforgiving picture of them in his novel ‘Beltons Estate’ (1866).  His heroine, Clara Amedroz, has to chose between a wealthy suitor and a distant cousin called Will Belton. Belton owns a farm near Downham Market but is keen to leave the Fens and take up his inheritance in the West Country. Trollope was familiar with the fens through his work as a surveyor for the Post Office but was not enamoured by the landscape. In the book, Belton walks to Denver Sluice and back and Trollope writes ‘a country walk less picturesque could hardly be found in England’. 

Historically the Fens were regarded as a disease ridden place, haunted by witches and Will o’ the Wisps, rippled through with superstition that barely went challenged because of a largely intransigent and static population, hampered by the difficult undrained marshes, reeds and drains. Travel had to be by water or along roads that could be treachorous at night. Even today the Fens have retained a reputation for witchcraft. In his series of books, Phillip Pullman sets some of the action in the Fens (‘Northern Lights’) where at a great gathering of the Gyptians, they decide to mount an expedition to head to the Arctic where they have discovered the missing children are being taken. He clearly sees the potential for gatherings going unnoticed and undisturbed in such an isolated landscape; in addition it would be most easy to see threats appearing on the horizon from afar. The flat light and relatively few trees render movement difficult to hide.

In the prelude to ‘Hereward the Wake’, Charles Kingsley (author of ‘The Water Babies’)  highlights the sky made larger and more dramatic because of the stubbornly flat topography- no hills or mountains interrupt the vast watery terrain and dark silty earth is punctuated by sere reeds and ink black slow moving waters:

‘Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the open sea; and that vastness gave, and still gives, such cloudlands, such sunrises, such sunsets, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles.’

The poet Edward Storey is equally appreciative, noting that;

“You walk the roof of the world here.
Only the clouds are higher
And they are not permanent.
Trees are too distant for the wind to reach
And mountains hide below the horizon.
The wind labours through reed
As though they were the final barrier.
Houses and farms cling like crustations
To the black hull of the earth.
Here, you must walk with yourself,
Or share the spirits of forgotten ages.”

His books include: Spirit of the Fens (1985) and In Fen Country Heaven(1996). In Fen Boy First (1994) he gives an account of his childhood growing up in Whittlesey (which is actually in Cambridgeshire). Fen Country Christmas (1995) is a collection of stories, legends and Fenland superstitions in which he takes a look at skating; a popular sport in the region and one which Roger Deakin mentions in ‘Waterlog’. The speed skating races held along the long and straight dykes and inlets of the region were hugely popular and the blade sharp winds fresh from the Russian Steppes and Siberia froze the water hard. Heads low and well muffled against the cold, skaters sped along, cheered by locals who gathered at accessible points along the way and warmed afterwards with mugs of spirit spiked tea. Graham Swift’s novel Waterland (1983) is also set in the Fens, influenced by George Elliot’sMill on the Floss’, with a  narrator Tom Crick, who lives in a lock keeper’s cottage on the bank of the (fictional) River Leem flowing out of Norfolk. It may be that the river Leem is modelled on the Little Ouse which flows between Thetford and Brandon, discharging into the Fens and is possessed of some truly beautiful banks along which many locals picnic and paddle off in warmer months. The names of local villages, of the Fens themselves and rivers are curious, poetic and usually explanatory of their location and their people who lived among them: Prickwillow, The Hundred Foot Drain, March, Ely  (‘Isle of Eels’), Crowland (One of the five Fen monasteries) and Black Sluice.

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Photo by Rex Sly of the Fens

As a child of sixties and seventies Suffolk and Norfolk, I can attest to just how off the beaten track it was. Although a map from 1766 shows a route from London to Great Yarmouth which follows much of the current A12, there was a sparse transport network and communities therefore remained nuclear, remote from each other and the rest of the British landmass. Added to this the network of marshes, waterways and fens and you can see why travel was difficult and transport development expensive when you take into account the population- which remains small to this day. In her novel, ‘The Twins’, Saskia Sarginson talks of her decision to set the book in a Suffolk forest (Rendlesham or Minsmere are the most likely inspiration) and about her love of our county; ” In 1972 there was little TV and no computer games and at that time Suffolk was off the beaten track and unspoilt – the perfect place… for the girls to run wild” The dense pine forests, starkly shingled beaches that are difficult to traverse and the mythology and history all drew her towards Suffolk as a setting and into this pot, she set the story about another of life’s mysteries- twins.

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Rendlesham Forest

Forests are a trope that gives on giving. Their psychogeography is magical, foreboding, filled with threat, promise, light filled glades and crepuscular mysteries. From fairy tale filled childhoods, we are conditioned into an overwhelmingly emotional relationship with these disappearing habitats: they are both familiar in the nightly telling of stories set in them and terrifyingly strange in their potential for causing us to become lost and disorientated. Rendlesham Forest compounds this with an additional history of strange nightly events when a group of American servicemen stationed at military bases in Suffolk went into the forest to investigate mysterious lights.

What occurred next has been the subject of debate, but some of the servicemen have since said they saw an alien spacecraft, with one of those involved later claiming to have touched it. Attempts have been made to explain the incident, with theories ranging from an elaborate hoax, to the men being confused by lights from a nearby lighthouse. The closure of the woods at the time of the incident only added to the conspiracy theories among locals who have the most familarity with the forest and are therefore well versed in detecting usual happenings from unusual ones. However, it remains a source of fascination for Ufologists and among the newly released National Archives files is a document – which the MoD says insists is a fraud, describing aliens encountered in the forest.

The document, on what appears to be official departmental paper, reports that the “entities” were “approximately one and a half meters tall, wearing what appeared to be nylon coated pressure suits, but no helmets”.They were apparently “hovering above ground level” and were recorded speaking in an “electronically synthesised version of English, with a strong American accent”. They were said to have had “claw-like hands and with three fingers and an opposable thumb.” Whatever happened (or not), the forest authorities have not been slow to capitalise on something that sets them apart from other British forests, setting up ‘UFO walking trails‘ and other seasonal attractions designed to appeal to the thousands of tourists to the region.

Benjamin Britten had a long and productive association with Aldeburgh, inspiring artist Maggie Hambling to design the Aldeburgh Scallop on the shoreline with an edge pierced with the words; “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, taken from Benjamin Britten‘s opera Peter Grimes. Not without some controversy (the Scallop has been defaced with paint thrown over it in the past) we nonetheless think it is moving and dramatic; we cannot imagine Aldeburgh beach without it. Christine Nash, wife of artist John Nash found Ronald Blythe a cottage near Aldeburgh and Blythe was introduced to Britten, becoming  friends and editing festival programmes for Britten while trying to write his own first novel. Blythe recalls returning home one day to find a note pushed under his door inviting him for a drink at Britten’s house. It was from EM Forster.

Charles Dickens has stayed at the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds while giving readings in the nearby Athenaeum, inspiring a mention in ‘The Pickwick Papers ‘ (the hotel offered a resting place to main character, Samuel Pickwick) and the hotel retains the room with the original bed in which Dickens slept;

“The coach rattled through the well-paved streets of a handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance, and stopped before a large inn situated in a wide open street, nearly facing the old abbey.”

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Maggie Hambling’s ‘Scallop’ sculpture on Aldeburgh Beach

Around 1910, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, the Barrister-Playwright owner of nearby Sizewell Hall had a brainwave. He bought an area of coast and dunes and in 1910 set about establishing a purpose-built resort based on the fishing hamlet of Thorpe, changing the name to Thorpeness. The Meare, a man made lake covering 64 acres with scattered islands, is no deeper than one metre at any point and is a very popular place to sail boats upon whilst on the shore, black clapboard buildings cluster the edges of a village green. The islands feature playhouses and characters from children’s books, in particular ‘Peter Pan’ because Ogilvie was a friend of J M Barrie. The tiny islands contain locations found in J. M. Barrie’s novel such as the Pirates Lair, Wendy’s home and many others which children are encouraged to play on. Thorpeness, like Aldeburgh is described as having ‘it’s back to the sea’ and this is deliberate. Ogilvie deliberately used the Meare as an alternate focal point for his seaside town and rejected the Victorian/Edwardian fondness for promenades which he thought were vulgar.

house-in-cloudsOpened in 1913, many of the original boats are still in operation. The author made regular visits to the village and was pictured outside the country club in 1919, even helping to design parts of Thorpeness. His model resort might have been influenced by Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Utopian garden city movement, but it became an exclusive home away from the main home for the wealthy and artistic. The famous ‘House in the Clouds’ was one of Ogilvie’s creations; an attempt to disguise an utilitarian water tower as a house. It is now a private holiday rental although the child in me will always imagine Peter Pan swooping in through the front door at dusk. What better home for a flying boy than a house in the clouds?

Much speculation can be found as to the possible real life location of Hell Hall, home to Cruella De Vil and the place where the abducted puppies were taken in Dodie Smith’s book, ‘The One Hundred and one Dalmatians’. We know that Smith was a frequent visitor to Suffolk and Sudbury is mentioned in the book and Hell Hall is described as in the village of ‘Dympling’. No village of that name exists or ever existed although the hamlet of Shimpling can be found at a rough midpoint between Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, just off the A134.

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“Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury.Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk,’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square.They had hoped they’d meet some dogs and hear if any news of the puppies had come at the Twilight Barking, but not as much as a cat was stirring. While they were drinking at the fountain, church clocks began to strike midnight.”

 

A memorial plaque on a water fountain by St Peter’s given by Alice Mary Brown features an excerpt from the book as above and the original Johnstone Twins illustrations from the book are owned by Ipswich Art School. Sudbury also has some charming Dalmatian topped posts marking the Old Marketplace behind St Peters as you face the end of North Street and has staged festivals celebrating the book.

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We hold the animal characters in our favourite books from our youth close to our hearts- ask any adult what his favourite book was as a child and you will be able to pinpoint his decade of birth with relative ease. Some books transcend the generations though, either because they are continually reprinted and turned into films (Roald Dahls canon) or parents pass them onto their own children. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is a case in point in a country that is both horse and dog mad -this story of a horse and its child owners has timeless themes. Sewell was born in Great Yarmouth into a devoutly Quaker family and it is possible that her determination to feature an equine hero was born of her own accident in childhood that left her unable to stand without a crutch or to walk for any length of time. For greater mobility, she frequently used horse-drawn carriages.

Sewell’s only published work was Black Beauty, written during 1871 to 1877, after she had moved to Old Catton, a village outside the city of Norwich. During this time her health was declining and she was often so weak that she was confined to her bed, making writing a challenge. She dictated the text to her mother and from 1876 began to write on slips of paper which her mother transcribed. Sewell sold the novel to local publisher Jarrolds on 24 November 1877, when she was 58 years of age. Although it is now considered a children’s classic, she originally wrote it for those who worked with horses. She said “a special aim [was] to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”. 

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She died aged 57 and was buried on 30 April 1878 in the Quaker burial-ground at Lammas near Buxton, Norfolk, not far from Norwich, where a wall plaque now marks her resting place. Her birthplace in Church Plain, Great Yarmouth, has been the home to a museum and, as of 2014, a tea shop.

We will leave it to Norfolk writer Malcolm Bradbury to have the last word:

 “A sense of place is fundamental to the writer. Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig Tarts with Honey and Raw Sugar

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Photot coutresy of Muy Bueno Website

Some scholars believe the fig to be the original forbidden fruit picked by Eve in the Garden of Eden and provider of man’s (and woman’s) first foray into fashion in the form of a fig leaf covering for their genitals. Since then the prominence and usefulness of  fig leaves have risen and fallen in a rough correlation with the prevailing morals and mores of the day.

The first unveiling of Michelangelo’s David was pelted with rocks as Florentines expressed shock at its nakedness and a covering fashioned from many fig leaves was swiftly placed upon it. The Vatican of the Renaissance was not as relaxed about public nudity as its creators and the same was assumed about Queen Victoria, centuries later. Visit a vault under the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and you will find an outsized Fig leaf made to cover the genitalia of the replica statue of David whenever she came to visit the galleries

The fruit of this bushes’ loins have never fallen from grace in many parts of the world though, whether they be growers or importers of the Fig. Native to Caria–an ancient region of Asia Minor between the Mediterranean and Black Seas and now able to be grown in the less balmy climes of Great Britain, the fig is a natural bedfellow to all manner of indulgent and positively biblical foodstuffs- milk and honey and spices, used to perfume, preserve and enhance that which they are cooked with.

However in the case of the Fig we are not bashful about serving it fully nude as long as it is also resplendently ripe; the flesh should yield to a squeeze, droplets of the sugary juices gathering at the bottom of the fruit. Figs don’t really ripen after picking, they just get softer without an improvement in flavour so you must buy them at peak of ripeness and be ready to eat them immediately. However the slightly under ripe imported figs you see in store can be made more luscious by roasting or stewing into a compote and this tart, published here with the kind permission of Muy Bueno website is the perfect way to enjoy them.

These fig tarts are simple to make with only three ingredients — ready made pie crust, honey, and of course the star of the show…figs. Figs drizzled with honey and baked soften and sweeten the fruit and adds a delicious roasted flavor. Sprinkle the pastries with some raw sugar and  you have a lovely sweet pastry to enjoy for dessert; don’t use soft sugar either, you need the crunch of Demerara. Gives 6 servings.

INGREDIENTS:

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions
1 pound figs, cut into ½” wedges
Raw sugar
Honey

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Cut pastry into six 4” squares, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and prick all over with a fork.

Top with figs, leaving a ½” border. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake tarts until edges of pastry are puffed and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with more sugar just before servings.

www.muybuenocookbook.com

Reprinted here with full permission from Muy Bueno cookbook.