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.
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.
Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above] of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.
The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here. Ports are a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.
Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal.
Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?
“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”
[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]
The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.
And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.
I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?
John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth] to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”
Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.
Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.
A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.
Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.
Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.
The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones, the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.
Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:
Delight of our appetites, Oyster, flee the liquid plain; Enter the pomp of the feast, Leave this perfidious element, And, since you must die, rather die in wine.
There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”
It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.
It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.
Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.
Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry.
Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.
If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank. The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.
Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.
There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.
In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.
I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).
Don’t be fooled by their sweet exterior, a dumpling of blue-green and yellow bobbing from hedge to feeder to fence and then back again like tiny feathered globes. When blue tits arrive in your garden they arrive with a vengeance, all needle-slash of claw and lethal-weapon beaks and their fierce reputation has followed them across time and literature.
Blue tits [Latin name: Parus caeruleus] are not the star turn from a Hallmark card sent to us by Mother Nature. They might look as if they have just returned from a stint as cast extras in a Disney film, swirling around the head of a princess, tweeting words of love but in reality they are aggressive, furious balls of spitting ire and possessiveness. George Orwell knew this when he depicted the forensically precise beak work of this tiny creature as it gorges itself upon the feeders that householders hang up to attract it:
A blue-tit darts with a flash of wings, to feed Where the coconut hangs on the pear tree over the well; He digs at the meat like a tiny pickaxe tapping With his needle-sharp beak as he clings to the swinging shell.
In the UK, blue tits start scouting for a nesting site in January and once they have chosen one, will defend it until they start nest-building in March and April. The competition for a mate is fierce, their alpha male courting an avian Tarantella for human onlookers, their calls scolding and full of fury. Once paired, copulation happens to a soundtrack of high pitched notes, similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with freshly killed food. She will time the laying of her eggs so that they hatch just as the caterpillars on which they feed their nestlings are hatching and the babies emerge looking uncannily like miniature versions of the actor Tommy Lee Jones: all cross, feathered brows set above dark and irate eyes.
The adults brook no competition during the breeding season although later in the year they often move and feed in protective flocks, looping from one place to another in short bursts of flight. I had to remove a garden mirror after it ended up smeared with blue tit blood as a lonely male bird set out to attack and drive off his [rival] reflection and battered his own head half to bits in the attempt. They possess sturdy, well defined head markings with a dark blue-black eyestripe and a skull cap of brighter blue, set against their white cheeks and forehead which, in the case of my star crossed lover, darkened with blood as he wheeled and slew into the glass of the mirror.
His aggression shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after reading, years ago, about European great tits who enter bat caves and peck hibernating bats to death: “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a bat in this manner” reported Howard Saunders back in 1899 but seeing such a tiny bird driven to death by its own desire to mate was disturbing, even knowing their capabilities.
DH Lawrence was no stranger to this titan of the ornithological world and in ‘Two Blue Birds’ their pugilistic nature serves as handy metaphor for the swirling resentment and occasional outbreak of aggressive rivalry between the protagonist and the two women who unhealthily compete for his attention. Mrs Gee and her secretary rival are both dressed in cobalt blue silk, overly obvious maybe although that “blest blue bird of happiness” as Mrs Gee first calls him is soon engaged in a battle royal with another, at their feet:
“And as she was being blest, appeared another blue bird–that is, another blue-tit–and began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, I’m blest!
She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But ‘he’ was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.
“Get out!” he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. “Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.”
…”Aren’t they extraordinarily vicious little beasts?” said he.
“Extraordinarily!” she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. “Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!”
And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.”
Talking about blue tits and their reputation for aggression on twitter, I heard about a local bird ringer called Helen Bristol who has been subjected to the wrath of the tit family when going about her bird protection duties:
“We catch the birds in a fine mesh net ( mist net) and generally will check the nets every ½ hour and sooner if the weather is cold /hot/a bit blowy/drizzly,” Helen said. “At this time of year the tits go around in mixed flocks – most usually Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits and if you’re lucky Marsh Tits, although where I ring, the Bearded tits don’t join the gang. You can imagine this gang all feeding on or going towards feeders and the catch can be large, 25+ in one go.”
Instantly you can see the potential for aggressive behaviour because of competition for food and the proximity of bird species in a smaller space, as Helen explains:
“Inevitably several get caught close together and that’s when the pecking starts. Generally it’s the Greats and Blues that hack into each other. Usually they’ll go for the eyes – not a pretty sight- which is why I initially take a look at the net to see which birds are close together, very tangled or too near the ground. Those birds come out first and are put into individual bags, before being taken back to the ringing station for processing.”
The tits obviously can’t kill with one blow to the back of a human’s neck but they seem to know how else to cause maximum irritation to a creature many times their size:
“The Greats and the Blues also attack the ringer, usually pecking away at your cold hands and causing a lot of language. You know what it’s like when you have a sore bit down the side of a nail? They seem to home in on that. I often get home with little peck marks all over my hands. I find it amazing that such small birds can cause such pain. At an owl sanctuary recently I was “bitten” by a tame petting Eagle Owl but that didn’t even bruise. It was a friendly “please stop”. The only other birds who peck/bite are woodpeckers and some sea birds such as gulls.”
Aggression from other tits isn’t the only challenge these tiny birds face either. They have to deal with a form of brood parasitism which has seen blue tits and great tits engaged in a potentially bloody war about home invasion and who parents who. This happens when the great tit [Parus Major] fails to find an ideal place to lay its eggs and simply invades the nests of the smaller blue tit, who are half the size of these invaders. Being much smaller, the blue tit often capitulates, deciding to abandon their nest and fly away which, at least, protects them from being pecked to death or incurring severe injuries. Interestingly, the blue tit seems to have evolved a way of salvaging something from its loss with scientists reporting incidences of the bird re-entering nests taken over by great tits, and laying their own eggs in it, in the manner of a cuckoo. The resulting chicks temporarily assume the identity of their foster parents, recognising great tit calls as their own and behaving in species congruent ways. Known as sexual misimprinting, it tends to cease upon fledging and the adult blue tits birds revert back to their species specific behaviour.
The same doesn’t apply though, to great tits raised by blue tits. These tend to remain imprinted upon their blue tit foster parents, even trying to mate with other blue tits when adult. So why do blue tits not remain imprinted then? It has been postulated that perhaps blue tits lead a riskier and more rackety life than great tits and their smaller size [in comparison to a great tit, that is] means they have much to lose should they try to compete with other sexually mature great tits for food and a mate. So they go back to their own kind which is especially critical come the time when they need to raise their own brood.
A nest full of baby birds is a place full of conflict and competition: the needs of the adults have to be balanced against the needs of each chick and the brood as a whole. The parent birds are in competition with their own chicks for food and ensuring that their energy needs are met is a finely tuned thing. This is where humans come in handy, in providing supplementary feeding for birds throughout the winter hunger gap and when birds are nest building and hatching their eggs. A bird that meets the spring, well fed with fat reserves like a butterball turkey is more likely to be a winner in the mate stakes and will certainly have more energy to spend on wooing rather than desperately trying to build its strength up as natural food sources regenerate. Comely female blue tits probably aren’t terribly impressed by a bird more interested in a suet ball than the gentle curve of their saffron- yellow breasts.
So help all birds this coming winter by keeping them fed and remember that not all feeding areas are created equal in the eyes of smaller birds such as the tits. Larger bird feeders and bird tables tend to attract bigger, more voracious birds who are able to fend off tits easily and consume food faster, making it trickier for other birds to eat enough food to maintain body weight and causing them to expend precious energy fighting for their share. If your bird table has hooks to hang nut feeders, shells and fat balls from, alongside a large flat table top for larger birds to eat off, members of the tit family don’t tend to come off very well. Despite their supple, dexterous bodies and beaks, they can end up crowded out.
Birds from the tit family are aerial acrobats, able to feed upside down, contort themselves into the tiniest of spaces to extract food (watch a blue tit or coal tit feed from hanging coconut shells and you’ll see what I mean) and semi hover in the air to peck at nut feeders. So hang up feeders that only the tits can reach, filled with peanuts, fat, niger seeds and sunflower hearts. Hang them at different levels and, if you have a large enough garden, in different areas to discourage avian tit fights over food which waste even more calories and energy during a cold winter. These feeders may well attract goldfinches too but the blue tit can more than easily hold its own against them, giving you your own version of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Bluetit in the garden this winter and spring.
The shout reached me a hundred yards down a rutted track, plashy along its edges where the water table rose up. The caution from my husband came just in time to stop me from stepping over a sagging chicken-wire fence to follow the dog walkers ahead of me into a stand of pines, forest-dark and upright as a Japanese etching against a sky the colour of porridge.
Ahead of me, a semi-circle of straw bales moldered and sagging after a wet summer, and underfoot, discarded grain hulled by the sharp beaks of the thousands of young pheasants released from their pens into the countryside. They are now ready for the lucrative meets which will soon pepper our skies with shot.
Slades Covert, where I stood, lies next to the village of Gt Livermere and acts as an elementary school for game birds, a place for them to clatter around until they pluck up the courage to venture forth onto the open fields which surround their feeding pens.
This time of year country roads become the avian version of a crapshoot. These immature birds have yet to turn wise to what happens when feathers meet car bumpers: they burst out of hedgerows, putter about in the middle of the road, and change their mind mid-crossing meaning our roads soon become decorated with brightly coloured smears as pheasant meets car.
We’d only stopped here so I could boost some dandelions, couch grass, and assorted other weeds to take home for my rabbits from the roadside but I’m a sucker for field-edge footpaths and cannot stop myself from wandering along them, even at dusk when the chances are high that I will have to navigate back using my phone torch and wearing the most of unsuitable shoes.
I’d spent half the journey mourning the passing of every creature splattered on the tarmac and the other half delivering lectures on road safety to the partridge families that were scratting about in the washes of grit that are left after a cloud burst, those channels of yellow mud and tiny stones that braid the road verges. It wasn’t just game birds either; a kestrel was eating its fill of roadkill and another was further along the road, pecking at grit, perched on the verge, and reaching down over the edge. He was clearly older and in possession of road wisdom. The surrounding fields, clodded in brown and devoid of crops operate as a partridge fight club where the birds went for it, hell for leather, their wings rayed and furious as they flew at each other until one surrendered and ran away, head extended, a feathered stealth bomber in retreat.
Walk the back lanes of Gt Livermere in the late afternoon and the noise is deafening as hundreds of water birds return to the mere and settle down for the night on waters turning mercury grey as night approaches. The clamour rises for a time then starts to fall: ‘In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon…Where is? I’m here? An upward inflection in query and in response’ as Alice Ostriker writes in ‘Birdcall.’
Silhouetted against the risen moon was an inbound wedge of geese and ducks who skillfully wove a flight path through the thick brush that lay between mere and us. The splashes as the geese settled onto the waters into a tight plump bounced around the fields. There was no wind at all to stifle the noise down on the ground, unusual for this exposed part of the county although up high, their powerful wingbeats rebuffed the wind, hurling, and gliding.
Binoculars do nothing to close the space between us and birds in flight and seeing the mechanical struts and bolts of their extended wings only amplifies the essential mystery of flight. I know how the science works, but I am still wondrously unknowing at the same time. Staring up at the geese, my head tilted back as far as it will go, I turn slowly, 360 degrees and then again until dizziness overtakes and feel like I might swirl through the thick viscous grey of the skies, shedding the magnetic grounding in time and space which keeps me pulled tight against the sticky cracked clay of the field.
Suffolk is an unusual place, irregularly defined more by water than its land which has presented a peculiar and unpredictable challenge for various invading forces. However it has also been the home of people who travel far beyond its confines in their own lifetime and the results of these expeditions can be seen growing in our gardens and parks and town centres.
The tales of the great plant hunters are epic, ranging across seas and the unmapped heart of continents. Often centred upon the grand male narrative, these treks were deemed unsuitable for women although some did manage to penetrate the closed world of botany and plant collection. Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, of whom we will hear more from later, said this, barely 100 years ago: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.”
Think of David Douglas who sought out and introduced the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Escholtzia (Californian poppy) and lupins and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii and Alice Eastwood who rescued the herbarium at California Academy of Sciences after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire, by clinging to the banisters. Then there’s Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke who went to Columbia and Panama in search of the rare orchids and were were kidnapped by Farc guerillas, remaining captive for nine months in more recent times: this has never been a sedate and genteel past-time. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovering the new, whether that be a plant or place to forage for them has driven humans to trade in and import plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain and elaborate preparations were made to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree covered mountain slopes.
Two of the countries most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who went on to become scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and became Director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1185 and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker who was Kews first Director and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.
Joseph Hooker combined a thirst for discovery and an inexhaustible hunger for travel with rigorous taxonomic innovation and investigation which soon led to a developing reputation as the foremost botanist of his time. Beginning his career as an assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus for Antarctic expeditions (a way of overcoming a lack of fiscal means by which to fund his own expedition), he roamed the southern oceans, India and the Himalayas, even getting himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for ranging far into territories he had received no invitation for- Tibet. If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons because the varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were his Indian discoveries: 25 of them in total and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants. The restored Victorian gardens at Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their apparent domesticity and British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here. Hooker adored his plants but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer. As he commented about the rhododendrons one day, ” If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am.”
In those extensive diaries now being digitised at Kew, Hooker frequently expounded on the arduous nature of his expeditions: “I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect the seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever” as he wrote to William Hooker from Darjeeling in 1849. Joseph took few luxuries with him: apart from the tools of his trade he packed a supply of cigars for each evening and a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Kinchin. A devoted companion, the dog one day fell to its death and was swept away by a river.
Described as ‘an interrogator of the natural world’, Hookers work helped to support Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species because he understood botanical context- he interpreted what he saw around him and his own publications were many. Containing exquisite botanical illustrations, works such as the Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya and the Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India culminated in The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years and published in 1883. It has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century, describing over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species. The work underpinned the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.
Joseph’s father, William, the first Director of Kew Gardens came to Halesworth to take up the position of superintendent of the brewery, staying for eleven years until his botanical passion drive him to London and his directorial post at Kew Gardens. His son clearly followed in his footsteps and mighty ones they were too: he increased the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres and oversaw the construction of the Palm House. On 1 November 1865, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, aged just 48.
One of my personal favourites of all his plants is the Winter flowering Sarcococca ‘Hookeriana’ which is possessed of an understated appearance but a fragrance that is anything but. Tiny lime green pendulous blossoms, dangling from the undersides of leathery leafed branches give off a powerfully spicy and verdant sweet scent which wends its way down our garden and into the kitchen whenever we open the door. Often used by municipal gardeners because it is tough and low maintenance, the Sarcococca often makes its home outside multi-storey car parks, on median strips of urban clearways and on council office borders and most of us walk past without paying it a moments notice.
But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with great hazy swathes of bluebells although all these are without doubt easily found in our county and much celebrated. I think of the Scots Pines and Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath. They populate the ancient and characteristic twisted pinelines of the Brecklands (‘broken lands’) and tall cedars grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall nearby after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.
Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in the eponymous country and in Syria too, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians. Many thousands had been massacred. Even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker ” ‘For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.” As he arrived in Damascus in the October, his diary told of what he encountered: ” The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses” but the expedition found, what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon, about 400 of them with an estimated age was 350-400 years. Hooker collected the seeds and added to the UK population of a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes, both rural and urban. Its shape is etiolated and those distal flat level branches with their clearly defined clouds of bristly leaves are well suited to the coastal regions where it provides tall shade for the wild ponies that graze there and shelters the acid yellow gorse that perfumes the late spring air. Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the bible, “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92 v12), the tree has been a great success and is my living memorial to Joseph Hooker.
Hooker’s own botanical illustrations straddle the fields of art and science being both wondrous objet d’art and scientific record. The history of botanical painting and illustration stretches back centuries, being used for medicinal purposes (Culpeppers) alongside its aesthetic and decorative properties. In Santon Downham, the Iceni Botanical Artists now offer tutorial workshops free of charge to the public at the village hall, funded by the HLF ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. There are guest speakers, the chance to gain skills in watercolour and receive tuition on how best to depict local flora from Breckland wild flowers to its fungi and pine tree landscapes. Artists can tap into a landscape suffused with stories which stretch back to the Stone Age: rabbit farming, glacial pingos, flint mines and over 12,845 species of plants and animals.
I am shivering, not so much because of the cool air which is pushing up from the sea, ahead of the sunset but more from my realisation that seventy five years ago other people probably sat right where I am now and listened to what I am listening to. It’s 10pm on the Fourth of July and I’m on a pebbled beach at Bawdsey Island looking out across the waters of the River Deben which separate me from the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry across the mouth of the estuary. There’s an American tribute band playing ‘In the Mood’ inside the boat club and the voices, laughter and pops of champagne corks are carried across on the breeze. Time has telescoped in the most peculiar and unexpected way and I don’t quite know what to make of this.
Felixstowe Ferry was vulnerable to German Luftwaffe pilots seeking to unload a cargo of undropped bombs before their flight back across the North Sea and the blackouts imposed on this hamlet, huddled at the edge of East Anglia, probably ruled out too much partying. However I like to imagine the locals and temporary residents dancing to music and enjoying the relief from war, responsibility and the heavy burden of hyper vigilance. In the near darkness, I see memory ghosts of laughing girls stumbling along the pebbles, bending down to remove strappy sandals and precious rationed stockings which they ball up and carry. They dance and chatter amidst the smell of American tobacco and caulked boats with fishy cargoes on the ebb of the English landmass as it merges with estuarine waters, the North Sea and a blacked out horizon.
To my right, the skies are brindled with pinks and violets, the undersides of the lambs tails clouds tinged with amber. On the left where the River Deben splays into the sea, we watch as a tidal bore of darkness approaches, barrelling down the estuary and pushing at the still light over the beach which has now developed a silvery caul. In front of me, the light begins to peter out and the shoreline to my right becomes banded by grey- the sea, the shingle and the sky-as the Deben estuarine tide continues its exhaustive task of transporting the heft of stones, polished to a dull shine, dumping them onto an ever growing offshore shingle bank.
The sky seems to bulge inland and towards us. Out to sea, it is all blue: French navy and saxe, indigo, midnight and then, a nothingness settles lit up only by the perimeter lights of a cargo ship bound for the international port.. I feel like I am suspended in space: the lights of the boat club across the river and a chink of light from the porthole of a cruiser are the only things anchoring us as we sit on the pebbles and even they shift beneath us. Watching the night rush in left us a little breathless. Neither of us had seen a night seemingly as tardy and pressured for time and had the breeze aped Alice’s white rabbit and whispered “I’m late, I’m late” we would have accepted this with equanimity.
Our trip here was spontaneous, we’d forgotten that the Fourth of July is a date of some significance, especially here in East Anglia where American GI’s came in and our women married out. We were driven out of our Bury St Edmunds home by the torpid heat, a whole weeks worth of it, which had evicted the residual coolness from the stolid rows of Victorian brick. Our house was gasping for breath and the whole town was so still in that strange yellow, layered heat that we could stand it no more. We grabbed our bags and made a dash for the edge of East Anglia.
Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Ransholt are surprisingly easy and quick to drive to from Bury, straight down the A14 and a turn off to drive through the undulating roads around Woodbridge, Coddenham, and Alderton. The air remained close and still but the patchworked greens, acid jazz yellows and buffs of the fields flash by and a stray breeze lifts the hair from the back of my neck when we stop to buy some eggs. There are lanes marking the edges of pre-enclosure strips, ancient bridlepaths and sand clotted foorpaths hinting at a sea hiding over the next hill. I want to play the game we played as children- who can see the sea first- although in this case, we approach an estuary. The underlying Red Crag rock gives the earth a brick dusty hue, not dissimilar to the red of the Georgian deep south as we climbed the hilled sharp turn off towards Ramsholt. The Ramsholt Arms and a drink was our destination before a late afternoon walk along the shore of the River Deben, a route hugging the pines and saltmarshes of the coastal walk that passes in front of the pub.
The view from the inn’s carpark which crests the slope down to the waters and beer garden is a shock if you get the timing and the light right. Go there late afternoon on a hazy summer day and the water appears, blindingly metallic, shimmering like the steel of a razor blade through the ink dark woods. The anchored boats appear black against the water and the only relief from this binary watercolour is the neon orange of the buoys and flags woven through the halyards. The Strand borders a sandy, pebbly beach and beyond, a muddy strip beside the lazy waters where children happily mudlarked in the sun. There’s old sharks teeth to be found in the Red Crag, wizened corals and echinoids and shells a plenty from the exposed London clay which lines the shallow basin of the estuary.
As the tide turns, it gives up a hundred yards of glistening mudflats, pockmarked by the beak marks of oyster catchers and redshank and patterned with dragons teeth arrangements of old wooden sea defences: the groynes have rotted away to piles of semi carbonised sticks, slimy with seaweed and encrusted with barnacles, their rough triangle shapes a grim nod to the Anglo Saxon past. There’s sea lavender and purslane along the edges along with the saltmarsh and squeaky jelly like samphire – the Deben estuary possesses a beautiful and luminous bleakness from its quirky plants to the blank yawn of the estuary at dusk.
The Ramsholt Arms was once called the Ferry House because of the eponymous ferry which used to run to Kirton Creek and is now no more. The village was also the first landing on the north side of the River Deben after Bawdsey, making it strategically and economically important to the region. It waved off heavy cargoes of local brick from the many yards which lay along the rivers Deben, Stour and Orwell and it shipped coprolite (fossilised dinosaur dung, used for fertiliser). Barge quays once lined the banks which seem stunningly empty and haunted by comparitive inactivity now, apart from the flipped collar jollity of the weekending boat people. The village is more boat than house now.
The parish church of All Saints, one of 38 Suffolk round tower churches presides over a startling view which stretches from the Martlesham Research Tower at one end to the Martello Towers of Felixstowe Ferry out towards the North Sea and the sodium lights of the cargo port emerge in the distance as the sun sets. The round tower was built of flint, brick and the septaria from the river bed, notably from an area known locally as ‘the Rocks’, a place where anchors would foul regularly. The round tower appears as square from a distance but as you get closer, its oval shape appears, a seemingly magical feat which is also achieved by Beyton’s church, another round and buttressed tower.
The church may well have had an important function as a look out with its all seeing position over a part of the UK which was deemed to be both vulnerable and strategically important with its multiplicity of river conduits and dank, hidden creeks: a highly permeable coastline. Watery landscapes have always attracted plotters and maleficence although the unfamiliar invader might well meet their match at the hands of the sunken, hidden rills and deep channels which snake through the gorse and reeds that edge the coastal pathway and Strand. There’s a sunken lane which also snakes its way to the church, hidden deep between tall banks which burst forth in poppies, grasses, cow parsley and nettles in the spring: a precious reminder of a time when these lanes were more common: sadly most of them have been allowed to sink back into the landscape or have been turned into roads, proper.
The church stands eight feet or so above you as you climb and steps cut into the banks of the lane provide access to the beautiful churchyard. The whole place is ethereal, other wordly yet strangely pragmatic, and inside the church, a chart dating back to 1287 seems to indicate its function as a useful seamark, helping to keep watch against Viking invaders during the time of the Saxons. The burial site of a rather important Saxon, replete with golden wordly goods and precious stones, is, after all, only a few miles inland at Sutton Hoo and although the Ramsholt parishioners weren’t buried with such riches, they chose to be buried facing that glorious view which is the greatest jewel of all- the north of the church which looks away from the river has hardly any graves.
Moving on to Bawdsey, a place which we’d never visited but gazed upon on many an occasion from the opposite shores, the light was fast fading. The Bawdsey Peninsula is home to Bawdsey Manor, a top secret RAF research establishment purchased by the RAF in 1936 where the Chain Home (CH) RDF (radar) system was developed during the fraught war time years. From Bawdsey, a chain of radar stations ran around the south coast to defend Britain during World War II and the Transmitter Block Museum tells the story of radar, and how Bawdsey helped win the Battle of Britain (For opening call 07821 162 879) . This part of the Suffolk coastline came under special measures during the war and only ‘essential personnel’ were afforded access-even the ferry was closed to the public during WW2 after managing to survive from the 12th century, although it is open now and a very popular and atmospheric way of travelling between Felixstowe and the Bawdsey Peninsula.
The vulnerability of the region to attack and spies is underscored by the 1943 bombing of the church which saw it totally destroyed. St. Nicholas’s Church was built in 1954 on the site. When war was declared against Germany in September 1939, fears of a possible commando raid on the group led to the development activities being relocated and, in 1940, the British Army staged a training landing against Bawdsey, having warned the station’s officers that the attack would be taking place. However, an administrative oversight meant that the sentries were not warned and when they spotted rubber dinghies approaching the beach area, they released gas-filled barrels and set them alight with tracer fire from the cliff-top machine-gun posts. As the sun rose over Bawdsey Beach the next morning, the sentries “found the beach covered with dozens of charred bodies” that they at first thought were Germans dressed as Army soldiers. The story was declared secret until 2014, but was leaked in 1992.
Bawdsey Beach has a seasonal cafe, raised above the beach and beach front road which peters out in front of three 30’s arts and crafts style houses (one of which can be rented for holidays). The pebbled shore extends out to sea, divided by groynes until you reach the North Sea where super tankers and cargo ships are escorted into Felixstowe, one of the largest cargo ports in Europe. Lining the road in front of the sand were VW campers and children warmed themselves by barbecues, scrooched down below the groynes as they ate and watched the sun set. You travel back in time here, in part because for so long Bawdsey was closed off, protected from people and civilian development and in part because there simply is nowhere else to go. This is the end point, a still point and it orders you to stop and retrace mentally as well as literally. Bawdsey is Enid Blyton. It is Arthur Ransome and Glenn Miller and Shine on Harvey Moon. You expect the locals to wear thick khaki cotton, to have their hair set in pin curls and wear tea dresses, hair in a victory roll. When a sleek and modern BMW purrs along the sea front, it jars.
Felixstowe Ferry is gruffer, from its black pitch fishermens huts to the tangle of utilitarian fishing nets and buoys which lace the gangways and cement walkways bordering the quay. MR James set Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad on the nearby golf course, there’s the stately warning of the martello towers ( this bastion of defence is one of five built on the coast between Felixstowe and Aldeburgh designed to protect us from the wrath of Napoleon) and the embarkation point of the ferry taking you over to Bawdsey. If the ferryman isn’t within sight, locals will advise you to raise the bat and wave it to alert him. There’s fish to be hauled in and sold from boats, huts and ad hoc shops and several places to eat from the Boathouse cafe to the Ferryboat Inn originally built in the 15th century as a home for the harbourmaster, facing the heath. The boatyard itself started up in the late twenties and made its own wartime contributions too- it used to build quite a lot of boats for the Royal Navy, including motor boats that were useful modes of getting about during those war years where Glenn Miller and his band provided respite from the business of trying to survive.
Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).
The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.
Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.
There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.
Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.
Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.
MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.
James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.
He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.
Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’
Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book, Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif. Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’
Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.
Laying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.
The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.