Autumnal wooded walks in East Anglia

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Alison Uttley knew a thing or two about woods and many of her characters are creatures of them. From Susan in The Country Child who lived among the wooded scrabbly crags of the Peak District to the Little Grey Rabbit who was, to me, the perfect anima of those woodland trees, when Uttley said “there are many lovely small things- leaves and rain” she must surely have been thinking of the British woods in the Autumn.

Woodlands are magical places all year round but as Summer relaxes its hold and we slip into Autumn, they become ever more so, guardians of an imagination forged by the tales of childhood: remember The Forbidden Forest, Hundred Acre Wood and the acres of spike dark pine trees which inhabited the imaginations of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen? From the barcode trunks of pines in Breckland forests to the twisted moss-cloaked limbs of old oaks, trees are a gateway into a shared history and collective subconscious. Trees cloaked our little islands and provided us with the means to be safe, warm and fed and in turn they nourished a rich cultural heritage where specific stories, legends and songs told their local tale.

The Woodland Trust is desperately trying to save over 613 ancient woodlands across the UK, many of them at risk from development, pollution and the effects of viruses which attack specific trees and plants and increasingly at risk are the 256 threatened wildlife species who rely on them to develop and thrive. Over the last 10 years, over 100 of these woodlands have been lost and it is even more imperative that we familiarise ourselves with our local woodlands and the only way to do this is to use them regularly- and join one of the many conservation groups dedicated to protect and promote them for generations to come.

So this Autumn and the coming Winter, join some wildlife organisations, download their wildlife spotting guides then put on your boots and walk. Learn about the local dialect and the names for the things you will see and encourage your children to make up words for the things they see too, in the best tradition of our ancestors who were far more imaginative with words than we seem to be. Only through a workaday familiarity will be protect our East Anglian landscapes and allow them to grow in a dynamic fashion in harmony with the humans who, all too often in the past, have threatened their existence by holding too tight to the myth of the pastoral idyll which seeks to both preserve in aspic and alienate through idealisation.

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Here are some of The Millers Tales favourite woodlands across East Anglia. Some have facilities such as toilets, places to eat and drink and run regular events designed to educate and entertain such as bird ringing demonstrations, coppicing workdays, bug hunting and night walks to spot bats. Others are simply woods, a place to walk, sit and contemplate, a busy place for other creatures but hopefully less so for us; they offer us the chance to stop and watch and listen.

Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.
Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.

Arger Fen, which lies on the borders of South Suffolk and Essex, near Little Cornard,  is a small fragment of the wild wood that once covered Suffolk over a thousand years ago and the history of those who lived nearby is writ large upon it. The woods retain a sense of timelessness; apart from the conservation signs there is very little to remind you of the modern world and much to transport you away from it. Arger Fen protects species of plants and animals that you might not encounter very often; ancient stands of wild cherry (Prunus Avium) fuzzed with blossoms in the Spring, stag beetles, the hazel dormouse and barbastelle bats. Famous for its English bluebells which thickly carpet the slopes and glades, visitors can avoid trampling on them by using the boardwalks which also cross marshy areas and streams although stepping on them is at times unavoidable. Packed earth steps are cut into the banks at the heart of the wood, making this a woodland unsuitable for wheelchairs and flimsy buggies and there are no toilets nearby. The nearby villages of Bures, Henny and Assington all have lovely country pubs for a post walk repast.

Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org
Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org

Bacton Woods is basically a safari park for trees with over thirty species found in this beautiful woodland, close to Witton in North Norfolk on the Happisburgh road. The original woodland included Sessile Oaks and two of these, which are thought to be over 200 years old, still remain and the whole site was originally heathland before planting which is why you will see plenty of clumps of old gorse and broom. Keeping them company are Scots and Corsican pine, western hemlock, Douglas fir and larch alongside other broadleafs such as hazels, rowans and ash; bluebells, sorrell and dogs mercury carpet the woodland floor with seasonal foliage and blooms, making this a sensory pleasure at all heights.

Bacton Wood is more proactive with regards to entertainment: visitors can enjoy orienteering along three waymarked routes; ride or walk several trails which possess broad paths, bounded by natural leafy archways: this is the place to bring toddlers who enjoy Autumn leaf kicking. The blue trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches and walkers will be able to identify many woodlandtree species from the beech avenues, ‘short’ pines planted for seed collection and towering wellingtonia trees. The medium ability red trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches to rest on,  passing through a conifer plantation and mixed woodland, a beech avenue and recently planted woodland where a ‘grandparent’ Oak lies and, finally, past the pond. The yellow trail (1.3miles) runs along well made tracks with frequent benches. From a clockwise approach it gradually loses height as it passes conifer and mixed woodland to the pond and then on to the ‘grandparent’ oak tree. This is followed by a 200m incline to a level walk past the wellingtonia trees, mixed woodland and an area recently cleared to encourage native broadleaf woodland.

Organised events include conservation work and children’s activities such as nature spotting walks and entry is free for under 3s (unless otherwise stated). The woods also have some decent mountain biking trails which include free drops from 7ft high to smaller, safer ones for beginners. Dirt jumps will allow freestylers to try out their tricks and these jumps are 6-7 feet high. Picnic areas are also provided and carparking facilities (about two and a half miles north of North Walsham) including disabled bays are provided. The nearest public toilets are in North Walsham town centre or on the B1159 at Walcott.

Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush
Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush

Lions Mouth at Felbrigg Hall is run by the National Trust and offers the Hall with all its amenities, parkland, lakeside walks and a  520-acre (2.1 km2) Great Wood which shelters the house. Of especial note is the well-known “Lions Mouth”, a beauty spot which can be reached from the main road A148 and is popular with walkers and ramblers.

Home to beech trees which may well prove to be the furthest north they can exist on this type of acid soil, rare fungi and lichens and (the fabulously named) slender lemon slug, the area is an ecological wonder-  parts of Felbrigg have SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status. This is the place to be in the early morning when the mists are slow to burn off, when plovers, lapwings and barn owls screech, rise and fall, clamour and call to each other.

Birds aren’t the only creature on the wing though: eight species of bat have been recorded here, including woodland mammals such as Natterer’s bat and the rare Barbestelle. Felbrigg Lake is a good place to head for at dusk to see bat activity as they swoop through the clouds of midges and gnats which skein just above the surface of the water. Check out the mysterious Icehouse, hibernation site for many of the Felbrigg bats.

There are many marked walks available (see the NT website)  including 3 easy circular dog friendly options which encircle the Hall and old deer park. Two of the walks pass along wide, push and wheelchair accessible tracks and one takes you through the “Victory V” wood.  Planted  in 1946, it was designed to be seen as a “V” from the air. Felbrigg Hall organises a raft of events for all the family, marking popular calendar dates such as Halloween and Christmas. Booking ahead is advised.

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Longthorpe Woods by Woodland Trust

Londonthorpe Wood and the Belton Estate, Lincolnshire– Here’s a handy clue as to the age of a woodland: If there is evidence of wood anemone and enchanter’s nightshade, the woodland is a venerable one. Londonthorpe has a healthy population of both, dating back to more ancient woodlands among its newer oak and ash saplings (planted in three phases from 1993-95) and also boasts trees planted back in 1856, in memory of the Crimean War. More intriguing are the ghost sightings spoken of by locals and visitors: a headless coachman whose stagecoach rattles its way along Five Gates Lane and estate entrance; the chilling feeling that apparently creeps along the spines of visitors to Belmont Tower which can be found close by. One visitor to the woods reported “a huge red handprint firmly on his neck and a choking sensation. The handprint remained for half an hour.”

The village name  derives from the Old Scandinavian, lundr+thorp, meaning an “outlying farmstead or hamlet by a grove and groves aplenty we have here alongside a range of habitats from mature woodland to a pond, separated by roadways. Grassy paths wander circuitously through open meadows with a healthy population of Spring and Summer wildflowers and  there is also a wide range of species that call it home, including woodpeckers and grass snakes. The site lies on the edge of Grantham and the National Trust’s Belton Park, the Woodland Trust property and surrounding farmland. The new planting consists of mixed, mostly native, broadleaved species with ash and oak and the site contains many veteran trees – remnants of older parkland planting and the old hedgerows that transect the planting site.

Belton Estate has dramatically wide woodland paths with sweeping vistas- one of them culminates in Belmont Tower itself. The Belton Estate is rich in wildlife and covers about 1,350 acres (750 acres of which is designated deer park and includes a mysterious site of a deserted medieval village called Towthorpe. The ruins are close to the Lion Gates and towards the River Witham.  Keen eyes will spot the signs of earthworks and evidence of the ridges and furrows associated with medieval farming methods.

Long Melford Country Park
Long Melford Country Park

Long Melford Country Park– Formerly known locally as Rodbridge Corner Picnic Place, this little pocket of woodland, open grass and former gravel pit waterways borders the River Stour on its western and southern boundaries as the river wends its way from the village of Long Melford and onto Sudbury. Close to Clare and Cavendish and the town of Sudbury with its beautiful water meadows, the park is a lovely place to spend a few hours or explore as you walk the various river routes of South Suffolk. Formerly called Rodbridge Corner Picnic Grounds, this is my old stamping grounds, easily walked with youngsters and providing swiftly changing landscapes.

Established in 1967 from gravel pits used to construct the WW2 airfields that dot the local region, the park is well used for walking, angling and is home to many white poplar trees which shade the riverpath. The ponds are rich in aquatic insect life, dragonflies and damselflies, Roach, Bream, Tench and Pike, and make good breeding sites for Coot, Little Grebe, Moorhen and Mute Swan. Well established rabbit warrens pepper the earthbanks and dips in the terrain caused by the former excavations. Bring binoculars because you may well see otters and kingfishers dipping in and out of the muddy banks which are thickly lined with bullrushes and clumps of waterlillies. The river paths can get muddy after it has rained but most of the park is accessible if a little bumpy underfoot for wheeled visitors. There are two areas of grassland, with the southern area allowed to grow naturally, crossed by mown paths, picnic tables and chairs and a toilet.

Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org
Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org

Hainault Forest Country Park– Having retained its Green Flag Status for 2015/16 from Keep Britain Tidy, this large woodland space which lies just outside the Romford stretches was one a haven for vagabonds and n’er do wells and also provided shelter for fugitives from London’s plague filled streets. Nowadays, the park is a haven for families and the only creatures hiding in the trees are creepy crawlies such as giant spiders and a grim reaper, which are all to be found hiding in the mile long monster trail. At dusk, the coppiced hornbeams cast spooky shapes for those of you seeking some Autumnal and Halloween fun (the park is dominated by veteran hornbeams – around 12,000 of them) and there’s an adventure play trail too. This is beautifully designed with climbing posts and rope bridges, adventure play towers and a circular swing in the shape of a spiders web (perfect for children who have disabilities) plus woodland trails with site specific sculpture and wildlife information to spark their imagination and help them become fully engaged with their surroundings.

And that’s not all. There’s a boating lake and Foxburrow Farm, an all weather animal petting area with badger faced sheep, nubian goats and mangalitza pigs among the many attractions. Guided walks, segways and orienteering are also on offer plus a land train which takes passengers on a scenic 15 minute ride departing from the zoo and travelling around the lake and surrounding areas. The route is not fixed and varies year round according to the weather. The park has toilet and changing facilities, carparking and plenty of places to picnic.

Nowton Park
Nowton Park

Nowton Park, West Suffolk– A woodland park in the grand Victorian style, this was once the grounds of a large home and is now managed by St Edmundsbury Council who fund a wide range of nature related activities for all the family. Located on the outskirts of the town (there’s a bus service which stops nearby), the park has a cafe, changing facilities and toilets plus a small adventure playground but the real fun is to be found in its various habitats from open flower studded meadow to bluebell and harebell edged woodland walks. Scramble over logs, join in with bat walks and nighttime stargazing and look out for the wild and wacky trees planted by the Victorians:  a lightning struck Douglas fir; a catalpa (Indian bean tree) that appears to be consuming a fence; yews that spin and twist and finally, the giants of the tree world- the redwoods.

In addition, felled tree trunks have been left in situ for children to swarm over and ape the Enid Blyton-esque childhood antics that modern life sometimes deprives them of. The east and west arboretum and folly woodland walk has been newly landscaped with sinuous bark litter covered walkways curving around specimen plants, camellia, Cedars of Lebanon and a flint and stone tumbled folly. There’s also a folly and pond  planted with a Japanese feel- willows, specimen trees and bushes, airy, light with the branches traced against a more visible sky.

Tyrells Wood, Norfolk- is a well used broadleaf wood, quiet and off the beaten track (it runs parallel to the A140 to the west and Ansons Lane to the east) and dating back to the ancient woodland site at its centre. The Boscus de Grischave can be found in records dating back to 1251, is indeed thought to date back to the Ice Age, and it is home to veteran hornbeams which have been pollarded into fat twisted trunks and the elderly relics of coppiced hazels.

Tyrrells Wood is arguably at its best in the Autumn where a roundabout route takes walkers past oaks which once provided the great and good of Norfolk with the finest of timber, birch and ash, and yellow field maples turned butter gold by the warm days and cold nights. Rowan berries and haws light up the brush, glowing as red as the eyes of the woodland creatures whose gaze are caught in the beams of torches at nightfall. The silver patched trunks of the birches shimmer in  the gloaming, their lemon tinted leaves strafed and spinning from gusts of wind which appear to swirl out of nowhere. There’s no way markings or facilities as such: this is a place to savour as is.

Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Priestley Wood, Suffolk is a dream of a place for eagle eyed plant spotters with more than 130 species recorded here, making it an important SSSI. Located in the parish of Barking in the Gipping Valley, there are over 24 miles of public footpaths in the vicinity and the ancient woodlands of Bonny Wood, Priestley Wood, Swingens Wood, Park Wood and Ditch Wood provide a timeless natural habitat for flora and fauna. Priestely Wood is now owned by the Woodland Trust and we are allowed to wander its many paths. Part of Bonny Wood is owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust with paths open to the public.

Deep in these woods, grows a lonely wild pear, miles away from the only other one which exists in the country and you’ll find several varieties of wild orchids cowled away in the undergrowth alongside ramps in the Spring, the broad leaved helleborine, foamy blossoms of anthriscus and carpets of woodruffs with their proudly Tudor leaf-ruff. Their names are testimony to folklore, quirk, legend, and utility, in the case of the pignut. Barren strawberries, the bulbous buttercup, yellow pimpernel and creeping buttercup are all names to recite to your children and make them laugh. Tell them that harebells (campanula) are sometimes known as fairies’ thimbles and were thought to shelter fairies who were at the beck and call of witches and wished to have no more of this.

The tree cover is mixed broadleaf: a hotchpotch of ash, cherry, oak, hawthorn and hazel with a few small leaved limes and hornbeams lurking behind their more common neighbours. Nightingales surf the sky here, high above the surrounding fields, we are in the farming heartland of the Gipping Valley proper, close to Stowmarket which is home to the Museum of East Anglian Life with its insightful documentation of the people who have made this part of the country their home. Autumn is dramatically beautiful, the best time of year to come here in my opinion but Spring is no slouch either: Priestley Woods are one of the best places in England to see the bluebells so make sure you bookend the year with visits to this magical and simple place. Parking is not the easiest, there’s no public toilets.

Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust
Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust

Old Wood Norfolk– gives lie to the erroneous belief that Norfolk is flat which anyone who has cycled towards the Northern coastal areas of this county will laugh mirthlessly at. In Old Wood, undulating and marked pathways lope over ridges and slopes, suddenly raising the game (and youjr heartbeat) with their sudden and unexpected inclines. We’re just outside Sheringham and the land here is in a hurry to get to the North Sea, reaching its third highest point in this county, some 96 metres (314ft) above sea level. Take time out here to enjoy the views northwards across the tree line towards Sheringham and the North Sea beyond and gaze at a landscape which is slightly different from inland woods with its sandy heathland, acid soils which support a springy grass covering much beloved by the adders and slow worms which bask here on warmer days. There’s predominately coniferous woodland here- Douglas fir and Corsican pine- but the Woodland Trust intends to restore the site back to mixed broadleaf and heathland. Free parking is provided, some 500 metres away.

Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Pigneys Wood, Norfolk might be small but it is mighty, having been recently purchased in 1993 and since then, this little wood a few miles from North Walsham has been extensively redeveloped. The site is a remarkably diverse blend of mature and new mixed woodland and some low lying wet grassland. Some 20,000 trees of 40 different species have been planted alongside other features such as a renovated barn, reed beds, and information boards on wild flowers, butterflies, trees and birds.

Despite its small size, Pigneys Wood is remarkably diverse, supporting a wide variety of trees, including a ‘listed’ 450 year old oak and its water features make it attractive to visiting children alongside the fauna that make their home here. There is a ‘scrape’, a shallow pond, which attracts migratory and wading birds and a dipping platform for children has been created alongside an interactive tree identification trail and guide. Dawn and dusk visitors stand a good chance of bumping into deer and barn owls can be watched as they swoop low over the open grassland. and a bird hide is under construction.  There’s designated walks bordered by native hedgerows and provision for wheelchair access alongside plenty of viewing points where you can sit and enjoy the view or use the picnic facilities of which there are three. Dog walking is permitted throughout the wood but between March 1st and July 31st there are designated areas where dogs are not allowed unless on a lead.

Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods,
Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods, Geograph.org

Pretty Corner Woods, Norfolk is a Green Flag award winning site, jointly run by the Woodland Trust and the NNDC countryside team. With a lovely tea rooms and garden surrounded by a pretty wood to walk in, and despite its obvious popularity with tourists and locals, the woods manage to maintain a sense of tranquility rare in the busier months of the tourist season.Upper Sheringham in North Norfolk was first established in 1926, originating as a wooden pavilion. Originally a wooden pavilion, the tea room scores bonus points for its wood burning stove, dog friendly grounds and both indoor and outdoor.

Autumn sees the woods ablaze with colour, competing with the sensitively planted gardens surrounding the tea gardens and dipping ponds. You’ll see bats, butterflies and buzzards; hear woodpeckers before you see them and see barn owls before you hear this most silent of birds. The woods and heathlands are thick with red campion, dogs mercury and wood sorrel and deer are often spotted nibbling the seedheads from the tall grasses. Country Rangers organise a myriad of events (booking advised in the busier months) and alongside summer festivals, you’ll have the chance to participate in woodland crafts such as bodging and archery. This Autumn, the site is trying to raise awareness of the plight of the bee with a craft sale in its shop.

There is free car parking and a picnic area if you prefer to bring your own food. There is a bus stop situated next to the woods with good links to Sheringham and the surrounding area.

The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks
The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks

The Walks, Kings Lynn in Norfolk  might not be a woodland in the strictest, most romanticised of senses, but having been originally conceived as an urban space somewhat different to the grand Victorian park, the Walks still works well as a promenade for locals and a green lung away from the hustle of central Kings Lynn. It is the only surviving 18th century town walk in Norfolk and provides historians with a fascinating insight into changing fashions in urban planning and forms a vital part of Kings Lynn’s social record over its two centuries of development and revision. It’s a wonderful place as it stands, injecting Autumn deep into the concrete and brick of urban Kings Lynn.

The Walks entrance
The Walks entrance

Built originally upon a central historic spine earthworking and identified, by Norfolk Landscape Archaeology, as ‘part of one of the most complete systems of earthwork town defences in eastern England’, the earthwork mounds, banks and watercourses imbue what would otherwise have been a flat site with a softly undulating form. These gentle ascents are home to shrubberies and plantations (‘Seven Sisters’, seven trees planted in a circle in 1760), a medieval pilgrims trail, and a tree lined walk with semi-circular seating areas. The trees are regal, all 800 of them, offering a sturdy and venerable home to squirrels, woodpeckers and a myriad of creatures. They shed leaves in their thousands, piles of rust, gold and orange to kick up, collect and take home. The highest point of the Walks is the Grade 1 listed Red Mount which houses a unique 15th century chapel and provides visitors with elevated view points of the landscape from the structure itself and from the mound which partially surrounds it. The Red Mount houses a unique 15th century chapel. The landscape itself is Grade 2 and has been preserved via a 3.4m restoration project with a cafe, play and games area having been created.

Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty
Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty

So tranquil and hidden that encountering other people here tends to come as a surprise, Bulls Wood near Cockfield in West Suffolk are a bit of a local secret. Park up on the concrete concourse at Palmers Farm next to the woods and enter a wood which is one of the last pieces of the ancient Cockfield woods which were referred to in the Hundred Rolls of 1279.

Especially beautiful in Spring, this is also a place to come in Autumn for a subtle show of colour and change as the tres shed their leaves and reveal their essential selves. Spring sees rare oxlips carpet parts of the woodland floor and the Early-purple orchid is also plentiful here alongside the spurge-laurel, wood anemone and herb-paris which tend not to be associated as strongly with ancient woodlands. There’s Autumn birdsong too: tawny owls swoop low through glades denuded of leaves, long tailed tits loop through the air and treecreepers and chiffchaffs make the woods their home. The traditional method of coppicing encourages wildlife and local volunteers take charge of this. Trees local to the woods include ash, hazel and field maple while the oaks are normally left to mature into standard trees. Dogs on leads are welcome.

Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace
Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace

Wayland Wood in Norfolk is reputed to be the site of The Babes in the Wood legend and is the not so silent keeper of a tale which inspires both sadness and sheer horror in all who hear it. The wood is no silent witness either:  this is one of the more densely planted, wilder Norfolk woods, said to be haunted by the souls of the young abandoned brother and sister whose ghostly cries for help are echoed by the creatures who make the woods their home. The darkness is literal too because this is not only one of the counties largest woods, it has also been intensively coppicedsince the 10th century and its thick cover is a result of the traditional woodland management techniques which have heightened its ability to support such diversity of flora and fauna, making it a SSSI. These woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age and the nearby Thompson Common is renowned for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which provide a home for water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil upwards. Starting in nearby Stow Beddon, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk that encompasses this phenomena and many other local sights.

Walk here and enjoy a splendid mixture of tree species: hazel, oak, downy birch, bird-cherry, sallow, ash, hornbeam and field maple alongside over 125 species of flowering plants. The ground is thick with bluebells, water avens, yellow archangel and wood anemone, whilst the early purple orchid is happily established here alongside the rare yellow star of Bethlehem. As you’d expect, the air is filled with the sounds of woodland birds including breeding nuthatch, bud stripping bullfinches, and the marsh tit and the bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population. Over 25o types of moth are on the wing come dusk, one of the best times to walk here if you bring a torch to light your way although the crepuscular gloom does bring home the sadness of a tale which saw two infants left for dead in the woods because of the usual motives of money, ownership and avarice.

Dunwich Woodlands
Dunwich Woodlands

The woods at Dunwich, Suffolk is undergoing a process of rewilding which will see it transformed back into indigenous coastal healthlands and the existing conifer plantatiions removed. However, it is still a strikingly rich mosaic of woodland, heathland and wooded pastures which abuts a romantically desolate coastline designated as an AONB. Grazed by wild Dartmoor ponies, there are numerous walks and trails past hedgerows bursting with life and the heavy honeyed scent of gorse from the heathland which edge the approach roads to the village. Gentle climbs offer sweeping views of Dunwich and the sea where the majority of the ancient village lies, having succumbed to sea storms centuries ago.

Dartmoor ponies grazing the open areas, Dunwich Forest is being transformed From a conifer plantation into a rich mosaic of woodpasture, wet woodland and heathland. Radar gate on Sandlings walk entrance, all other kissing gates motorised wheel chair/buggy accessible. Some rides may be difficult for non-motorised wheel chairs, particularly in wet weather/winter.

Dunwich tree canopy
Dunwich tree canopy

From the beach car park this route heads inland along leafy bridleways and through the woods of Dunwich Forest. Although much of the planted stock in this area is coniferous, giving a background of consistent pine, it is a walk with infinite variety as the hedgerows and deciduous glades constantly change with the seasons. During spring and early summer the swathes of gorse add an extra dimension with their vibrant yellow flowers and sweet aroma. On the return section of the route there are a couple of gentle climbs that ultimately lead to great views over Dunwich and toward the sea. Summer is also a great time to make sure you visit the garden of The Ship at Dunwich as it is home to England’s oldest fig tree – believed to be over 600 years old – and it looks magnificent in full leaf.

Footpath towards Bonny Wood
Footpath towards Bonny Wood, Geograph.org

The ancient coppiced landscape of Bonny Woods near Needham Market can be traced back as far as 1251 and is part of the Barking Tyewoods which are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Although the Suffolk Wildlife Trust states the woods are at their best in the Spring when wood anemone, woodruff and herb-paris bloom, Bonny Woods are still beautiful in the Autumn and Winter when it reveals its historic bone structure and the shape of the trees tell a story of land management.  The woods have been variously owned by Elizabeth the First (1561) who purchased them from the Bishop of Ely and sold on by James the First in 1611.

Badger live here and at certain times of the year, you will be amused by the mating displays of woodcock as they strut and mince about at dusk. Mowing, coppicing and raking by the SWT keep sunny rides open and locals enjoy walking dogs here although they must be on leads. Park in Barking Tye Village Hall car park .The woods do not have disabled access.

The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes
The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes

Lackford Lakes, in West Suffolk is one of The Millers Tale’s favourite places to walk in because of the diversity of habitats it offers and extensive programme of family events. Abutting West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, the SWT managed reserve has been established on flooded gravel pits which feed a labrinyth of reed beds and marshes, lakes, waterways and wooded areas adjacent to the remarkable Brecklands landscapes. An Autumn walk here will reveal tree lines ablaze with colour, a fiery backdrop to lakes which are home to cormorants, grebe, egrets, swans and Egyptian geese among many many species. Come in the hour before dusk and watch the cormorants prepare to roost in the trees which grow on little islands in the largest lake. Silhouetted against the sun, they extend their wings to warm them before night removes the heat from the sky and look, for all the world, like a Japanese painting.

Lackford at dusk
Lackford at dusk

Other birds including shoveler, lapwing, goosander, bittern and goldeneye depend on the lakes during the autumn and winter months. The broadleaf and coniferous trees that make up the Kings Forest are a distant echo of the small wooded walks which wend their way from bird hide to bird hide, with stands of birch, hazel, blackthorn and oak. The paths wend their way alongside meadows and the scrubby Brecks with their small scale mosaics of sedums, lichens and mosses. Kingfishers and otters fish and live here along the small streams, ponds and reedbeds and the bird hides provide daily opportunities to watch them- ask rangers for advice as to the best times and places or check the whiteboard in the education centre entryway where visitors record their sightings. Dipping ponds are kept for kids to use with rangers to guide and explain and the education centre offers tea, cakes, a close up view of bird feeders and the nest cams.

A large part of the reserve is accessible to buggies and wheelchairs and the hides are ramped.

North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust
North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust

North Cove between Beccles and Lowestoft offers a relaxing walk amid mixed wetland habitats: grazing marsh, wet woodland and pools nestled along the Waveney Valley. The ponds, dykes and meadows are important habitats for marsh ferns, bog pimpernel and golden saxifrage whilst the mature woodland is home to birds such as the warbler, siskin, redpoll and all three types of woodpecker. Woodcock nest and feed in the scrub and young carr and sparrow-hawk hunt here their swift swooping flight low to the ground and ascending flight clear against tall and wide Suffolk skies.

If you like dragonflies, this is the place for you and late summer will find grass snakes and common lizards soaking up the last of the suns heat before late Autumn and Winter sees them retreating. Cattle graze here and provide and important management service, keeping scrub at manageable levels. The Beccles Bird Society co maintains the site alongside the SWT which gives some idea of its avian importance. The woods form part of  Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Suffolk Broads Living Landscape which is a project intending to develop a rich landscape of wetland habitat from Lowestoft to Beccles. This will be home to a host of unique Broadland species such the rare Norfolk Hawker dragonfly.

The plant hunters of Suffolk

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Cedars of Lebanon on Hardwick Heath in Bury St Edmunds

Suffolk is an unusual place, irregularly defined more by water than its land which has presented a peculiar and unpredictable challenge for various invading forces. However it has also been the home of people who travel far beyond its confines in their own lifetime and the results of these expeditions can be seen growing in our gardens and parks and town centres.

The tales of the great plant hunters are epic, ranging across seas and the unmapped heart of continents. Often centred upon the grand male narrative, these treks were deemed unsuitable for women although some did manage to penetrate the closed world of botany and plant collection. Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, of whom we will hear more from later, said this, barely 100 years ago: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.”

Think of David Douglas who sought out and introduced the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Escholtzia (Californian poppy) and lupins and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii and Alice Eastwood who rescued the herbarium at California Academy of Sciences after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire, by clinging to the banisters. Then there’s Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke who went to Columbia and Panama in search of the rare orchids and were were kidnapped by Farc guerillas, remaining captive for nine months in more recent times: this has never been a sedate and genteel past-time. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovering the new, whether that be a plant or place to forage for them has driven humans to trade in and import plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain and elaborate preparations were made to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree covered mountain slopes.

Two of the countries most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who went on to become scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and became Director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1185 and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker who was Kews first Director and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.

Joseph Hooker combined a thirst for discovery and an inexhaustible hunger for travel with rigorous taxonomic innovation and investigation which soon led to a developing reputation as the foremost botanist of his time. Beginning his career as an assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus for Antarctic expeditions (a way of overcoming a lack of fiscal means by which to fund his own expedition), he roamed the southern oceans, India and the Himalayas, even getting himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for ranging far into territories he had received no invitation for- Tibet. If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons because the varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were his Indian discoveries: 25 of them in total and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants. The restored Victorian gardens at Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their apparent domesticity and British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here. Hooker adored his plants but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer. As he commented about the rhododendrons one day, ” If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am.”

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Joseph Dalton Hooker

In those extensive diaries now being digitised at Kew, Hooker frequently expounded on the arduous nature of his expeditions: “I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect the seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever” as he wrote to William Hooker from Darjeeling in 1849. Joseph took few luxuries with him: apart from the tools of his trade he packed a supply of cigars for each evening and a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Kinchin. A devoted companion, the dog one day fell to its death and was swept away by a river.

Described as ‘an interrogator of the natural world’, Hookers work helped to support Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species because he understood botanical context- he interpreted what he saw around him and his own publications were many. Containing exquisite botanical illustrations, works such as the Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya and the Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India culminated in The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years and published in 1883. It has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century, describing over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species. The work underpinned the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.

Joseph’s father, William, the first Director of Kew Gardens came to Halesworth to take up the position of superintendent of the brewery, staying for eleven years until his botanical passion drive him to London and his directorial post at Kew Gardens. His son clearly followed in his footsteps and mighty ones they were too: he increased the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres and oversaw the construction of the Palm House. On 1 November 1865, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, aged just 48.

One of my personal favourites of all his plants is the Winter flowering Sarcococca ‘Hookeriana’ which is possessed of an understated appearance but a fragrance that is anything but. Tiny lime green pendulous blossoms, dangling from the undersides of leathery leafed branches give off a powerfully spicy and verdant sweet scent which wends its way down our garden and into the kitchen whenever we open the door. Often used by municipal gardeners because it is tough and low maintenance, the Sarcococca often makes its home outside multi-storey car parks, on median strips of urban clearways and on council office borders and most of us walk past without paying it a moments notice.

But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with great hazy swathes of bluebells although all these are without doubt easily found in our county and much celebrated. I think of the Scots Pines and Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath. They populate the ancient and characteristic twisted pinelines of the Brecklands (‘broken lands’) and tall cedars grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall nearby after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.

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Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in the eponymous country and in Syria too, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians. Many thousands had been massacred. Even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker ” ‘For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.” As he arrived in Damascus in the October, his diary told of what he encountered: ” The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses” but the expedition found, what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon, about 400 of them with an estimated age was 350-400 years. Hooker collected the seeds and added to the UK population of a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes, both rural and urban. Its shape is etiolated and those distal flat level branches with their clearly defined clouds of bristly leaves are well suited to the coastal regions where it provides tall shade for the wild ponies that graze there and shelters the acid yellow gorse that perfumes the late spring air. Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the bible, “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92 v12), the tree has been a great success and is my living memorial to Joseph Hooker.

Hooker’s own botanical illustrations straddle the fields of art and science being both wondrous objet d’art and scientific record. The history of botanical painting and illustration stretches back centuries, being used for medicinal purposes (Culpeppers) alongside its aesthetic and decorative properties. In Santon Downham, the Iceni Botanical Artists now offer tutorial workshops free of charge to the public at the village hall, funded by the HLF ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. There are guest speakers, the chance to gain skills in watercolour and receive tuition on how best to depict local flora from Breckland wild flowers to its fungi and pine tree landscapes. Artists can tap into a landscape suffused with stories which stretch back to the Stone Age: rabbit farming, glacial pingos, flint mines and over 12,845 species of plants and animals.

Yay! Best Food Writing 2015 will be with us soon. #reviews

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“Anthony Bourdain, John T. Edge, Jonathan Gold, Francis Lam, Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Alice Waters. These are just some of the celebrated writers and foodies whose work has appeared in Best Food Writing over the past fifteen years. Whether written by an established journalist or an up-and-coming blogger, the essays offered in each edition represent the cream of that year’s crop in food writing. And 2015 promises to uphold the same high standards with a dynamic mix of writers offering provocative journalism, intriguing profiles, moving memoir, and more.”

I own every single one of the Best Food Writing series and have read each one countless times. Editor Holly Hughes proves there is still vigour in food writing with her annual collation of though provoking, quirky and intelligent pieces from food writers both well known and less so. I eagerly await the publication of each annual volume because although I consider myself a voracious consumer of the genre, even I will not be able to access the very best writing, scattered as it is across all manner of journals, newspapers, blogs, websites and magazines all over the globe. This really does bother me.

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My own collection.

Hughes provides a trustworthy food-wire service in book form. There’s always some standouts and in this collection, Tim Hanni’s ‘Maverick Wine Guru’ is one of them. Published by the Sacramento Bee (nope, me neither), he develops upon a phenomenon I first encountered via Jeffry Steingarten’s essay- the supertaster- and he applies this to the world of wine tasting, turning some popular pre-conceptions on their head as he does it. Ever wondered why Zinfandel, Asti and Moscato are the only wines you are able to palate? Well Hanni might be onto an explanation here.

Sara Deseran’s ‘Kidsnobs’ is another fresh angle on a food movement we see more and more and have (probably) our own private views upon- that of the super engaged child foodie. Relating her own experiences of children who are obsessively interested in food and the acquisition of food related experiences, she asks us to draw our own line and is honest in her appraisal of her own children and the fact that in their case, nurture is all and down to both parents working in the industry. Where does the education and empowerment stop and the over indulged, over privileged entitled show off-ness start?

This is a world where top chefs are both celebrated and self define as rock gods and this anthology is heavy on chef profiles. These always polarise readers and reviewers with some complaining that the focus of these anthologies has become too food nerdish. However if Hughes is to accurately reflect the culinary world, the cult of cheff-ly personality cannot be ignored. So we have Blue Hills’ leftover pop up dinners where fish skin, old noodles and veg peelings are fought over in a reservations war and charm food critic Pete Wells. Underpinning this is the very relevant and important subject of reducing food waste in the hospitality business and Blue Hill aims to redefine what is waste and what is not (clue: everything is and could be on the table). In an amusing addendum to the fragile chef ego, there’s a piece about Wylie Dufresne’s reaction to a comment he overheard in his restaurant which referred to chefs as pussies. and we revisit Leah Chase, queen of NOLA’s creole cuisine. Chase survived Katrina and rebuilt her restaurant in Treme (as in the popular TV series) and her place is top of my list when I visit New Orleans next Spring. She is the quietly confident antithesis of people like Dufresne, Ramsay and Batali.

We zoom in closer to the cultural effects of the hospitality business too with a very important essay by Todd Kliman on the informal colour bar which still operates in DC restaurants despite the beliefs of restaurateurs that they have addressed this. Seemingly it is not enough to paint a mural of black cultural heroes on your establishment’s wall unless you like reminding patrons of motivational decor pasted up on their high school halls. Consideration is given as to why sushi bars and other specialised cuisines might not immediately attract black customers historically (lack of familiarity, their own family dining history- in the all too recent past they simply weren’t able to eat in ‘genre’ restaurants because of Jim Crow), something that is a thorny subject and hasn’t been properly addressed before.

It’s not just about the high minded and highly intended either. There’s the down home reminder that home cooking can be an exhausting merry go round of WTF shall we cook ( Molly Watson and Tamar Haspel) and other writers take us on a gastro-reminder about why Taco Bell rules (John DeVore) and long standing foodie figures Jane & Michael Stern extoll the virtues of Nashville’s hot chicken. Seemingly this latter subject has not yet been done to death as they manage to squeeze further juicy copy from this topical bird. DeVore hits us with a startling and frankly ludicrous assertion: he declares that Taco Bell has the best Mexican food? After I had finished spluttering in horror, I carried on reading only to find a fairly convincing argument (albeit tongue in cheek). In a few pages we move from dude to a heartwarming conclusion. I’m not convinced though. We had less dude from Bourdain too as he writes about food traditions with an ode to the clams of his childhood which he is now handing down to his own young daughter. I like this Bourdain, who appears less preoccupied with getting into stupid dick swinging competitions with other chefs which can come across as bullying.

I can never read too much about coconut cream pie and thankfully Kim Severson cannot write enough about it either. A mothers cookbook shares more than just recipes and I imagine every American home has a coconut pie with a story attached. This is Kim’s.

Sarah Grey’s  essay, ‘Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life with Pasta,” was first published in Serious Eats and utterly deserves its inclusion here with vivid and homely touches where the scene is set for a family meal, conceived in a rush of toy tidying, napkins folded by her daughter and a table set with fourth generation china. It celebrates red sauce, reminds us that freelancing can add to loneliness – especially when you factor in the difficulties of maintaining a social life when you have small kids. Friday Night Meatballs transcend a lot of cultural barriers to communal eating, Grey discovered, and she offers up warmth in spades as she writes about her own solutions to all of these: “The house will be messy. There might be card and/or board games. There might be good Scotch. You might be asked to read picture books. You might make new friends. We’ll just have to find out. This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You’re invited.”

Long may Holly Hughes reign over the world of food writing anthologies. These, alongside the Cornbread Nation series, are my absolute favourite. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Best Food Writing, edited by Holly Hughes is published by Perseus Books Group, De Capo Press. 

Book reviews: The River by Helen Humphreys (#landscapewriting)

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“We tend to look at landscape in relation to what it can do for us. Does it move us with its beauty? Can we make a living from it? But what if we examined a landscape on its own terms, freed from our expectations and assumptions?”

I’ve long been interested by psychogeography, described by Guy Debord as “ “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” and in The River, published by ECW Presscelebrated author Helen Humphreys approaches a landscape familiar to her on its own terms, doing her best to shake free from her own subjectivity.

For more than a decade Huphreys has owned a small waterside property on a section of the Napanee River in Ontario. In the watchful way of writers, she has studied her little piece of the river through the seasons and the years, cataloguing its ebb and flows, the plantsm and creatures that live in and round it, the signs of human usage at its banks and on its bottom.

The River is a wonderful melange of art, history, geography, botany and much much more, by the modern version of the ‘flaneur’. Humphrey notices where she is and she notices what her location has to offer without EXPECTING anything from it. We are all connected though, us humans, the animals around us, the landscape and the air which surrounds it. Humphreys forensically details our human interactions with the world around us and their inevitable effects. She’s a fan of William Faulkner too and this shows beautifully in her own writing: Humphreys has a kinship with this writer whose own observations of the world around him retain a perennial freshness because his language moves with ‘the times’ in the widest sense.

Faulkner knows how to write about rivers and so does Humphreys and here, she observes a botanist collects flowers along the edges of an end of summer stream:

“The red flowers threaded along the stream are dying…The botanist crouches in the soft grass, inspecting the underside of the flower. It dies, the way darkness arrives- from the ground up. Soon only the topmast of the plant will be alive, lighting the waters edge like a torch…. Once inside the bag, the flames of the flower will be extinguished, and the botanist delays the moment of uprooting. He can feel in that moment something of his own ending; the flicker of his own pulse, darkening.”

We then learn that the botanist is accompanying James Cook on his cross ocean journeys, collecting flora and fauna. We read of Bligh and routines adhered to in order to mitigate the effects of Cook’s death, the bright capriciousness of a flower whose redness takes days to fade and we travel back and forth across time, cultures and place with Humphreys as she seeks to draw every last piece of inspiration from her own little place by a river.

Helen Humphreys is the award-winning author of four books of poetry, seven novels, and two works of creative non-fiction, including the bestselling The Frozen Thames. She has won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

 

Cathedral kneelers: tales of Suffolk villages

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Image from : http://angelsandpinnacles.org.uk/

This piece was previously published on the InSuffolk site (find them at @insuffolk on twitter).

Suffolk, the curious county, has its well known tales of saints and martyrs, of a great book that underpins the laws of the land and towering church edifices where queens lie. We have villages under the sea, a ghost writer who once lived in a spectre infested village and roaming black dogs with eyes of carmine fire. There are stories of tamer beasts too: of binary patterned Dalmatians who drank from a church horse trough as they searched for their stolen 101 puppies; the poor entombed mummified cats found walled up in Tudor buildings throughout the county and the gentle giant working horses that ploughed our fields. We have curious place names (Finger Bread Hill, Beggars Bush, Wherstead Ooze, Burnt Dick Hill and Smear Marshes) and architecture that spits in the face of straightness (the crinkle crankle walls of Bramfield and Tudor squew whiffness of Lavenham) but look a little harder and you will find thousands of smaller stories too within this big, bold narrative. These stories are frequently overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance of history and the pew kneelers at the cathedral of St James in Bury St Edmunds are one such example.

I stumbled upon these accidentally after calling in at the cathedrals newly refurbished Pilgrims Refectory for lunch one Saturday. Having spent a happy half hour making sure they were all placed the right way -all the better to admire the many, many crewel stitches that go into their designs- I looked up to see some cathedral staff grinning broadly at my apparently, slightly barking behaviour. After seeing them in such close quarters, my curiosity about their inception was peaked.

The kneelers are a relatively modern ‘invention’ because prayer was never supposed to be comfortable and the Christian church did not originally intend to meet our need for comfort; instead inculcating congregants with the sense that the holiest of outcomes (heaven) involved a degree of self sacrifice, denial and subjugation in the face of unheated and cold stone floors. The transaction was not between the worshipper and the church per se, but between them and God and therefore no earthly comforts or comfy intermediary between supplicant, floor and their God was offered.

Times move on though and churches, as well as wanting to appear more welcoming, are seeking new ways of embedding themselves into their community and tear down some of the ancient rituals that may intimidate as much as they comfort. People aren’t so attached to formal and old religious emblems of security and belonging, the ways by which churches pandered to their wealthier congregants via ornate tombs, dedicated and reserved pews with high backs to increase the distance between their noble occupants and the ‘great unwashed’ in the pews behind, and richly coloured stained glass windows. Churches are, in effect, advertising and celebrating the ordinary people who once lived and continue to live and work in a parish and they use items such as kneelers to tell their stories.

And what stories! With over five hundred parishes in the Diocese, each kneeler is united by a common theme of colour-the three hues of Suffolk blue which marked a cloth out as originating from the county when it was traded in mainland Europe. The broadcloth trade was already established in Suffolk before the arrival of the Flemish weavers in the 1330s and the main broadcloth area stretched in a roughly trinagular shape between Hadleigh, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds. The cloth was dyed with woad or indigo and Hadleigh became reknowned for its blue cloth whilst the success of Lavenhams blue serge led to it becoming the 14th richest place in the country by 1524. This is why the kneelers embroidery is set against a Suffolk blue backdrop with the colour representing the Diocese or ‘mother’. Each kneeler is then embroidered with a crewel work design that reflects some aspect of parish history, some traditional and others quirkier.

An online record of church kneelers across the country was set up by Lady Bingham of Cornhill who described them as a form of folk art, one which she says makes up as vast library of information about the interests of innumerable parishes. Unnoticed yet widespread, she sees them as fine examples of folk art and a narrative through craft by local people that is often disregarded by the lofty. The kneelers of the cathedral of Bury St Edmunds are included in this record.

When it was decided to make them, each parish was invited to choose an emblem or motif that symbolised parish and church and said something significant about them. Some motifs possess layer upon layer of folklore and spiritual history spanning centuries and one example of this is the scallop, that ancient symbol of christianity and central to the design of the St James of Dunwich kneeler. The scallop shell is arguably more famously associated with Aldeburgh and the Maggie Hambling sculptural tribute to Benjamin Britten than it is with Dunwich. However the shell itself is a wider symbol of the sea, of pilgrimage and fertility and is seen in paintings such as Boticelli’s ‘Venus’ with its underlying messages about the birth of love and spiritual beauty as a driving force of life. Dunwich’s own loss of one of its churches to the might of the sea acts as poignant counterpart to the scallop shell as a giver of life and facilitator of spiritual rebirth.

The British Museum has a scallop shell shaped lead ampula found in Dunwich that is believed to have originated between 1067-1600- quite a wide period of time but also indicative of the enduring popularity of the motif. Worn on the person, the pilgrim would use it as a flask, to hold water and offer spiritual succour during an arduous trek through the mountains of north west Spain. Today, pilgrims wear scallop shells and are given them as symbolic gift upon their arrival at pilgrimage sites.

The Wall of St James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages and a plenary indulgence could be earned by completing the route- the church at Dunwich takes its name from the saint. The Spanish city of Santiago De Compostela had its beginnings in the shrine of St James the Great which is now in their cathedral and it was the end point of the pilgrimage. There is metaphor in the shell shape too: its deep pleats and grooves meet at a single point on the shell and symbolise the different routes taken and the common goal and it also repesents the pilgrim too. The shells wash up in their thousands on the beaches of Galicia and this is interpreted as the hand of God, guiding and urging pilgrims forward. The body of St James was feared lost to the sea during a furious storm but then the waves gave him up and when he was found prone on the sands, his body was adorned with thousands of tiny scallop shells. There are other tales too, of horses and bridegrooms guiding a boat carrying James’ body to land and in this tale, the horse and rider are encrusted with shells after being feared drowned.

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The cathedral cloisters

Now to the village of Boulge which is the burial site of Edward FitzGerald who lies in the churchyard of the small, isolated Church of St Michael & All Angels. His grave is situated next to the FitzGerald family mausoleum, a location that poignantly reflects his decision to not make Boule Hall his home because he chose to live in a thatched cottage on the family estate instead. A friend of Tennyson, Fitzgerald was the translator of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám from its original Persian alongside some of fellow Suffolk poet George Crabbe’s poems. The Boulge parish has chosen for its kneeler, a single bloom of Fitzgeralds Persian Rose, the Rosa Damascene of the Caspian with over 800 years of intoxicatingly perfumed history to commemorate its literary resident whose grave is near to a rose bush which bears this dedication: “This Rose tree raised in Kew Gardens from seed brought by Wm. Simpson, Artist-Traveller from the grave of Omar Khayyam at Nashipur was planted by a few admirers of Edward Fitzgerald in the name of the Omar Khayyam Club on the 7th October 1893′′. On a trip to Nashipur in Persia, Simpson had previously gathered a pocketful of rosehips from roses growing near to the tomb of Omar Khayyam which he sent to Fitzgeralds publisher. This resulted in a rose described by Grant Allen as “Long with a double fragrance may it bloom, This Rose from Iran on an English stock”, and a local nursery Notcutts has helped conserve stocks by budding and grafting new plants.

Like Boulge, St John the Baptist at Onehouse has gone for a non indigenous plant and embroidered a Honey Locust Tree on its kneeler, a tree which is very closely associated with its saintly namesake. The Book of Matthew tells us that John survived year round by eating the edible fruit of the Honey Locust “…and his food was locusts and wild honey”(chapter 3, verse 4) and not live bugs which has been a common misinterpretation. Locust populations in Israel and the Holy Lands are strongly dependent upon the rainy season which causes the parched desert sands to become giddy with blooms and lush vegetation which spring up as if from nowhere and live a brief life which ends after they have reproduced. For much of the year, these ravenous insects would simply not have enough to eat in these sere and rocky deserts but the Locust Tree (Ceratoni Siliqua) prefers this kind of terrain and the flat leathery pods, surrounded by a spongy sweet pulp (carob) grow thickly upon its branches. Locally referred to as’ Saint John’s Bread’, the pods would have nourished John the Baptist and any locust that decided to try to brave the hostile conditions.

At the top of a winding and narrow lane, the strategic location of Little Cornard and its church is obvious, situated on the waning hills of the Chiltern ridge where the Suffolk lands rise up to meet the Essex border. The parish of Little Cornard was the first place in Suffolk to report the Black Death and lost 60 congregants with 21 families suffering the loss of every adult member. Other battles were fought and also brought death in their wake because here the Danes and the Saxons fought a savage and arduous conflict. None of these events feature on the All Saints kneeler which is instead emblazoned with – a peacock- that most un Suffolk and indeed, un-English bird. There is a Peacock Hall in the village though, an 18 timber-framed and plastered house with a keystone decorated with an angels head. According to archive material, the manor was held in 1333 by John Somersham who also held the Manor of Peacocks in Little Cornard and today, locals report peacocks do live in their vicinity as semi tame family pets.

The history of the bird in England is less clear although there is evidence that the Indian Peafowl was brought by Phoenician traders as gifts to the pharaohs of Egypt as long ago as 1000 B.C and probably brought here by the Romans. Their association with grand homes? Maybe because they were popular edible centrepieces at banquets or were an exotic ornate addition to the grounds, showing that their owners were worldy sophisticated people. The actual word ‘Peacock’ comes from the old Anglo Saxon (péa) to describe an overtly vain person, from the pre 7th Century word “peacocc” and Chaucer used the word to refer to an ostentatious person, calling him “proud a pekok” in Troilus and Criseyde.The word, as a personal name, was first recorded in the Domesday Book for the county of Essex in 1086.

Many of the kneelers use puns based on a parish name as in the wheelbarrow chosen by Barrow, the crow that represents Crowfield (although Crowfield is not named from the bird but from an Old English word croh meaning nook or corner) and Burgate’s gate. Modern parish life is celebrated too: Leavenheaths grazing cows juxtaposed with electricity pylons; Leistons nuclear power station (which has its own sci-fi kind of strange beauty in the sea mists that swirl in the early morning) and the modernised ‘House in the Clouds’ of Thorpeness. Suffolks watery locale and maritime heritage is beautifully represented from the crewelled Wolverston smugglers cat sitting in a cottage window, the tall mast of HMS Ganges chosen by Shotley parish and Dalham’s Golden Hind, captained by Sir Francis Drake. His agent went by the name of Martin Stuteville, came from the village and was also his sailing companion alongside familial owner of the local manor house. The village name, Dalham, springs from the Old English word for valley homestead.

For me, the stand out piece of Suffolk curiousness is the frog emblazoned kneeler that represents Frostenden; a village that the Danes referred to as ‘the valley of the frog’ (‘frosc’ = ‘frog’) and in possession of one of Suffolks 38 round tower churches -completely ancient in itself and one of the oldest of the old. A valley is indicated by names that contain the Old English ‘denu’- although do be sure to pronounce Frostenden without that ‘t’. Recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Froxedena’ , the good book also stated that ocean going crafts moored here although all that remains now of its marine past is a ditch that is barely wide enough to house a family of frogs and many acres of farmland separate the village from the North Sea. Near to the old port area by a footpath running from Cove Bottom is a large earthen mound which locals say has yet to be excavated or even explained definitively. A report from the early 1900’s talks of a ‘naust’ – a Viking dry dock rarely seen outside of Denmark and, also scattered around and lying buried under great whippy stems of brambles and thickets of nettles, are what remains of the old quays. You’ll find other port-related working objects lie scattered about the place too if you really hunt about.

Tamales are my home, girl…

A Smokin' Hot Tamale
A Smokin’ Hot Tamale

The last time I ate Maria’s tamales, I was sitting in the back of a petrol-blue VW as we rattled our way across corrugated cement roads to the local airport. I’d spent the best part of my early childhood living in north-east Mexico where Maria and her mother became my family and for my final journey back to the UK she gave me a brown grease-spotted paper bag full of tamales. They kept my hands warm as I gripped onto them for dear life, knowing that once eaten them, I’d lose my last tangible connection with the young woman who mothered me far better than my own did.

I loved tamales. Although they tended to be celebration food in the city of Saltillo because they are demanding time wise to make and quite fiddly, Maria often made them and kept a stock of them in the frigidaire, ready to steam for my early morning breakfast trip to school and for lunch too. At their most basic, they consisted of a schmear of refried pinto beans and a few drops of rust-red mole inside the steamed masa dough but they could be a veritable fiesta, a visual and olfactory representation of Mexico, gasping out puffs of corn-breathed steam as they were unwrapped. Bundled up in corn husks and tied in the middle like a badly fitting housecoat, the masa bulged out, fluffy, palest yellow and leaking reddish chipotle-darkened juices of stewed pork.

Sometimes they’d be spiced with chicken or turkey mole enriched with shavings of the dark local chocolate made from toasted cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and ground almonds. The chocolate was but one of many many ingredients which were then mixed into this mole paste made by grinding ingredients together in a molcajete or communal mill.

Me, aged four or five in Saltillo with the family calf belonging to Maria.
Me, aged four or five in Saltillo with Maria’s calf.

Before making these rather elaborate tamales, Maria and her mother would clear out the kitchen, shooing hens, their children and even once, a recently born calf, out of their way and they’d execute their version of the French mise en place, Estate Listo, which saw many shallow clay pots lined up on the long Encino wood counter tops and punched-metal prep areas. The pots would be bright with fresh and smoked chiles: the bittersweet anchos, glossy pasillas, inky black mulatos and tan coloured chipotles. On occasions, I’d be allowed to assist and my tiny fingers made light work of dipping into tall pots of peanuts, allspice and peppercorns, the long-stemmed cloves, plumpish raisins and the orange coloured pumpkin seeds, the rivers of sesame, scooping out their contents to a soundtrack of Maria and her mother sucking the air between their teeth at my over-generous measures.

I’d help shave the cinnamon, sneezing at its acrid dustiness and leave the preparation of the thyme, Mexican majoram and coriander until last, escaping the kitchen where tiny dust motes of cinnamon flew through the air as the central ceiling fan traced a juddery circle. My fingers were stained yallery-orange from the marigold petals and stems I plucked from the plants growing around the tomatillo and tomato bushes; the sharp peppery juices from their torn, wet and squishy stems were brassy and demanded attention. These ingredients all went into the raw mole alongside garlic, onion, peppers and chunks of local bread, a Mexican version of the French baguette from the days of Maximilian. These loaves – known to us as bolillos and teleras – were baked every other day and the stale loaf ends used to thicken the mole. If it was a lucky day, I’d have Mexican ‘coffee’, made from hot milk and one pass of the coffee jug, thickened and tooth sweetened with a spoon of cajeta and if I was even luckier, I’d get to break off the nose of the loaf and soften it in my bowl of coffee. When Maria turned her back, I’d attempt a raid on the cajeta tin and if she caught me she’d scold, fiercely. Spilled cajeta was a siren song to the local red ants, a fierce and temperamental insect possessed of a gangland mentality: utterly determined to eat cajeta or die tryin’, under the toe of Maria’s heavy huarache, they died in their thousands, leaving splodges of formic acid from their smashed bodies on the terracotta tiles.

When you consider that some recipes call for all these ingredients (and there were often many more) to be separately charred or toasted on cast iron griddles before they all come together in one glorious whole, you can see why clusters of women also came together to make the hundreds of tamales needed to keep a family going. One of us was assigned the most important job: mixing the rivers of drinks; chopping and crushing the fresh fruits, flowers, and grains with sugar and water to make agua frescas, the light fizzy non-alcoholic drinks so craved by sugar loving Mexicans. From the backyard came the chop chop of the machete on large watermelon, coconuts and cactus paddles (nopales) and the clothes line was full of the bright teethlike squares of cheesecloth used to strain the juice before drinking. The ground was splattered with juice and stripe backed gophers,  lizards and other scaled, horned creatures would dart from rocks, attracted by the smell of the discarded date and tamarind pulp and scooped out triangles of melon rind. The rinds would rock backwards and forwards as the gophers curled up inside them to gnaw at the pulp left clinging to their insides. They looked for all the world like the worlds smallest, hairiest babies rocking themselves to sleep in a bizarre vegetal crib.

I’m paraphrasing Paul Auster when I tell you that growing old was a funny thing to happen to a young girl. I’m now more than double the age Maria was when she looked after us all. It’s forty odd years since I have seen Maria and her family and all I can visualise in my minds eye is a young woman with a thick waist-length hank of black hair, tied back with a red ribbon edged with white shirred-lace. Not the expensive stuff or even the heavy cream crocheted lace made by older women who sat with skeins of wool cradled in the tents made by their skirts, fingers firing away like neurons, crocheting away. Maria’s lace came from my own mothers sewing box brought from England and the lace was originally carded onto cardboard flats to be sold by the yard from a market stall in Suffolk. It was sixties lace, all nylon fabulous and not a natural fibre in sight. But against Maria’s hair, untouched as it was by dyes and the friable heat of a hairdryer, it was transformed into a ghostly white filigree.

That glorious hair was also the source of my guiltiest childhood moment, one that still causes me to shudder. Aged four or so,  I held a talking toy up to her ear and pulled a cord which made the dial spin crazily against the a circle of plastic animal decals until it rested on one, emitting a ghastly animal bleat/howl/yowl. Each pull of the cord, unbeknown to me, caused the mechanism to tangle with her hair and drag great hanks of it into the mechanism. I carried on yanking and exhorting her to guess “que animal es” until it became obvious that Maria’s hair was growing shorter on one side and Maria no longer had enthusiasm for this game.

Desperate phone calls were made to my father at work whilst Maria sat there patiently with a heavy weight of yellow plastic, emitting moos and bleats, hanging from the side of her head. There was no way of freeing her so he took the dressmaking shears to her hair and cut it off, leaving her with a lopsided New Romantic look, twelve years too early.I never heard her complain and I never saw her tears although they probably existed- her hair was her crowning glory .

It’s now nearly forty years later and. unusually, last weekend I ate a tamale in the rain. My tamale history more commonly involved the sun beating down on the back of my neck and a sear of chile acting as coolant in return. In Mexico I ate them on dusty street corners, sitting on petrol drums turned into tables. I walked down the street eating them trying to not drip juice on my cream school T shirt. I ate them at fiesta, near to cemeteries during Day of the Dead and in various cities: Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City, and even, once, across the border in Amarillo. They fed me as I watched glass blowers and divers and climbed the tallest pyramids and sat ravenous after my school swimming gala. They came from carts which used oil drums as giant steamers. They were made in private houses, occasionally at school or sold by older women sitting by the waterholes with a white cloth thrown across their lap and baskets full of little cornhusk parcels. We’d emerge dripping and seal sleek from the water and hold them between fingers macerated and puffy from four hour swims on the hottest of days. They were perennially there but I have no solid recollection of eating tamales in any weather other than under the hot Dahlia rays of the Mexican sun or the swift dark blanket of the desert nights which seemed to roll down the mountain slopes and onto our sprawling, shuttered house, leaving the odd chink through which poured starlight and the harsh yips of the slope coyotes.

We did have occasional rain in Mexico but it wasn’t the soft and damp woolly mizzle we have here in West Suffolk. In Saltillo we had rain that filled gullies, whirling and tumultuous, crested with dirty white foam and rippled with dust and sandstone from the mountains. It pounded down and dragged things away in its wake before disappearing itself, leaving a desert in bloom where cacti crowned themselves with flowers in magenta and orange and the deep purple of a bruise. Mountain and desert rain is an architect and landscape designer. It alters the familiar, creates new terrain, wipes away the unstable and anything lacking a firm grip upon the earth. Suffolk rain is the opposite- it seems to bed us in deeper, pushes roots and foundations further down into the earth and everything stays the same, no matter how dark the skies grow. Anyway, you couldn’t eat your tamale in the Mexican rain, that’s for sure.

Rows and rows of tamales: Eugene Kim 2007
Rows and rows of tamales: Eugene Kim 2007

So I sat on a slatted bench next to a wicker wolf on a hill called Angel and I unwrapped and ate the tamale which I had brought from a little food truck called Smokin Hot Tamales. The chef-owner had parents who had lived in Mexico and their housekeeper was called Marguerite which reassured me because I was scared that this tamale would not please and I was also scared that it would be too good and I would have une crise on one of the busiest shopping days of the year because of Maria- being reminded of Maria.

It did remind me of Maria and the reminding was good. This was a real tamale with corn breath and dragon-puffs of steam and hot sauce dribbled over it. The sauce allowed this tamale to be its own person as did the little cluster of onion and the coriander. There was pork inside and I also bought one with sweet potato, jalopeno and chicken. That one is in my freezer and I will try to be a better person and offer a bite to my own children instead of curling myself possessively around it and eating it all up with no care for anyone else, standing guard over my childhood and past.

“If we do not live now, then when”, asked Seneca. I can’t answer him because I am not a Greek philosopher or even an Anglo-Mexican one. Wiser writers than me have cautioned against trying to go back via the plate but what else can I do as I get older? I’m going to track Maria and her family down through friends still living in Saltillo. I will go back but in the meantime, I am going to get out my bag of masa harina, my comale and steamer and I’m going to badger friends and family to save every last corn husk and I’m going to make my own tamales again- something I abandoned doing because it was too painful and lonely without the accompanying jabber of many many Mexican companions. Those little bundles track me back and forth across an ocean and link me to that other place where the marigolds grow and where it is not considered unusual to shoo a calf out of a kitchen.