A week in Venice: what to eat, where to eat it

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*Extracts from this piece were first published in the Bury Free Press. 

Whilst there’s much joy to be had roaming this tiny but densely built-up city in search of the unexpected, it also pays off to prepare a little in advance because the most popular spots book up well in advance. Here’s my recommendations for the best places to eat in Venice at all price points. 

Meal of the holiday and probably the entire year was at Alle Testiere  (huge thanks to Victor Hazan who recommended this delicious place and told us to drop his name to get a last-minute res) where we ate razor clams, pasta with mixed seafood, sea bass with lime, bronte pistachio gelato and great clattering heaps of clams just hours out of the sea. Chef Bruno and Luca the sommelier work the tiny 22-place dining room in a friendly but discreet manner. Dress up for dinner but lunch is more casual although we’re talking Italian casual here.

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Razor clams at Alle Testiere

On our first night in Venice we wandered deep into Dorso Duro looking for cicchetti and ended up finishing the evening propped up at the small wooden bar of Da Fiore whose wide shutters open straight onto the narrow alley. We ate Sarde in Saòr (fried sardine fillets topped with a sweet and salty tangle of rosemary, juniper, wine-soaked sultanas and onion); golf ball-sized fish and crab polpetti; scooped up tangled piles of onion with tiny crusty triangles of fried polenta and finished off with artichokes sliced in half, dressed with oil and scattered with grilled orange peel. Afterwards, we strolled around the crosshatch of alleys filled with shops which specialised in exquisite things: tiny hand-made wooden boats, marbled paper and chandlers selling hand-braided rope. I was smitten by an artists shop whose window display of pigments in old wooden trays and stained and ancient pestle and mortars drew the eye. The first thought that sprung to mind was Victoria Finlay’s wonderful book ‘Colours, a Natural History of the Palette ‘.

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Later on in the week we came across the teeny Acqua e Mais in the San Polo district where seafood is dusted with polenta and fried while you wait. Cornets of calamari, shrimp and salt cod (baccalà mantecato) also come served with soft polenta or a fritti of local vegetables, costing a mere 3-5 euros. Orient Experience in Cannaregio is also inexpensive and offers something rather different to local cuisine in that its staff are drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern lands and the food reflects this. Choose from Iranian rice with saffron, Afghani basmati rice with lamb, raisins, almonds and carrots or beef meatballs with potatoes, prunes and walnuts. There’s kebabs and Syrian fattoush plus live Arabic music some nights.

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Fried seafood cicchetti from Acqua e Mais

You’ll eat wonderfully at Ristorante Alla Madonna as long as you’re prepared to tolerate the indifferent attitude to non-locals. The wood-grilled eel quickly soothed though; soft, fatty flesh backed by smoked chewy skin, its fat running onto the plate to be sopped up with unsalted bread. The linguine with clams was briny with a good chew to the pasta. We wanted to order more but to be honest we didn’t feel like lingering.

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Grilled eel at Alla Madonna

If you’re not that familiar with Venice and its food, it can be hard to navigate past all the tourist establishments although a good rule of thumb is to avoid places with lurid photos of their dishes on the menu and translations in multiple languages.

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The Rialto

The Rialto area is particularly full of tourist restaurants although its backstreets are also home to Trattoria Alla Madonna which is anything but a tourist place. Another good tip: follow the gondoliers at lunchtime and eat where they eat. We ended up at Osteria Al Ponte ‘La Patatina ( Campo San Polo, 2741) near San Marco and the Rialto. The menu is classic Venetian with good wines sold by the carafe and the prices are decent: fourteen euros for a plate piled high with calves liver and polenta. It’s nothing to look at from its exterior which is a tad grimy and graffiti-damaged but the cosy wooden interior facing a small bridge and canal tells you that you have struck gold. It was filled with rows of men in stripy-shirts when we arrived and these fellows know how to eat.

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Osteria Al Ponte ‘La Patatina

Venture into San Polo and you’ll encounter another Da Fiore (San Polo 2202a, Calle del Scaleter, 30125),  a small and elegant restaurant where you’ll be expected to rock up in something other than shorts and Tevas. The best tables have a canal view and you’ll need to book well in advance. The lemon and liquorice granita was much-needed on a hot stuffy day as was the sea bream in the classic saor style and a thick slice of saffron tuna encrusted with polenta. Those of you heading there in the autumn should order the pumpkin and chestnut mushroom soup.

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The mushrooms sold in Venice are stellar; apricot chanterelles, fat little porcini and the deeply grooved ceps were just arriving during our time there and the greengrocers advice was to char them on a griddle and serve with radicchio. If you crave more liquorice, head over to Redentore on Giudecca where there’s a tiny gelato parlour selling the best liquorice gelato we have ever eaten. Or try  Nico’s near the Zattere stop on the main island, which is deservedly popular. The roasted banana, a simple fiore de latte (always a reliable test of a gelato maker) and the fig, honey and nut were repeat orders for us.

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Alle Testiere: sea bass with lime

There’s more to Venice than the main island though, lovely as it is, so be sure to travel around the lagoon and time your return to Venice with sunset. The islands of Murano and Burano are popular and I’ll return to them in a minute but Torcello, Mazzorbo and the tiny enclaves of Pellestrina and Alborino on the Lido should not be missed. Only by visiting these will you gain a full picture of Venice’s fascinating history and geopolitics.

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Venetian coastguards setting up a speed trap by La Dogana.

Torcello

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Go back some fifteen hundred years and you’ll arrive at a time when the tiny island of Torcello was still the largest and most fiscally important Venetian island of all with over 20,000 residents who made their home there after fleeing the Barbarian hordes on the Italian peninsula. But they couldn’t flee from geographical forces as yet beyond their control. As the mainland rivers poured silt into the lagoon,the shallow waters around Torcello became clogged, choking the maritime traffic essential to its existence and providing a good home for mosquitoes instead of the fish and seafood that it was previously known for. The locals migrated to Venice, scavenging Torcello’s buildings for materials and today, just a few residents are left and much of the island is a nature reserve.

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We travelled to Torcello from Burano and Mazzorbo on the vaporetto (No 9 from Burano) and walked along the fondamente towards the cathedral at the heart of the island. Lining the canals were trattorias and bars whose piazzas were shaded by pomegranate trees heavy with fruit. The Devil’s Bridge arches over the main canal into an olive grove bordered by tamarix whilst a larger, flatter bridge led to the church yard proper. Its name is a likely corruption of a local family name -Diavolo- although a legend dating back to the Austrian occupation of Venice is more poetic.

It was a hot day and the air stood still over the lagoon, keeping the thunderstorm over the mainland firmly in place, so the occasional breezes from motorboats filled with local teenagers were welcome. It always amuses me to hear loud rap music coming from these boats set against this timeless landscape; they’re Venice’s version of British boy racers.

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Storms over the mainland as we motor back from Mazzorbo and Torcello

The cathedral is technically not a cathedral anymore on account of there being no resident bishop and is opposite the Museo Archeologico della Provincia di Venezia di Torcello.

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The cathedral is Venice’s oldest monument with a suitably grand name: the Cattedrale di Torcello (Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta) and its foundation dates back to AD 639. Go inside and check out the 11th/12th century Byzantine mosaics (a Madonna and Child in the apse, a Last Judgment on the west wall). The gold-flecked beauty curves over ones head in the soft light. During the daylight hours, make sure you climb the campanile behind the cathedral for sweeping views of Torcello, the lagoon and Venice in the distance. This is the best way to see how the Venetian lagoon works because when visibility is at its best, you will be able to see the shipping lanes picked out by wooden posts as far as the eye can see.

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Where to eat on Torcello? We liked the small bars serving panini, cicchetti, fruit platters and pasta whose owners let us pick our own pomegranates (ripe in early September). Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo is by the eponymous bridge and is particularly lovely with a shady garden but there’s also Locanda Cipriani (yes, THAT Cipriani), beloved of Hemingway who wrote part of his novel, Across the River and Through the Trees here. It’s the place to eat if you like big ticket restaurants but I’m so keen on what appears to be a terribly upmarket version of a chain restaurant. If I’m going to spend big, I’d rather go elsewhere. You’ll need to book ahead for all the Torcello restaurants if you’re planning to visit at the weekend.

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Rosie & Jim appear to have retired to Torcello

Burano

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We were charmed by Burano after a less than pleasurable visit to Murano which we felt had been spoiled by tourism aimed to flog the glass the island has become so famous for. It wasn’t just the multi-coloured cottages and picturesque canals that made Burano so popular with us but also its back streets where sprawling gaggles of children congregate around communal water fountains (it’s tiny so there aren’t many streets) and the harbour where the mooring posts are painted to look like chunky pencils.

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Burano is at least a half hour trip by vaporetto from Venice (take the vaporetto 12 from San Zaccaria near St. Mark’s or go to Fondamente Nove and catch one from there) but this working fishermen’s community is a great place for fish and seafood, both to buy to cook yourselves or eat at one of the many restaurants and bars lining its waterways. Do make the effort and step away from the main tourist drag to get a better idea of how the island ticks over as a working community.

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Al Gatto Nero da Ruggero was our favourite place to eat, with freshly-made pasta and puddings, exquisitely mannered staff and pretty little tables lining the canal.(Booking ahead is recommended and thank you to Justin Sharp from Pea Porridge for the recom). Da Romano on Via Galuppi is a good bet, cooking a risotto which some diners claim to be the best in the world. I ate risotto as dark as night, coloured with seppie nero from the cuttlefish which stained my lips the deepest of blue, and tagliolini with spider crab but Da Romano is more touristy.

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If you want to eat with the locals, I’d go for Sunday lunch at Gatto Nero, kick back and be prepared to spend a little more (pasta is around 24 euros). What was delicious? Risotto Buranello made with the gó fish (which buries itself catfish-style in the lagoon mud) and a sturdy workhorse of a pasta in the form of a fat slippery bigoli slicked with a sardine-tomato sauce. We finished with a platter of local cookies, made soft by dipping them into fragolino wine. They didn’t mind us lingering a little because we booked second sitting. Other good things we ate on the island? A bowl of seafood lasagne, layered with shrimp, scallops and zuccini, flavoured with fennel pollen and saffron and tiny chiffonaded squash blossoms. It didn’t look like much but hidden beneath that seafood sauce were delicious treasures.

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Burano is home to the bussolà of Burano, an egg-enriched biscuit said to have been made by wives for their fishermen husbands to eat at sea. Some bussolà are enriched with rose water, chocolate, orange and other spices and a local legend tells of an aroma so intense the biscuits also doubled up as pomanders, hung in cupboards and placed in lingerie drawers. You’ll see the dough is twisted and formed into all manner of shapes from the classic shallow ‘S’ to more elaborate cream and nut-filled confections. Find them at Panificio Pasticceria Costantini ( San Martino Sinistro) and Panificio Pasticceria Palmisano Carmelina on Via Galuppi and look out for gelati flavoured with bussolà crumbs too. The biscuits pack light for those of you travelling back with hand luggage only.

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Burano is the place to buy hand-tatted lace although be careful; much is machine-made so do your research first. The vaporetto drops you off by Galuppi Square where local ladies sit on stools outside their cubby-hole stores, their fingers a perfect cats cradle of industry.  Leonardo da Vinci was a visitor to the island lacemakers and  bought lace to cover the altar of to the Duomo di Milano. Find out more from the museum of lace, the Museo del Merletto.

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Mazzorbo

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Easily accessible from Burano via a wooden bridge over the lagoon, Mazzorbo was the location of one of our best meals of the entire trip. We ate at Venissa where the chef is deeply committed to’lagoon cuisine’ although there are influences from all over Italy.

Venissa is the creation of winemaker Gianluca Bisol, whose family make some of Italy’s most famous prosecco in Valdobbiadene, an hours drive from Venice. On its tiny island plot lies the hotel; converted from farm buildings and fishermen’s houses, and an old storehouse which is where we ate outside in the sun. Shrimp marinated in watermelon, tortellini filled with Asiago Stravecchio served with a  mint and clam sauce both form part of the ‘mudflat’ tasting menu for 130 euros although there’s an á la carte option too. The fish changes daily according to what has been caught. This is deeply seasonal food with no pretention or fanfare and it is seasonal because it has to be: importing food into the Veneto is prohibitive and what can’t be grown on Mazzorbo comes from the nearby garden isle of San ‘Erasmo and the many produce markets around Venice. The restaurant uses produce grown by older people from the neighbouring island of Burano who work Venissa’s vineyards and fields.

A post-prandial wander reveals just how tiny this place is: there’s no shops, only one bar (Trattoria alla Maddalena) and the precariously-leaning campanile of Santa Caterina. Next time we visit, we’ll stay the night.

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Sculptures dot the island of Mazzorbo and grounds of Venissa

Giudecca

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Giudecca

This long low island faces Dorso Duro and the fondamente of San Marco. To walk the length of Giudecca at dawn and dusk is to gaze upon Venice at its best where the sky meets the water and the city seems to hover between them. Early evening is the golden hour, a time to stroll along the fondamente, drink an aperol and listen to the ringing of church bells. The coastguard moors at Palanca and the men pop in for a coffee and a chat. As the light plays across the Venetian waterfront colours grow richer and sound travels further and amid the chatter of the locals, we fancy we can hear the crowds across the water in Zattere. It’s not all ethereal stuff though. Giudecca is a working neighbourhood, a place where visitors can feel part of things, albeit temporarily. Miuccia Prada and Elton John have apartments on Giudecca but it is not a millionaires playground.

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Zattare, Venice from the island of Giudecca

Giudecca lies immediately south of Venice and is composed of several small islands linked by bridges. Once filled with large palazzos with extensive and lush gardens, the evidence of its recent industrial past can still be seen in the form of the redeveloped Molino Stucky flour mill, now a Hilton hotel which also houses the Fortuny showroom. Our apartment is on the front right corner of the mill, overlooking the canal and Venice.  Jacopo de’ Barbari’s famous map of Venice, shows its geography, a string of eight small islets separated by canals, made green by those private gardens. Make time to explore its backstreets where a women’s prison lies next to rows of houses and a deconsecrated church (SS Cosma e Damiano) where a cat sanctuary and rows of artists studios in the cloisters make their home.

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Hand made rocking horse at SS Cosima e Damiano
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SS Cosma e Damiano

There’s Giovanni Toffolo, a boatyard on Giudecca, where we strolled one evening and saw wooden-hulled boats being restored in a building filled with the sound of workmen singing along to opera on the radio. The yard has its own lunchtime mensa- a canteen- nearby (The Food & Art Canteen, Fondamenta Berlomoni 554) where the public are welcome: take the vaporetto to Palanca and it’s a short walk to the boatyard along the canal with spendiferous views of Zattere to your left.

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The back streets of Redentore on Giudecca

The Giudecca fondamente is lined with bars, restaurants and bakeries, some of which have a long narrow counter parallel to the till where one can take morning coffee and pasticciera. (Look out for the little boy walking his pet rabbit!)  La Palanca, close to the Ponte Piccolo, is a good lunchtime bet where canalside tables offer great views and the chance to have your feet washed during acqua alta. Tagliolini ai calamaretti (pasta with tiny calamari) and swordfish carpaccio with orange zest were lovely, as was tuna with grapefruit. Ristorante Ai do Mori serves huge rich portions of crab gnocchetti which would be filling enough for two if you ordered a tomato salad and bread to accompany. The gorgonzola pizza is very good (well, it is the king of cheeses) and they do take-out if you want to eat at home or sitting on one of the benches overlooking the lagoon although the trattoria does have waterside seating.

Close to our apartment was L’Arte del Pane (Fondamenta Sant’Eufemia 655) with the best bread, grissini and pasticciera on Giudecca. They also sell panini, focaccia and ciabatta to be cut and stuffed with whatever filling you like. The walnut and gorgonzola was pretty good as was the classic Italian ham and asiago. There’s enormous bags of bussola for sale, (the hard biscuits Venetians like to dip into coffee and liqueurs), zaleti made from polenta and raisins, baci in gondola (sandwiched with dark chocolate) and focaccina Veneziana (a pillowy brioche-like bread studded with almonds and pearlised sugar). My favourite fishmonger is here too, whose men patiently explained to us what to buy despite the pushing eagerness of Giudecca’s housewives around us. For 6 euros we bought flats of butterflied sardine and anchovy (about twelve of each) to take home and melt in the pan to be spread on bread and spooned over pasta. The mantis shrimp were in season and twelve of those for 4 euros fed the pair of us with a tomato salad and olive oil.

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Guidecca and the monastery gardens as seen from the bell tower of San Giorgio

For a great view over the lagoon, the Sky Bar at the Stucky Hilton is a good place to base yourself as night falls. Above you are the lights of planes landing at Marco Polo and to the right is San Marco and beyond that, Castello. Left is Sacca Fisola, the last little island of Giudecca and the large yachts moored at the Port of Venice. The drinks aren’t cheap, I’d recommend just the one in fair exchange for that view, then retiring to one of the lagoon-side osterias and chatting with the locals- Ai Do Mori serves a bloody good aperol. What is great about the Hilton is that it has its own water taxi and you can use it free of charge to hop across to Zattere and San Marco. They run all night too.

San Giorgio Maggiore

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The small island of San Giorgio Maggiore, located in front of Saint Mark basin and a short vaporetto trip from Giudecca, has been named after the church of San Giorgio which crowns this relatively green part of the city. The view above is from its campanile and it is a glorious one, allowing visitors to see how the city is put together. There’s a lift for tired legs and the few euros they charge is well worth it. Have a wander around the monastery (inside there are paintings by Tintoretto) and gardens behind this 16th- century Benedictine church, the monastery offers well-priced lodgings for guests and a chance to lord it over the people staying at the ridiculously- costly Cipriani which is virtually next door, separated by the Canale delle Grazie.

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Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore seen from San Marco by Moya _ Bren

Lido, Alberoni and Pellestrina

Best known for hosting the annual Venice Film Festival, the Venetian Lido is well worth the trip across the lagoon. During the holiday season, the beaches are dotted with gaily striped beach umbrellas and it can become very crowded indeed. If you are visiting off-season, some of the beaches are closed although there is still access to the wildlife reserve with its gorgeous sand dunes.

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Pellestrina

A historical restaurant popular with actors and directors who dine there during the Venice Film Festival, La Tavernetta is a small, family owned restaurant. The cuisine is a mixture of  Tuscan and Venetian: the famous Chianina beef of the former and the plentiful fish and seafood of the latter, prettily presented and served in an interior which resembles a family dining room.

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Osteria Al Merca

Osteria Al Merca is located under the roof and open sides of what was once a produce market and the fish and seafood is straight off the boat fresh. Choose from baked scorpion fish, schie or mantis prawns served with polenta and tender vegetables from the island of Sant’Erasmo; local puntarelle and the tiny violet artichokes are a joy in season.Dress warmly in cooler weather or evenings when the breeze is fresh off the lagoon; you are eating outside, remember. It’s not the cheapest but worth the money.

The Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta is the Lido’s main shopping street and it is thickly lined with cafés and bars. Gelateria Tita is worth a visit so you can try Torta Tita, a cake of custard and chocolate-hazelnut gelato with a centre of crispy meringue, as well as the many flavours of gelato and sorbeti.

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Trattoria al Ponte di Borgo

Cycling is a great way to get about if you don’t want to take the bus which runs the length of the Lido. Hire a bike from  Lido On Bike then cycle down the island to Alberoni which is also a nature reserve and the site of some of the best beaches. Here you’ll encounter wildlife, some naturists and a wilder landscape of dunes and drift wood, well away from the manicured private and public beaches. Trattoria al Ponte di Borgo, a rustic restaurant in Malamocco is a short walk or bike ride from Alberoni and is more affordable than many other Lido restaurants. Cichetti is served as are the universal Aperol spritzers alongside generous platters of sweet crab in its shell and bowls of pasta alla malamocchina (mussels, tomatoes, oregano and smoked cheese).

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Alberoni

An all-day public transport ticket covers your journey to the tiny, sleepy island of Pellestrina via a ferry which departs from the tip of Alberoni. Pellestrina is only 11km in length and extremely slim-waisted, narrowing to just a few metres wide to barely accommodate its Adriatic sea defences, a wall named the Murazzi. There’s an unspoiled beach and three tiny fishing communities; San Pietro in Volta, Porto Secco and Pellestrina itself, where the boats seem to outnumber the people. Where to eat?  Da Celeste is the place for a culinary blow-out (up to 100 euros a head) but the location (all peach-pink sunsets and deep blue waters) and the fish (boat fresh, the best of the catch) is superb. The tables line the lagoon, the napery is snowy white and the service is smoothly unobtrusive. The scampi with polenta and the gnocchi al pomodoro are especially good and if you really want to go mad, order the whole turbot.

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Da Celeste
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Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

Exploring East Anglia by Train

Leaving Sheringham Station- Julian Osley/Licensed under CC
Leaving Sheringham Station- Julian Osley/Licensed under CC

I cannot be the only person who feels an affinity with trains and their visceral rhythm: the way they mirror a heartbeat forcing an outward swoosh and pulse of blood along arterial trunk lines, journeying outwards through venous and capillary branch lines before making a return. They take you straight to the old heart of a place too, unlike airports which are marooned in city badlands and keep lonely company with UPS depots, giant storage units and skeins of service roads.

Enter a place via its airport and you could be anywhere in the world, working your way through layers of corporate and border-control sameness, designed to keep you docile and corralled- preventing passengers from beginning a relationship with their destination until they have been processed. As a contrast, arriving via train offers an immediate sense of place: think of India with its track-side chai sellers as bright hordes of travellers clamour past and onto the carriages; there’s Paris and her plain white tile-work, art nouveau entrances and Métropolitain signs suspended between ornate, curvy wrought iron ‘muguet’ lampposts or the Victorian might of Britain’s Industrial Revolution powering the building of ornate cavernous stations and smaller branch-line ones, laced with filigree metalwork and constructed from bricks that tell a geological story. There is the boom time Art Deco of New York City or its opposite- a mid-western request stop where travellers hop on and off into emptiness composed of little more than a criss cross of tracks near a feed lot, factory complex or a siding alongside a two-road town. We know that once upon a time, the train’s arrival here carried great impart and crowds gathered to meet it. Nowadays there is little to greet the herald of its whistle.

Trains connect us to the land and to each other. We cannot bypass the bits we seek to avoid and neither are we are distanced from them: the rise and fall of the landscape, miles and miles of fields with only the occasional low contour veering upwards; the back-ends of cities built from brick smeared with soot and tracks diverging and converging like undone zippers. Trains connect us to the pulse of other people too. We wait for them to go about their business alighting and departing at stations. We are forced to wait at red lights for carriages packed with people to pass us, catching sight of the odd face in a window in strobe-like flashes as they obey speed limits in towns full of sleeping people. Then the train bursts out of the urban sprawl, letting loose with a whistle as it races over unmanned crossings in the middle of nowhere. The whistle may be a dulcet two-note, a high castrati screech or sonorous bass depending upon its nationality, an engineered facsimile of a dialect or language in my wilder fancies.

Public spaces ask for us to police their borders and they encourage minimal interaction with others and enforce containment. We want to avoid the disapproval directed at people herded into a small space whose physical presence impinges too much- spread legs a width too far a, bass iPod or floppy broadsheet newspaper intruding into our sight-line. There are narrow corridors, serried rows of upright seating and mean little table-tops; intolerant of a wayward knee or crossed leg. Straps and rails hang from ceilings to keep us upright and apart like skittles in an alley frame and pull down seats against carriage sides encouraging us to keep left or right of centre. Windows direct our gaze outwards at eye level, away from other people, detering us from paying too much attention to the inner workings of the train, to notice, as little as possible, our commuter agony. But there are also the trains that seek to let in as much of the terrain as possible through observation carriages, wide window panes or glassed in ‘bubbles’ inserted into the carriage roof as countermance.

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The eel sculpture in Ely

Look up, look out and be reminded that this hermetic seal is as thin as the metal skin of the train carriage, that just feet away are pine trees several stories high, the glaciated bumps and detritus of a Norfolk coast or a thickly wooded Suffolk cutting. Travel out of any of our regional town and cities terminal stations via train and look into the back windows of etiolated Victorian and Georgian housing with their narrow strips of gardens and larger council-run allotments nearby, patch-worked with ramshackle sheds and pieces of old carpets keeping dormant vegetable patches weed-free. See the back end of industrial buildings turn into estates and agglutinate as the train approaches the port. More classically picturesque are the windmills, water towers and wind-farms standing proud of the fields and clusters of farm buildings, a socio economic relic of another period in history. There’s the permeability of the East Anglian coastline as our seas seek ingress into the surrounding land in the form of creeks and marshes, fimbreled over time by the tides. As passengers we can watch the geology and botany of East Anglia subtly change over the miles.

Our region offers some beautiful train routes, worth taking for the pleasure of travelling alone, especially when you are riding a restored steam train. I asked some Twitter tweeps among others for their best recommendations and have suggested some short and long routes that provide scope for sightseeing from a seat and at various stopping off points along the journey. First of is the longest route, best taken over a few days with overnight stays although it is doable in one long unbroken journey for those of you wanting to watch the world go by out of the window.

Cambridge-Ely-Thetford-Norwich-Lowestoft-Beccles-Saxmundham-Woodbridge-Ipswich-Stowmarket-Bury St Edmunds-Newmarket-Cambridge.

The Ship of the Fens by Mike Todd/CC
The Ship of the Fens by Mike Todd/CC

A greatest-hits of East Anglia this, with plenty of opportunities built in to alight and explore the towns and countryside. Starting at the Victorian stattion in the university city of Cambridge, the train ambles through the vast flatness of the fens and the lazy turns of its rivers- the Cam and Great Ouse, passing a series of delightful riverside towns and villages on its way to Ely. Copses of silver birch strand themselves amid the heath and woodland and in nearby Holme Fen you will be 2.75 metres (9.0 ft) below sea level, the lowest point in England. Views of open farmland, home to owls which fly near to the tracks at dawn and dusk, stretch way into the distance and allow the changing light to play across the carriage. Halfway along your journey to Ely, you pass over the Old West River (the name for this southern stretch of the Great Ouse, before the confluence with the River Cam at Little Thetford), near the Twenty Pence Marina.

Twenty Pence Marina by Hugh Venables/CC
Twenty Pence Marina by Hugh Venables/CC

The Fens, were first reclaimed by religious recluses who settled the naturally occurring islands formed by the clumped overgrowth of reeds and rushes, turning them into solitary settlements where marauders could easily be seen from afar. One of the first of the Fen islands to be occupied was the Isle of Ely- or Eely- said to derive its name from the abundant eels that slithered silently through the oil-dark waters. Not just eels either, but sticklebacks, toads and giant snapping pike with their twin rows of razor teeth. The calls of the ‘fen-nightingales’, as frogs were called then, filled the turgid air of a fenland summer dusk whilst in the skies mallards were once so plentiful that records show that 3,000 of them were taken in one hunt. Those same records glory in a sky dotted with birds: wild-geese, teal, herons and great skeins of widgeons alongside grebes, coots, godwits, whimbrels, reevers, ruffs, knots, dottrels and yelpers, some of which have long since disappeared from England. The stands of willow, growing furiously and thickly in the paste-wet soil offered ample cover for wildlife back then until Cornelius Vermuyden the Dutch engineer, was invited over to England about the year 1621 to work on draining first the Thames region, and then, the fens-work which heralded the start of topographical changes to the Fenlands, not all of them good. Eels are still caught locally in the Great River Ouse although only one commercial catcher still remains, Peter Carter who is the third generation of his family to ply his trade. Eels are sold to many restaurants in London especially, and smoked as a delicacy alongside their sale on Ely’s Farmers Market and on the menu of Ely’s Lamb Hotel as well as a few of the other local restaurants.

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If you choose to alight at Ely for a wander, there’s a wealth of historical features to visit in this ‘Ship of the Fens’ as locals refer to the city as it appears on the horizon, cathedral tower presiding over miles of flat terrain. It is one of the great views. The 12th century cathedral is a must and offers guided tours to the Octagon and Lantern Towers with their breathtaking views as well as the chance to wander at will. Museums include one dedicated to stained-glass, housed in the South Triforium of Ely Cathedral and the only museum of its kind in the country.

A guided tour is the best way to saturate yourself in the story of the cathedral. For Wolf Hall fans, a visit to the home of the Lord Protector himself, Oliver Cromwell, will offer a real life insight into ten years of his family-life and is the only remaining home of his apart from Hampton Court Palace near London. For an atmospheric experience, tours using costumed guides are available to pre-book.

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The walls next to Ely cathedral are a beautiful mosaic of colour and texture

Or visit Ely Museum where you can discover the story of Ely from prehistoric times to the 20th century set in a former gaol. Alternatively, following the Eel Trail is a useful way of familiarising yourselves with the place, following the seventy  brass way-markers set in the ground on a circular tour taking you past the oldest parts of Ely and its austere and beautiful monastic buildings with admirable architecture and spectacular views. Look out for the the Ely Porta area, the gateway into the monastic settlement of Ely, which remains today as the Kings School’s library near to the cathedral. The Eel trail cleverly uses five pieces of public art by Elizabeth Jane Grosse to tell the life cycle of the eel, an animal still so mysterious we know comparatively very little about it. The trail starts in Cromwell’s House with an appropriate nod to Mrs Cromwell’s regular use of eels in her cooking -copies of her recipes are available from its kitchen.

Breckland Line between Cambridge & Norwich by N Chadwicke
Breckland Line between Cambridge & Norwich by N Chadwicke

Hopping back on the train you’ll find yourselves on the Breckland Line which will take you from Thetford to Norwich through countryside very different from the watery Fens. The Breckland area with its unusual flora and fauna is characterised bya  low set and undulating gorse-covered heath land beset with Scots pine trees rooted in earth that is as fine as silk when you let it fall through your fingers. Goldcrests and siskins, lapwings, crossbills, firecrests and woodcock all live and feed here alongside the ever-present rabbits, muntjac and roe deer. This is the largest lowland-forest in the UK and spans nearly 1,000 kilometres of sandy and flinty soil providing a home to over 28% of the UK’s rarest species: golden gorse and broom; purple and pink heathers and stands of birch under-planted with lichens, sedums and mosses. The route skirts the south-eastern part of Thetford forest- an orderly version of a Brothers Grimm setting with serried ranks of cultivated evergreens. Passing through the beautifully kept station of Wymondham (which has a lovely independent bookshop in the town called Ketts Books), the train crosses a swing-bridge over the River Wensum before pulling into Norwich station.

Wymondham by Michael Button / Flickr photosharing
Wymondham by Michael Button / Flickr photosharing

Should you decide to alight at Wymondham, the Tiffey Trail offers a variety of landscapes, nature reserves and walks with river running nearby the trail just a few hundred yards out of the town. Buy a coffee and something portable to snack on sitting on one of the many benches that have been installed with carved motifs representing Wymondham heritage and the animals and plants that are found locally. There are two small viewing towers, one at Tolls Meadow and another on the Lizard; both are made of green oak and depict features of the town’s Abbey and Market Cross.

The Norwich to Lowestoft (or Yarmouth via Reedham) Buckenham church is visible in the distance by Ashely Dace/CC
The Norwich to Lowestoft (or Yarmouth via Reedham) Buckenham church is visible in the distance by Ashely Dace/CC

The journey between Norwich and Lowestoft is along the historic Wherry line. The railway follows the course of the river Yare and it is possible to see coots, grebes and herons from the windows on the journey towards Brundall Gardens. At Brundall, the station is located on the road down to the river and there’s plenty of marinas where boats can be hired in the tourist season. The line divides at Brundall and the southerly route is the one taken here, down past Buckenham on the edge of the RSPB wetland bird sanctuary, Buckenham Marshes reserve, with free access along a public footpath that runs alongside a landscape brim full with the noise of thousands of indigenous and visiting birds such as overwintering widgeons and bean-geese. The spectacular dusk sight- the roosting and calling of one of the largest known roosts of rooks and jackdaws- is worth hanging about for. Trains to Buckenham operate on Sundays only so use Brundall station instead as this has a very frequent service on the other days. If you want to stop here for food, there’s a pub near Buckenham called The Reedcutters with a riverbank setting (www.thereedcutter.co.uk) offering superb food and local ales with a view. The next station, Reedham, offers another water-based stop off point with an unusual railway swing-bridge straddling the river-bank walk- The Ship– a real ale pub with good food and a discount system for Wherry Line ticket holders. If you have children with you, Pettits Animals Adventure Park is nearby.

The Berney Arms windpump taken from Haddiscoe Island by Kevin Lloyd/CC
The Berney Arms windpump taken from Haddiscoe Island by Kevin Lloyd/CC

The line divides here, swinging left to Gt Yarmouth and right to Lowestoft. Should you wish to deviate from the route and go left to Berney Arms on Breydon Water, it is well worth it as this is not only the smallest station on the National Rail network but its most remote, two miles distant from the nearest road and accessible only on foot, cycle or boat. Walks from here along the riverbank take you past the windmill and pub of the same name, passing drainage mills and skirting Breydon Water Nature Reserve, to the Berney Arms windmill, which is, at 70 feet tall, one of the highest windmills in the country. English Heritage has joined forces with a local boating company to open the windpump to the public at certain times with boats bringing visitors from Gt Yarmouth just up the coast.

It is possible to walk across the Havergate Marsh but this is best left to those of you experienced in marsh walking so as to avoid harming local wildlife and ecological systems. Two rivers enter Breydon Water near the Berney Arms: the Waveney from the South and the Yare from Norwich and the land to its north is a quilt of drainage channels and dykes. When storms approach, the windmill stands in stark relief against the bruise blue skies, mounted on its grassy bank which curves into the distance. Arrive early morning on a misty day and all you will see are the white sails, emerging blearily from the fog.

Oulton Broad by Trevor Salmon/CC
Oulton Broad by Trevor Salmon/CC

Choosing the right hand branch towards Lowestoft takes you past the river on the swing bridge, running parallel to the New Cut which was built to link the rivers Yare and Waveney, providing access for the Wherries (ships) en route between Lowestoft and Norwich. At Somerleyton the Angles Way footpath passes close to the station, near enough to alight for a visit to Somerleyton Hall. More boat themed activities can be found at Oulton Broad: boat trips from Mutford Lock a short walk from the station and the Waveney River tour company for trips up and down the eponymous river or stay on the train until the last stop on the Sunshine Coast- Lowestoft.  The seaside town is the most easterly town in the UK and therefore a terminus for the East Suffolk Line (ESL).  The discovery of flint tools in the cliffs at Pakefield in south Lowestoft in 2005 suggests that it was one of the earliest known sites for human habitations, dating back some 700,000 years and its strategic position on the east coast led to it becoming one of the most heavily bombed towns in relation to populus in the UK.

Once a bustling fish port, there is still a small fishing industry and the Anchor Smokehouse is the place to stop for smoked salmon and goodness knows how many other smoked fishies from this family business established back in 1878 which doesn’t use the more common smoking kiln but instead retains the traditional Suffolk smokehouse, giving a more authentic flavour. Choose from the cold-smoke over oak where the fish are hung on racks or tenters (hence the old phrase “On tenter hooks”) or hot-smoking where the salmon receives a brine-bath beforehand to prevent the essential fatty oils from leaching out.

The Anchor Smokehouse- photo Anchor Smokehouse
The Anchor Smokehouse- photo Anchor Smokehouse

There’s a lot of lovely walking to be had here too. Start from Nicholas Everitt Park, with its open views across the expanses of Oulton Broad and cross a Dutch style lifting bridge designed for pedestrians and cyclists, walking below the railway near Oulton Broad swing bridge then crossing the slipways of the busy boatyards that front Lake Lothing. Then head past Normanton Park to St Margaret’s, one of Suffolk’s finest churches which commands a fine view of the North Sea from its churchyard. The Lowetoft lighthouse stands on an elevated cliff top below which Lighthouse Score, a series of alleyways descending the cliff face once used by smugglers and now the scene of Summer charity races, lead down to the Denes, an open area where fishing nets were customarily repaired. There’s some sandy grassy dunes, plenty picturesque enough and Ness Point with the Maritime Museum close by.

Beccles Quay by Ian Russell/ CC
Beccles Quay by Ian Russell/ CC

The return journey will take you along the 49 miles or thereabouts of the scenic East Suffolk Line passing through Beccles, Saxmundham and Woodbridge, the latter famous for having the only working Tide Mill in the UK, dating from 1793. Early on in the trip, Beccles makes a lovely stopping-off point with its public swimming lido with grass-seating (open Summer only), small shopping area, pubs and the Big Dog Ferry which covers one of the prettiest stretches of the River Waveney, a part of the world much loved by wild swimmer Roger Deakin (read about his swims here in ‘Waterlog’). Boat trips here travel west towards the riverside pub at Geldeston with kingfishers, marsh harriers and otters common sightings on the riverbanks. The boat trip takes approx 45 minutes each way. If you want to stay overnight, the Swan House Boutique Inn is not only a lovely place to stay but it hosts frequent art exhibitions, music and film nights.

Woodbridge Tide Mill by S Tandy / CC
Woodbridge Tide Mill by S Tandy / CC

Woodbridge is a fantastic stop off point too with the aforementioned Tide Mill and its attached museum selling flour, bread and cakes (which are also sold in the town bakery). The streets are packed with independent shops, pubs and cafes, (The Wild Strawberry, Browsers Books, the tea hut next to the river by the theatre and East Coast Diner come recommended) there’s a picturesque harbour and river to amble along and the Riverside theatre complex nearby for shows and films. The ‘Sandlings Walk’ bank-path of the tidal Deben has views across the river to the wooded Sutton Hoo estate and  passes near to the Tide Mill- at low-tide the calls of the many wading birds fill the air. The traditional black-pitch barge-boarded architecture is everywhere and a great example is the Olde Bell and Steelyard, a 16th century pub in New Street with striking black and white timber frame and a weird structure protruding from the first storey. Looking like a shed crossed with a carbuncle and hovering over the road, the device was once used to house the ‘steelyard’, a weighing machine used to ensure that the metal clad cart wheels that could potentially damage the road surface did not exceed 2.5 tons.

Stowmarket's Gipping Valley
Stowmarket’s Gipping Valley

As passengers approach Ipswich, the train takes the newly built “Bacon Factory Curve” and joins the Great Eastern Main Line (GEML) going northwards from London Liverpool Street to Norwich. Stop offs at Ipswich train station give easy access to the recently restored marina, it being a short half-mile walk from the station (turn right and walk straight up the slight hill). The marina is home to the local university and Mariners restaurant, a floating eating place which started its life as SS Argus-a Belgian gunboat. There’s the redeveloped Salthouse Harbour Hotel and plenty of waterfront bars, cafes and bistros, all with outdoor seating and a wide waterfront promenade to people-watch on.

Ipsiwch marina and harbourfront
Ipsiwch marina and harbourfront

Your route then continues northwards from Ipswich via Stowmarket, leaving the GEML at Haughley Junction and shortly arriving at Bury St. Edmunds Station, with its distinctive pair of towers and soon to be developed as an arts complex. The landscape between Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds is pure Suffolk arable, patchworked with rape, sugar beet, borage, maize and wheat, the crops clinging to the sides of some unexpectedly deep cuts and hills in a county which turns out to be not quite as flat as you might have thought. Once at Bury St Edmunds, there is a choice to disembark for a tour of the town (click on the link above for a guide to the best of the town) or continue onto Newmarket and back to Cambridge where you started.

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 The Mayflower Line– Manningtree-Mistley-Wrabness-Harwich

Ha'Penny Pier in Harwich by Robert Edwards/CC
Ha’Penny Pier in Harwich by Robert Edwards/CC
The owner of the gift shop in Clare, The  (@bluedog on twitter) recommends travelling between Manningtree to Harwich via train, describing it as “a great one for a scenic ride.” Known as the Mayflower Line after the famous boat carrying the settlers to the colonies in New England which itself set off from Harwich, this route offers the chance to travel to Harwich in Essex then get the foot-ferry to Felixstowe and Shotley Gate; a crossing of about a mile as the seagull flies which links the three peninsulas together. The only way a traveller can get to visit all three towns in one day is in this manner, if you are hiking or cycling, and fares are dependant upon the length of journey- whether you choose a full crossing or stop off at the midpoint, Ha’Penny Pier in Harwich.
The ferry runs between May to September with 6 daily departures; other times vary. Three stations serve Harwich:  the main Harwich Town which is on the edge of the old town; Dovercourt, which is more central for the new town’s main built up area, whilst Harwich International serves the port for ferry and cruise-line passengers. The end point of the trip, Manningtree station, has the reputation as being one of the windiest railway stations in the whole of Britain.
River Stour at Mistley Quay One branch of the River Stour sweeps past the quayside at Mistley, where swans are gathering for feeding. By Bob Jones/CC license
River Stour at Mistley Quay
One branch of the River Stour sweeps past the quayside at Mistley, where swans are gathering for feeding. By Bob Jones/CC license
 Running along the south-bank of the River Stour, the Mayflower Line runs almost parallel to the river and stays close by as you approach Harwich. Parts of the route are thickly planted with naturalised primroses, giving it another name locally- The Primrose Line. Many of the stopping off points are very pretty including Mistley, a small river-front town with a large colony of swans and other water fowl on the south-banks and a long, wide river-path popular with walkers and runners. Mistley is home to one of only two churches designed by Robert Adam and has two symmetrical towers, all that remains of the original building. With their Portland stone and Tuscan style porticos, they’re worth a visit despite their ruined state.
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Mistley river banks, in autumn
For children, Mistley Place Park offers the chance to get close and personal with over 200 rescue animals including goats, sheep, ducks, guinea pigs, dogs, chickens, cats, horses, rabbits, alpacas and the occasional peacock. There’s a tea-room serving roast dinners and fish and chip Fridays. The Mistley Anchor offers refurbished and traditional pub accommodation plus the usual pub facilities. You cannot access the nearby estuarial coastline from Mistley town because of the commercial port, walkers will need to stroll a mile down a road to reach it but the rewards are great; desolate wide skies, a multitude of birds ( Brent Geese, Shelduck and Avocets), the skeletons of wrecked boats partially interred in the mud and a shoreline that gradually becomes sandy as you approach Wrabness.
Strandlands Bridge carries the Manningtree to Harwich railway line across a track that runs through the Stour Woods by Geoff Shephard/CC
Strandlands Bridge carries the Manningtree to Harwich railway line across a track that runs through the Stour Woods by Geoff Shephard/CC
 Conveniently, Wrabness is a stop on the rail route too and should you prefer to stop off here instead, there is a community cafe in the heart of the village serving food, drink and alcoholic drinks and a nearby beach front lined with plotholder-type wooden houses on stilts, some of them refurbished beyond newness and some as derelict and skeletal as those submerged boats. Bands of gravel, sand and seaweed edge the shore, gradually decreasing in randomness as the coastline becomes 60 acres of managed wildlife reserve with requests to keep off parts of it (mudflats mostly) and continues on past Harwich to the Naze at Walton.
Oaks along the Wrabness nature rserve path by Roger Jones/CC
Oaks along the Wrabness nature rserve path by Roger Jones/CC
 Manningtree itself is a small port on the Stour Estuary barely inside the Suffolk border: a cluster of Georgian buildings make up what it Englands smallest town less than a mile from the station. The Crown Inn is a characterful small hotel and formerly a coaching inn on the route between Colchester and Harwich. The beer gardens overlook the river and if you want to take your drink down to the tiny town beach, they’ll decant it into a plastic glass for you.
River Stour at Manningtree and the Dedham Vale/Wikipedia
River Stour at Manningtree and the Dedham Vale/Wikipedia
 The walking here is evocative and as familiar as your own mother as it takes you through the beautiful countryside of Dedham Vale which inspired many of John Constable’s iconic paintings including the Hay Wain or Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill. The National Trust run Flatford Bridge Cottage less than two miles away in the quiet hamlet of Flatford by the River Stour. Bridge Cottage contains an exhibition about Constable and his work and also has tearooms for the hungry. An area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), the lowland landscape is criss-crossed with many trails and bridle-paths across the floodplains, arable, grass and wood lands with views of the Stour Valley as the river slackens and broadens approaching the North Sea.
Stour estuary at Manningtree by Colin Babb/CC
Stour estuary at Manningtree by Colin Babb/CC

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 The Gainsborough Line– Sudbury-Bures-Chapel & Wakes Colne-Marks Tey and back.
Sudbury from the water meadows by Darren Guiheen.
Sudbury from the water meadows by Darren Guiheen.

 Cutting deep into the leafy Stour Valley and Constable Country with fantastic views including the awesome 32 arch Chappel Viaduct (the second largest brick structure in England) built above the village of Chappel and high above the river Colne, there are lots of opportunities to travel further on via the Crouch Valley Line or the Sunshine Coast Line, deep into Essex. The start point, Sudbury is a small Suffolk market town famous for being the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough and home to the museum in the house he once lived in on the street named after him. A town visited by Dickens, a famous trapeze artist and bears, Sudburys quirky history can be explored by walking its Talbot Trail, lined by bronze topped bollards which commemorate historical events. With plenty of walks along the river Stour and its water meadows, along the Valley Walk to Long Melford and through Belle Vue Park here and a myriad of places to eat, drink and stay (The Rude Strawberry, Wagon & Horses, Shakes n Baps), it’s a lovely little place to visit.

Views across the Stour valley on the Gainsborough Line by Ashley Dace/CC
Views across the Stour valley on the Gainsborough Line by Ashley Dace/CC
 Between Sudbury and Bures, the train (sometimes a single carriage) trundles slowly along, running between the river, a band of woodlands close enough to lean out and touch and the steep gardens of the houses that were built along the Cornard and Bures Roads leading out of the town. Tracks and alley ways thickly lined with trees lead up between the houses every so often and lead down to passenger crossings over the line, used for centuries by locals. It is easy to forget that London is less than an hour away. Bures station is approached  via a high embankment with the narrow tiny platform built on a railway bridge that straddles one of two roads out of the village. This is prime commuter country and the windows of newly built housing estates look straight onto the line. Chappel and Wakes Colne station on the branch line is home to the East Anglian Railway Museum and the station here is a recreation of a 1930’s rural station which hosts a well loved beer festival in the Autumn- patrons can sit in the original rolling stock inside the old compartment carriages and drink their ales. Arriving and departing trains weave their way in between the old rolling stock, giving passengers a chance to look into the windows of velvet-curtained carriages filled with ghosts from a more elegant time.
Chappel Viaduct by Ashley Dace/ CC
Chappel Viaduct by Ashley Dace/ CC
At Marks Tey, travellers going on to London must change lines, crossing via bridge onto the mainline trains which await them whilst the original train proceeds over the Chappel viaduct to Colchester. The brick edging of the viaduct is low enough to not obscure dazzling views over the Essex countryside; of farms, quilts of fields and woodlands which swiftly disappear behind a veil of flowering hedgerow, thick with the spumey-white blossoms of elderflower, spirea and hawthorn which suddenly gives way to the red-brick and green paintwork of Chappel and Wakes Colne Station and its pristine Victorian grooming.
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Pre Beeching, this line used to run all the way from Mark’s Tey through to Cambridge via Sudbury, Long Melford and Bury St Edmunds, with a branch going off to Haverhill and Cambridge at Chapel and Wakes Colne. By 1962 all the lines north of Sudbury had been closed, but the line has survived to this day although there is a campaign to open up the old lines.
The Bittern Line– Norwich-Salhouse-Hoverton-Wroxham-Worstead-North Walsham-Gunton-Roughton Road-Cromer-West Runton-Sheringham
Leaving Sheringham Station- Julian Osley/Licensed under CC
Leaving Sheringham Station- Julian Osley/Licensed under CC

This thriving community railway, named after one of the regions most elusive and mysterious birds links the county city of Norwich with the Norfolk Broads National Park and the sea.  It is possible to alight at many of the stations which are close to the North Norfolk coastline or on the Broads (alight at Salhouse, Hoveton and Wroxham) and hire bikes- or head west on the nine-mile miniature Bure Valley Railway to Aylsham. There’s great walking to be had from Gunton, just one of the quaint Victorian stations and prettily maintained with baskets of flowers, old cartwheels and freshly painted fiiligree woodwork. Alight here and you can walk to Lower Southrepps and its boardwalks that are laid along both sides of Southrepps Common (part of the Paston Way Southrepps Circular Walk).

Southrepps Common entrance by Jonathon Billinger/CC
Southrepps Common entrance by Jonathon Billinger/CC

You’ll enjoy a landscape that changes from wet woodland populated by songbirds and open reedbeds where marsh warblers cling to reeds and buzzards hover overhead to open farmland. Clamber up The Warren, a larger wooded hill, and along the hedgerow edged lanes around Holleys Farm until you meet the main route of Paston Way through to Gimingham and its church. In the Summer, whitethroats, larks, swallows and martins soar through the skies over the track towards Mundesley, (part of the Paston Way) the seaside town boasting decent sandy beaches. From Mundesley you can catch a bus which takes you back to North Walsham and the train. For other walks, click here.

Thorpe End on Bittern Line by Grant Brewer/CC license
Thorpe End on Bittern Line by Grant Brewer/CC license

Mundesley isn’t the only seaside option either. Edwardian Cromer perched on cliffs overlooking the pier has several beaches where the crabbing boats unload their famous catch and the next stop, West Runton,has fossil-studded cliff-edged sands that have yielded relics important enough to be displayed in regional museums. Sheringham is a pretty town clustered around a harbour, backed by rolling fields with numerous church towers spiking into the skies. The line serving the coast is some 30 miles long and a regular, almost hourly service operates along the route (less frequent on winter Sundays), described as one of the 50 most scenic lines in the world.

Evelyn Simyak/CC-  Train heading from Holt towards Kelling and on to Weybourne.
Evelyn Simyak/CC- Train heading from Holt towards Kelling and on to Weybourne.

At Sheringham, where the line terminates, it is then possible to board the steam hauled North Norfolk Railway that puffs up and down the Poppy Line and journey through the verdant countryside to the Georgian town of Holt, full of lovely independent stores including the famous department store Bakers & Larner and a great book shop. The Poppy Line is 10.5 miles of nostalgic steam train riding through an area of outstanding natural beauty- southerly tree covered rolling hills and the Norfolk beauty spots of Kelling Heath (the smallest halt on the line and request stop only) and Sheringham Park, whilst northwards lies the sea which is within easy walking distance from the various stations. The lines name is a clue to the floriferous nature of its oute with Spring primroses, bluebells and gorse wafting their scents through the open windows of your carriage as you trundle past. Later in the year come thousands of indigenous field poppies which carpet the hills, cliffs and track edges, then the heathers come to see out another glorious summer turning what was once vermillion, purple, white and pink.

Kelling Heath towards Weybourne Village by Grant Brewer/CC
Kelling Heath towards Weybourne Village by Grant Brewer/CC

The North Norfolk dining trains are a Summer special on the Poppy Line where the North Norfolkman, with its newly restored crimson & cream livery offers several dining options. Guests can choose from a Sunday lunch served aboard two vehicles, while evening dining trains are formed of the entire North Norfolkman train. In addition, midweek dining and evening fish and chip suppers are offered where staff serve you with your meal plus a choice of drinks- alcoholic or not at your seat as the amazing scenery passes by your window.

The Mid Suffolk Light Railway-

The Mid Suffolk Light Railway/ Wikipedia
The Mid Suffolk Light Railway/ Wikipedia

Known locally as the ‘Middy’ this small railway is Suffolks only small-gauge heritage line running steam trains along the small section of track at Brockford, recreated with original station buildings , now a museum, which capture the atmosphere of this quirky line. Never paying its way, it was built too late at the end of the great Victorian railway age and failed to be completed, its line petering out in a Gipping Valley field before a group of enthusiasts resurrected it. Fourteen miles from Ipswich, the museum and train rides are now open at selected times of year and also offer special events at Christmas, Halloween, driver experiences and bookings for parties, riding from Brockford Station to Dovebrook.

The Bure Valley Railway– Aylsham-Brampton-Buxton-Coltishall- Wroxham

Blickling Hall by Ian Capper/CC
Blickling Hall by Ian Capper/CC

Norfolk’s longest 15 gauge line runs between the old market town of Aylsham to the ‘Capital of the Broads’, Wroxham, and stops at several country stations in between on a rambling and gentle 18 mile trip using either steam or diesel engines. A cycle and footpath runs along its entire length making it beautifully flexible for hop on/hop off passengers. One of the intermediary stops, Coltishall, is an historic town and central in the history of the local maltings industry for over 200 years. Home to boatbuilding yards, many of the traditional county boats, known as wherries, have been built here and the town is referred to as the gateway to the Norfolk Broads- its staith hums with boating activity in the summer.

Aylsham station offers light meals at its ‘Whistlestop Cafe’ but is also home to Norfolk’s ‘Slow Food Movement’ offering a plethora of places to eat and drink alongside a bi weekly market and regular farmers market. Blickling Hall is nearby, offering Jacobean splendour, proximity to Weavers Way for longer distance walking and the ghost of Anne Boleyn, a woman remarkably democratic and generous in her hauntings which are many although her father is even more prolific, seemingly spending the bulk of his eternal rest galloping across every bridge in Norfolk. The woodlands, park and lakeside offers bucolic and lovely walking, even more so when you don’t meet a headless ghost on the path.

Aylsham water pump
Aylsham water pump

Aylsham was once famous for its linen production and this former wool town retains a vestige of its former fiscal glory in the handsome buildings surrounding its market square. One of the prettiest roads, Hungate Street, is great for an architectural ‘safari’ with a wealth of Dutch gable-ends, medieval houses leaning which ways, Jacobean, Georgian and Victorian buildings in one small area. Made famous by a visit from Nelson, son of Norfolk, Daniel Defoe and Princess Victoria, the Black Boy Inn dates back to the 17th century and gained its name from the male slaves (servants) that wealthier houses ‘imported’ from the colonies to do their bidding. Reputed to be haunted by the ghost of its owner, Richard Andrews who developed the premises as an inn in the 1650’s he was said to have died following a fight with one of Oliver Cromwell’s men who was billeted there although if I was him, I’d be more haunted by my conscience. Buried in the grounds, his ghost has been seen on the premises.

This isn’t the only local haunting either as a ghostly coach and four horseman is said to clatter over the town’s bridge once a year, driven by a headless Sir Thomas Boleyn. It is just one of eleven bridges that he passes over on the night of his daughter Anne’s execution who herself walks the grounds of nearby Blickling Hall. Anne marks the anniversary of her murder by sitting in a coach with her head in her lap then alighting to inspect each room of the Hall (the place of her birth and childhood).

Wroxham bridge by Mark Oakden of TourNorfolk
Wroxham bridge by Mark Oakden of TourNorfolk

Wroxham, divided into two by the river Bure is a pretty and watery place at the heart of the Broads National Park, the last stop on the rail line and set within a labrynthnine system of dykes, canals, rivers and waterways all bordered by quaint houses and cottages. Many of the businesses front the water with moorings for the thousands of crafts that use the Broads and there’s an attractive riverside park also with public moorings, opposite the entrance to Belaugh Broad. Popular with visitors who enjoy local crafts, Wroxham Barns has a working craft centre where craftsmen demonstrate their skills in their own studios. A petting farm, cider-maker and outdoor playground makes it very family friendly. Should you wish to book a more ‘off piste’ tour of the waterways, the Canoe Man offers a variety of guided experiences via canoe, kayak or bicycle. The Tipi canoe overnight trails look amazing- a Canadian canoe expedition with overnight accommodation in remote tipi lodges.

Walking on the beaches…. in Suffolk

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Suffolk’s beaches are atmospheric and historic, well-managed and award-winning with reliable water quality and surrounded by picturesque countryside, making the journey part of the pleasure. We have beaches that are slowly returning to the sea as a result of coastal erosion and famous holiday resorts that are enjoying a new lease of life. The richness of the local flora and fauna has been preserved via the creation of nature reserves and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the countryside is quilted by a network of coastal paths and cycle routes which in their own way contribute towards a climate of protective benevolence towards our relatively unspoilt coastal regions. Our coastline also tells of threat and potential invaders: guarded by cannons, forts and martello towers we are confronted by our vulnerability although past invasions have struggled with the watery nature of East Anglia where apparently clear routes end in creek, marsh and water. The biggest threat now is that of the tide and the edges of Suffolk bear witness to its destructive nature. Do we adopt a policy of managed retreat or do we cover parts of our coastline in swathes of concrete and banks of giant stones in an attempt to mitigate the risk?

With more edge than middle, the geography of the Suffolk coastline has resulted in miles and miles of easily accessible beaches, as opposed to somewhere like Devon or Cornwall where many of the best beaches remain partially inaccessible to all but those in the know or with boats. So although people here have some secret places they go to to get away from the tourist crowds, most of them remain public property and easily found. Here are some of our favourites:

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The beach at Ewerton

Johnny All Alone Creek is a piece of insider knowledge. The Stour/Orwell long distance path runs along the river wall to Holbrook in one direction and Shotley in the opposite direction. The River Stour is 47 miles long and forms the boundary between Essex and Suffolk, the tidal estuary running from Manningtree to its confluence with the River Orwell at Harwich in Essex. Just across the fields from Johnny All Alone Creek can be found the village of Erwarton;  worth a visit for its connections with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Anne was a frequent visitor to her aunt who lived at Erwarton Hall and legend has it that she liked the place so much she asked for her heart to be buried in the local church after her death. When the church was renovated in 1838 a small heart shaped casket was discovered and subsequently reburied. The creek is bordered by beaches of fine grade shingle and lines of larger pebbles, punctuated by stands of jade green Samphire, bleached oyster shells, overhanging scrub and hedgerow busy with the many birds that live here. Now walk along the river path to Holbrook Creek, another atmospheric tributary off the River Stour with moorings for small dinghies; not a place for family bathing per se BUT it is a place for picnics and wild imagination.

Southwold pier
Southwold pier

Southwold Pier beach has also been awarded a European blue flag, so you can be confident of clean bathing-water and sand with little settlements of beach huts along the promenade and by the beach. Plenty of independent shops, a superb chemist packed with covetable products and a new Waterstones branch make shopping a bit of an attraction in itself. The pier has a restored collection of quirky arcade machines, a couple of restaurants and the town also has a lovely trad boating lake.The Denes is a dog friendly beach as is the beach stretching towards Walberswick which also boasts a beach cafe near to a carpark and low dunes to sunbathe in. The beach cafe sells cake, sandwiches, ice creams and hot and cold drinks. The carrot cake was pretty special when we visited in the summer and they offer take out containers too.

View across the Denes
View across the Denes

The Denes Beach at Southwold is a quieter, more secluded, shingle beach next to the River Blyth – good for walking, dunes and views across the estuary plus of course the lovely town centre to explore when you grow tired of the beach. Limited in its development by its location on a hill that gently rises from the Blyth Valley, making the town virtually an island, surrounded by the River Blyth to the south and Buss Creek to the north, this has helped to retain an old world charm. Visitors use the beach for surfing,windsurfing and fishing and a coast path takes you north to Southwold or south along the banks of the river.

Walberswick
Walberswick

Walberswick is a tiny village that is situated slap bang in the middle of the AONB and offers one of the best beach in the area for sandcastles, with coarser sand rising towards the dunes. Famous for its crabbing, the quay and creeks that meander across the flat countryside are well endowed with crustaceans and popular with those who want to pit their wits (and crabbing line) against them. The official crabbing championships became victim of its own success and is held no more sadly due to safety fears but ad hoc crabbing is not discouraged and it isn’t difficult to buy the necessary supplies of bacon, crabbing lines and buckets locally. Walk to Southwold along the banks and creeks of the river and over the Bailey bridge or use the foot ferry which operates during the summer months.

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Covehithe Beach has none of the Enid Blyton charm of nearby Aldeburgh and Walberswick and is more akin to the wild beauty of the beaches of north Norfolk – for elemental majesty and crowd free enjoyment, you will be hard pressed to find a better place. To reach the beach you must park your car in the village and take one of two footpaths down to the beach (10 minutes or so walk). The path curves towards the eroded cliffs then bends inland again past bracken and the trees, plants and grasses that have tumbled from the falling cliffs. These crumbling cliffs are home to sand martins whilst the  low-tide mark exposes rockpools full of tiny crabs and sea anemone. Freshwater lagoons (Benacre Broads) lie behind the sea, sheltered by an arc of broadleaf woodland and are lovely for swimming although the salt of the sea is gradually leaching in- a slow commingling that will eventually join them with the North Sea.  If you follow the path to the north instead, you will arrive at the Benacre National Nature Reserve at Benacre Ness, where a varied habitat of dunes, broads, heath and woodland provide shelter for breeding birds and other creatures.

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Dunwich

Dunwich Beach is next to the Flora Tearooms which serves excellent fish and chips, neon bright sundaes and hot chocolate and backs onto the famous Ship Inn. This shingle and pebble strip of beach edges some of Englands most diverse heath and woodland- Dunwich Heath, looked after by the National Trust. Backed by low lying, collapsing cliffs tufted with Marram Grass, you can walk for miles here, undisturbed except for the (reputed) chimes of the village church, lost under the waves since 1904. Dunwich was once the capital of East Anglia until that moment when the harbour and most of the town were claimed by the sea, causing a slow decline into what is now, a tiny coastal village. The drive towards the village and beaches is a joy, especially when the broom and gorse is in bloom. The road dips and rises through heathland and low wooded scrub, the sharp yellow, honey scented flowers perfuming the air for miles around. As you approach the car park near the sea, the road noise becomes deadened by the sand blown inshore creating a thick layer on the tarmac, and then become twisting lanes, narrowed further by hedges of eglantine roses and honeysuckle and the streams of walkers and cyclists.

Shingle Street
Shingle Street

Shingle Street, the subject of fevered speculation since it was evacuated in 1940 is now a SSSI and protected in parts. Lying at the mouth of the River Ore is a collection of houses sitting between a row of Coastguard cottages and a martello tower. In summer the shingle beach is alive with flowering plants and seals sun themselves at low tide on the islands in the mouth of the River Ore. The erosion has made it treacherous to walk parts of the coastal path south-west of Shingle Street, so take care when setting off in that direction. Not a beach for sunning yourself on the sand, it is however bleakly beautiful and one of our favourite places to see the Suffolk sun rise and set and see history writ large upon the landscape. Another curiosity here in front of the coastguard cottages is a line of bleached white shells arranged in a sub-geometric pattern of swirls and concentric circles, ‘beach art’ created here over 5 years ago by childhood friends Elsa Bottema and Lida Kindersley for future visitors to do with as they wish.

Felixstowe
Felixstowe

Felixstowe beach offers the classic day at the seaside against the backdrop of this lovely Edwardian town with its bright rows of beach huts and steep roads rising up behind the promenade to the town centre. From playing on the seafront amusements, building sandcastles on the beach, walking the promenade and exploring the Winter gardens which are now being restored to their full magnificence, Felixstowe is coming out of the shadow cast by the more well known Suffolk resorts, and deservedly so. The pier hosts crabbing competitions each year too and the sea defences, called groynes, that divide the beaches collect pools of sea water around their stumps, great fun for children to fish with nets.

Felixstowe ferry gazing across to Bawdsey with its small sand beach
Felixstowe ferry gazing across to Bawdsey with its small sand beach

Felixstowe Ferry is the older part of the town, predicated upon the fishing industry that once sustained this part of the coastline, all black washed bargeboards, clank of chains and fishing huts, some still selling their catch. There’s also a pub and a river and an estuarine cafe selling seafood and pots of hot tea. Walk along the sea wall at Felixstowe Ferry to gaze upon Bawdsey Manor on its peninsula across the river Deben or catch the eponynous ferry over there. It is a secret WWII facility and home to the invention of Radar. You will also come across two of Felixstowe’s Martello Towers built between 1804 and 1812 to repel Napoleonic invasion. Bawdsey peninsula has a small sand beach too.

Part of the old jetty off landguard Point
Part of the old jetty off landguard Point

Landguard Fort, Point and Nature Reserve covers over 81 hectares and is a sand and shingle spit off the Southern tip of the Suffolk coast and near to Felixstowe. Originally built at the behest of Henry the Eighth, this fort is the only one in England to have repelled a full scale invasion attempt. At the mouth of the River Orwell, Landguard Fort was designed to guard the entrance to Harwich and with its prime position overlooking the enormous cargo ships arriving and departing the port, it is one place you won’t want to forget to bring your binoculars. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, the reserve has frequent activities arranged for all ages and is an important ecological part of the world. You can cycle along part of the National Cycle Network (Route 51), walk the boardwalk around the point and eat in the museum and fort cafe.

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Lowestoft beach is situated on the UKs the most easterly point and is a town is in two parts, divided by a narrow strip of water called Lake Lothing, which connects to Oulton Broad, the most southerly of the East Anglian Broads. Lowestoft is at the forefront of Britains wind generation industry and combines Edwardian majesty with a friendly seafront that has amusements: a pier, its own maritime museum and places to eat alongside a wide and safe sandy beach with huts to hire. The promenade also has a marker showing that easterly point and fountain jets of water that erupt from the ground at multiple points, delighting children and dogs. The North beach is backed by chalk cliffs studded with fossils from the Creaceous period, Marram grass covered dunes and plenty of secluded places to sit and relax. Or try the fine stretch of sand known locally as ‘Victoria Beach’, south of Clarement Pier Beach, Ask the locals for directions.

Kessingland
Kessingland

Kessingland offers dog friendly beaches , is pretty unspolit and never seems over populated with beachgoers; maybe its proximity to the more popular Lowestoft is the reason why. A mix of marshland, sand and shingle, there are uninterrupted views towards Lowestoft to the North and Southwold to the South although you can only walk along the beach to Southwold from the town at low tide and the beach here is littered with the drowned bleached corpses of fallen trees and other casualties of coastal erosion. Kessingland is popular with archaeologists who come for the remains of an ancient forest, discovered on the seabed and also the Palaeolithic and Neolithic implements which have been found there. Walk the opposite way between Lowestoft and Kessingland along the cliffs, and encounter the point at which they disappear into a gully, known locally as ‘Crazy Mary’s Hole’ (I am saying nothing). This part of the walk is backed by low, grass tufted cliffs and at the right time of year, huddled masses of nesting terns on the strips of sand and shingle.

The cliffs at Pakefield
The cliffs at Pakefield

Pakefield is swiftly becoming the premier site for fossil collecting in East Anglia although experienced collectors know to visit the day after a storm when the pounding North Sea has scoured the cliffs on their behalf, freeing up the ammonites and other remains of ancient reptiles and echinoids this coastline usually keeps hidden in its boulder clay. Ensure your children are under supervision near the cliffs although the foreshore is also a good, and safer,  hunting ground. The fastest and most direct route is dependent upon the steps down to the beach being undamaged- the inclement weather can sweep them away and they may remain unrepaired until spring. There is another way of getting onto the beach which requires a longer walk.

Aldeburgh
Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh Beach is home to Maggie Hamblings’ iconic Scallop – a tribute to local composer Benjamin Brittain and ranked third in the Sunday Times’ Top Ten of cultural beaches. A fishing village, Aldeburgh has managed to largely hang onto its sleepy coastal appearance although Summer sees the influx of many visitors from London and the Home Counties. Predominately shingle, the beach is wide, banks towards the shoreline and is dotted with boats, fishermen and their huts. Dog owners will find a mile of dog-friendly beach just to the north of the town, which is well signposted. Walk north and you’ll eventually reach the quaint village of Thorpeness and its famous Mere whilst a southerly route  takes you down towards Orford Ness.

Thorpeness
Thorpeness

 Thorpeness is home to the House in the Clouds (a water tower disguised as a house), a boating lake in a meare designed by JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, and a sizable collection of hugely rambling Edwardian Summer houses designed by Scottish railway designer Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a friend of Barrie. He brought up a large stretch of coast to the north and south of Thorpeness and turned it all into a private holiday retreat, indulging a penchant for mock Tudor and Jacobean pastiche in his housing designs. A place with even more of a playful, childlike vibe is the Meare boating lake with Peter Pan monikers: Pirates Lair, Wendy’s home and an annual summer firework display and regatta. The low cliffs along the steely shelving shingle beach are brimming with trove for fossil hunters: shells, echinoids, bryozoans and corals.

Approaching Sizewell from Dunwich heath
Approaching Sizewell from Dunwich heath

Sizewell beach is tucked away between Dunwich and Thorpeness and boasts fantastic coastlines with have no restrictions on dogs year-round, unlike most other Suffolk beaches which have April-Nov restrictions in place. Long level beaches offer long walks north to Dunwich, past RSPB Minsmere, the Minsmere levels or south to Thorpeness. The beach is a mix of sand and pebbles, has a small cafe, a wooden walkway for the less steady on their feet and public toilets nearby. Oh, and that dramatic view of the power stations ‘giant golfball dome’ is unmissable, in the distance as the bay curves towards it. This is most definitely a beach for the early summer mornings with the sky a milky haze and the only noise that of the gulls, and the sound of your feet on the pebbles.

Abandoned Coastguard Station Orford Ness

Orford Ness is an internationally important nature reserve with a truly fascinating (and previously secret) war time history as suggested by the views of ramshackle and forbidding buildings scattered along its length. Remote, bleak and accessed only by boat and managed by the National Trust, this is a place to visit and marvel at as opposed to sunbathe on. Indeed visitors are not allowed to stray off the marked pathways for fear of stepping on unmarked and unidentified ordnance. For most of the 20th century the military used the Ness for top secret experiments on a vast range of weapons and it was intensively used as a bombing and rocket range. Orford Ness may also contain as much as 15% of the world’s reserve of coastal vegetated shingle, and is one of the best preserved shingle ridges in Europe- all eleven miles of it. The lack of human access for so long is what allowed nature to flourish and the Trust is keen to ensure that the site remains as undisturbed as possible for the many breeding creatures that have made it their home. Access it by ferry from Orford Quay on one of its open days (check the NT website for more information) because whilst most National Trust coastline is open to the public, the public can visit the spit only on Saturdays from April to June, and Tuesday to Saturday from July to September.

Orford
Orford

Orford beach runs south along the coast from Aldeburgh to North Weir Point and is protected as a National Nature Reserve (NNR) and managed by the National Trust and the RSPB, in partnership with Natural England. The shingle here supports a number of rare insects and beetles, while the marshland and creek are home to birds like the avocet and curlew. The striped Orford Ness Lighthouse and the turret of Orford Castle stand sentinel over the village and its coastline and the village itself is a bit of a paradise for those who love great food with the Pump Street Bakery, Smokehouse and Oysterage and Crown and Castle pub among others.

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Ramsholt

Ramsholt is another prime site for fossil hunting, yielding sharks teeth, echinoids, fish remains and coralline from the clay and rocks for visitors to its small sandy beach. Boats moor here and you can barbecue and picnic along the shore. Again, if you want fossils and other combing finds, visit after a storm and high tides and be prepared for a bit of a walk to the cliffs (30-60 mins depending on conditions and in winter it is very slippery). Ramsholt is only a few miles from Bawdsey and has a wonderful waterfront pub and pretty quay from which a river walk runs beside the river wall almost to Woodbridge. Or take the circular walk along the marshes to the All Saints Church with its round tower, one of only 38 in Suffolk.

Photo of Nacton costal walk by Jon Bennet / Flickr
Photo of Nacton costal walk by Jon Bennet / Flickr

Nacton, a tiny village on the banks of the Orwell in southern Suffolk, was closely associated with the  admiral, Edward Vernon who christened the watered down tot of rum given to some of the workforce to help them through their day. The mixture of water with rum was given the moniker ‘grog’  as a reference to Vernons wearing a coat of grogram cloth. Nacton itself is also the site of Orwell Park, the estate where he lived and a sandy tidal beach and pretty coastal path offering spectacular views of the sailing boats that cluster along the Orwell River and berth at Pin Mill marina on the southern side of the river. Runnng through woodland approximately 50 feet above the shoreline, the coastal path is signposted, and bordered for much of its length. The Ship Inn at Levington or the Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill offer sustenance and at low tide, a small pebble beach can be accessed by climbing down laddered steps from the latters carpark. To be honest, this entire riverside and estuarine district yields lots of secret coves and hidden beaches, known only to the locals and pure Arthur Ransome territory.

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.

<addendum>

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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Walking on Ilkley Moor

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Cow & Calf rocks

I have an alter ego that is triggered by crossing the Watford Gap as we head up to visit our stepdaughter in Leeds. This other-me casts off her Louboutins and strides the moors of Ilkley and Haworth, conquering inclines and standing victoriously atop rocks of millstone grit studded with quartz, great slabs of leaning sandstone and the shale reaches of Upper and Lower Wharfedale. I am buffeted by wind, cheeks flushed with roses, as I survey the slate gray rooftops of the towns and villages spread out far below me- Conistone, Grassington, Kettlewell and Ilkley itself spreading out like a ribbon along the valley below the moors – the wildest part of the Dales and Ebor Way. The names speak of graft and grit, of people carving out a livelihood in these harsh, seer and beautiful surroundings. As I walk along the ridge lines, it is clear that we are far from Suffolk.

Here, the fields are boundaried by drystone walls full of buff beige sheep clouding the grass, left unshorn far later than in the south and there are stands of pine, stunted and pushed by the winds into Bonsai master forms. Temperatures plummet swiftly as clouds pass through and round us, coating our parkas with a wet mizzle. Rays of sun strafe the moors and the lakes and streams glitter as they pass over them then recede back to a dull gun metal grey. Down below in the car park of Ilkley Moor the flags of the Cow and Calf Cafe are gaudy but act as guide to walkers in a hurry to leave the moor above when vision is blotted out by mists and fog.

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A few yards along the winding moors road is the Cow and Calf pub, a 19th century hostelry with rooms, food and cask ale. Originally the site of the country’s first hydropathic hotel in 1844 called the Benrhydding, it became a boarding house in 1949 and then a pub. The gardens and front seats overlook the moors and are just left of the Ebor Way hiking trails that leads up to Barks Crag: the Great Skirt of Stones and Burley Moor. The views are breathtaking.

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Cow & calf Pub

Ilkley Moor can be found between the eponymous town and Keighley, is part of Rombalds Moor, and reaches 402 metres in height. Known as ‘baht’ and famous for the Yorkshire national anthem; a folk song “On Ilkla Moor Baht’ at” which warns in explicit detail, the potentially dire consequences of a visit to Ilkley Moor “Baht’ at” sans hat, the landscape is designated a national Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I would advise you to obtain an Ordnance Survey map (The Landranger series No. 297, “Lower Wharfedale and Washburn Valley”) if you plan to walk these moors as there is something essentially soulless about using digital technology to traverse them. Maps speak of the history of this land and of those who plotted it the hard way, properly acquainting themselves with its topography. Until you have tried to spread out a map on a rock, buffeted by winds, pebbles placed on each flapping corner, you have not lived.

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Views from the pub gardens

The moor is arguably best known for its striking rock formation, the Cow and Calf rocks ( also called Hangstone Rocks) at Ilkley Quarry high on the Moor and made of millstone grit and sandstone in a shape deemed somewhat reminiscent of their name- to those of days past. Quite frankly it is a bit of a stretch to see the likeness and one can only assume that in olden times, locals had an imagination less literal than we do today.

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The quarry

Legend has it that the calf was split from the Cow when the giant Rombald was fleeing an enemy said to be his irate wife and he stamped on the rock as he leaped across the valley. His wife dropped the stones held in her skirt, forming the nearby rocky outcrop called The Skirtful of Stones. A giant tomb and one of the moors major prehistoric sites, it has been dug out over the years leaving it more akin to a caldera in appearance, sunken, moss encrusted and pocked with ferns which appreciate the sopping confines and grow lushly as they cling, leafily prehensile to the vertiginous rock faces.

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Swastika stone

Man and woman inscribed their stories here long before the Romans strutted along the Wharfe Valley and christened it Olicana. Over 250 rock carvings have been found within this area, and some experts believe that there may be more buried under the peaty soil. The rock carvings are found on cliff faces, especially near the Cow and Calf rocks, and also on the boulders around the area of Green Crag Slack (Map Ref: SE1340). Known as ‘cup and ring marks’ and more common in the North of England, our fingers traced the curved, circular and horseshoe patterns as we wondered what they represented. Did they mark territories or roaming rights? Do they have a spiritual or clan meaning? Or were they maps of springs, waterholes or attempts to trace the movements of celestial bodies through the skies? On damp days their curliques fill with dew, little lapping rivulets that small children enjoy dabbling their fingers in or sailing tiny boats on, made from the petals of buttercups. Small shallow depressions, the cups are ground into the rocks surface, singly or in apparently haphazard groups and often surrounded by small circular channels, the rings. The Swastika Stone is found near Hebers Ghyll and is believed to date back to 1800BC and is one of our earliest known examples of Celtic Art. It is protected by iron railings to deter any modern day impulses to add graffiti but is open to view. From the path past the Swastika Stone enjoy the great views across Wharfedale then walk on a little further and find a memorial stone to the crew of a Halifax bomber.

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An unnamed stone at Graining’s Head. It has around ten cups, three of which have rings, two others have possible rings./ Creative Commons

Although heather, bracken and wild grasses abound and the going is soft with many places waterlogged with peat bogs, upland areas may have been reasonable hunting, grazing or later farming land as many flints dating back as far as the Mesolithic era have been found around Rumbolds Moor, an area  roughly bordered by Ilkley in the north, Silsden in the west, Keighley in the south and Menston in the east. Compared to the lush, easily accessed grazing in the south, where we are from, the moor looks inhospitable but humans will work with what they have got and cloven hooved animals are more agile than us for sure.

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Creative Commons. Ilkley Moor

 

 

The Twelve Apostles Stone Circle, a Druidical stone circle can be found along the Dales Way, about 1.5 miles from Ilkley Crags. The view from the circle, looking over the Aire Valley, Burley Moor and Upper and Lower Lanshaw Dam then north towards Menwith hill is stupendous: purple heather, matted grasslands interlaced with rough tracks and cinereal rock against an ever changing backdrop of sky. A natural stopping point, this is the place to stop and rest.

The circle is roughly 2000 years of age and covers a diameter of 52 feet with twelve 4-foot high stones, as dishevelled as an ancient ruin in a hard to reach wind pounded place ought to be. The archaeologist Arthur Raistrick suggested that there were originally around twenty stones in the circle. all set within a rubble bank with a seven-foot megalith in their centre. Formerly in possession of such names as the ‘Druid’s Chair’ and the ‘Druidical Dial Circle’, the latter may be a colloquial leftover of its reputation as a site where the solar and lunar year would be recorded. The central megalith is key to the supposition that the stones acted as a druidical dial circle and it might have performed the role of shadow marker or a point from which supernal trajectories could be mapped. Do keep in mind though that what you will find today is far removed from what would have been seen here four thousand years ago. The patchy woodland which once quilted the moors has mostly receded to be replaced by a thick blanket of heather and the stones have been moved, knocked about and neglected by the local authorities. They have been righted and are now watched over by local archaeologists and pagans but don’t expect a mini Stonehenge and don’t sit on them- the circle is very fragile and some of the stones sit on the surface of the soggy moorland, propped up by smaller ones.

The nearby and virtually forgotten Black Beck Well nearby was once an important and vital stopping off point for travellers across these inhospitable moors and it might have been that the location of the stones was chosen in relation to this as they are a mere 200 yards apart. They were certainly sited proximate to the crossing point of two critical trackways that bisected each other and the moor. These ways face the four cardinal points, known as airts, and one of them is believed by archaeologists to have been the point at which a exigent prehistoric trading route crossed the Mid Pennines.

Legend states that is impossible to count the stones at the first attempt whilst locals speak of floating white spheres among the stones and of UFO activity too. One such sighting was back in late 1976 when three men from the Royal Observer Corps saw a white silent sphere hovering low over the stone circle only to shoot vertically into the twilight skies and vanish; a similar light was seen by other witnesses in July 1990 at the Backstone Circle. In this case, a white ball hovered on the horizon only to approach Twelve Apostles where it stood low and still over them. After a series of ‘strange maneovres’, it headed off towards the west, allegedly chased by a RAF fighter. Dramatic tales….

 

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Twelve Apostles Stone Circle

 

Dios de los Muertos and the British Halloween

I spent some of my childhood in Mexico and some of my strongest memories come from Dios De Los Muertos when my mountain city became even more colourful and night and day blended into one as we celebrated and mourned. 

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One of the most haunting and beautiful traditions of Mexico is “el altar de muertos”, the altar for the dead. On All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, the souls of the deceased have permission to visit their families still living, on earth. The Day of the Dead is a blend of pre-Hispanic indigenous beliefs and Spanish catholic beliefs and traditionally, November 1 is the day for honoring dead children and infants whilst adults are honoured the following day. Nobody goes unacknowledged though – October 27th is known as the Day of the Orphaned Souls where souls with no living relatives to welcome them are received by the community with bread and water hung on doors whilst October 28th is the day of the Accidentados , those that died a violent or accidental death. October 30th is the day to welcome the souls of children that died in childbirth before being baptized, los ninos limbos and October 31 is the day of the Angelitos, souls of children who have died in infancy, but have been baptized and are thus thought to be free of sin. There is a beautiful and pragmatic Aztec belief that in heaven there is a paradise where a tree of human breasts provides mothers’ milk for the Angelitos .

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Both life and death are experienced as part of the same plane of reality according to pre Hispanic cultural beliefs- all life is engaged in a perpetual process of destruction and creation. During Aztec times, the ultimate achievement was a glorious death with the most honored way to die being la muerte florida ( the flowering death) during childbirth, death in combat or via ritual sacrifice to the gods. Death was seen as the beginning of the seasonal cycle of life and so the dead were honoured and commemorated with rituals and fiestas connected with the time of the harvest.

Mexico is rife with folk tales that warn of the consequences of failing to properly observe the traditions of the festival. Should families inadequately decorate their altar, the returning spirit  may feel sad and angry and seek vengeance on those who have forgotten them. That vengeance might take the form of another family member falling ill and dying shortly afterwards.

“Pues el difunto podria volver ese día a la casa y hay que atenderlo bien”, (“you see, the deceased might return home that day so one has to look after them well”).

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Pan de Muertos

The visiting souls are welcomed and honoured by the setting up of an Ofrenda– an altar decorated by placing their favourite things upon it: foods to sustain them on their long journey and symbols of death and eternal life. The altar becomes a symbol of everlasting love and shows us that people live on in the hearts and minds of their family and friends. Preparation of the food is a family affair with much lively discussion as to the best way to stuff a tamale or roast a chile- households get together to set up tamale prep stations (they can be fiddly) and to share their harvests. Children sit together making paper chains and decorate the house with flowers.

The traditional Mexican altar for the dead is often installed in the main room of the house, on top of a table with three levels, the highest level representing heaven. Here you will find an image of a Santo, la Virgen, a cross, or Jesus. On the middle level you place a photo, or multiple photos of the person you are dedicating the altar to, and on the lowest level, representing earth, you place all your offerings.

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Calaveritas de azucar

Traditional offerings dating back to the Aztecs include:

The Flowers of Tzempaxuchitl (traditional Aztec name)- Marigolds

Calaveritas de azucar (sugar sculls that can be personalised)

Pan de muerto in the shape of bodies called ‘anima’ (the traditional ‘day of the dead’ bread)

Copal and incienso – these act as guide via scent to the relatives home

Velas (candles)

A dish of salt, symbolizing purification, is always included.

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To this the family might add tamales wrapped in corn husks filled with special ingredients, cigarettes or cigarillos, a bottle of tequila, agua fresca or clay jugs of water. You will find bibles and copies of favourite books and some of the more whimsical, traditional pieces of decorative arts, local to the region. Figures of Catrina are traditional- this tall, elegantly attired female skeleton sporting an extravagantly plumed hat is there to remind Mexicans that nobody, no matter how wealthy, escapes death. You will also find dancing skeleton figures (called Calacas) carved of wood or made into filigree paper chains cut out of picado (colourful Chinese paper) and hung behind the altar- purple is the colour of mourning whilst hot pink and orange are celebratory and petate (woven reed mats) are sprinkled with flame orange marigold petals or the flower heads of multi coloured Zinnias. Other traditional flowers are baby’s breath ( nube ) and wine colored coxcomb ( magenta terciopelo). The journey from Mictlan (the Aztec name of the Underworld), is long and very tiring so a wash basin, mirror, towel, soap and shaving products (for the men) are placed near the Ofrenda so the departed spirit can cleanse themselves before joining in the festivities. Chairs with folded striped serapes are put out for the dead to sit on while they rest, drink and regain their strength. We used to use the traditional serape of Saltillo, the town we lived in.

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Catrina

Come November 2nd, light the candles, burn the incense and as each candle is lit the names of the departed are called out, as if to say “Come back home, my son, your family awaits you”. Then sit and wait. The spirits of your loved ones are all around you- in the breeze coming from the desert and mountains, in the moonlight that streams in through the windows and in the candle light as it flickers. The soul is nourished through the scents and flavours of the food, both before the families start to feast and during it and is led to the feast by following the scent of the marigolds as it is believed that they carry the scent of death.

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Many families take their altars to the cemeteries where their relatives and friends lay buried and place offering on graves and inside tombs. At noon on November 1st, church bells toll for the arrival of the elder traveling spirits, known as the Faithful Dead. At sundown we would all process to our local cemetery accompanied by Mariarchi bands who would go on to roam the allees between the tombs, taking requests from attendees to play favourite songs and make dedications. We would picnic, drinking the drink made from corn and flavoured with hot chocolate (Atole) from earthenware bowls, eat tamales stuffed with turkey and pork and masa and break open the pan de muerto in the shape of Catrina, encrusted with primary coloured sugar crystals. Children gobbled down sugar skull candies straight from the twists of paper enclosing them then dance and, if young, fall asleep with the spicy scent of marigolds crushed underfoot. Tired out we’d be wrapped up in blankets and carried home through streets full of fiesta and gaiety.

In Mexico, life and death are celebrated and revered: the sugar skulls would bear both the names of the dead and of the living to remind us of this. I remember coveting the candies covering the graves and tombs of the muertitos (the little dead ones, or children), along with new toys. This super rich candy- Calabaza en Tacha, pumpkin cooked in brown sugar syrup was not eaten by us at any other time of the year and it is just as well- it is not good for the teeth.

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I watched with wonder as families took the bodies of the relatives out of the tombs, unwrapped the muslin fabric that tightly encased them, washed their bodies and re-wrapped them, scattering marigold petals between the layers of cloth. There were no unpleasant scents as the cool dry mountain air encouraged mummification and families were skilled at preserving the bodies of their loved ones. Graves were scrubbed clean, redressed and garlanded with flowers and pathways swept of leaves and other detritus. From tomb to tomb the villagers moved, celebrating and mourning with their neighbours, lamps and burning torches held aloft to light the path. Incense burned in the air and the surrounding mountains cradled the graveyard, bruise-black in the distance, Friends told stories of their ancestors and renewed acquaintances with relatives travelling from afar whilst admiring the altars and graves decorated by others. As the sun went down along came hummingbirds striped of tail with breasts an iridescent oily green and they would drink the sugar water from feeders hanging from the trees in the cemetery. These feeders received an extra spoon of sugar during Dios de Los Muertos in case these birds were visiting souls in need of sustenance.

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calavera poncianista by jose guadalupe

Other years saw us travelling into the Zapaliname mountains that surrounded our home in Saltillo. These mountains are part of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and provided a dramatic backdrop to the altars erected in honour of Zapaliname, chieftain of the Huachichil tribe. Garlands of marigolds would stretch between rocks illuminated by serried rows of fat tallow candles with their porky scent. The nearby waterfall thundered behind the altar, spraying us with mist and a cool breeze. Our serapes were a welcome shield against the cold of the desert and mountain slopes.

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La Calvera Catrina

Such strong iconography inevitably leads to a degree of cultural appropriation sadly and this has been increasingly evident in the UK these last few years as merchandisers seek to encourage us to spend more money on Halloween- it seems to be becoming a festival lasting a week or more now. I fail to see the difference between the wearing of First Nation headdresses at Glastonbury and the appropriation of Dios De Los Muertos traditions and symbols. Decorating your home with Catrina, decorated skulls, marigolds and the other imagery is appropriation even though the two festivals share roots in common. I understand that their gaiety is appealing and especially to British children but using them without even a basic understanding of Mexican religious and cultural practices can be insensitive. So where does British Halloween tradition lie?

All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas) is a perfect example of a marriage between religious belief and superstition and it is widely thought that Halloween originated as a pagan Celtic festival of the dead related to the Irish and Scottish Samhain (the celebration of the dying of the sun as winter approached), but there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead in pre-Christian times. We have no British tradition of using Dios De Los Muertos style iconography although in parts of France, Catholic families visited their family’s graves with pots of chrysanthemums.

The day after All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) is an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history. As part of this day of obligation, believers are required to attend church and avoid all but absolutely necessary servile work. The remembrance of saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD, but it wasn’t until 609AD that Pope Boniface IV extended this to all martyrs. 13th May was originally designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs and later, in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival and changed its name to Feast of All Saints and the date to the 1st of November.

The Celts believed that the long winter nights made the perfect playground for evil spirits: the barriers between the human and spirit world were weaker  and spirits walked the earth, seeking dominion over the living. Bonfires were constructed to frighten these spirits away and people danced and feasted around them, believing that the flames brought comfort to souls in purgatory. Burning at their strongest in Scotland and Ireland where Celtic influence was at its strongest, the fires lingered on in some of the northern counties of England until the early years of the last century. In Lancashire, ‘Lating’ or ‘Lighting the witches’ became a tradition where locals carried candles from eleven to midnight. If the candles burned steadily the carriers were safe for the season, but if the witches blew them out, it didn’t look good…..Also known as Nut Crack Night in parts of Northern England, nuts were put on the fire and used to forecast the success or not of marriages and love affairs, according to how they burned.

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Halloween Apple Bobbing (Howard Chandler Christy), 1915.

Halloween was also sometimes called Snap Apple Night, in England. Contestants had to try an bite the apple suspended on a piece of string without using their hands. A variation of the game was to fix an apple and a lighted candle at opposite ends of a stick suspended horizontally and to swing the stick round. The object was to catch the apple between the teeth whilst avoiding the candle. Many places in England combined Halloween with Mischief Night (celebrated on 4 November), when boys played all kinds of practical jokes on neighbours. ‘Souling’ was a ninth century pre-reformation European Christian custom where locals would make house calls and beg for ‘soul cakes’. In exchange for a cake they promised to pray for the repose of the soul because it was believed that the prayer of strangers especially could help this souls journey to heaven. Platters of these little unleavened cakes were left on porches with water or something stronger as the pilgrims gathered, singing songs such as this:

“A soul, a soul, a soul cake. Please god missus a soul cake. An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, Any good thing to make us merry. Up with your kettles and down with your pans Give us an answer and we’ll be gone Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate Crying for butter to butter his cake One for St Peter, two for St Paul, Three for the man who made us all.”

If children were part of the group, they would be accompanied by a hobby horse (an echo of the Celtic past), which was called the Hooden Horse at this time of year. Shakespeare was familiar with this custom and referenced it in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ where observed pithily that one of the special marks of a man in love is to ‘speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas”.

And it is in these customs we see the beginnings of the modern practices of trick or treating and party games.

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Soul Cakes

Soul Cakes

Similar to a Hot Cross Bun but without the cross or currants, these little allspice flavoured cakes make an authentic and delicious All Souls Day breakfast- try them with jam, honey or even maple syrup. If you wish, you can flavour them with saffron which was a traditional crop across parts of England.

175g butter

175g caster sugar

3 egg yolks

450g plain flour

pinch salt

1 teaspoon mixed spice or allspice

warm milk

Preheat oven to 180c and cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until fluffy and pale then beat in egg yolks. Sift flour and spices then slowly add in, mixing to a stiff dough. Knead thoroughly and roll out to 1/4 inch thick then cut into 3 inch rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Prick the rounds with a fork and bake 20-25 mins or until lightly golden and cooked through. Sift with icing sugar and eat warm.

A stay at Alde Garden

The wonderful thing about Suffolk is that it is full of hidden nooks and crannies, winding lanes, pubs in hamlets, woodland that feels unchartered and above all, amazing people with a real commitment to the environment, to their customers and their businesses. Mark and Marie who own and run the White Horse pub in Sweffling, the Alde Gardens campsite and its adjacent hideaway holiday cottage called ‘Badgers Cottage’ are two such people, originally from Southend in next door Essex and now honorary Suffolk folk. Having started the campsite back in June 2010, inspired by their own love of camping and thoughts about how to do it better based upon the sites they visited and love of the environment, they used the revenue from early guests to renovate the White Horse pub, keeping its original character intact and saving yet another one of our country pubs from closure.

Set in the tiny little village of Sweffling a mere few miles away from Saxmundham, Framlingham and the glorious Suffolk Heritage Coastline, conveniently close to the A12 and on the National Cycle Route (National Cycle Network route 1, and the Suffolk Coastal Cycle route – Regional Route 41), the cottage, pub and campsite made for a wonderful and relaxing stay with our every need both anticipated and catered for. Forests (Rendlesham), nature reserves (Minsmere), great food (Farm Cafe at Marlesford) and many places to eat in the various villages and towns, the beach (Dunwich, Orford, Walberswick, Covehithe and Southwold) plus the location in the Alde Valley, a stunningly attractive and fertile farming region, punctuated by wonderful footpaths and views make this region a prime holiday destination whilst retaining its sense of self. People live and work here and this is not obscured by the very necessary tourism that brings in much revenue- there is no tourist ‘Disneyland’ feel about this part of the county.

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Badger Cottage

Alde Garden, as they named the campsite, is set in what was once a larger beer garden belonging to the pub and cleverly gives no hint as to its size and shape, tucked away as it is behind an existing perimeter of hedges and mature trees, criss crossed with pathways following the contours of this sloping site. Each accommodation option-Yurt, Tipi, Bell Tent, Romany caravan, shepherds hut, Hideaway among others, is discreetly placed so as to benefit from the privacy provided by shrubs and trees, wildflowers and woven partitions made from the branches from coppiced trees- willow and hazel…Clusters of indigenous plants have grown and self seeded or been transplanted, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this happens totally naturally. A wild garden requires great discipline and knowledge to ensure it remains balanced and manageable: Mark and Marie work very hard to achieve this and its seemingly effortless beauty  is deceptive.

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Communal facilities can be found grouped near the rear of the pub where a back door off licence serves ice creams and drinks and a nearby fire pit is bordered by log seats and tree stump tables which bore chalk drawings by children staying there (lovely). The jungle shower, ‘Treebog’, shower and bathroom block plus fridge freezer offer discreet, modern and eco friendly facilities whilst the Antipodean style open kitchen is extensively stocked with cooking and eating equipment plus eggs from the ducks, a goose and flock of chickens that roam free in the daytime. The honesty shop sells local products such as sausages, bread and milk, cans of tomatoes, pulses and bags of pasta- and yes these are locally sourced wherever possible too (although it isn’t always possible), this being a guiding principle behind everything Mark and Marie do. This kind of pride in, and loyalty to their home region is incredibly inspiring; even though they live in one of the most bountiful regions of Britain, it still takes considerable time and effort to source goods and services locally, ensure they are of high standard and maintain the continuity of supply for their guests.

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Two nights in Badger Cottage

We stayed at Badger Cottage adjacent to the pub and campsite for two nights and spent our last night sleeping under the canvas of the Dragonfly Yurt inside the camping garden proper- two different types of accommodation with wide appeal for those who want the full camping experience or those wanting to engage with nature but retreat to a bedroom with a ‘proper’ roof at night.

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A converted redbrick stable, adjacent to the pub yet perfectly soundproofed, (the only sounds we heard were of the owls at night and the clatter of the hooves of the Welsh Cobb that offered trips in a trap around the local area each evening), Badger Cottage has been beautifully restored by Mark and Marie, avoiding twee pastiches of country cottage decor and offering a surprising amount of space for a home so small. Is the ultimate convenient location for local ale lovers being next to the CAMRA recommended White Horse Inn. A  low-impact place to stay, renovations were carried out using environmentally friendly paints and other natural building materials such as lime, and re-using reclaimed materials whenever possible. Most of the furniture and fittings are either recycled, beautifully hand-made from reclaimed materials or sourced locally. Solar panels heat the water for the bath, and all lights have low energy light bulbs. The cast iron woodburner is a very efficient way of heating the living room alongside a central heating system for deepest winter and water is collected via a system of water butts for the garden and livestock needs.

Two days in, we were still noticing all kinds of handmade features for the first time: stone corbels with Acanthus carvings holding up sitting room beams and doorways, beautiful wall art made from reclaimed items and the detail on the stairs which themselves are stunning although families with very adventurous babies and toddlers will need to keep a close eye on them. The stairs are partially open to the mezzanine bedroom over the main sitting room so little hands needing to hold onto a rail will have to take extra care here. Mark and Marie have made atmospheric and decorative tableaux everywhere you look- a hand forged cast iron candelabra on the kitchen table, dark red wax dripping down the cups in front of the dramatic Ecclesiastical arched window, cushion covered chair pulled up in front; a stack of wonderfully scented wood built in under the stairs with fruit crate filled with bottles of beer in front and cast iron wood burner to the side, metal flue shining brightly and contrasting with the oldness of the walls; white cast iron bath with metal bath rack, space for a book and little vases with posies of Honeysuckle; rustic stacks of wooden coasters on a side table in front of the dramatic cast iron and wood stairs….

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There is WiFi in the cottage, the grounds and some of the camping accommodation, a TV, a DVD player and stack of films in the cupboard plus plenty of books, games and magazines to borrow, two comfy sofas to sit on and french doors to throw open, allowing the room to catch the late afternoon rays as you wind down after a day exploring Suffolk. The little sitting space outside the cottage has a woven hazel hurdle fence, a small table and chair set plus that glorious Virginia Creeper covering the cottage which was just beginning to turn flame red during our stay.

Both bedrooms, although mezzanine, offer a good level of privacy and noise proofing and they are accessed via different rooms- the front bedroom from the sitting room and the back room from the kitchen/dining area. The tiny front bedroom window with its attached bird feeders and thick curtains keeping out the early morning light was particularly attractive and as we lay in bed listening to the calls of a lonesome owl (He was shouting his head off, in search of a mate!) feeling sheltered and warm under the rafters of this cosy room, we could see how lovely a stay here in winter would be. The bedroom has the feel of a treetop hideaway surrounded as we were by beams and the furniture made of reclaimed wood and the guest bedroom balustrade has been made from sumptuous Vietnamese teak that was destined for the dump- a criminal waste that would have been! Lush throws and cushions, good quality squishy duvets and pillows and a deep deep mattress made the bedrooms feel super luxe-the draperies in the master room have been skillfully handmade by Marie’s mum. I had an impulse to bounce and leap up and down on the bed like a gleeful child when I first saw it but (1) that would have been very disrespectful to the mattress and (2) those cross beams up high would have knocked me out. Travel cots are available and need to be reserved at time of booking.

The second bedroom is on a private little mezzanine over the kitchen with wooden staircase and banisters, two wooden single beds and a little sofa overlooking wall art, high above the kitchen which is itself well equipped with a dishwasher, all the equipment you will need and a supply of tea and coffee. Warm rugs cover the quarry tiled floors. The bathroom is particularly lovely- a Victorian free standing cast iron bath, beautiful wash stand and simple, fuss free decor; the heated towel rail and toiletries from a local company will lure you into spending plenty of time soaking here. There is enough space to bath more than one child at a time (saves water!) whilst a parent can sit nearby with a book or glass of wine, keeping an eye on them. There is an over the bath shower, solar panels heat the water and electricity is also from a renewable source –the 100% renewable energy tariff from Ecotricity,

Reading the Saturday papers is one of my must do weekly rituals and sitting at the wooden kitchen table next to the arched window that overlooks the lane beside the cottage, cheese sandwich made from Suffolk Gold cheese and Pump Street Bakery bread bought from Snape Maltings farmers market, late afternoon sun streaming in, I felt peaceful and grounded, not something that is always guaranteed when staying in a rental home or hotel. Newspapers are available from the nearby small towns of Framlingham or Saxmundham and the Farmcafe at Marlesford on the A12 has free papers to read as you eat too.

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We waved to the tourists out on their pony and trap ride courtesy of Alde Driving (for bookings call 01728 746226) as they passed the kitchen window each evening and ended up going for a ride around  the villages of Sweffling and Rendham as a result, enjoying a chat with the driver about local history and laughing at his very nosy pony. Guests can book both short and long routes (from £25 per ride), rides are often available summer evenings and can be pre-booked for day time. Staying at Alde Garden and Badger Cottage offered plenty of opportunities to meet local people, other guests and the owners who encouraged us to mingle and get to know each other through spending time in the communal areas (fire pit, outdoor kitchen) and walking around the gardens. Yet we never felt either obliged to socialise (there are plenty of people who honeymoon here so clearly there is privacy to be had) nor did we feel that it was hard to find a private space. Guests here seemed sensitive if they saw you with your head bent over a book or sitting on a log staring dreamily into space.

Although the cottage is a little separate from the campsite- we had to go through a gate or set of steps past the rear of the pub (taking us on a wander through a romantic tangle of flower and leaf edged pathway) to access it, all guests of the cottage can use the campsite facilities. At night we wandered into the pub which was a whole twenty or so steps away and ended up retiring to the campfire afterwards, fairylights and solar path lights guiding our way in a part of Suffolk with very little light pollution, to talk to other guests, roast a few sausages, drink more local ale and just be. It is possible of course, to be completely private as guests while staying in the cottage if this is what you wish and it provides enough separateness to do this without leaving you feeling awkward and guilty about not ‘mingling’ enough.

A night in Dragonfly Yurt

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Our last night was spent in Dragonfly Yurt which has been designed and furnished with family and group visits in mind- it is camping but with a luxury edge to it, ideal for the first time camper in fact. Built on the site by Mark and Marie from locally coppiced ash and hazel, tucked away in a corner to the front right of the open kitchen, in sight of the fire pit and sheltered by a windbreak of hedgerow and within easy reach of the loo in the darkest of nights, the yurt is bright, spacious and airy. The intricately trellised structure, lit by fairy lights and casting shadows across the floor which is thickly protected by rugs and rustic matting is magical at night when the woodburner is lit (handmade again from recycled materials and featuring a delicate engraving of a Dragonfly), swiftly warming an evening which had turned unseasonally cold. The private outdoor area faces west so as to catch the afternoon sun and has a seating area carved from fallen trees and a little barbecue although the handbuilt pizza oven, fire pit and open kitchen also offer ample scope for cooking.

Peeping through the trees can be seen other accommodation options, each set in its own little area to satisfy the human need for personal territory. The Romany caravan has a history unknown although it is believed to be at least 100 years old. With the help of a carpenter it has been restored it in traditional gypsy caravan style & design, using lots of recycled materials and provides a double bed plus under the bed child’s sleeping area. I was smitten by the roof of the ‘The Hideout’ – a cosy little retreat tucked away in a small clearing amid the trees and shrubs, almost totally hidden from view of everyone else and accessed by dipping your head to walk under a woven bower of branches and plants. Two glass panels in the roof allow a wonderful view of the nature around you – whether it be dragonflies, birds & butterflies during the daytime or bats and stars at night and most wonderfully of all, this roof is tiled with old ’45 vinyl records rescued from landfill.

Waking in the morning to see the shadows of the Indian Running Ducks that roam the site freely, cast against the canvas of our yurt, slowly moving closer until they peered one by one round our open door was the quirkiest (and best) memory. The most intrepid (and nosy) of the ducks had spent the previous afternoon engrossed in watching a young couple erect their own tent near to the pond, ducking its head into the canvas flap opening from time to time, shaking itself free of stray guy ropes and investigating their bags strewn over the grass.

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Upright in shape, as opposed to the more traditional forms ducks take, these ducks provided hours of entertainment alongside the other breeds of chickens, fluffy of foot, tiny and swift moving and also prone to the occasional squabble as all chickens are wont to be. A rather mardy Gander lives in its own pen adjacent to the pub and it is advisable NOT to try to befriend him but the rest of the livestock is friendly although of course, children are discouraged from chasing. And dogs are not allowed on site. The children we met were content to sit and watch and scatter the floor with bird food supplied for this purpose and kept on the shelves of the communal kitchen. Watching chickens come flying over from all corners of the site after hearing the faintest of sounds as we picked up the container was hilarious, If they’d have been human sized, we’d have been knocked flat in the crush.

Scattered all over the site, there for you (and pint sized guests) to find are little bowers, nooks and hideaways. Whippy young stems are encouraged to grow or are tied into shape, log seats placed inside and all that is needed then is a child (or adult) with untrammelled imagination. The fact that these hideaways frequently house dust bathing chickens was a source of huge joy to the little kids we met there- Five year old bi-lingual Emily was certain that “Hadas y dragones viven aquí!” (Fairies and dragons live here) as she tucked herself inside one of them, shooing away the Bantam chicken inside and firing up her already very active imagination. We won’t give away the location of these- the fun is in finding them for yourselves. Mark and Marie have provided packs of chalk, pots of crayons and drawing paper by the shelter kitchen table with haybales pulled up to sit on, many children have decorated the pages of the guest books and written expansive accounts of their stay, whilst other children have decorated the outdoor seats and tree trunks with rainbows of chalk and happy messages. Emily took it one step further and draw elaborate designs all over our knees with both the chalk and the charcoal laying around the fire pit. She thus learned where artists charcoal came from.

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This part of Suffolk, although not as flat as many believe the county to be, is easily walked or cycled. Hills are gently undulating, slope gradually and offer plenty of stopping -off -to -catch-breathe-points. Hence, Alde Garden offers plenty of push bikes, some fitted with child seats (or one baby seat) and accompanying safety helmets for guests to use free of charge. Local bike hire companies can provide two seat cycle trailers, delivered to the site and Mark or Marie can suggest some great local bike routes that are suited to your energy levels or fitness. To be honest, we didn’t use these, nor did we explore the local region much by foot because the campsite is such a restful place and for us, the need to restore energy levels and be still was pretty important. We did notice plenty of families with car boots stuffed with scooters, trikes and various pieces of water sport equipment so clearly Alde Garden appeals to people who want more activity from their break than we did.

We had already heard great things about the White Horse pub as one of our friends is both owner and head brewer at Shortts Farm Brewery near Thorndon and he supplies Mark and Marie with his ales, Skiffle, Indie and Blondie. In fact, our first acquaintance with the pub came when Matt took us there last July and so we were very happy to have the chance to return and get very settled and comfortable in one of the deep sofas in the lounge bar. Having to drive great distances, therefore being unable to enjoy more than a pint (some of these real ales are, real strong!) means country pubs can struggle to attract a regular clientele outside of the locals living close by so being able to stay next door (and it really is next door!) was something we intended (especially my husband) to make the most of.

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The White Horse has had the life breathed back into it after being closed for 8 years, until Mark and Marie took it on. Over 200 years old, the pub shares the same values as the campsite and cottage with reclaimed and locally made fixtures and fittings.. A wood burning stove in the lounge bar and an old Esse range cooker (with back boiler to heat various radiators) in the public bar keep things snug too whilst eco bulbs and candlelight keep lighting low- you will not be assaulted by bright electric lights and the pub is reminiscent of how it must have been two centuries ago whilst not sacrificing modern comforts too. Rows of pewter mugs belonging to locals are lined up on hooks by the front door, a piano piled high with boxed board games; Othello and Scrabble among them, newspapers and local tourist info, Bar Billiards and a dart board are all the traditional markings of a village pub that is a hub. It would have been a tragedy for Sweffling had it been been sold and turned into a private house.

Don’t look for the bar when you walk in as it has an old-style tap room where locally brewed real ales are served straight from the barrel, proper ploughmans are made and dished up alongside a range of local ice creams- the lemon and ginger? So delicious I had two pots of it. In winter the owners make hot pies, using the wood oven and when we were there, several locals were eagerly anticipating the colder weather that would herald The Season of the Pie. Scotch eggs the size of a small planet, freshly made, locally baked Huffer bread made in a wood fire and served with local rapeseed dipping oil were the last items on the small but perfect menu. The pub also stocks some local spirits, a selection of local or fairtrade organic wines, soft drinks & a small array of speciality spirits. Don’t expect Coca Cola and Fanta or similarly branded soft drinks: the cola is by Fentiman made with proper Kola nuts and many drinks are sourced locally, from East Anglia and where possible, Suffolk. Any varieties of drink not available locally are sourced from Fairtrade or other similarly ethical or groovy suppliers. My favourite was Marie’s hot spiced apple drink with spice and raisin-y undertones whilst husband tucked into a range of local ales, Absinthe from Adnams and Papagaya rum (not all on the same night, thank goodness!).

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Staying here was the perfect recuperation after our wedding: a frenetically busy year at work and a recent burglary all conspired to leave us a tad ragged round the edges. The yurt and cottage offer two slightly different experiences and most of all, flexibility with guests able to choose how much they want to participate in campsite life, all in a glorious location.

A great marriage between eco awareness and the expectation of guests regarding their holidays means that newbies to the concept of low impact living aren’t put off (there is no proselytising) or made to feel inadequate. Rather they will go away with some ideas about how to make often very simple changes that benefit them, their purse and the world. In addition, Alde Garden is a great example of how holidays, not traditionally known for moderation and low consumption, whether this be in travel or fuel costs, buying unnecessary crap and over consuming generally, can be incorporated into a lower impact, more thoughtful way of living. Attracting families with young children is key to instilling these kind of values in a gentle, enjoyable way and Alde Garden does this cleverly with its little signs, activities and information showing kids why certain plants and environments are important (one example) and making water awareness fun- the Treebog and Jungle Shower are perfect fun for kids and adults too.

For us, the chance to meet Marie, Mark and many locals alongside the other guests was what made this short break even more special and we will definitely be returning.

Alde Garden website

Badger Cottage page

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The Millers guide to great pubs in Suffolk [1]

 

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Whether you are a resident of the fine county of Suffolk or a visitor, one thing’s for certain, you won’t be disappointed by our pubs although it is not always easy to locate the very best of them. Some hide behind tall hedgerows of cow parsley or down winding country lanes and some boast an unprepossessing exterior concealing the treasure that lies within. If you aren’t local to the area, you can end up missing out on some of the UKs best pubs and wouldn’t that be a shame? That’s where The Millers Tale comes in with this pubs guide.

Some of these hostelries offer excellent food whilst others have a great rep for their beer, welcome and conviviality. A few rare beasts tick all of these boxes and function as true community hubs at a time when their kind has never been more under threat. If we’ve committed an injustice by failing to include your own favourite, let us know and we’ll endure the hardship and sacrifice of checking it out for our next pub guide.

In no particular order…

Oakes Barn, Bury St Edmunds.

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This is a free house in the heart of the town with exquisitely kept guest real ales and a small and perfectly formed menu featuring cheese plates with local bread and chutneys (bread is made with ale from Shortts Farm Brewery), turkey and white bean chile, locally made pies and a few other bits and pieces. The staff and clientele are great: they’re deeply embedded in their community and determined to ensure the pub reflects its locality and they have won awards for this (West Suffolk Community Pub of the Year). Built on land that formed part of the towns original medieval defence ditch, the welcome is much MUCH  friendlier now and the pub is a declared community hub with ‘Blokes in the Oakes’ for older male customers, Bury Folk Collective, language conversation, Voice Choir and book and crochet club meetings among many, many other activities and special events. There’s a small outside town patio with covered area, a disabled loo and dogs/kids are welcome.

The White Horse at Sweffling

two-horses.jpgOut east, near to Framlingham Castle and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is the Suffolk coast, the tiny little village of Sweffling has a pub that is exactly what one would imagine a pub of its kind to be (great ales, deeply picturesque for a start) which is part of the reason why it has been voted Ipswich and East Suffolk CAMRA Pub of the Year and just recently, Suffolk Pub of the Year for 2015. With real ales and ciders, organically made wines and bottles of Fentimans cola, the pub is lit by candlelight at night, is attached to the award winning eco Alde Gardens campsite and run by two of the loveliest people you could ever wish to meet- Mark and Marie. Offering pony and trap rides from a local during the warmer months and a tiny year round menu of damper bread, cheese boards and pies alongside cheese toasties, the pub likes to think of itself as a year round slow food version of a beer festival. There’s a wood burning stove, trad pub games and customers sit together around a large wooden table of a night. Dogs are welcome and there’s a small beer garden open from spring to autumn equinox. Call before setting out or check the website for more info and to book a stay at the fab eco glamping site!

The Cock at Brent Eleigh

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This is the archetypal roadside village pub with oodles of history lurking inside deepest West Suffolk, midway between Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds via winding lanes. To arrive here is to be a traveller in time with a profound awareness of the country people over the centuries who stopped here en route to and from the local markets. There’s pink plaster and a thatched roof, saloon cats and two tiny rooms- really tiny- that nonetheless serve discerning patrons with excellently kept beer and incredibly good value roast lunches, trad puddings and a real ploughmans. Locals sit together at a large table with a shove ha’penny board engraved onto its wooden surface and strangers are made welcome. Warmer nights see live acoustic bands play in a mini marquee at the side of the pub whilst Tuesday evenings are cheese and acoustic music night: locals bring cheeses which go on the bar for all to try. We’ve sat here at night on the grassed bank looking up at the stars in a part of Suffolk that enjoys darker skies, listening to music float out of the bar and the soft whaft of bats as they swoop over. The surrounding countryside makes for great walking with a plethora of views across some of the loveliest and most rural parts of the county, go at dusk for added loveliness. The easiest way to access the lovely village with its Jacobean houses is by taking the lane across the road and following it down to the church and its grounds which include a pond. Then take a walk along the treelined pathway that leads you back onto the village lane via a gated entrance. Just gorgeous.

The Eels Foot Inn at East Bridge

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Another Jack (or Jill) of all trades and master and mistress of all of them, this pub also has a campsite, B&B and offers cycle hire alongside amazing food. Located near to RSPB Minsmere and close to the heritage coastal towns of Southwold, Aldeburgh and the villages of Dunwich, Peasenhall and Walberswick, the location couldn’t be more stellar: everywhere is accessible via a network of brideways, footpaths and cycle routes and the region is ridiculously over endowed with wildlife. The pub offers Adnams cask ales, ciders and all manner of other beverages alongside the best darned fish soup we’ve ever eaten (there’s plenty more foodie excellence too). Made by their French chef, we guessed what the secret ingredient is but we’re not going to spoil the surprise for you. Thursday night is ‘squit night’ where locals gather for an almighty folk jam session. The welcome is warm, the newly refurbished interiors are really lovely and you should go there. Now.

The Beerhouse pubs: The One Bull in Bury St Edmunds and The Crown at Hartest

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The Crown (pictured above) can be found in the village of Hartest on the right hand side of the lovely common. They serve their own Brewshed best Bitter and some Greene King ales, make home smoked salmon, run fish and steak nights and have a well balanced menu of local, seasonal foods all cooked to order. When we came, we had some deeply satisfying oxtail and beef cheek mini pasties, a large bowl of chowder and a stunningly flavoursome butternut squash main course. Kids are welcomed with a huge garden and adventure playground, there’s crayons to keep them occupied inside and a decent sized enclosed courtyard garden to corral them in too. Dogs are welcomed. The surrounding countryside is perfect for walking from the river that bounds the gardens (you’ll need to watch the smalls here) to the lanes that lead off the common.

The One Bull is a rambling timbered and beamed building with a clattery cobbled coach entrance to one side, located on Angel Hill and next to the Abbey Gardens. This is one of the best town pubs for food with a sophisticated and well curated menu of local and seasonal foods. Owned by Brewshed, it aims to offer consistency and quality across all aspects of the pub experience alongside somewhere smart to go out that bridges the restaurant-pub divide. The kids meals have as much care taken over them as does the adult menu although the pub becomes child free of an evening- something a lot of parents and child free punters appreciate. From guineafowl, lemon sole with fennel to pork scrumpets with apple sauce, the food is honest and earthy and portions are decent. Check out their twitter feed for a riot of photos of their latest menu choices. It’ll drive you loopy if you happen to be hungry.

 The Queens Head at Hawkedon

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Rural and sprawling and one of Suffolk’s proper country pubs, the Queen’s Head is well bedded down in a Domesday village and was originally a coaching inn. Located on the Upper Green with stupendous views of rolling chases and the steep wooded cuts that so resemble the Normandy countryside, the pub is a flagstoned, timbered, inglenooked wonder. With cask conditioned ales and ciders, a menu composed of local ingredients including their own livestock and meat from the attached butchers shop, you’ll find it very hard to drag yourself away especially if you are enjoying one of their regular game nights, wine tastings, beer or music festivals. But, if you do, the wool towns of Lavenham, Long Melford and Sudbury are close by as is Bury St Edmunds in the opposite direction. It is also close to the Hartest Crown if you want to do a double.

The Kings Head at Laxfield

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An Adnams ‘Community Pub of the Year’ and liked by us for several reasons, not least its location opposite a graveyard where the residents will have no cause to complain about any pub noise, this venerable Suffolk thatched pub is also a rarity- it boasts no bar. Perfectly kept ales from Adnams are served from barrels in the tap room and the ancient open fireplace in another room is surrounded by a perfect and cosy horseshoe arrangement of wooden settles with bottom shaped depressions from centuries of buttocks. There is a crisp cupboard from which customers help themselves and settle up when they pay for their drinks and you will might well walk into a spontaneously arranged music evening too. The Kings Head also serves up a short menu of staples- soups, sandwiches and sausages and mash plus smoked ham with bubble and squeak.

The Henny Swan, near Sudbury

 

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Thankfully open once more after a change of hands, this pub fronts the River Stour just a few miles from Sudbury (see pic above) and offers a simply lovely spot to sit and relax on the Suffolk/Essex border. Popular with families and river users- it has a landing stage for small craft and canoes- a lot of locals simply sit on the river bank when all the outside seating is full and bask in the sun. Another of those sprawling rural outposts for drinkers of yore, the pub has a brand new menu with a range of modern European starters and mains. The pressed pork belly confit with pickled vegetables, slow lamb with apricots and puds such as pistachio bakewell have gone down well. There’s a kids menu and play area also. The River Stour Trust run boat trips that go right past the pub and they’ll stop and drop you off if you like, picking you up later. We wish the owners well and are keeping our fingers crossed that the pub has a long and happy future.

The White Horse at Whepstead

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Newly refurbished with the former owners of the much loved (and missed) Beehive at the helm, this seventeenth century inn with its warm yet roomy interior is well worth a visit. Copper topped bar, wooden furnishings and open fires plus a ‘tuck shop’ selling candies, chocolate and ice cream inject the place with both style and fun. The menu is eclectic and more stylish than your average pub (goats cheese bruschetta with honey & walnut, tuna with celery and tomato confit) and there’s also top notch pub classics including Sunday lunches. Whepstead is well served by footpaths and located in the heart of lovely West Suffolk. Should you not want to move, the sheltered back terrace is a lovely and sunny place to relax.

The Ram in Hadleigh

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One of a trio of pubs in the same ‘stable’ (the others are the Lavenham Greyhound and the Long Melford Swan), this is a highly regarded ’boutique’ restaurant and pub just off the lovely High Street with its well supported independent shops. With a sunny courtyard for mid morning coffee and smart interior all inside a building that is typically composed of additions built at different times. More smart bistro than pub, it is still a lovely and relaxing place with a country feel and the menu has a range of options from lunches of lebanese chicken wings with tahini, courgette and garlic soup or cauliflower veloute and truffle ‘ice cream’ to sandwich snacks, cream teas, evening three courses and steak and wine nights. Want a treat? Plates of native Mersea Oysters can be had during those months with a ‘R’ in- this is the place for a smart lunch with your mates or an evening with your other half.

The Queens Head at Blyfordthe-queens-head-at-blyford

Here we have a truly old pub dating back to the fifteenth century and well endowed with the thatched roof, roaring log fires and beams that add atmosphere by the bucket load. Located near to Halesworth and Southwold in pretty north east Suffolk, its conveniently near the coast. There’s a pretty beer garden with lovely Blythe Valley views and plenty of original features inside and out: the thatched roof itself reflects the preponderence of reedbeds to be found in the nearby river valley and along the Suffolk coast too. Lots of the ingredients are local such as line caught cod and there are afternoon teas bookable. Kids are welcome and they’ll eat well before playing in the sandpit and play boat. In the Autumn the pub hosts the Blyford Church Fete which comes with all the traditional entertainment you’d expect froma village fete: pet competitions, stalls, cake stands, pony rides. The aforementioned church dates back to 1088 and is situated on the East Suffolk Like Walk from Halesworth to Walberswick and Southwold providing walkers and history lovers with plenty to do.

The Maybush Inn at Waldringfield

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A prince among pubs for its views (just look at them, above!), perched as it is on the banks of the River Deben near Woodbridge, this is one of the quintessential Suffolk views where decades worth of visitors have watched the light change and play across the waters as they sup their pints and feel smugly lucky to live here. If you want to explore further, the Deben Cruise Company will take you on a two hour boat ride along the river and special protection area of the estuary and drop you back later, fed and happy. Famous for its excellent food including local game and seafood, there’s a kids menu and a wide choice of snacks and full meal options plus guest ales from Adnams. Pub goers get their car park fees refunded and there is access to the sandy beaches nearby. The pub is sister to the Butt and Oyster at Pin Mill and the Wilford Bridge among others and both of these are equally worthy of a visit.

The Peacock Inn at Chelsworth

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A great location in one of the regions prettiest villages (the whole village is a conservation area), around nine miles from Long Melford makes this fourteenth century half timbered pub a must stop. The Peacock is as pretty as its bird moniker although it has a lot more substance too- it’s not just about the chocolate box looks. There’s pretty views and rooms to stay in should you decide not to move on, breakfasts are served in rooms full of exposed brick, fireplaces and wooden beams and local ales from Adnams, Woodfords and Nethergate Brewery all add to the general air of bucolic loveliness. Should you decide to go for a picnic, take out fish and chips currently priced at £6,95 are a bargain. Seafood linguines, Lavenham bread, venison sausages and more await diners who want to eat in and there’s a weekend menu too.

The Bushel in Bury St Edmunds

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Located on lovely old St Johns Street a linear street lined with independent shops and businesses and opposite the eponymous church, the Bushel is a well loved town pub with plenty of space to spread out and relax in. Food is served all day from morning coffee (free wifi) to bar snacks (try monkeys fingers-chicken in hot sauce with blue cheese dip, fried dill pickles) and full three course meals (buttermilk chicken, bags of doughnuts, marmalade ham and full roasts). Lately there has been a great programme of live entertainment with local folk singers, blues and acoustic musicians all making music here. Definitely a place for a night out then and its private car park eliminates the thorny issue of town centre parking on busier days.

The Star Inn at Wenhaston

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Just a few miles from the sea and the lost village of Dunwich, this inn provides sanctuary for all those visitors sick to the back teeth of hipster fake this and hipster fake that. Run as a small local place and nestled in the sand and gorse covered five heaths of Wenhaston, the Star is immensely popular with locals, walkers and the tourists who have found it. Local rules here from the Penny Bun Bakehouse bread and Suffolk Red Poll Beef to the fish from the Sole Bay Co. The Whitebait are the freshest you’ll find and their crumb has never been acquainted with the Chorleywood Process. There’s a garden with boules and other games with space to host campers plus the occasional beer festival and live music. They seem cool with kids despite the tiny size of the rooms and a local bus service runs past the place connecting Southwold, Lowestoft and Halesworth. No need to drive if you are staying locally. (Image by Phil Gaskin)

The Fox at Ousden

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A hill top location not far from Newmarket and a lovely beer garden with kids play areas, bouncy castles and pet rabbits and chickens keep this pub popular. It’s well known for good food cooked by an Anglo-French chef and the lobster is particularly lovely, in fact fresh fish is their speciality. Menus are seasonable with the summer salads looked forward to and they have Woodfords Wherry and Greene King IPA as resident ales plus guest ones also. The bars are kept for drinkers only which keeps the ambience alive and they offer a great public service by offering fres bread for sale on Fridays from the Friendly Loaf Company and they also sell coffee from award winning local company Butterworth & Son. Socially there are quiz nights and mini beer festivals alongside communal acreenings of various rugby tournaments.

The Five Bells at Rattlesden

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This is a proper pub serving proper beer and is to be found at the heart of a tiny Suffolk community, fronting onto Bell Meadow and in front of the village church- a beautiful location.There’s well selected and kept ales served in traditional no frills pub surroundings: there’s old style pub games and no pub meals per se although the owners will apparently knock you up a cheese toastie for very little money. Pork scratchings and pickled eggs are sold across the bar and there is regular live music too plus a range of esoteric entertainment from bike shows to plane flyovers.

The Red Lion in Grest Bricett

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Refurbed with al fresco terraces, the Red Lion is the only all vegetarian pub that we know of and it has become a bit of a destination for non meat eating diners who are tired of ‘choosing’ from just two options. There’s a wide choice of in house cooked meals with local ingredients such as African sweet potato stew and grilled smoked brie melt. Kids get to choose from macaroni choose and veggie nuggets plus a range of ice creams and other puds. The Red Lion also sells its own range of ‘redi-meals’ cooked in house and available to take away to heat at home. Choose from Caribbean curry and Moroccan tagines among many other options.

The Six Bells in Horringer

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A recent visit to this pub which employs a new chef, formerly of Alimentum in Cambridge, blew us away with his variation on cheese on toast and I won’t forget the bosky taste of wild mushrooms, reblochon cheese and Suffolk black bacon piled onto local sourdough bread-a toastie of the highest order. There’s game in the winter and plenty of light fish and seafood dishes too. Open for lunch and dinner, the Six Bells has been refurbished with a sunny conservatory alongside a bar and side rooms filled with clean, stripped back furnishings and open fires, all popular with diners from near and not so near. There’s all manner of two course lunch offers (Autumn 2015 the cost is around 12/15 pounds for 2/3 courses), tasting menus and special dining events alongside well kept beers and a decent wine list. It’s a lovely mix of trad and contemporary and offers the stunning grounds of Ickworth Park and House over the road to walk off that lovely food alongside strolls in the Horringer countryside, all just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds.