A day at Pin Mill in Suffolk

In which we walk the Shotley Peninsula, explore Pin Mill and its history and finish with a meal at the Butt & Oyster, made famous by author Arthur Ransome.

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The view down to Pin Mill with the Butt & Oyster on the right, on a sunnier day.

The coast of Suffolk with its small towns clustered on spits of land, carved out and isolated by tides and rivers, became a place where traditionally the up-and-coming middle classes from our engine-room cities came to rest up and regain their spirits after maintaining the empire. Marry this with the independent and reserved personality of the indigenous ‘South Folk’, their toughness and shy self-sufficiency hard-wired via centuries of fighting off challenges by land grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility and you can see why our county sea borders are home to such a compelling mix of people- an intriguing place to visit and live.

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The Orwell Bridge

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) actually extends from the Stour Estuary in the south right up to Kessingland near the Norfolk borders and covers over 403 square kilometres. We recently spent a few days exploring a small part of it: the coastal areas around Pin Mill on the Shotley Peninsula, a spit of land between the River Orwell and the River Stour. The two rivers meet at Shotley Gate, merge and eventually flow into the North Sea where the north bank is crowned by the international port and docks of Felixstowe and the harbour town and port of Harwich on the south point. A passenger ferry transports people between the two.

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Walking down to the Butt & Oyster

Found on the western shore of the River Orwell, Pin Mill was made famous by the author Arthur Ransome of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and fronts onto the Harry King Boatyard. In his book “We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea”, the young and adventurous protagonists were staying at Alma Cottage, located right by the Butt & Oyster pub. Ransom had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard, although he actually lived on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington. Humans also live on the river and there are quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, then slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red-sailed Thames sailing barges are a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here.

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Thames Barges

During the 19th century, coastal vessels stopped off here to offload shallower barges and local farms would have their produce collected and transported elsewhere by them. Buttermans Bay (to the right of the pub) was named after the fast schooners that carried dairy produce from the Channel Islands and to this day there is still an annual Thames Barge Match held here even though the halcyon days of trading here have now passed. The Orwell River was once a prime trading route between Ipswich, the European mainland and the rest of the country and in the Middle Ages, the wool produced by wealthy East Anglian merchants and farmers was exported via the town whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area in Ipswich is now slowly being restored although the waters bob with yachts and houseboats now instead of the merchants ships that once plied their trade there.

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Walking along the west edge of the river

The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well known trail that loops around the Palladian Woolverstone Hall and its Park, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rises up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirts the tiny village of Chelmondiston, before returning you to your start point- The Butt & Oyster Inn. The pub overlooks the boatyards which edge Pin Mill Common on both sides and makes a logical and scenic place to start or finish at although if you like a drink, it might be best to wait until after that walk- the fireside seats and sunny warmth streaming through the picture windows overlooking the water makes it hard to get up and get going.

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Once out in the fresh air, the clanking of halyards in the breeze and puttering of outboard motors, coupled with the sounds of men and women working on their boats will remind you that this is very much a working boatyard and river as opposed to a place for the flip-collared deck shoe-shod regatta brigade. Brick-edged creeks and streams edged with mossy seaweed run past the paths, the water clear and ice-cold. The brackish waters of the saltings and tidal mud flats act as a magnet for overwintering birds: waders such as the egrets-all orange beak and spindly-legged; avocets which breed here in the summer and the plovers and oyster catchers which feed and breed, then rest on the tongues of land that bisect the lagoons. They are partially camouflaged by the lush summer foliage of sea-lavender and purslane and breeding linnets soar overhead too, far above the scrubby gorse that lines the opposite side of the river and up to the woodlands clustered on the bluffs.

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Meadows running alongside Woolverstone Park

The sandy heathland is a welcoming habitat for the gorse that flowers from mid winter onwards, providing nectar rich blooms for insects to feed on, which are, in turn, eaten by the linnets. The acid-yellow of its flowers carry a heady scent of coconut and saffron on the breeze, melding with the salt and dankness of the estuarine mud to create the unique smell of Pin Mill. The estuaries of the two rivers provide a vital stop off or stop over point for many migrant species and carries the European designation of Special Protection Area (SPA) as “a wetland of international importance”.

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On warmer days when the tide is low children paddle by the pub, stepping gingerly over the pebbles on the shore that runs alongside the raised outdoor seating area and car-park whilst dogs plunge in, recklessly. They are overlooked by the pub windows, the shore reached by a ladder fixed to its wall which is rapidly submerged as the tide comes in. Beyond the shore we continued our walk along the undercliff which is rapidly being eroded and has been partially protected by riverside revetments. It is possible to head west, in the opposite direction too, upriver, by turning left as you walk down the shaded narrow lane to arrive at the pub which will then be on your right. This route will take you past the Pin Mill Sailing Club, alongside the boatyard with its hedges bedecked with bunting and surrounding woods and sheep pastures and eventually towards the woods. In the summer, the fields that surround Wolverstone Park are filled with red campion, cornflowers, clover, jack-in-the-pulpit and tall thistles, stiff purple bristles bursting out of their calyxes and as you approach Woolverstone Marina, you will get wonderful views across to the Orwell Bridge which carries the A14 over the river.

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Butt & Oyster Pub

Our lunch at the Butt & Oyster on an overcast early September day didn’t include the oysters that the pub name commemorates (there were prolific oyster fisheries here) but was otherwise resplendent with its piles of local seafood and fish, all slippery hues of coral and oak and palest pink. Smoked trout, salmon and mackerel plus shell on prawns, crawfish and crab came with Marie Rose sauce and the obligatory granary bread and salad. A starter of goats cheese and red onion marmalade on a shoe sized crouton was large enough to be a main course; the cheese was young and crumbly, lacking the barnyard rigor of older cheeses and possessed instead, a lemony rime.

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Sticky toffee pudding with banana fudge ice cream, chosen from a menu of different ice-cream flavours rounded off a lighter meal than we had originally intended; the other choices of pork and apple burgers, smoked haddock risotto and fish stew with a tomato and chili sauce had sold out. We arrived late and were happy we were fed at all. The pub has a dining area, smaller side room heated by a wood-burning stove and outdoor seating but we sat by the main bar near the picture windows and watched the river rise. If you aren’t that fussed about a meal but want to nibble at something then the roasted cashew nuts will keep you pretty happy, I reckon. I imagine the Fritto Misto would too- a heap of deep fried prawns, squid, whitebait and gougons of white fish served with a pot of coleslaw. One of those things you order thinking you aren’t that hungry then find yourself tearing into like some ravening creature with poor table manners.

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In my first edit of this piece I forgot to mention the lovely staff at the Butt & Oyster <the shame> who were super accommodating towards two ditsy, tired, grubby and hungry walkers. Nothing was too much trouble for them, including my complete inability to decide between the ice-cream flavours, a decision they appeared to be as invested in as I was. Their advice was considered, patient and great fun too.

Staff did not know we were coming, were not told we were reviewing and indeed remained unaware of this until this feature came out. At no time have we received fiscal reward for this review.

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Winter walking in Suffolk

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Photo by Helen Schofield

November is past its midpoint and sitting here at five pm with the nighttime already pressing against the windows, it is hard to imagine that in just over a month, the winter darkness reaches its zenith and will start to ebb. By now we have nearly forgotten the long summer nights when sleep can prove elusive in a light room, with the thickest of window coverings struggling to keep out those rays sharp enough to find the small gaps between curtains and the edge of the window.

Despite the increasing lack of street lights in towns and cities, none of us in the western world will ever experience the dark skies of our ancestors. That blackness as thick as felt, lit only by stars and the wash of the moon, encouraged us to adopt the diurnal rhythms of the natural world, even when we learned how to push back against the night with light and fire.

Ickworth Park
Ickworth Park

We have more than our share of crepuscular days when it seems the sky barely makes it past the grey of first light and the moisture in the air is omnipresent and oppressive so the urge to give in and hibernate is understandable. However on those days when our skies are larkspur blue and the air snaps with cold, that is the time to get out and enjoy East Anglia at its most beautiful. Living near the countryside provides us with ample opportunity to defy the impending hours of darkness with hundreds of square miles of outdoor space to explore: nature reserves, country lanes, footpaths and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Whether you choose to be on horseback, on foot or enjoy these from the window of a car, doesn’t matter- the views are there for the taking and they are free.

Clare in winter
Clare in winter

The postcard perfect images of a landscape under a blanket of snow appear to be more elusive now, sadly. That blueish early morning light behind the curtains disorientates us at first until we realise what has caused it, making us scramble out of bed shouting: “Its snowed, it’s snowing.” but this happens less and less. The traditional ways of an East Anglian winter; sledging and snowball fights, skating on the fens and walking to school down lanes banked with snow seem far back in the past as warmer winters result in months going by with hardly a flurry.  As a teenager I recall hitchhiking from Bury St Edmunds to Sudbury in the early eighties during a near white out and these blizzard conditions weren’t a rarity. The only vehicle on the road was a snow plough whose operator took pity on me, stopped and gave me a lift all the way even though he was only going as far as the Alpheton turn off. Winters seemed harder then with’bigger’ weather that conversely didn’t trigger the closure of schools and roads: trains continued running even when they ran so slowly that they appeared to have turned into snow ploughs themselves, pushing drifts of the white stuff in front of them as they trundled along the Sudbury to Bures branch line.

Like many rural areas all over the country, the downside of snow is that it can bring chaos to the narrow local roads making them impassable but on a fine clear day, there are parts of Suffolk and Norfolk which actually become more accessible in the Winter because the seasonal restrictions on open access land are lifted. From November to February, the Brecks and Suffolks eastern fringes are opened up for walkers and are at their best, populated by the sere white barked birch, needled clumps of gorse and springy broom and patchworked by the faded purples and pinks of heathers. Protected miniature ecosystems flourish among the dark pine lines along the horizon and along the deliberately uncultivated field margins. Goldcrests and siskins, lapwings, crossbills, turtle dove, firecrests and woodcock all live and feed here alongside the ever present muntjac and roe deer. The Brecklands (meaning ‘broken lands’) are the largest lowland forest in the UK and span nearly 1,000 kilometres of sandy flinty soil providing a home to over 28% of the UK’s rarest species including the Stone Curlew, saved from a miserable decline by the concerted efforts of the regions farmers supported by the RSPB and several EU fiscally protective measures.

Needham Lake
Needham Lake

Alternatively, drive out to our coastline or the wetlands and river estuaries to see stilt-legged wading birds such as godwits and avocets in reserves such as the RSPB’s Minsmere or Lackford Lakes near Bury St Edmunds, managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. The latter is home to many cormorants, silhouetted against the branches of the trees- living Japanese paintings as they hold out their black wings and warm themselves in the winter sun. Clumsy Egyptian geese putter about by the lake side, tearing up and eating the grass and churning it into a muddy slipway. On the river Stour, keep the binoculars handy to spot flocks of Brent Geese (their clamouring will give them away), the red breasted mergnasers and long tailed ducks and as you approach its estuary, white fronted geese, goldeneyes and snow buntings, peeping away. In Mid Suffolk is Needham Lake, quite compact and very easy to get around if you have young children or have ambulation problems. It is also near to the River Gipping, the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket and Needham Market itself if you want to go for a drink or meal afterwards. The path is firm going beside the river and ventures past Wildwood (a community woodland) and fields of sheep up to Alder Carr Farm and its excellent farm shop.

Stunning & sere, the South Suffolk Coastal Pathway at Iken
Stunning & sere, the South Suffolk Coastal Pathway at Iken

Iken Cliffs (Landranger grid reference: TM399561) has wonderful views across the River Alde and is a lovely site to enjoy nature and views that extend for miles. The mud flats and salt marshes are important feeding grounds and migration sites for waders and wildfowl with shelduck, redshank and avocets all common visitors. When you’ve finished your picnic, it’s a short walk to the internationally renowned Snape Maltings or charming Iken Church. or take the Iken road, 2 miles south of Snape and you can then access the South Suffolk Coastal Pathway for a more ‘serious’ walk along some of the most stunning coastal scenery in Europe.

Across the water meadows to the roofs of Sudbury
Across the water meadows to the roofs of Sudbury- photo by permission Darren Guiheen

As the new year beds in, rooks begin to nest again, rising and falling in dizzying spirals and columns against a background of arable land, edged by lines of tall trees, home for centuries to these birds. Starlings too, murmurate across the skies at dusk, their screeches felt rather than heard. Lackford Lakes is one of the best places to see this awe inspiring sight and has reported starling gatherings of over 800 birds. This is also the place to enjoy the sundowner barks of the many deer that populate the woods and copses nearby. Or drive out to the lanes around Bures and Arger Fen and enjoy views from some of Suffolk’s highest ground where birds wheel and swoop down valleysides and deep cuts. Arger Fen is one of Britain’s most beautiful bluebell woods with steep woodland trails landscaped with fallen trees and steps cut into the earth underneath a canopy of mixed broadleaf and coniferous trees but it is just as lovely in the Winter months. The surrounding fen meadows provide panoramic views over the entire Stour Valley and a bucolic place to escape to.

Clare Castle Country Park
Clare Castle Country Park

River walks along the Stour can be taken from a number of picturesque locations and several of them also follow parts of the old railway line from Clare to Sudbury, via Long Melford and Lavenham plus the beauty of Clare Castle Country Park and its circular walk. The Valley Trail comprises a wide and compacted path suitable for sturdy pushchairs and some wheelchair users taking you past woodlands, field footpaths, railway line trails and along river paths.

Alternatively start in Sudbury or Bures and walk along the Stour, taking in Bures, Little Cornard, Henny and Lamarsh. This section is about ten miles or you can start off at Bures Hamlet and walk its winding roads through valley cuts, taking the five mile route from Bures Hamlet, Lamarsh and Alphamstone, circling back again to end up from whence you came. There are regular buses from Sudbury to Bures (the Colchester-Bury St Eds route) so you don’t have to walk its entirety. The Sudbury water meadows (the oldest grazed land in England) make a lovely place to visit in the Winter when the bare trees allow an even more sweeping view from one side of the valley to another and herons, egrets and kingfishers dip in and out of sight.

The Stour in Winter
The Stour in Winter by Cheryse Caba

The Long Melford to Sudbury ‘Three Mills Walk’ follows the old Great Eastern Railway line via Borley Mill, Brundon Mill and Sudbury Mill which is now a hotel. Brundon Mill is the site of the lovely swan feed, where hundreds of the birds make their home on the Mill Pond with the bridge over it making a stopping off point to visit and feed them. This walks also takes you through Melford Country Park before you arrive at the meadows (5.5 miles approx) and you can then continue on the twelve mile Gainsborough Trail that covers the whole Sudbury area including the three and a half mile Meadow Walk. We love the Three Mills Walk with its grassy paths and dinky bridges and kissing gates (all designed for wheelchair users) which kids love scrambling through and over. You can follow any of the meadow paths, keeping your eye out for cattle which graze the common lands, or simply keep to the Stour Valley Path, a firmer route alongside the River Stour. If you want to keep it town based, yet be near the river then wander over to The Croft in Sudbury which offers an old boating lake, the ‘washing machine water’ aka Weir, a cow which is great for picnics in warmer weather and the old bridge populated by generations of ducks kept fat by generations of locals.

If you enjoy your walks punctuated by a pint of beer or pub meal then Suffolk has a plethora of routes that are near to, or go past some of our loveliest and most welcoming hostelries. Lackford Lakes, and Culford are all near to the Woolpack Inn at Fornham St Martin with a view of the church and a walled garden should it be warm enough to sit outside. You can wander down to the nearby Suffolk Golf Club and follow the walk along the river, all the way to Lackford Lakes and West Stow. The Newmarket Ridge is the highest point of Suffolk, formed of the north-eastern extreme of the Southern England Cretaceous chalk formation that stretches from Dorset to Dover. Near to the tiny hamlet of Rede, you might want to take on the ten or so miles of the walk that starts and ends in the hamlet and walk through the villages of Brockley Green, Hawkedon, Somerton, climb the highest point of the ridge at Great Wood Hill then finish up in the Plough pub. Stoke up those energy levels with a meal and a drink by the fire. Lastly, why not amble through one of our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which happens to have two great inns at either end of the walk Start at the venerable old smugglers haunt, The Ship at Dunwich and end at a 17thcentury coaching inn – the Westleton Crown. This Inn to Inn walk sounds a perfect way to work off the beer and food you will no doubt consume.

Lackford Lakes
Lackford Lakes

The villages of Groton and Boxford provide ample pub punctuated walks and we like this one, devised by Cyril Francis in Suffolk Mag. Starting and ending at Boxford’s Fleece Inn, a mixture of field pathways and country lanes takes you through Groton, birthplace of John Winthrop, founder of Boston and first governor of Massachusetts and you will pass a mulberry tree reputed to have been planted by members of his family, back in 1550. Boxford also has the White Hart, once home to publican George Smith who used to keep a pet lion that roamed the street of the village, tame and well known to the locals. The lioness formed part of George’s stunts and rode on the handlebars of his Indian Scout bike as a cub, graduating to a sidecar once fully grown. She is buried under what is now the pubs car park.

Brandon Country Park
Brandon Country Park

Woodland walks can be found near the village of Lawshall where you will find the local Frithy and Golden woods, the former an ancient woodland of mixed broadleaf and near to the public footpath that takes you around the estate of Cobham Hall, built in 1574. The footpath goes around Lawshall past the Hall, returning to the village where a drink awaits you at The Swan pub. Not so far from Lawshall is Bradfield St George with its woods administrated by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and criss crossed with trails and there are numerous pubs nearby including The Manger at Bradfield Combust on the main Sudbury-Bury St Edmunds road (A134). We are big fans of Brandon Country Park with its mix of woodlands, parks and manicured Edwardian arboretum planted with monkey puzzle trees, copper beeches and false acacias-the latters fern like open tracery is such a contrast to the prehistoric chunkiness of the monkey puzzle. This park comes into its own in the autumn with fiery leaf colours and under planted heathers coming into bloom. Take your pick from different walks, some on firm paths which lead you around the walled gardens, lake, mausoleum, play area for kids and a cafe to revive you with hot drinks on a cold day.

Like Brandon Country Park, the National Trust owned Ickworth Park also offers a range of walking from manicured formal gardens to woodlands, pastures, meadows and stumperies with, of course, that amazing Italianate rotunda crowning the view from afar. We absolutely love the way the copper toned leaves pile up against the wire retaining fences, the views across the fields to Bury St Edmunds, the vineyards and kitchen gardens and tiny, recessed bat cave in the formal gardens. It is perfect for families with children because you can give them their head and let them run then come back to the more sedate part of the grounds when they have calmed. Wrap up warm because those north and east facing meadows catch quite a breeze and enjoy this amazing park, ending up in the cafe for a warm cup of tea.

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Ickworth in the Autumn and Winter

Discover Suffolk provides a pdf of easy walking trails across the county for wheelchair and pushchair users and most of the trails are low-level walks on firm ground with occasional gentle slopes. Alton Water has an 8 mile looped path along the lake allowing walkers to see it from many different perspectives and enjoy the wildlife that makes the lake their home. From  ducks, geese and swans to the barn owls that swoop low at dusk in search of food, this is a great family destination with toilet and changing facilities nearby.

In the north east of the county can be found the Beccles Marsh Trails on the edge of historic Beccles, a series of paths among grazing marshes with the River Waveney flowing through them. There is an information centre and cafe at the Quay, a toilet plus free parking. The Blue Walk across Beccles Marsh has been designed as an easy access trail, with a combination of tarmac paths and natural, hard surfaces with benches placed at intervals along its length. Part of the walk follows the ancient Angles Way, a long distance footpath that follows the course of the River Waveney from its source at Knettishall Heath Country Park to the North Sea near Lowestoft. The marshes themselves are nature reserves in miniature with grazing lands crisscrossed by a network or hand dug dykes to manage the variations in water levels.

Thornham Walks
Thornham Walks

Another handy and multi use walk is the Thornham Walks between Diss and Stowmarket, twelve miles of trails that criss cross landscaped parkland. There is a restored walled garden planted with fruit trees and herbaceous borders, a bird hide, folly and pet cemetery which is always intriguing for children, especially when they read some of the more unusual pet names carved on the gravestones. Look out for the nuttery and aviary populated by raucous Asian pheasants, providing more entertainment for the smalls. All trails are well marked, easily navigable by pushchair and wheelchairs and the pathways are exceptionally well surfaced. The Forge Café  and Old Coach House Café serve excellent food, drinks and snacks and there is a shop, parking and toilets.

Wolves Wood near Hadleigh is the opposite of Thornham Woods in that it does not have all the amenities but what it does boast is a fine and noble history as one of the few remnants of the ancient woodland that used to cover East Anglia and a name that enthralls children. The RSPB manages it using the traditional method of coppicing (a special way of cutting the trees to let light in), which means that the wood has a wide variety of birds, plants and mammals.  Visit early on a fine clear morning to hear the chorus of up to 20 species of bird, including the rich, musical song of the nightingale. We strongly advise you to wear wellington boots as the woods can be muddy, even in the open access car park.

Beccles trails
Beccles trails

These are just a tiny percentage of the thousands of miles of walks to be found in the county of Suffolk. We’d love to hear of your favourites so please do post them below and we can add them to this feature for others to discover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Womens work: the books and art that shaped my life

Saint Mary Magdalene at her writing desk
Saint Mary Magdalene at her writing desk

Last July, the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize was announced as Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing and on the back of this the organisers launched a campaign to discover the novels that ‘have impacted, shaped or changed the lives of readers’. The top 20 were subsequently reported in the Guardian and whilst they are inspiring and wonderful books, my list differs greatly as I imagine yours might.

The Baileys list was topped by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird because yes, it is a truly wondrous book but also I suspect a small part of its popularity may be down to the primacy and recency effect: the book has been in the news due to the attempts by Michael Gove to remove it from the national curriculum in favour of books of British origin. Legions of loyal Mocking-birders rose up as one to tell Gove where to go and remind him that ultimately, being read-able is not a literary sin. I had to smile when I read that the super precocious Lisa Simpson of the semi-eponymous cartoon show had also voted it her all time favourite, saying: “This book taught me about the importance of standing up for what’s right. And… Boo Radley. SIGH. Last one.”

Researching this piece made me think that actually, I need to look at the arts in general and include the works of art that I love the most. I’m not sure whether this will result in a cluttered old list but in my mind, books and artworks tend to commingle in my brain, or at least the appreciation of one leads down the road to another. You’ll see what I mean when you read on.

So in no particular order…

(1) Wifey by Judy Blume– This book really blew my fifteen year old mind because there was something viscerally gross about the protagonist Sandy and Norm Pressman and their dreary, suburban second-guessed and second-best marriage. Set in seventies USA, Sandy is tired of life with her social climber of a dry-cleaner husband who is bored and boring and she decides to embark on a few fumbling and inept affairs.

Wifey_book_cover

Sandy has developed a literal itch to accompany her emotional  general chafing against Norm;  her good-housewife life with its country club and yearly holidays in the Bahamas; her timetable of Saturday-night sex, starched cookie-cutter dresses and up-do’s.  “So where did things go wrong, Norm?” she thinks, lying in bed. “So what happened? Comfortable. Safe. We had our babies. We made a life together. But now I’m sick….And I’m so fucking scared!…Oh mother, dammit! Why did you bring me up to thinkthis is what i wanted? And now that I know it’s not, what I am I supposed to do about it?”

Sandy ends up settling for her marriage (after a dose of the clap as a moral punishment) and tries to rev things up by initiating regular oral sex with a husband who is put off by her pubic hair. Her decision is not a comfortable one but it is understandable in the face of the social pressures of her uptight New Jersey community. Wifey frightened me with its undertones of seediness and the quiet desperation of a woman going stark raving-mad with unfulfilment. On the surface it presents itself as a comedy of sexual manners and the cover of my original copy reinforces that with its shiny electric blue and titular pop art slash across the front but like all of Bloom’s books it is uncomfortably honest.

Vanessa Bell Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece 1914 © The estate of Vanessa Bell
Vanessa Bell
Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece 1914
© The estate of Vanessa Bell

Whenever I look at Vanessa Bell’s ‘Still Life on a Mantelpiece’ I feel my throat closing off in sharp contrast to the effect the work is supposed to elicit. For me, the cluttered stillness of all the objects on display mirrors the scatty chaos in Sandy’s mind as she tries to make sense of what she has settled for and then struggles against it with various men, all equally stifled and perplexed as to how they ended up this way. Bell placed great importance upon interior decoration as a reflection of personal identity and believed that the domestic milieu could be as artistically valid as any public (male) space: she’d probably feel be surprised that her painting triggers such negative feelings in me. For myself, it is as smothering an example of her class sensibilities as is Sandy’s Ultrasuede covered couch and mid-century modern pieces is of her own. Sandy’s lack of intra-personal awareness, her inability to elucidate exactly what it is she wants and her subsequent actions are an abstract representation of this domestic sphere that so many women find unsatisfying. I have no doubt that Sandy decorated her newly-wed home with some sense of anticipation and a pleasure at having her own space, only to see it all turn to grey in the end.

(2) What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge– If, like me, you are intrigued by Victorian ideas about invalids and the nobility of illness then this book is the ur example of it with the spirited central character, Katy, being cut down by unspecified spinal injuries after defying an order to not play on a garden swing which, unknown to her was faulty.  Prior to this, Katy scrambled over gates, through fields and conducted herself with abandoned unawareness of her gender. She was an early depiction of a ‘tomboy’ in literature along with Jo from ‘Little Women’ although Jo, unlike Katy did not have her gender transgressions corrected by disability or ill health. Jo, being older was framed in the corrective context of her suitability (or not) for marriage. Katy’s subsequent fall from high (there’s a nice metaphor for you) placed her flat on her back for nearly four years and subject to the ministrations of saintly Cousin Helen and her ‘School of Pain’-which sounds like something offered by latex clad women wearing gimp masks as they excitedly quote from the scriptures.

What Katy Did. Folio Society. 2010.
What Katy Did. Folio Society. 2010.

In Cousin Helen we have the classic example of the uncomplaining invalid who is an example, not only to Katy but to society as a whole and we see this in similar books of the era: from Clara in ‘Heidi’ to the eponymous Pollyanna, misfortunes were depicted as bestowed by God for the ultimate good of the afflicted character or those around him or her. For myself, I found Katy to be by far the more appealing, lost interest in her after her conversion to saintliness and this book served as an early and introductory lesson in how to spot moral indoctrination when I read it aged nine. As an adult it showed me the importance of clear and open communication with your children- don’t just tell them to stay off the swing, ensure that you tell them why.

Marina Abramovitch
Marina Abramovitch

The obvious comparison here would be Frida Kahlo whose art very much represented her struggles with the aftermath of an accident that left her with serious skeletal and internal injuries but the artist and work that most comes to mind is Rhythm 2 by Marina Abramović, made in 1974. Abramović sought to test whether a state of unconsciousness could be woven into a public performance and did this in a two part performance. In part one she ingested medication more usually prescribed for catatonia, a state that can cause neurogenic immobility or muscular unpredictability for hours, days or months at a time. As she was not suffering from that condition Abramović’s body reacted violently and she endured painful and uncontrollable seizures. Her mind remained lucid and she was able to observe and document what was happening to her. In the second part, Abramović took another pill, one usually prescribed for people with depression and psychomotor agitation and this had the effect of rendering her emotionally and physically slowed up to the point of immobility. Bodily she was present and still but her psychological and emotional processes were removed from the outside world.

I see a willful bravery in the actions and decisions of this artist with that of Katy who was generally pushing of boundaries in her own small town and domestic situation. Both faced public opprobrium and questioning of their moral character, (Abrmamovic has been very fiercely criticised for risking permanent damage to her psychomotor health) and Katy’s actions resulted in a physically immobilised body which, in turn, caused her to slump into what we would now diagnose as a reactive depression until her cousin came to stay and gave her a transfusion of Christian moral teachings. Abramovic made a very brave decision to put herself on show during a moment of complete vulnerability-not possessed of either her physical or mental faculties, allowing the public to witness whatever happened. Katie used her indisposition to reposition herself as the head of the family and address her depression head on at a time when paralysis must have been a horrendous thing to endure with physical treatments and therapies very few. There must have been very little privacy for her in such a crowded household.

(3) Arial by Sylvia Plath – This is the book of poetry that stopped me from becoming weary of, and intimidated by the form after years of old male poets like Hardy and Lawrence waxing lyrically over mistling thrushes, snakes and sexual frustration from the male perspective, places called Beeny Cliff and fallen women. It also showed me how a popular narrative about the life of a famous person can drown out aspects of character and biography that don’t quite fit, resulting in a very one dimensional depiction, often with a political or cultural agenda.

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Speaking personally, when that narrative results in people travelling to the cemetery where Plath is buried in in order to scratch out the name of her then husband from her gravestone, something has gone awry. He treated her terribly but seriously- defacing a gravestone? Grow up. There is no doubt that Plath endured great privation as a result of her mental health problems, her troublesome marriage and her creative drive but she was also capable of great tenderness, hope and joy- read ‘You’re’ to see what I mean in this tremulous and anticipatory poem about her pregnancy and unborn child. I have recently been looking at her wonderful pen and ink drawings too which also show a playful and wry side to her personality, a talent of hers that has been woefully under publicised. This one, ‘Curious French Cat’ is my favourite in the way it is more than the sum of its parts (the title and the drawing) and therefore a metaphor in my mind for La Plath. 

(4) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith-  To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, you don’t know the strength of a woman until you put her in hot water and this book is packed with women facing dire straits; financially, emotionally, and culturally in Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. We have Katie with her gadabout singing-waiter cum alcoholic husband and Sissy who defies the moral norms of the time with her need for love and passion without the legitimisation of marriage and defines happiness by the men she encounters. Evy, another sister of Katie, is married to an ineffectual and weak milkman and the grandmother Mary is brutalised by her husband and limited by her lack of language yet manages to produce literate children. They grow up knowing that the American Dream will only happen if they hide their savings from husbands who are feckless dreamers. And then we have the protagonist Francie, whose blossoming from childhood into young womanhood forms the central part of the story.

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From reeloldreads.wordpress.com

In an interview, Smith said that she didn’t write about the Nolan family for any socially significant reason, but because they were “the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like” but at the time of publishing her book drew a lot of criticism for its social realism and depiction of poverty and food hunger, death, addiction and women doing what they needed to do to get by and keep their children alive: aspects of life some prefer to ignore. Smith has such warmth and respect for those she writes of, even the characters leading small and mean lives. She respects the person, their individuality and duality, as she says of Francie: “She was all these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It’s that “something” that is in “each soul that is given life–the one different thing such as that which makes no fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

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The female characters in ‘A Tree Grows in Brokklyn’ have rich inner lives that we are privy to. They never break the fourth wall by addressing us but Francie, especially, reveals parts of herself that seemed independent of the authorial prism. She became alive to me. The haunting photographs of Francesca Woodman also have this quality in their revelations of gender, lives in their contextual spaces and secrets concealed and revealed.  Woodman puts herself in the frame but they are not conventional self-portraits as she is either concealed by slow exposures that blur or mar her moving body, making her ephemeral, even ghostly. Like Francie, who offers us a continual frame of perception and insight through experiences, location (Brooklyn is described so vividly via small vignettes) and encounters, Woodman’s photographs are produced in ‘thematic series’, and relate to specific places, props or situations and this reminds us that just like Francies belief systems, a photograph may distort and inadvertently deceive, never offering the whole truth about a subject and its corporeal existence. And in this deception, we see mirrored the rationale behind Francie’s mothers attempts to conceal the unpalatable truth about her father, until she is of an age enough to cope with it.

(5) The Women’s Room by Marilyn French– I borrowed my friends copy and read it until it fell apart and eventually had to buy my own when she demanded it back. I am now, thirty four years later, on my fourth copy and have bought countless others as gifts. The idea of the Fifties housewife was constructed to allow men back to work after they were demobbed- labour saving devices provided manufacturing work and made home more attractive for the women who were lured from their war time jobs (freeing them up for men) back into the home. French exposed the reality behind the ‘American Dream’, of under educated women burdened by creative and intellectual aspiration, encouraged to seek fulfillment solely through the home and the bearing of children, of the sexual double standard and the ways in which women are made responsible for, and boundary setters of, male sexuality and the male sex drive. The stand out scene for me is pretty stunning in its mundanity as Myra and her two sons, Norm and Clark busy themselves in their kitchen on a sunny day, preparing lunch and Myra allows herself to take pleasure in the domestic and shared intimacy they are all enjoying. The sudden realisation that she has ‘nearly bought into’ the American Dream’ as she strings beans at the sink, and is falling into a cosy acceptance of domesticity stops her short. She cannot totally escape her gender conditioning and certainly can never drop her guard: “Outside she heard small children playing….peace cupped her heart and she held it gently. Smiling she stood at the kitchen sink, holding a bunch of string beans in her hand, letting herself be a part of it…She brought herself upright. My God! It was the American dream, female version. Was she still buying it? She didn’t even like to cook. She resented marketing: she didn’t really even like the music that was sweeping through the apartment, but she still believed in it: the dream stood of the happy humming house. Why should she be so happy doing work that had no purpose, no end?”

Frida and the Abortion 1932
Frida and the Abortion 1932

Myra, Val, Clarissa, Isolde and the other characters embodied the many facets of women’s liberation: Second Wave Feminism emerged in the 1960’s and focused on a multitude of issues ranging from women gaining control over their sexuality to their fight for equality in the workplace. The Women’s Room is a novel suffused with many of its central concepts although in 1977 French stated, “The Women’s Room is not about the women’s movement… but about women’s lives today.”   Although its ending is somewhat bleak, ultimately this is a positive book for me because it made me begin to look outwards and beyond my own experiences and lifestyle aged just fourteen.

Some books become intrinsically linked in my mind to great works of art and the artists themselves, whether that be music, painting or another form. Whenever I think of The Women’s Room (and especially hot headed, passionate Val), Frida Kahlo comes into my mind and the paintings of hers that chime with French’s writing here the most are ‘Frida and the Abortion’ from 1932 and ‘My Birth’. The latter is reputed to be owned by Madonna who once said that she could not be friendly with anybody who did not love the painting. Whilst I am not so reductive in my choice of friends (I even have Tory mates for gods sake!) I do get where she is coming from here.

(6) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I sighed with affected boredom when I was assigned this to read as a schoolgirl, being in my minds eye, a revolutionary in pupillage and therefore in need of something a little more contemporary. How on earth could a governess and reluctant wife to be of a blind misanthrope with a mentally ill existing wife in an attic have anything to do with me or my life? I wasn’t interested either in the Mr Rochester type of man nor in saving men deficient in social skills even if they did ride a superlative horse. I have always been about mental health activism so I was never going to be well disposed towards him – even if times were different then.

How wrong I was to write the book off though. Injustice and slavery, the right of a woman to earn a fair days pay for her efforts and the social status of the work of governesses; marriage and equality, the hypocrisy of the church and cruelty of its ministrations were all addressed by Bronte decades before first wave feminists got in on the act. A brave book with sadly timeless themes- the good fight for equality is still to be won and Bronte gives great pathetic fallacy too, all dark and stormy, crepuscular and muscular imagery.

Patio With Black Door, * 1955 * Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887–1986. MFA, Boston
Patio With Black Door, * 1955 * Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887–1986. MFA, Boston

When I think of Jane Eyre I am reminded of the knotty strength of Georgia O’Keefe and I can imagine some of you thinking “eh?” at the comparison but let me try to explain. Many of O’Keefes paintings depict the process by which two opposites-idealism and practicality, go on to become inseparable. She simplifies the creative and intellectual processes, and avoids the pitfalls that lie in wait for the religious and spiritual person by remaining humble. In this I see parallels with Jane Eyre who, when in danger of disappearing up her own pious backside, manages to reign it in by developing insight into this. Time, maturity and withdrawal from a busier, more hectic place, both in mind and situation (again parallels here with O’Keefes departure from claustrophobic New York City) brings about a more grown up and thoughtful woman. O’Keefe, Bronte and her character, Jane Eyre all radically simplify the ‘form’ of what they are trying to do: see the artists depiction of the ‘Black Door’ of her Abiquiqu home which she pares down to its abstract elements over time, in her need to find the essential truth of its form. This has similarities with Jane’s own search for veracity in love, of belonging to the right space and the value she places in autonomy and integrity. Jane’s eventual marrying of emotional, spiritual and moral sustenance reflects the sum total of O’Keefes work, rooted as it is in the need for frankness, spiritual integration and acceptance

(7) The Country Child by Allison Uttley- This book is the one which triggered my love of nature writing with its rich descriptions of the wild Peak District landscapes where Windystone Hall, home to little Susan Garland, a farmers daughter was located. First published in 1931, Uttley drew upon her own youth to paint this vivid picture of a year in the life of a farm, the land and the family who eke their living from it. Uttley was a bit of a trailblazer herself becoming the second woman to graduate with honours in Physics from Manchester University in 1906 and in Susan, we see some of the spirit and questioning that must have driven her interest in sciences and explorers nature. Vivid descriptions of food -from everyday meals to the table laden with the food of feast days and religious holidays permeate the book. The Christmas chapter is swooningly evocative from the coiled trail of candle smoke in the air as the excited Susan snuffs it out before bed to her awakening in the cold blue light before dawn to feel the lumpy weight of her stocking at the end of her bed and waits impatiently to wake her parents.

We meet the people who work and live by the land, the Irish haymakers and shearers and the one armed oatcake and pikelet man called Gabriel with his empty coat-sleeve neatly pinned to his chest. The tentative courtship between Gabriel and Becky, their housemaid after she admires the pikelets ‘under their snowy white cloth’ is another winsome moment. Uttley doesn’t shy away from exposing the ugliness of people or the hardships faced by the family either: we see Susan’s struggle with envy over the Easter egg in its blue satin casing belonging to another family and her guilt after stealing a penny bag from the store and the cruel casual comment: “That Garland daughter is a plain child, positively ugly” made by a local in church and overheard by Susan; horses are made lame and winter storms isolate the stone farmhouse on the hill from all else.

Tasks and responsibilities are very strictly allocated in the Garland household and the text is peppered with colloquial sayings reflecting the deeply patriarchal nature of late Victorian society- Farmer Garland’s only heir is Susan and she feels she is a disappointment. Women’s work is never done in a farming family and it is deeply obvious that their work is vital, no less fundamental to the continued wellbeing of their business and because of this, Susan’s interest in art and storytelling and what her parents see as ‘whimsy’ is sometimes barely tolerated. She is a dreamy, imaginative child.

Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum, Benediktinerinnenabtei Sankt Hildegard, Eibingen (bei Rüdesheim)
Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum, Benediktinerinnenabtei Sankt Hildegard, Eibingen (bei Rüdesheim)

When I start thinking about how labour was divided between the sexes (and still is) I am reminded of the demarcations that reside in art too and the lack of visible female artistic output in our public galleries prior to this century. The tapestry Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum by Hildegard von Bingen is a stark reminder that the needlework that Susan and the female members of her family were weighed down by (darning and other utilitarian tasks), was far removed from the decorative and intricate message of this tapestryI did some research and found that many centuries before, in the early Medieval period, women often worked alongside men, engaged in the creation of manuscript illuminations, embroideries and carded capitals. These female artists were from a small section of society and in possession of a status that afforded them the freedom to do this. They were frequently from aristocratic families or even nuns and separate from the domestic drudgery that marked the lives of other women, but women also worked in butchery and brewing and they were ironmongers and wool merchants too. ‘Motherhood From the Spirit and the Water’ may have been commissioned to show the people that a woman’s most important role was that of mother to her own children and spiritual mother to the rest of the world but it is an important piece of work nonetheless, created by a German polymath- writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and Benedictine Abbess., take a bow Hildegard of Bingen.

(8) The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan – this best-selling memoir by Ryan describes how her mother raised 10 children by entering and winning competitions made me want to bow down to the strength and resourcefulness of this woman.  Evelyn Ryan was an Ohio housewife, irrepressibly cheerful despite a husband who drank away pretty much every penny he (and she) brought into the house unless she could get to it first to spend it on clothing, food and rent. “Every single major contest she won came in just the nick of time” said Ryan including the prize which saved the family from homelessness.

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1949 Evelyn and her first six children on Latty Street, Defiance, Ohio: Bruce, Bub, Evelyn, Lea Anne, Terry (Tuff), Dick, Rog.

They were about to be evicted from a rented house when Ryan won a Western Auto contest, giving her enough money for a down payment on the house she would live in for the next 45 years. Most of the merchandise she won, she sold in order to increase cash flow, from washing machines and tap shoes to toasters, trips to Switzerland and cars. Upon its publication, the book was a major success with its loving celebration of a truly resourceful woman at its heart. It doesn’t dwell upon the private horrors Evelyn Ryan and her children must have endured, although it seems Evelyn worked very hard to conceal this from from her children but we readers have imaginations-reading between the lines here is not difficult.

Evelyn started off in life as a stringer with a talent for writing snappy headlines but gave up her career to marry her husband Kerry, a failed singer turned machinist. Her talent for writing enabled her to stand out in competitioning at a time when entries relied upon witty and savvy slogans and limericks as opposed to competitions now which require no intellect or ability other than clicking on ‘share’ or ‘retweet’. Advertising in post war USA was booming and the desire to acquire the goods and services that made a housewives life easier was an easy push to women no longer interested in spending all day at the wash board. Many of the brands we now recognise as iconic boomed in this period and it is this, Evelyn Ryan’s skills at knowing what the Mad Men were after and her preternatural ability to mother her children despite the problems her husband caused that makes me think of the work of multi-media artist Soasig Chamaillard.

Little Mary by Soasig Chamaillard
Little Mary by Soasig Chamaillard

Merging two or more pop art figures in a marriage of kitsch, Chamaillard’s figures are a playful interaction of societal icons and the resulting improbable combinations ask questions about her (and our) vision of a woman’s role and place. You will note the frequent appearance of the Virgin Mary in her work, something apropos to this book- Evelyn was a Catholic and brought her family up with the guidance of the local priest and church, both of whom encouraged her to ‘do better’ in order to support her troubled husband whilst totally ignoring her needs. His alcoholism was viewed as her fault and a sign of her inadequacy. The competition prizes that kept their family afloat for years made her husband jealous and resentful and his answer was to drink away his pay packet, week in, week out. That became her fault according to the mores of the society she lived in.

 

Going back to my (culinary) roots with the help of granddad

nic 007 When I want to easily remember my grandfather and hear his voice as if he was speaking to me in real life, all I have to do is wander down the street to my local branch of Waitrose. As I peruse the shelves, he rushes into my head, clear as day with his Midlands accent unchanged by the thirty years he lived in Suffolk. I pick up a pot of double cream flavoured with golden rum and spiced ‘winter fruits’: “What are you buying that for when I we’ve got an old bottle of rum in the roof somewhere- let me look for it and you can just chuck a slug of it into a pot of Elmlea.”  Or as I stand in front of plastic packs of ready mashed potato and orange cubes of butternut squash: “How much time does it take to make mash? Don’t be idle Nic – look at the price!” Or linger by the pretty bottles of pink lemonade: “It’s lemonade with food colouring- they can see you coming.” And then I imagine him going home and rummaging in his shed to triumphantly pull out a traditional flip topped bottle from the back that likely once contained weedkiller: “I’ll give it a rinse out with this Milton’s that I kept from when you were a baby and you can decant some Schweppes into it.” “That’s at least thirty years old, that Milton’s, granddad” “S’alright.”

He was a man with twenty plastic tubs of miscellaneous screws, washers and nails picked up from roads, gouged from wood off cuts or bought from Jacks in Colchester and transported home in a white paper bag in his pocket. My grandmother waged a permanent war against these as they infiltrated the twin tub and then her prized automatic Zanussi, clanging their way around the drum as she peered balefully through the machine window, waiting for the wash to come to a stop.

It is his ‘Waitrose voice’ (a voice of reason some might say) that triggers the strongest sense of Imposter Syndrome within me- the idea that I either don’t belong here, or am betraying my roots or social conscience every time I set foot inside the temple to gastro-gorgeousness that is Waitrose or any other chi chi place. Whether that be the two floors of food heaven at Snape Maltings selling beautifully packaged ten quid a shot pasta, all bronzed die cut rough edged loveliness and made with the best doppia 00 flour or a small local deli is immaterial.

For him, locavore and seasonal meant Weldons Pick Your Own and whatever was sold on the Bury St Edmunds or Sudbury markets instead of extravagantly marketed local food in the regions best farm shops or an upmarket supermarket trying hard to not look like one. When I go to the market to buy my fruit and veg, browse the cheese stall and choose my bread, I am buoyed by the approval I know he’d feel that I am supporting the sellers and the memories that are there to be revisited at each stall too. I recall the smell of the super hard Cheddar he’d always go for- ‘Roy’s stinky cheese’ as christened by my Grandmother (He insisted on being called Roy) from the man in the white van with drop down counter.

I remember the bags of apples, oranges and peaches in season that he’d buy for us to cut up and eat on our laps every night at 8 pm on the dot after Coronation Street had ended. (Or ‘Silly Street’ as he referred to it.) He’d come into the sitting room as he heard the closing strains of the theme tune with his fruit in a brown paper bag, yesterdays newspaper and a paring knife. The ‘Fruit’ ceremony would ensue- newspaper spread across his lap as he carefully peeled and doled out slices of fruit, the peaches left whole to be eaten by me but my grandmother ate hers sliced because somehow this method prevented them from ‘repeating on her.’ Then peelings were tidily wrapped up in the paper to be disposed of on the compost heap before they locked up for the night.

This ceremony with its roots in inter and post war fruit shortages cemented the notion of fruit as the greatest treat for us kids although the moderation of my grandparents in all things was not inherited by me. I soon graduated to putting away an entire bag of satsumas in one sitting. The fruit was kept on an old brown wood sideboard in the back bedroom and I would try to sneak in there and help myself, but the moment I opened the door, the heavy,ripe scent would slip into the hall and give the game away. He’d be appalled at its price now and half intrigued, half repelled by the choice we have, not just between species of fruit but the different varieties too, and all out of season. In his day we grew our own Bramleys and Cox’s and he was pretty conversant with many more varieties: the Pitmaston Pineapple, Worcester Pearmain and Egremont Russet (the latter which I now grow on my allotment). There were a lot more branches in our pomological family tree then, chosen to meet a specific need: keepers to eat throughout the cold winter; apples that had superlative flavour and must be eaten immediately as they were unable to be stored, apples that could be dehydrated into chewy, fudgy rings and apples that cooked down into pies and puddings. Now the fruit in supermarkets now is there for one reason only- it suits the store and its bottom line and flavour comes second.

Supermarkets such as Waitrose like to make us feel that our choice to shop there is the more ethical one compared to those ‘other places’ but I feel conflicted because their illusion of foodie sophistication, more considerate practices and worldliness masks a more difficult to palate truth. My grandfathers voice in my head is akin to the child in the Emperors New Clothes telling me that I am kidding myself that I am not harming the food chain and local economies by shopping in the manner that I often do. It tells me that I actually do not need to cook my way around the world, that millions of people eat adventurously without consuming imported goods out of season from lands far away and that being a food lover is not commensurate with having to try every weird and unusual ingredient. It reminds me that the only value label in store that matters is what that item costs the rest of the world. He was of his time, not ahead of it, and food for him was pleasant fuel, a way by which some people earned a living; worth thinking about because of this but little more beyond it.

He was an engaged man with great curiosity in the world and somebody who should have gone to university: he would have avidly read some of the great food writers I enjoy, writers like James Villas, Edna Lewis, Sara Roahen, and Molly Wizenberg. But he’d have been satisfied with just reading them.  I try to temper all this dissonance by doing the ‘High/Low thing’ (although I don’t like that rather flippant description) by shopping at the holy trinity of Waitrose, Aldi and the local market/independent shops. I make these lists of ‘essentials’ that need not have the provenance of a well bred truffle or rarity value of a Chinese Snow Leopard- flour, sugar, washing powder (no you don’t need Ariel), vinegar etc and lists of the more ‘luxe items’ that Aldi do well- maple syrup, the smoked salmon, everyday Parmesan (I sound like Marie Antoinette), basic olive oil, brioche et al, joyous in the knowledge of monies saved. I hope that economies of scale confer these lower prices- bulk orders, the centralised European storage and delivery systems, as opposed to five year old kids working in fields. 

I may be a scratch cook generally, but I am not going to make my own vinegar, salt, butter and yoghurt, dig six foot deep pits in the back yard to produce authentic pit ‘cue or ferment kimchi. Neither do I plan to try to grow wasabi in my garden pond after rigging up a water flow system with some Professor Branestawm contraption. I cannot be bothered to smoke my own salmon- it is effort enough to find one that hasn’t been abused prior to its death in a fish pen; dosed with medicine, riddled with worms and swimming in its own excrement. I understand that cultivating rare or niche ingredients here allows humans to reduce air and road miles with their attendant negatives but I am also a fan of Andrew and Beth Chatto who caution against growing plants unless you have the right climate and ecology- anything that requires expensive or time consuming measures is not worth it and should be left to grow in a more conducive place. 03bab62faead5e1a670bc2e6762967e4

I have several thousand books about food and cooking, gastronomy and the culture of eating. My cupboards, fridge and pantry are full of little tubes, jars, pots and packets of niche ingredients. Some of these were purchased out of genuine curiosity- is there truly any difference taste wise between generic Jasmin rice and the more expensive and rarer variety, the green stamped Hom Mali? Answer, yes. Others drew me like a moth to a flame because I adored the romance of the culture that birthed them (Zatarains Shrimp and crab boil) or loved the packaging (the blue and cream print on tubs of American baking powder by Bakewell Cream) even though they don’t perform any better. I haven’t used the tub of Crisco I bought but the name and iconography attached to it meant I wanted it. Someday I’ll fry that buttermilk soaked pullet in it before it goes rancid.

I am trying to make it simple again: not having to have a different blooming meal nearly every night and not feeling inadequate if I have yet to try the latest buzz ingredient that some bearded bloke ‘discovered’ on his food road trip to Macon, Taipei or Seoul. I am going to retrain myself to be happy just reading about food instead of always having to ‘source’ it and try to readopt and adapt the ethos behind the way my grandfather and grandmother ate, allowing for the culture gap that has opened up as the years have gone by.

I’m not saying that those folks who choose to experiment with an El Bulli cook book and molecular cuisine kit should be burned as heretics, far from it, even though I reckon ‘molecular gastronomy’ is the wankiest culinary term ever and people who use it seriously should undergo spherification and be fed to pigs.  Rather I am suggesting a less avaricious attitude to the acquiring of gastro experiences, with us asking ourselves if we truly need to try every form of berry discovered in the Brazilian rainforests, much less write to supermarkets demanding for them to be stocked, year round.

Here come the #HeadClutchers – images of mental illness in the media

If you are thinking of writing an article on mental health and illness, why not use our handy guide to some of the most popular and predominate images of this in the media- the ones that are the symbolic and metaphorical equivalent of a brick over the head in their subtlety, bearing little accuracy to the lived experience of people.

Clearly media folk are super important and very busy so we’ve decided to save you having to think at all about how you depict mental illness and mental health problems. So let us help you with those important editorial decisions.

The first one is the most critical. It is vital that all images of people with mental illness convey the levels of their despair in the most terribly obvious manner and the easiest way to do this is by use of the #HeadClutch. The only decision you need to make is about how many hands the person uses to clutch their face-

(1) Is it a one hand kind of article:

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(2)or a double hander?

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Once you have made this decision, we need to consider the surroundings and remember that people with mental health problems-

(3) appear to spend a lot of time in alleyways.

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(4) Or on the floor in the dark.

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(5) They also appear to like to sit on the side of an unmade bed. Never a made one.

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(6) If they are male and have ever had a mental health problem then they will invariably be unshaven.

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(7) And spend a lot of time clutching their heads on a park bench.

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(8) If it is raining or too cold outside, then the alternative is the corner of a room.

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(9) Or on the floor by open doorways with light streaming out of them. To convey, you know, a light at the end of the tunnel in an artistic manner. See too- the Venetian blind backdrop as that’s very popular, especially with picture editors who grew up listening to Japan in the 80’s.

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(10) Or maybe they prefer to spend time in weird never ending corridors?

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(11) Which is enough to turn anybody to drink.

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(12) When there is light in the world of mental health imagery, it is often a light not seen in nature. We like this pink shade to ring in the changes.

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(13) And when things get really bad, there’s no longer any need to even see their face. And a bit of fog never did any harm- go that pathetic fallacy!

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(14) Although sometimes articles are illustrated by photos of people with mental health issues doing extra weird things like playing ‘Ring a Roses’ the wrong way around..This symbolises hope apparently.

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The MOST important thing you need to remember though is the #HeadClutch because without it, how will any of your readers know that the article is about mental health problems?

Every single one of these images was taken from an article in the mainstream press about mental illness or how to regain mental health. Google those terms and see what images come up.

Here are some other images of people you could use who may or may not have mental health problems, the point being it is not a fixed state or something that necessarily shows-

(1)  People with other people. Talking.

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(2) Or just people.

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(3) Or finding comfort in the coping strategies they have developed to manage their symptoms.

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(4) or follow the example of the IAINews and use images like this to illustrate the themes of your piece on the future of psychiatry:

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(5) Or get really creative and use photos showing groups of four people to illustrate the one in four stat that any one of them could have a mental health problem. Here’s four people doing regular stuff. Like eating and drinking.

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(6) Or images that show just how strong people with mental health problems can be and how strong they HAVE to be to cope with all the stereotypical crap in the media.

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So- editors, photo editors, journalists and copy writers….Are you going to settle for one of these same old stereotypes or maybe, just maybe, you might decide to be a little more careful and creative with the images you choose to portray mental illness in your next copy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten reasons to visit….Bury St Edmunds

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Look up when you walk around a town. This is the upper story of the building housing WH Smith

I consider myself a home girl despite having lived in Bury St Eds less than fifteen years although I also attended two years of sixth form in the town, back at the turn of the eighties. Initially Bury St Eds appeared bogged down by an older, pretty staid and intractable right of right wing sensibility but it is changing and improving, becoming more culturally and socially diverse and we are starting to hear the voices of the next generation in planning and development. There is no doubt that it is a great place to raise a young family with green space, several large (and free of charge) parks, good sports facilities and excellent schools and Bury has great eco-credentials too with a proactive recycling policy based not on penalty but education and convenience. Businesses appear well supported too by the local Bury Free Press newspaper, thriving business forums and support via OurBuryStEdmunds. Anyway, here are ten reasons to visit and live here- there are, of course, a lot more so do feel free to add them via the comments section…

Disclaimer: We regularly update this feature but please bear in mind that businesses do close- contact them before making a special journey.

(1) The glorious market

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Martin Hart & Sons have been trading for more than eighty years

Had William the Conqueror visited Bury St Edmunds, he’d have found a market already established and today, it has grown to over 80 stalls with 1600 feet or more of frontage, from the Buttermarket to Cornhill and held bi weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There are regular bank holiday, flower and Christmas markets where the selling space expands to include Angel Hill and our Christmas Market has been named one of the best in Europe, rivalling the famous German markets. You will find local food producers and stallholders from further afield selling fruit, vegetables, freshly cooked foods, coffee, books, clothing and a lot more: the market is diverse and especially fun for children. Many of the stallholders are third and fourth generation, have established close relationships with their customers and will go that extra mile to source produce. Ask them if you don’t see what you want on their stall- I have ordered and got bergamots, tomatillos and chiles from my favourite fruit and veg stall.

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BuryBeach

Particular favourites are stalls selling freshly cooked Japanese breakfasts (try Yakitori Suzuki), the Filipino stand with crockpots brimming with savoury beef stews, the Mexican food truck and the guy selling almonds roasted while you wait. Al Chile sell freshly-made tacos, burritos and quesadillas, including nopales-stuffed ones for non-meat eaters whilst Souvlaki Shack’s kebabs are made with meat from Blythburgh Pork. Buy a bag of fresh cinnamon ring doughnuts or fruit in season, a cup of fresh coffee, a porchetta-stuffed roll, pint of prawns or a pattie from the Caribbean food stall, have a wander or sit down by Moyses Hall Museum to eat them and people watch. Keep an eye out for stalls selling the produce of South Africa or the USA. Look out too, for Bury Beach where sand and deckchairs are brought in to transform part of the town during bank holiday fairs- you can find details of when these extra events are held at Our Bury St Edmunds.

 (2) Plenty of green space

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Ickworth Park and gardens

From the manicured precision of the flower beds and lawns, punctuated by ruins in the famous Abbey Gardens to the rambling Nowton Park at the edge of the town, Bury definitely qualifies as a green and leafy town. Take a picnic to the Abbey Gardens as suggested on twitter by Sophie in the Sticks or eat an ice cream from its kiosk: the nearby cathedral Refectory cafe is great should you want a more substantial meal. There’s an adventure playground, tennis courts, ducks to feed and aviaries plus plenty of smooth tarmac paths for little people to run and scooter and it’s free. We often walk the dog at the Spring Lane nature reserve next to King Edward VI School and Hardwick Heath along Hardwick Lane with its fabulous Cedars of Lebanon has long been a refuge for the staff working at the hospital next door and is home to weekend football and rugby games.

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The entrance to the Abbey Gardens

A few miles away can be found Ickworth Park, a National Trust site with acres of park with magnificent views over the Suffolk landscape, manicured and walled gardens and the famous house to visit plus cafe and plant nurseries. The Trust organise lots of family orientated events and exhibitions in the house, detailed on the website or just go, park up and walk. Or visit Lackford Lakes a few miles out of Bury. Run expertly by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, this reclaimed gravel pit landscape is home to miles of woodland walks and trails, lakes and wetlands, all with bird hides to sit in and watch the Kingfishers, otters, bitterns and egrets. There is an extensive programme of family events including bird ringing, art and crafts and conservation days plus the visitors centre sells cake, drinks and Alder Carr ice creams.

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Fullers Mill

The nearby Fullers Mill Trust gardens are so lovely, perfect for plant fanatics- seven acres of woodland, streams and lakes, sensitively planted with rare specimens. Open April- September, you can see them over the meadows as you walk by the streams in Lackford lakes. In the town, the Greene King flood meadows have a well maintained system of tarmac paths that cross the water meadows with a wildlife conservation area, part of the flood meadows of the river Linnet, popular with dog walkers and runners. Dogs on leads please because sheep graze here.

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West Stowe

Finally, West Stow Anglo Saxon village is somewhere to spend the larger part of a day with miles of trails to explore, bird hides, indoor galleries and the stunning recreation of an Anglo-Saxon village. The adventure playground is well designed, safe and a great place for kids to work off energy. There is a cafe and toilet facilities, parking charges will apply. The village has a brilliant calendar of events, many themed (RingQuest) and offering the chance to fully immerse in the time period through dress up and reenactment.

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St Mary’s churchyard

(3) Our chefs & cooks punch well above their weight

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Photo by Cafe Kottani

Just lately, Bury St Edmunds has become a bit of a destination for those of us who love our food. We have bistros and cafes, delicatessens with take out or seating, burger bars that pre-date and beat the recent metropolitan craze for ‘designer’ things in buns and some seriously accomplished ‘faine dining’ that has attracted the attention of the Observer awards, The Telegraph and The Times. I asked Twitter for some recommendations and Helen Johnson, organiser of the Bury St Edmunds Clandestine Cake Club rates Gastrono-me and @Graceparetree loves the burgers at No4 at Abbeygate Cinema. I cannot argue with their excellent taste having eaten at both places and I was delighted to discover Poutine (oh joy!) and Hawaiian poké on the menu at the latter, a gorgeous bistro and coffee shop next to Abbeygate Cinema where the Canadian chef has brought in a menu heavily influenced by the eating places of Vancouver. There’s Hawaiian-inflected lunches, bowl food and he bakes real Cuban bread (fluffy crumb, light crunchy crust) which is incredibly hard to find anywhere else in the UK. Gastrono-me in St Johns St has a window display piled high with fresh bread and pastries, cakes and tarts alongside slabs of cheese, charcuterie and salads and a new menu. The French toast, syrup and strawberry breakfast plate is Disney on a plate, theirs the ever-popular shakshuka for a hit of heat and their brownies will slay you. Further along you’ll find the Bay Tree Bistro and Baitong Thai Cuisine, the latter serving both well known and less familiar regional Thai dishes. They operate a small food market next door too should you wish to replicate what you ate there at home and Faraway Foods nearby is where I go to buy Brazilian Pão de Queijo (cheesebread), pomelo, dragon fruit and plantain, the best blood-oranges in town, fresh herbs including turmeric tubers and creamy miniature Thai aubergines and all the salt-cod, flats of shrimp and cotton sacks of rice you could want.

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Pasteis De Nata

Castle Torrejano is the place to buy authentic, fresh Pasteis de Nata and other Portugese foods, served in the cafe and take-out or from the basement market. Buy a bag of their orange scented pastries and nip into the Abbey Gardens via the Mustow Street entrance nearby to scarf them but stick your nose inside the brown paper bag first and inhale that glorious scent. Cafe Kottani on the Buttermarket makes a cinnamon spiked Pasticcio that is eye-rollingly good, among other Greek and Levantine goodies and keep the scions of the town going with real coffee. A take-out box of their baklava is our weekly treat. I particularly like the take out sandwiches from Toppers also on the Buttermarket and lost my heart to the Italian gelato it sold last summer…I seem to remember a pear flavour….

Out of town on the Moreton Hall Estate can be found the Coffee House on Lawson Place: do take a trip there because it is a little gem and they don’t shove you out on the end of a broom after twenty minutes. Honey comes from the hives in the grounds of a nearby prep school, the meat is from the butcher father of one of the owners and the menu is small but creative and most of all, tastes great. Sofa’s, a bookshelf and newspapers make this a good place to meet, work or relax.

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Dark chocolate & pistachio tart- photo by Gastrono-me

For a total blow out, visit the recently refurbished Pea Porridge where chef owner Justin Sharp knocks out honest, modern food from parsley soup to local game (muntjac, rabbit and hare) and also studs the menu with international delicacies such as nduja. Then there’s that hardy perennial of great restaurants- Maison Bleu. Justifiably famous, this seafood restaurant on Churchgate St continues to impress. We have decent pub food too: the Cannon Street Brewery is over the road from Pea Porridge, has its own micro brewery and rooms if you cannot roll more than ten yards after feasting. They aren’t snobby either. We have rocked up covered in mud from our allotment which is in the next street and they didn’t blink. For more luxury, both in food and accommodation, drive a little way out of town to Tuddenham Mill where you can eat chef Lee Bye’s top notch food and then walk it off afterwards in the lovely grounds and surrounding countryside. Oakes Barn is an award-winning community pub with the best cheese-board around and a small, but perfect menu which is basically soup, a charcuterie board and a few other specials. Their beer is expertly kept (doesn’t matter how good the list of ales is if a place doesn’t know how to look after them) and sourced from the best small, and not so small, breweries around. We’re real fans of Shortts Farm Brewery in Thorndon whose ales are usually on at Oakes Barn. They’re named after bands and Strummer, their first beer, received the seal of approval from the family of the late Joe.

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Food by Maison Bleu- from their website

When we want a fix of Indian food, Orissa in Risbygate Street  is our choice because alongside the usual suspects, it serves beautifully plated modern interpretations. The Abafado de Camarao shows its Goan-Portugese heritage in its name: a plate of saffron infused giant shrimp, chilli hot and jazzed up with palm vinegar or go for the spiced apple and salmon or Imli duck with tamarind. Finally, if you are on a budget but want to eat food cooked by student chefs at a high standard, then head over to the West Suffolk College and book a seat at Zest, their student training restaurant which serves lunch and evening meals including catered banquets and special events. There’s a newly-opened coffee bar there too.

(4) Great local food producers and gastro related businesses

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Photo by the Bury Chocolate Shop

It’s getting better and having a market and a few good independent food stores helps promote the lovely local foodstuffs that living in a predominately rural and agricultural region results in. I buy my lamb from Justin Hammond who grazes his flock of Jacob sheep in the fields around Bury. Try his mutton and hogget which has all the flavour that very young spring lamb can lack- the website details the local markets he sells at and Lackford Lakes sells his meat frozen. You can also see his sheep ambling around the lakeside there too- just remember to disconnect your guilt gland beforehand. For ingredients less ordinary such as specially blended loose tea and fresh coffee in bean and ground, Butterworths in the Traverse is the place to go. I pined for fresh rooted herbs, Caribbean ingredients and niche veggies after leaving London and this shop with roots of fresh turrmeric, bushels of coriander and decent sized sacks of rice and pulses is an absolute tardis and where I go to find interesting items for food hamper gifts. Holders of a 5 star Which? rating for customer service, they richly deserve it. Another very welcome addition to the food store scene here are the shops selling Eastern European produce and the one I use the most is Europa Maxi on St Andrews St South. Rammed with an eclectic and excellent range, their cooked and preserved meats are superb. My last haul included a tub of freshly pickled cucumbers, high quality speck, fresh carp, frozen pierogi stuffed with wild mushrooms and chocolate coated plums. They also sell Cheeto’s twirls (Not Eastern European I know) which makes me want to fall at their feet and worship them.

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Spinach, Red Onion and Goats Cheese Quiche from Friendly Loaf Company

The Bury Chocolate Shop on the lovely St John’s St stocks a wide range of fresh truffles, diabetic treats made with stevia and other candies and the street it is on is one of the nicest parts of retail Bury, well worth a stroll down. Further down is the International Food Shop where I was able to buy Far Eastern, Brazilian and other South American ingredients, fresh exotic fruit and veg such as yams, custard apples, bunched herbs and durian. Mark Proctor of the Friendly Loaf Company is a friend but I’d still recommend his bread and pastries whether I liked him or not. Made and baked in his farm premises in Risby, they can be bought from Bury market and any leftover loaves are sold in the Dove pub. Hospital Rd on Wednesday evenings. For freshly milled local flour, try Pakenham Mill and the windmill at Bardwell and if you want cheese to go with that loaf, Suffolk Cheese makes a lovely blue and a hard ‘Gold’ cheddar style- both are sold on the market.

Infusions 4 Chefs is based a few miles from the town in Rougham and stocks the most amazing range of ingredients, equipment and tools for professional and domestic cooks. They do mail order, can be visited and I lose myself for days on their site. If you want to pootle around a cook shop, Bury has quite a few from Palmers Homestore and Steamer Trading to the little Kitchen Kave (not named by the Kardashians) on Brentgovel St which is a treasure trove of equipment at pocket money prices for the kids and a brilliant range of cake decorating products. If you are in search of quality eggs for your baking, then the egg man, Dan Schlpher sells high quality ones from ducks or chickens alongside meat and game on the market. Finally, if you can get out to the Risby Farm Shop and Nursery you won’t be disappointed. There’s a nursery stuffed with plants at ridiculously low prices plus seasonal and local fruit, veg, eggs, chutneys and jams plus a range of biscuits. Chickens and a pair of Spaniels roam at will and they also stock animal feed.

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Risby Farm Shop.

(5) Greene King, micro breweries and all matters alcohol

Obviously Bury is the home of Greene King and even if you don’t drink ale, a visit and tour around their headquarters visitor centre, museum and brew house is pretty interesting and you can always give the pint included in the admission price to the one who accompanies you (unless it is your kid-wouldn’t recommend that). Other local brewers include the Old Cannon Brewery and independent brew pub; drink a pint of Gunners Daughter on a brew day (usually mon/tues) and watch them make the next lot. Adnams have recently opened up a kitchen shop which also sells their complete range of ales and spirits alongside an in-store cafe. It. is a beautifully designed space.

Wander along to Tayfen Road (not the loveliest part of town, sadly) and visit the Bury Beerhouse, home of traditional cask ales, spit roasted pork from its own fires, a small changing menu of snacks and bar food and its own festival, all done so well that the Observer Food Monthly named it runner up for the best place in Britain to taste craft beers. For a stripped back to the ale drinking experience, try The Dove in Hospital Rd, a CAMRA recommended six pump pub selling mainly East Anglian ales and wicked pork scratchings plus some pork pies. The pub hosts folk nights, a men’s book club and a quiz night, details on the website.

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Wingspan Bar

Oakes Barn is a beautifully decorated (award-winning) community pub selling quality ales, ciders and other drinks. A small menu of pies, cheeseboards and other simple meals keeps you going in between drinks, all freshly-cooked. The pub is home to Bury Folk Collective, quiz and music nights, a book and crochet club, French and Spanish conversational evenings plus paella evenings, sausages and ale nights and food tastings. For something more intimate, try the Wingspan Bar at the Angel Hotel, located in the 12th Century vault that runs underneath the hotel, part of the system of tunnels fashioned out of the chalk that the town is bedded upon. The bar created from half an aircraft engine, tables are designed from aeroplane doors and the sofas upholstered in German flour sacks. Not particularly salubrious, the Con Club on Guildhall St is home to Kevin Cawsers guitar club, held monthly and getting very popular now. The bar sells the usual variety of alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks but it is the astonishingly accomplished musical ability of those attending that is the draw.

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The Nutshell

Should you want to buy alcohol in an informative, non chain atmosphere, Beautiful Beers stocks products from all over Europe whilst Thos Peatling stocks fine wines and offers wine tasting sessions which make sensible presents for the person who has everything. Finally, how could we leave out The Nutshell, Britain’s smallest pub with a bar that measures just 15ft by 7ft, as confirmed in the Guinness Book of Records- especially after I was reminded by @TWoollams on Twitter. A major tourist draw, nonetheless you should be able to find a perch on the padded benches lining the walls and the beers are great.

(6) Street sports

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Bury skatepark

Bury Skatepark has recently been redeveloped and as a result is one of the best skate and BMX parks in England, The local council has been very supportive of street sports in the town and helped establish a planning and steering committee manned by users of the skatepark to help in the process of acquiring funding. With its own Facebook page, the park is the venue for frequent fundraising events (Skatejam) and is a registered charity. Located on Olding Road, this new concrete facility replaced the popular wooden structure and is suitable for bikes, scooters and boards with a mixture of both street and transitioned based features. For kids in need of both equipment, advice and another place to meet fellow street sport enthusiasts, Hardcore Hobbies on Risbygate Street is an excellent resource. The owners and staff are seriously connected in the street sport world and can offer help with safety and tuition alongside competitions and sponsorship guidance.

(7) Help and support

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Cavern Four

According to St Edmundsbury Borough Council, the local area is  recycling approximately 9000 tonnes of dry recyclable material through the blue bin scheme and 13,000 tonnes of compostable waste through the brown bin scheme each year. In total, we are recycling and composting approximately 50% of the household waste we produce and it is in part due to campaigners like Karen Cannard from the Rubbish Diet that we are doing so well. If you want to find ways of reducing your household waste and cut down also on food waste, Karen is an amazing first point of contact and a local treasure. For help with food poverty, the food bank at the Gatehouse is a voluntary group formed of local people and organisations. They need donations too. Cavern Four is a gorgeous little shop in Whiting Street that exhibits and sells the work of regional artists and craftspeople alongside its remit of showcasing the skills of people who attend Workwise, the work based training and rehabilitation service for local people with mental health problems. Selling high quality furnishings, art, crafts and jewellery, the shop is run by Workwise staff and employees-I have bought some stunning pieces from here.

I have always thought it scandalous that our government does not entirely fund hospice and palliative care services and the wonderful local one, Saint Nicholas has to raise £10,000 every single day of every single year to provide the right type of care for its patients. To this end, the local community is involved in a myriad of fund raising events and there is also a hospice charity shop on St Johns St. Although there are many valuable charities in the town, all deserving of our help, palliative and bereavement care is something that WILL touch us all and out of self interest alone, we should all get involved in supporting St Nics and maybe enquire of our government why such a vital service is not fully funded from the public purse.

(8) Theatre, antiques and galleries

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Theatre Royal

The exquisite Georgian Theatre Royal may be small but it is mighty, putting on a varied programme of entertainment in the face of Arts Council and other cuts. From well known comedians, national touring ballet companies and childrens entertaimnent to the popular pantomime, the theatre works hard to represent the myriad tastes of the town. The educational programme works with local children, there are opportunities for work experience and summer schools plus the ‘Costume Creators’ sessions offering an authentic and supportive work experience for young people with mild to moderate learning difficulties. At the much newer Apex, inside the Arc shopping centre, comedy, dance, live music and performance finds a home in a venue known for its acoustic excellence. There is a foyer cafe, an exhibition space and pre concert dining whilst Saturdays sees regular craft sales via the March Hare Collective.

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The Apex

St Edmundsbury Cathedral is an extraordinarily dramatic home to a programme of musical entertainment, home to the Bach Choir and and boasts two superb musical instruments: the Cathedral organ is a large four manual instrument and a Steinway grand piano. Major stars such as Philip Voss and Robert Hardy have performed here in recent years, and the Cathedral has been a venue for musical productions by the Suffolk Young People’s Theatre and various talks.

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John Dilnot – Moth Collection, 2013. Printed papers, wood and glass from Smiths Row

For art lovers, the Smiths Row gallery in its town centre setting is a free of charge setting for art that doesn’t shy away from challenging audiences and exploring new avenues of artistic expression. Contemporary crafts including jewellery can be purchased alongside a good range of prints and there are regular talks and chances to meet the artists in a pretty impressive setting. The gallery is located on the first floor of an elegant Grade 1 listed building originally designed as a theatre in the 1770s by Robert Adam, which has retained its high ceilings, Georgian façade and elegant arched windows and is lit by a pair of magnificent Venetian crystal chandeliers. There is a disabled lift to the gallery. *Update* The Gallery is in the process of being moved to a new location by the rail station and is closed. However their website is regularly updated with information so do keep an eye on it.

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Blackthorpe Barns at Christmas

Blackthorpe Barn near to the town is a wonderful multi use space with an art gallery and exhibitions, a Christmas shop and craft fair in the medieval thatched barn plus a cafe. The Christmas festivities are pretty cool here- kids love them. Start a family tradition of choosing a tree from the piles out back, meet the reindeers that sometimes appear and chug down mugs of spiced apple and hot toddies. The surrounding Rougham Woods are a great place to walk off that cake and jacket potato you ate in the cafe. Don’t forget the end of year and graduate art shows at the West Suffolk College and University College, Suffolk on Out Risbygate either. Contact the art department for information about when they are held and if you are lucky, you’ll score yourself an original artwork or get to commission one. The last time I attended, a haunting piece of art based upon the effects of Dementia stayed with me for months: unavailable for sale it is, for me, THE one that got away.

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Past and Present at Risby antiques barns- photo by Risby Antique Barns/Past & Present

The internet has decimated the antiques trade: Lovejoy would barely recognise Suffolk now as the antiques trail has kind of trailed off. Fortunately the antiques barns at Risby, near to the town appear to go from strength to strength: both barns are rammed with all manner of items from big ticket items to pocket money pieces. Open seven days a week, including bank holidays and with a cafe opposite, find clothing, vintage garden furniture, household furnishings, silverware and shelves of books alongside a fabulous collection of paste and real jewellery. I recently bought a rare Thierry Mugler cream wool and cashmere jacket from here for less than £30, a thirties dragonfly brooch of semi precious stones, Kosta Boda crystal candleholders, milk glass, a set of mid century modern chairs and vintage French pastis glasses., I love it here. Check out the plant nursery and Cosy Cabin, a sewing and quilting emporium and The Vintage Shack towards the back of the site and purveyor of vintage clothing, reclaimed Swedish style Gustavian furniture and some very cool geometric printed fabrics and vintage linens. The owner will restore to customers specifications.

(9) Sport and wellness

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St Edmunds wolf on the Southgate roundabout wearing the scarf of the rugby club. Photo by the East Anglian Daily Times

Home to its own Rugby, football and cricket clubs, these are just some of the sporting opportunities available in the town and you can even learn to fly over the town or drive a hovercraft at Rougham Airfield. Prices to attend local matches are reasonable, the clubs all have a lively social calendar and active youth and community programmes. Curvemotion is an indoor interactive venue offering activities for all the family including roller skating, soft play, slides and a bistro. Zorbing is also on offer. The Bury Foxes are the local female rugby team or if netball is more your bag, try the Jetts Netball Club. Located on the Moreton Hall Estate, the Wellness Centre is somewhere to go to unwind with a programme of yoga, tai chi and other complementary therapies for all ages. Run as a social enterprise, there is also hair and beauty therapies available and a vegan cafe called The Happy Cow selling smoothies, salads, tea, coffee, snacks, and cake.  For really competitive hair and beauty treatments go along to the In Vogue training salons at the West Suffolk College where well supervised (and appropriately competent) students offer everything from cuts and colours to facials, sports massage and hair removal. A fraction of the cost of normal salon prices, they may take a little longer, the surroundings are more utilitarian but the results are just as good. Call or email for appointments during term time. Lastlye, stroll down Risbygate Street and you’ll find the Body and Mind Studio which offers all manner of therapuetic massage and other treatments. From Indian head massages to healing and nutritional advice, they’ll sort you out.

(10) Festivals and fairs (or fayres if you prefer)

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We have quite a few of these now from the (relatively) venerable Bury Festival and its ten days of mixed arts and entertainment to the newcomers such as Homegrown which had its inaugural festival at Rougham last Summer (2014). In addition, the town puts on various market based events on bank holidays and in the run up to Christmas, the latter being one of the loveliest and most evocative I have been to in the UK and named by Buzzfeed as one of the best in Europe in a guide where Bury St Edmunds is the only town to be chosen among major cities and European capitals. Situated on Angel Hill in front of the Dickensian Angel Hotel, the combination of food, stalls, music and carols is lovely. Heralded by the Christmas light switch on event, the usual street market becomes turbo charged with an evening mini fairground, late night shopping, free parking and other attractions. It gives me an excuse to eat roasted chestnuts until I can barely stand the sight of them-until next December anyway.

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The Greene King Summer Festival, held in the gardens and grounds of the brewery is rapidly expanding from just a few stalls a few years ago to several days of events. Look out for food and drink tasting, cookery demonstrations and live music in the evening whilst the town centre itself has several food and drink festivals during the year. Speakers and public demo’s from chefs such as Brian Turner and Ollie Dabous draw the crowds. For lovers of gardens, architecture and the plain nosy, Bury Hidden Gardens is a day of heaven- the chance to explore unexpected gardens found within the historic streets of Bury St Edmunds, laid out in a grid pattern by the monks from the town’s 12th Century abbey, plus some gems from other architectural periods. Memorable for me in many ways, not least because of an afternoon spent making small talk about gunneras in a garden with the OBGYN who had operated on me just weeks before (we both pretended not to recognise each other in that very English manner), I love this event held in the Summer and a fundraiser for St Nicholas Hospice. Keep an eye out too for the Chinese New Years celebrations along Hatter Street in January with prancing dragons, lanterns and music.

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Quite a few of the walking tours that formed part of the 2014 Suffolk Walking Festival were located in and around the town. I attended the launch party and inaugural walk around Ickworth park (green and stunning despite the pelting rain) and one of the local history walks setting off from the tourist office on Angel Hill. Discovering local curiosities such as the miniature doll embedded in the flint walls near the rear entrance of the Abbey Gardens and the encouragement to look up at the architecture above shop fronts in the town centre made the small charge for these walks worth it. Other routes took walkers along the St Edmund Way, along the rivers Lark and Linnet or a walk to discover the unusual trees in Nowton Park – redwood giants, a spinning twisted yew, Indian Bean Trees that have ‘swallowed’ a fence, explosive Jeffery’s and a lightning struck Douglas. I hope this wonderful festival will be repeated next year but in the interim, Bury tourist office has details of other guided walks including the spooky ghost walks (highly recommended although when I went on it, I apparently whimpered most of the route like an oversized frightened kitten).

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The doll in the wall…..

Food Inglorious Food: or how our government continues to fail the poorest.

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Next week I will be visiting The Gatehouse in Bury St Edmunds, a local food bank to explore how they are planning for the influx of extra users during the Winter, a time of greater poverty due to the competing needs of heating the home versus feeding those that live in it. In the meantime, here’s a reminder that the need for food banks continues as does the need for us to support them. Please donate- links and information as to how can be found at the end of this article. 

The amount of people using food banks continues to rise despite the much heralded ‘economic recovery’, trotted out by the government in an attempt to deter us from believing what we see with our own eyes. The cost of living coupled with insecure work contracts and slashed benefits that fail to keep pace with the demands on our wallets have conspired to send even those in full time work in search of their nearest food bank, a fact the government would like to obscure because it contradicts the ugly message that to work is to reach the economic promised land. Indeed, the inability of people to feed themselves adequately has been described as a breach of international law by violating the human right to food by a coalition of anti-poverty charities, including the Trussell Trust. who have described the Government as “increasingly harsh” in its use of sanctions against people attempting to claim benefits. Half of those referred to food banks in 2013-14 were as a result of benefit delays or changes with 8 out of 10 of food banks seeing more cases relating to benefit sanctions over the past year. Tougher punishments for those on jobseeker’s allowance were introduced by the Coalition last October (2013) raising the minimum sanction from one to four weeks. Benefits can now be stopped for up to three years.

The latest figures from The Trussell Trust show that in 2014, a total of 913,138 people were given three days supply of emergency food compared to 346,992 between 2012- 2013, 423 food banks have been launched and 8318 thousand tonnes of food was donated to food banks over the previous year.

The Living Wage Campaign works hard to raise awareness of the problems faced by those in low paid employment citing a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that claims there are more working families living in poverty in the UK than non-working families for the first time since the birth of the welfare state. The JRF attributes this to a sustained fall in the standard of living, causing average incomes to fall by 8% since the 2008 peak and around 2 million people to live on an income that would be considered below the poverty line back in 2008. Working age adults without children form the largest group in poverty with 4.7 million people falling into this category and plummeting incomes over the last few years erasing all the gains previously made.

Despite a strong safety net being deemed vital in ensuring social mobility across all age groups, government cuts via the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and other housing benefit changes, ESA sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims cause further harm to those who are already barely managing to keep their heads above water. Millions of people are living in fear of one more thing going wrong- a car repair or broken washing machine, unexpected dental bills (because they do not qualify for free assistance), sickness, outgrown shoes, not being paid over a bank holiday because they are self employed or paid for work done (and their firm shuts down) or loss of working hours because the weather is too bad and they work outdoors- any of which will tip them over the edge into a financial abyss from which they will never claw themselves back out of.

The experience of food banks is that more of their users are unable to find reliable work because of a myriad of issues and users then go on to be further handicapped by benefit delays, sanctions and even benefit refusal. In The Guardian (Nov 2014) a report by Melissa Viney says: “The most recent government figures (to June 2014) show that only 2% of longer-term ESA claimants find sustained employment. Independent research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has found that disabled people are about half as likely to find employment as non-disabled people. Last week, a report suggested that officials were considering cutting ESA, which is paid to around 2 million people, by as much as £30 a week as the chancellor, George Osborne, seeks a £12bn cut in the welfare bill.” A DWP whistleblower claimed “ the majority of my ESA caseload of about 100 clients were not well enough to have been on the government’s welfare-to-work Work Programme, but should instead have been signposted to charities that could support them with their multiple problems.” Instead people were left to negotiate a system that could not effectively place them in work because it is trying to force square pegs into skimpy round holes.

In a job market that is over subscribed, the disabled (including the mentally ill) are not going to get the pickings. In addition, staff were not given copies of job seekers Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and so were unable to offer any kind of tailored support or advice. The DWP state that providers “have the freedom to design any work-related activity so it is appropriate to the person’s condition”, yet fail to address the issue of staff being unable to do this because they do not possess the right information on the person.

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The blasé cruelty of ministers such as Lord Freud, who slurred desperate families by claiming that people were turning up just because there was ‘free food’, and not out of necessity is breathtaking. He would be perfectly aware of the surveys that show many people wouldn’t consider turning to a food bank for help when they need it: they find the stigma attached to ‘asking for food’ too humiliating.He would also be aware that families need to be referred to local food banks; you cannot just rock up with a shopping bag and fill it at will. In a seemingly desperate attempt to smear the charities who run food banks (including the Trussell Trust), DWP department directory Neil Couling, gave evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee on food banks and questioned the motivations of the UK’s biggest supplier of emergency food aid by implying that a motivation for their growth was Christian “evangelism” and that the food banks were merely an “evangelical device”. This elicited a furious reaction from the chair of the Trussell Trust who wrote: “Please provide me immediately with the evidence you have to support this assertion. You are directly challenging the integrity of a registered charity and its trustees both past and present. If you are not able to provide evidence to support this assertion please write immediately to the Scottish Parliament Welfare Reform Committee to withdraw the statement.”

We all remember Jack Monroe’s bleakly truthful blog posts about her own food poverty, and the resulting desperate attempts by the right wing press and its sympathisers to discredit her. Failing to comply with the ‘feckless, fat and lazy’ stereotype that is ignorantly trotted out by those who should be chained to a food bank and made to listen to their users and their children (who surely do not deserve to go without) made her an articulate threat and not easily dismissed. Ms Monroe faced them down, providing researched, clear and objective rebuttals, trembling with well controlled, justifiable outrage. She continues to highlight food poverty in the UK and the structural issues underpinning this alongside imaginative and accurately costed out recipes that are based on ingredients that are truly inexpensive (or should I say not as expensive?). I have cooked from them, own both her books and encourage others who need cost effective, nourishing meal ideas to do so. (Her pasta flavoured with a jar of 19p fish paste that itself has no nasties in the ingredients is genius)

In the USA, Linda Tirado recently authored her first book ‘Hand to Mouth’  after posting an essay about the American poverty trap online whilst working two low-paid jobs, which went viral. Extending it into the now book, Tirado has similarly been exposed to the same slanderous much raking attempts to discredit her, resulting in her posting her welfare records online plus a devastatingly brave and honest video in which she discussed appalling access to dental care and the way this impacts upon a persons job worthiness in the eyes of employers. Poor dental care is not only an aesthetic issue either when you consider the positive correlation dental decay has with cardiac problems and what these cost the public health service of any country. As usual, a government is relying on short term measurable actions rather than investing more on the medium and longer term measures that will save more in the long run: the latter are unfortunately not as immediately impressive to a voting public with short term moral attention deficits. Tirado lays waste to the American Dream and the much bandied ethos that if you want it and work for it, you will have it, irrespective of social class or cultural background. The fact that millions work over fifty hours a week in minimum wage zero contract positions yet still cannot afford to feed or house themselves is terrifying and subversive proof that this is no longer true. No wonder the establishment seeks to silence her.

During the course of researching this piece I have met men and women who:

  • Wear glasses with a prescription out of date by years, lenses scratched and smeared because they cannot afford to replace them (again, you only get free eye tests and prescriptions if you are on a very low income or receive a higher level of tax credits);
  • Have to struggle on with painful teeth but do not qualify for or cannot find NHS dental care. (Remember that travelling to meet repeated appointments to an NHS dentist forty miles away is out of reach for people with little money for public transport or petrol.) I have also met people with badly fitting dentures because the NHS pairs are not adequate and they cannot afford to go private;
  • Go out foraging for fruit and vegetables not because they love to go back to nature of a weekend or have read Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s or Renee Redzepi’s latest tome on foraged cheffery but because they cannot afford to buy decent quantities of fruit and veg (and this includes stealth raids on fields of sweetcorn, cabbages and local orchards). They live too far away from local markets or discount supermarkets and having to spend a tenner on transport wipes out any monies saved;
  • Are teachers, buying breakfast and ‘snacks’ for their pupils out of their own pockets because they are clearly coming to school hungry-and  not because their parents are feckless either but because there is only enough for a tiny bowl of cereal or one piece of toast. And when you eat not quite enough cumulatively over days or weeks, it is much harder to work all morning on smaller rations- this despite Michael Gove’s accusation that ‘feckless parenting’ lies behind this;
  • Have to return some food items to the food bank because they cannot afford to cook them or have run out of gas on their pre-paid credit meter, instead relying on foods that can be cheaply heated or eaten cold;
  • Shamefacedly admit to taking toilet paper from public toilets because they cannot afford to buy it. They choose to spend the money they do have on what goes into their children’s mouths rather than what comes out of their bottoms;
  • Have had to stay inside for the best part of a week because they cannot always afford decent sanitary protection and feel too ashamed to admit this. Or they ration what they do have or use cheaper, less efficacious products.

I have seen the shame on the face of one father as he tells me about sneaking into schools lost property room in the hope of finding an unnamed school sweatshirt in the right size that they can use for their child. They worry themselves sick about birthdays and Christmas, about their kids being invited to parties and hiding from trick or treaters because they have nothing they can give them; about the school trips that they cannot afford and the fact that they forever window shop on life, faced pressed against the glass and not yearning for much, just the chance to afford a treat or a day out, something to relieve the monotony and exhaustion because being poor is so very tiring. Many had good jobs when they had their children, or were in good marriages that then failed. They tried to make good choices, didn’t live beyond their means and didn’t flash the plastic even though previous governments did their level best to encourage us all to live on credit and delayed consequences.

A recent poll by Kelloggs has also revealed that almost one third of teachers admit to bringing in food for pupils they think may have missed breakfast and  two fifths of school staff (38%) know of pupils who have not enough to eat on a daily basis. Teachers talk of lethargic children with 83% commenting that they had noticed that their pupils could not concentrate properly. Again, the blame was ascribed to breakdowns in benefit assessment, a living wage that is not a living wage and in some cases, parents failing to ensure children were adequately nourished at breakfast times.

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As Winter approaches, more people will be forced to choose between heating their home adequately and eating properly with a recent Which? survey for the Tonight programme revealing that 46% of respondents plan to cut back spending in other areas to pay their winter energy bills. In an ITV programme shown on Nov 6th, reporter Chris Choi put together a log of his experience in a cold chamber to simulate the conditions experienced by those living in fuel poverty, a room cooled to 12 degrees. Interviews with health and social care professionals discuss the problems this causes for the most vulnerable, exacerbating existing health conditions and rendering them vulnerable to a host of others.

The UK is supposed to be built on a bedrock of  christian principles but the fact is, if you object to your tax pounds being spent on the poor, you are not one. This government happily trots out christian ideology and mores when it suits, yet ignores its central tenets. I do not believe that the greatest goodness comes from being a religious person yet I do hold those that claim to be to higher standards, especially when it is used to justify moral and legal pronouncements on how we live and how the country is run accordingly. When those judgements are used to justify punitive measures against the poorest and whip up hatred and derision towards them we see the moral ugliness of those in charge.

The Trussel Trust– find your nearest foodbank

The Gatehouse Foodbank in Bury St Edmunds

East Suffolk food bank

Newmarket Open Door

Haverhill food bank

Suffolk info link

<Addendum>

In the Guardian on December 8 2014, the paper warns of impending Conservative party hostility to an all party report on food banks which warns that Britain is “stalked by hunger caused by low pay, a growth in inequality, harsh benefit sanctions regime and social breakdown”. The Conservative party is seeking to avert a damaging rift with the Church of England over this with the church-funded report describing voluntary groups as “courageously fighting “a social Dunkirk” without the assistance of the government”, and calls for urgent action to ensure ministers do more to combat hunger, including joining a new coordinating body and asking supermarkets to do more with surplus unsold products.

The initial Conservative reaction to leaks of the report – which is formally published today – was hostile, with one minister claiming the increased use of food banks was due to greater publicity about their existence. Read the article here.