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.
The last year has seen a plethora of new places serving great breakfast and brunch within driving distance of Bury St Edmunds, where I live. Most of my favourites are in North and West Suffolk, admittedly, but I’ve hopped over the border to Norfolk too.
In this round-up of my favourites, I’ve only include establishments that I (or people whose judgement I trust) have regularly visited and found to be excellent as opposed to regurgitating press releases about establishments that I’m unfamiliar with. I hope this offers readers some guarantee that these places are reliably good and deserving of your hard-earned money. I realise that I have appeared to ignore great swathes of East Anglia but I will get to them in time, so please be patient if I’ve left off your chosen one [s].
Some of my choices don’t serve what you might think of as traditional brunch platefuls either but I don’t really think it really matters whether we eat an Indian inspired mid-morning meal or a typical English breakfast. I don’t think brunch is the time for concrete thinking. All that’s important is that the food is delicious and the surroundings, convivial. You can decide what kind of morning menu you prefer but these all serve food that I enjoy eating at any time of the day.
Situated in the pretty and winding St John’s Street in Bury St Edmunds, Gastro-no-me is a tiny and cosy little deli/café with a nicely edited menu of brunch classics and some more unusual meals. You get a vibrant plate of food here: the pancakes are basically Disney on a plate, loaded as they are with berries and the French Rascal croissants are similarly colourful and well stuffed with ham, cheddar, rocket and tomato jam. The newly updated menu includes Lola Granola [photo above], a plate full of fruit, flowers and toasted cereals and a platter of sweetcorn fritters. These sunny little mouthfuls come with wilted spinach, bacon, plum tomatoes halloumi and a pot of lime & chipotle butter. There’s plenty of veggie options and the cafe is very family friendly with a regular clientele that includes Americans from the local base who know a thing or two about what makes a great brunch. You can buy cheeses, meats , breads and pastries from their deli counter to take home too, after your meal. Win win. Gastro-no-me
A brand new coffee shop recently opened in Guildhall Street, Guat’s Up has a carefully designed interior [fab cushions made from coffee-sacks] but great design hasn’t come at the expense of comfort or your tastebuds. It’s open from 7 am which is handy for that pre-work cup of Joe and this is definitely the place to breakfast at if you prefer something lighter to accompany your morning coffee. They are serious about their coffee [but not pompous] and they are equally serious about their doughnuts which are brought in, freshly handmade, from Doughnut Lab. Guat’s Up is a multi-purpose place: they create fabulous cocktails and stay open until late in the evening, providing customers with a calm and sophisticated atmosphere in which to enjoy a drink. Coffee-wise, choose from pour-over Ethiopian Guititi natural, Peruvian Tunki and Colombia Huila among many others. Even their cocktails contain coffee: try ‘The Bruce Wayne’ made with bourbon, espresso coffee and maple syrup or the all-day single shot Irish coffee made with Ethiopian Derikocha filter coffee, whisky, sugar syrup and double cream. There’s also a great tea menu [the Rooibos Relief is a perfect winter tea with eucalyptus and orange] alongside pastries and savouries for a light European breakfast. And they sell all the kit a serious coffee drinker needs at home too, accompanied with friendly advice and guidance. Guat’s Up
Paddy & Scotts
Another Bury St Edmunds coffee-shop, this relatively recent addition to historic Abbeygate St is a tiny gem with an interior like the inside of a coffee cup, all chocolates and creams and warm dark wood. Their coffees are slow roasted and small-batch using hand-built machines and they sell particularly good cold drip coffee according to local journos [who know a thing or two about this]. There’s a morning coffee, “Wakey Wakey” , and a “Pure Shot” whole bean coffee which makes a smooth espresso for those of you struggling to stay awake. You can buy bags to take out and they are Rainforest Alliance Certified. Food-wise, customers can choose from a range of pastries, cakes (all homely and freshly made) and sandwiches. The serving and seating area is small and double buggies would struggle to be accommodated but its a lovely spot to lounge in and the large picture windows offer ample opportunities to people-watch. I also covet their armchairs made out of leather and brushed metal which are seriously comfortable. Paddy & Scotts
Bury St Edmunds Market
Held every Wednesday and Saturday, this large market offers a wide range of foods both hot and cold for munching on as you wander around or to take and eat in the Abbey Gardens and other open spaces. In warmer weather, a mini-brunch safari is a great thing to do, and particularly popular with the kids. A favourite breakfast of mine comes from the Yakitori Suzuki stall, owned by Kaori Dawson who serves breakfast until 11:30am. The Japanese breakfast centres upon a folded omelette (called tamagoyaki) made by rolling together thin layers of seasoned egg in a frying pan.This is served with triangles of rice, a miso broth and pickles made from mooli, a member of the radish family with a gentle peppery taste. For something rather different, try a Caribbean veggie pasty baked by Thomas Benjamin who has a large stall near Croasdales Chemist. Thomas sells handmade Caribbean pasties, wraps, cakes and pies from his well established stall: particular favourites are a crab filled pasty and cakes made with banana, coconut, ginger and rum. There’s also wheat-free versions and egg-free options for vegans. Mummery Brothers fish and Paul’s FishBox sell little pots of brown shrimps, pints of prawns and dressed crab, all ready for eating and Henry’s Hogroast is perfect for soft floury rolls stuffed with roast pig and topped with a perfect piece of crackling. If you fancy some pickles with it, drop by CourtYard Chutney Co for their ‘Berry St Edmunds chutney’ or even a pot of honey to sweeten that roast pork. For hot foods, try Spicey Sausages‘ authentic grilled Slaska and Torunska sausage. Run by two Polish friends. Beata Kalinska and Anita Okoniewska, they griddle them to order- just follow your nose and you’ll locate them. Thai Taste has a set-up up near the Buttermarket war memorial where they cook dishes such as noodle-based Pad Thai to order, adding chicken for non-vegetarians. They offer a mild coconut-infused Massaman beef curry which is popular with kids and is slow-cooked all day. Run by local baker Mark Proctor, The Friendly Loaf Company stall can usually be found near Waterstones and sells fresh bread, pastries and cakes made with flour from nearby Pakenham Mill. Mark trained in some of the most prestigious establishments and it shows in his food which is the best bread in Suffolk, in my opinion. Here’s the place to get a pain-au-chocolat, pastries loaded with fruits in season, bread pudding, very adult brownies and breads spiked with cheese, hazelnut and walnut, seeds, peppers and whatever else takes his fancy. Finally, we must not ignore the fruit and veg sellers who can sell you brown paper bags of cherries and perfect tomatoes in the summer. and blood-oranges to eat on the hoof in the winter. Add a baguette and some cheese, you have the perfect brunch. Bury St Edmunds Market stall PDF can be downloaded here.
Lavenham Farmers Market
Established by Justine Paul of Suffolk Farmers Market Events, these award-winning markets offer plenty of brunch opportunities from stalls selling produce made or sourced within a thirty mile radius. So you can eat with the knowledge that you are supporting some of our best artisanal local businesses. Recently recognised by February’s edition of Olive Magazine as one of the top food events nationally, the Lavenham farmers market thoughtfully provides a child-friendly Farmers’ Cafe where you can sit and eat a farmers breakfast or a bowl of soup, locally made cakes and freshly brewed hot drinks. If you want to eat on the hoof, the stalls are piled high with breads, pies, sausage rolls and cakes and you can buy chutneys, cheeses,honey and charcuterie to stuff into bread rolls. Afterwards, burn off the calories by walking round one of the most picturesque and historic villages in the UK, where plenty of other tearooms, food shops, pubs and restaurants compete to offer you the chance to eat lunch, high tea and supper without leaving the village. The village has well-organised websites rammed with information to help you plan a whole day in this justifiably famous village. Lavenham Farmers Market
The Suffolk Carver
Another recommendation via Twitter (thank you Barry Peters), The Suffolk Carver is located on Brentgovel Street, around the corner from the Buttermarket and is very popular for both sit-down customers and local workers in search of a swift take-out service. On market days (Weds/Sat) it gets very busy but a swift turnover means you’ll find a seat in this split-level café, so worry not. Want a substantial brunch? Choose the roast pork baguette with stuffing and apple sauce, the sausage and bacon granary baguette made with meat from local butchers or one of the grilled sandwiches from the large menu. ” A cracking breakfast and possibly the most pleasant staff I’ve ever come across” is the verdict on Facebook although customers do warn you to get there early if you want their roast pork because it is scarfed so swiftly by locals who know a good thing when they see it. Portions are large, the breakfasts come with good coffee and there’s outdoor seating on warmer days with a view of the venerable Moyses Hall museum which is well worth a visit after your meal. The Suffolk Carver
If you are looking to book a special occasion breakfast or brunch, this converted water mill is a stellar choice with a kitchen overseen by an award-winning chef and Bury Free Press columnist, Lee Bye. The surroundings are historic, subtly lit and gentle on tired eyes of-a-morning. There’s a lighter menu featuring Goosnargh yoghurt, almond granola or honey-glazed pink grapefruit or the Full English: a plate of Dingley Dell pork sausage, mushroom, bacon, baked beans, plum tomato, baby black pudding and eggs of your choice will fill you up. Or choose locally smoked kippers with a lemon beurre-noisette. For sweet-toothed breakfasters, the brioche French toast, caramelised banana and maple syrup is the logical meal to order. Non-residents pay 17,50 [at time of writing, Feb 2016] which is not inexpensive but reflects the expertise of the team, the lovely surroundings and the quality and effort put into the sourcing of ingredients. There has been a mill at Tuddenham for around 1,000 years with the earliest records being documented in the Doomsday book of 1086 and the surrounding countryside offers some of the loveliest walking in East Anglia. Tuddenham Mill
Rockers Cafe at Krazy Horse
The Rockers Cafe was established in collaboration with the world famous Ace Café and can be found upstairs, on a balcony overlooking Krazy Horses custom-bike operation. You’re on the Mildenhall Road industrial estate so the general location is nothing to write home about but the Rockers Cafe is. You’ll find a Wurlitzer and an industrial cum Americana vibe with a diner counter, silver pull-up stools and about eight or so tables arranged in semi circle. Behind the tables are shelves full of clothing and windows look out onto the business forecourt and the coming and goings of the bikes. They serve huge breakfasts with black pudding, hash-browns, sausages and eggs any way you want them, breakfast baguettes stuffed with any combination of the above, pancakes or waffles. Bottles of Salubrious Breakfast Sauce are a great alternative to the ubiquitous Heinz. Crabbies ginger beer, root beer and vanilla coke are served and the ice-cream, syrup and milk thick shakes taste pretty authentic. Coffees are flavoured with syrups and Belvoir mandarin and orange pressés are available alongside beer and ciders. It’s a great, fun place for well-behaved older kids and teenagers alongside anyone else who is bike-mad. Krazy Horse
The Coffee House
Tucked away on Moreton Hall, the Coffee House nonetheless attracts customers from all over the town because of its friendly and welcoming surroundings and lovely staff who don’t cluck at you if you make that cup of coffee last an hour or more. This is definitely the place to come if you like to spread out over a comfy sofa in front of large light-filled windows, eat slowly and read your paper. There’s a shelf of books to borrow, buy and swap and the Coffee House is regularly used by local community groups. Perfect for a huge brunch or a swift Suffolk Roasted breakfast coffee and Danish, the menu includes classics such as poached eggs on whole-wheat, fish-finger sandwiches, full English breakfasts, sausage stuffed baps and plenty of diner style layer cakes, tarts, pies and smaller hand-sized baked goodies. Regulars speak highly of the bowls of porridge with honey and banana, the excellent Americano coffee, the cheese scones and bacon butties. The Coffee House also has a branch in Ixworth too, ensuring villagers have their own community hub too. Great stuff! The Coffee House
Amandines Cafe- Restaurant
Although it’s not technically a brunch place, I had to include the delightful Amandines whose owners have been cooking vegan and vegetarian food in the little town of Diss for over 28 years. Their premises is prettily situated in the courtyard of a converted Victorian red-brick warehouse, opposite Fredericks, one of the best delicatessens around. Amadines is bright and airy and in warmer months the climbing jasmine and roses scent the air although a Godin wood-burning stove and internal glass-covered courtyard keep it snug year round- dogs are allowed in the courtyard too. Open Tues – Sat between 10am – 3pm, food is freshly prepared by the staff and the menu easily navigates the brunch-lunch interface, offering sandwiches and toasties; a mature cheddar panini with lime pickle dressing is very good; hearty bowl-food plus quiches, cakes- Tunisian orange cake and a date tart were gorgeous- and pastries.Pudding-wise they excel and an apricot and pine-nut pudding with butterscotch brittle and mascarpone cream was a recent offering which went down very well. Their drinks are well spoken of by their customers with the Italian coffee and hot chocolate prepared properly. If you are looking for something heartier, meals such as dosa, pea and beetroot chutney, coconut rice and curry are just one example of what they do exceedingly well and in the summer months, customers can enjoy creative salads such as feta and nectarine with home-made goats cheese and olive bread. Although they don’t serve meat products, I’ve never heard a customer complain about this and you really won’t miss them. Amandines
The Copper Kettle & Tearoom at Kersey
Owned by Rosie Waller and located in the adorable village of Kersey with its famous ford, the Copper Kettle cooks bake every day, providing customers with a wealth of fresh cakes, pastries, scones and bread and their passion for seasonal, local ingredients shines through. As well as lovely breakfasts and brunches served from an early bird opening time of 8:30am, (excellent bacon rolls and endless cups of tea plus Rosie’s Suffolk Huffers), they serve a classic English afternoon tea with sandwiches and speciality teas. The surroundings are as lovely as the food with a more formal café tea room overlooking the Mediterranean Gardens and a conservatory with club chair seating which opens onto a pretty courtyard. The mill itself is worth a look around as are the other shops and amenities in the grounds. Walk it all off by strolling up the hill to Kersey’s church with scenic views over this tiny village. Copper Kettle Tearoom
The Pantry, Newmarket
Since their opening, The Pantry’s ethos has been based upon using and selling the very best East Anglian foods in their deli and the restaurant. There’s an open kitchen and lively, bright eating area, deservedly popular with locals and visitors alike. Meat comes from Eric Tennant’s butchers and all things fishy from Fish! of Burwell, both near-neighbours trading just off Newmarket High Street. Brunch is served until midday and is high quality at a very reasonable price. There’s croissants stuffed with local cheese and ham or a veggie version with Hawkston cheese and mushrooms. My favourite is the black pudding, fried egg and potato hash which comes with toast. If you order *just* toast, it’ll come with East Anglian jams and marmalades . Very hungry? Go for the pantry breakfast: Suffolk bacon, Musks sausages (from Newmarket), black pudding, tomato, mushrooms, fried egg and toast is £7 and there’s a vegetarian breakfast with roast beetroot, mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes and scrambled egg for a fiver. Paddy & Scotts supply their coffee, by the way and I also recommend the lemon posset with Swedish toffee biscuit and a dark chocolate rice pudding with pistachio brittle which is not ‘breakfast’ per se but I really don’t care for such restrictions. Afterwards, a walk to the Harley Davidson dealers in the town to drool over the bikes is recommended. The Pantry.
Just over the border in Norfolk and close to Thetford Forest and only a thirty minute drive from Bury St Eds, Browns of Mundford is an absolute gem, serving top-notch food made from local ingredients. They are hugely supportive of local farmers and their bacon and sausage is some of the best we’ve had. Sausage and bacon is Scotts Field large black pigs, the eggs are free-range and from Andy Gapp and the scrambled eggs that result are buttery, soft and delicate. A large bacon roll is 3,95 at time of writing and from noon, they start serving bubble and squeak with Scotts Field ham, those eggs again and a basil dressing. Cakes, tarts and scones are made on the premises and alongside the old favourites there are more unusual choices such as Tosca cake, walnut tart and chocolate and peach layer cake, all made by a pastry chef. Seating is comfy, spacious and plentiful, both indoor and outdoor, WiFi is provided and you’ll not be shoved out of the door if you want to slump on the sofa and read the papers afterwards.
Nestling in historic Bungay, 37 miles from Bury St Edmunds, Earsham Street Café is a wonderful pit-stop on the way to the beaches of North-East Suffolk, located as it is on the borders of Norfolk. Sited inside a lovely historic (17th century, to be precise) building which used to be a former cock-fighting pit, among its many incarnations, the cafe is now a happy well-regarded tea-room and cafe. The opening hours are 10am – 4.30pm (last orders at 4pm) 7 days a week and they offer full English and vegetarian breakfasts and lighter meals on a Saturday & Sunday between 10am – noon. Kids are made welcome with a selection of toys, crayons & books and dogs are allowed in the covered courtyard garden (free dog biscuits given!) whilst cyclists can store their bikes securely in the garden. Teas and coffees are Fair Trade and accompany the lovely weekend brunch menu which also features American style pancakes with Greek yoghurt, banana, and maple syrup, beans on toast or a bacon sandwich. The Earsham Street vegetarian breakfast is fabulous value at £7,00, serving up fried egg, tomatoes, mushrooms, home made baked beans, griddled polenta & a slice of toast. They try to source locally too: organic vegetables are from Peter at Kitchen Gardens; cheeses come from Jonny at Fen Farm and Rodwell Farm in deepest Suffolk. Their eggs are from Mr & Mrs Blackmore near Halesworth whilst Cundy’s of Bungay deliver super-fresh Suffolk Marybelle milk and cream. Earsham Street Cafe.
Located in a fourteenth century building at the heart of Clare, one of Suffolk’s loveliest little towns, Cafe Clare caters to locals and visitors alike across two floors and a tiny courtyard garden with views of the castle ruins and motte. Gluten, dairy free and vegetarian diets are also catered for along with smaller portions for children and well behaved dogs are made welcome. Cafe Clare serves breakfast all day, conveniently opening from 8:30am although breakfast can be served from 7am (24 hours notice) and they are open Tuesday to Sunday inclusive. (Closed on Mondays.) Owners Sue and Chris Curtin pride themselves on their locally sourced ingredients which include free-range eggs from Rymer Farm Barnham and sausages and bacon from Hubbards Pork butchers in Bury St Edmunds: the sausages and black pudding are actually made on Hubbards premises. All breakfasts are cooked to order and customers preferences are happily catered to alongside a choice of a major or minor full English, hot-smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, breakfast bacon burgers and other menu choices. The village shops and antiques centres, pubs, museum and country park provide ample entertainment for a day out after your breakfast with the surrounding countryside criss-crossed by a range of cycling and walking routes. Cafe Clare
The Barn Cafe at Alder Carr
Located near Needham Market, off the A14, at the heart of a working farm in a converted barn, The Barn Cafe sources as many ingredients as they can from local suppliers and this includes seasonal produce grown on the farm: all dishes are made from scratch too. Full cooked breakfasts are available between 9:30 – 11:30am (11:15 Sundays) and include a full breakfast for 7,95 (sausage, smoked Suffolk bacon, grilled tomato, field mushroom, black pudding, bubble and squeak cake and a free range egg served poached or fried plus toast) and a vegetarian version with veggie sausages. Egg lovers can choose from several options: Royale, Benedict or dippy eggs accompanied by chunky toast soldiers. Children are made welcome in the spacious and light dining area and post-breakfast, visitors can browse the farm shop and crafts stores or eat some of the superb Alder Carr ice-cream which is some of the best you’ll eat anywhere in the UK. The cafe is set in Mid-Suffolk’s Gipping Valley surrounded by miles of beautiful walks and cycle routes and the nearby town of Stowmarket is home to the Museum of East Anglian Life. The museum is deservedly popular with families because of its child-friendly and engaging activities and exhibits. The Barn Cafe.
Hollow Trees Farm Shop and Woodlands Cafe
This is a bit of a drive from Bury St Edmunds for us, but the glorious countryside along the way and fantastic breakfast and brunch at the end makes it absolutely worthwhile. And of course, for you, it may be a shorter drive. Hollow Trees Farm is a 140 acre mixed farm, growing vegetables and producing pork beef and lamb and its breakfasts have been previously nominated in The Best Breakfast Awards. Combining their own produce with the best available locally, their full English is rightly popular (sausages and bacon sourced from the farm, local free range egg, hash brown, grilled tomato, mushrooms and toast) as is the granola from Crush Foods of Norfolk, made using local borage honey and apple juice. Served with yoghurt made with milk supplied by local dairies, it is a lovely light alternative. Coffee is freshly ground and the orange juice pressed to order. There are children’s menus and highchairs; menu-wise the café offers daily specials and gluten-free options and there’s good wheelchair access. After you’ve eaten, stock up at the Farm Shop where a wide range of regional and seasonal foods are stocked and take the kids on the farm trail to see the many animals that live on the farm and burn off energy on the rope swings and other outdoor equipment. (There’s a small charge for the trail.) Hollow Trees Farm and Cafe
Alison Uttley knew a thing or two about woods and many of her characters are creatures of them. From Susan in The Country Child who lived among the wooded scrabbly crags of the Peak District to the Little Grey Rabbit who was, to me, the perfect anima of those woodland trees, when Uttley said “there are many lovely small things- leaves and rain” she must surely have been thinking of the British woods in the Autumn.
Woodlands are magical places all year round but as Summer relaxes its hold and we slip into Autumn, they become ever more so, guardians of an imagination forged by the tales of childhood: remember The Forbidden Forest, Hundred Acre Wood and the acres of spike dark pine trees which inhabited the imaginations of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen? From the barcode trunks of pines in Breckland forests to the twisted moss-cloaked limbs of old oaks, trees are a gateway into a shared history and collective subconscious. Trees cloaked our little islands and provided us with the means to be safe, warm and fed and in turn they nourished a rich cultural heritage where specific stories, legends and songs told their local tale.
The Woodland Trust is desperately trying to save over 613 ancient woodlands across the UK, many of them at risk from development, pollution and the effects of viruses which attack specific trees and plants and increasingly at risk are the 256 threatened wildlife species who rely on them to develop and thrive. Over the last 10 years, over 100 of these woodlands have been lost and it is even more imperative that we familiarise ourselves with our local woodlands and the only way to do this is to use them regularly- and join one of the many conservation groups dedicated to protect and promote them for generations to come.
So this Autumn and the coming Winter, join some wildlife organisations, download their wildlife spotting guides then put on your boots and walk. Learn about the local dialect and the names for the things you will see and encourage your children to make up words for the things they see too, in the best tradition of our ancestors who were far more imaginative with words than we seem to be. Only through a workaday familiarity will be protect our East Anglian landscapes and allow them to grow in a dynamic fashion in harmony with the humans who, all too often in the past, have threatened their existence by holding too tight to the myth of the pastoral idyll which seeks to both preserve in aspic and alienate through idealisation.
Here are some of The Millers Tales favourite woodlands across East Anglia. Some have facilities such as toilets, places to eat and drink and run regular events designed to educate and entertain such as bird ringing demonstrations, coppicing workdays, bug hunting and night walks to spot bats. Others are simply woods, a place to walk, sit and contemplate, a busy place for other creatures but hopefully less so for us; they offer us the chance to stop and watch and listen.
Arger Fen, which lies on the borders of South Suffolk and Essex, near Little Cornard, is a small fragment of the wild wood that once covered Suffolk over a thousand years ago and the history of those who lived nearby is writ large upon it. The woods retain a sense of timelessness; apart from the conservation signs there is very little to remind you of the modern world and much to transport you away from it. Arger Fen protects species of plants and animals that you might not encounter very often; ancient stands of wild cherry (Prunus Avium) fuzzed with blossoms in the Spring, stag beetles, the hazel dormouse and barbastelle bats. Famous for its English bluebells which thickly carpet the slopes and glades, visitors can avoid trampling on them by using the boardwalks which also cross marshy areas and streams although stepping on them is at times unavoidable. Packed earth steps are cut into the banks at the heart of the wood, making this a woodland unsuitable for wheelchairs and flimsy buggies and there are no toilets nearby. The nearby villages of Bures, Henny and Assington all have lovely country pubs for a post walk repast.
Bacton Woods is basically a safari park for trees with over thirty species found in this beautiful woodland, close to Witton in North Norfolk on the Happisburgh road. The original woodland included Sessile Oaks and two of these, which are thought to be over 200 years old, still remain and the whole site was originally heathland before planting which is why you will see plenty of clumps of old gorse and broom. Keeping them company are Scots and Corsican pine, western hemlock, Douglas fir and larch alongside other broadleafs such as hazels, rowans and ash; bluebells, sorrell and dogs mercury carpet the woodland floor with seasonal foliage and blooms, making this a sensory pleasure at all heights.
Bacton Wood is more proactive with regards to entertainment: visitors can enjoy orienteering along three waymarked routes; ride or walk several trails which possess broad paths, bounded by natural leafy archways: this is the place to bring toddlers who enjoy Autumn leaf kicking. The blue trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches and walkers will be able to identify many woodlandtree species from the beech avenues, ‘short’ pines planted for seed collection and towering wellingtonia trees. The medium ability red trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches to rest on, passing through a conifer plantation and mixed woodland, a beech avenue and recently planted woodland where a ‘grandparent’ Oak lies and, finally, past the pond. The yellow trail (1.3miles) runs along well made tracks with frequent benches. From a clockwise approach it gradually loses height as it passes conifer and mixed woodland to the pond and then on to the ‘grandparent’ oak tree. This is followed by a 200m incline to a level walk past the wellingtonia trees, mixed woodland and an area recently cleared to encourage native broadleaf woodland.
Organised events include conservation work and children’s activities such as nature spotting walks and entry is free for under 3s (unless otherwise stated). The woods also have some decent mountain biking trails which include free drops from 7ft high to smaller, safer ones for beginners. Dirt jumps will allow freestylers to try out their tricks and these jumps are 6-7 feet high. Picnic areas are also provided and carparking facilities (about two and a half miles north of North Walsham) including disabled bays are provided. The nearest public toilets are in North Walsham town centre or on the B1159 at Walcott.
Lions Mouth at Felbrigg Hall is run by the National Trust and offers the Hall with all its amenities, parkland, lakeside walks and a 520-acre (2.1 km2) Great Wood which shelters the house. Of especial note is the well-known “Lions Mouth”, a beauty spot which can be reached from the main road A148 and is popular with walkers and ramblers.
Home to beech trees which may well prove to be the furthest north they can exist on this type of acid soil, rare fungi and lichens and (the fabulously named) slender lemon slug, the area is an ecological wonder- parts of Felbrigg have SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status. This is the place to be in the early morning when the mists are slow to burn off, when plovers, lapwings and barn owls screech, rise and fall, clamour and call to each other.
Birds aren’t the only creature on the wing though: eight species of bat have been recorded here, including woodland mammals such as Natterer’s bat and the rare Barbestelle. Felbrigg Lake is a good place to head for at dusk to see bat activity as they swoop through the clouds of midges and gnats which skein just above the surface of the water. Check out the mysterious Icehouse, hibernation site for many of the Felbrigg bats.
There are many marked walks available (see the NT website) including 3 easy circular dog friendly options which encircle the Hall and old deer park. Two of the walks pass along wide, push and wheelchair accessible tracks and one takes you through the “Victory V” wood. Planted in 1946, it was designed to be seen as a “V” from the air. Felbrigg Hall organises a raft of events for all the family, marking popular calendar dates such as Halloween and Christmas. Booking ahead is advised.
Londonthorpe Wood and the Belton Estate, Lincolnshire– Here’s a handy clue as to the age of a woodland: If there is evidence of wood anemone and enchanter’s nightshade, the woodland is a venerable one. Londonthorpe has a healthy population of both, dating back to more ancient woodlands among its newer oak and ash saplings (planted in three phases from 1993-95) and also boasts trees planted back in 1856, in memory of the Crimean War. More intriguing are the ghost sightings spoken of by locals and visitors: a headless coachman whose stagecoach rattles its way along Five Gates Lane and estate entrance; the chilling feeling that apparently creeps along the spines of visitors to Belmont Tower which can be found close by. One visitor to the woods reported “a huge red handprint firmly on his neck and a choking sensation. The handprint remained for half an hour.”
The village name derives from the Old Scandinavian, lundr+thorp, meaning an “outlying farmstead or hamlet by a grove and groves aplenty we have here alongside a range of habitats from mature woodland to a pond, separated by roadways. Grassy paths wander circuitously through open meadows with a healthy population of Spring and Summer wildflowers and there is also a wide range of species that call it home, including woodpeckers and grass snakes. The site lies on the edge of Grantham and the National Trust’s Belton Park, the Woodland Trust property and surrounding farmland. The new planting consists of mixed, mostly native, broadleaved species with ash and oak and the site contains many veteran trees – remnants of older parkland planting and the old hedgerows that transect the planting site.
Belton Estate has dramatically wide woodland paths with sweeping vistas- one of them culminates in Belmont Tower itself. The Belton Estate is rich in wildlife and covers about 1,350 acres (750 acres of which is designated deer park and includes a mysterious site of a deserted medieval village called Towthorpe. The ruins are close to the Lion Gates and towards the River Witham. Keen eyes will spot the signs of earthworks and evidence of the ridges and furrows associated with medieval farming methods.
Long Melford Country Park– Formerly known locally as Rodbridge Corner Picnic Place, this little pocket of woodland, open grass and former gravel pit waterways borders the River Stour on its western and southern boundaries as the river wends its way from the village of Long Melford and onto Sudbury. Close to Clare and Cavendish and the town of Sudbury with its beautiful water meadows, the park is a lovely place to spend a few hours or explore as you walk the various river routes of South Suffolk. Formerly called Rodbridge Corner Picnic Grounds, this is my old stamping grounds, easily walked with youngsters and providing swiftly changing landscapes.
Established in 1967 from gravel pits used to construct the WW2 airfields that dot the local region, the park is well used for walking, angling and is home to many white poplar trees which shade the riverpath. The ponds are rich in aquatic insect life, dragonflies and damselflies, Roach, Bream, Tench and Pike, and make good breeding sites for Coot, Little Grebe, Moorhen and Mute Swan. Well established rabbit warrens pepper the earthbanks and dips in the terrain caused by the former excavations. Bring binoculars because you may well see otters and kingfishers dipping in and out of the muddy banks which are thickly lined with bullrushes and clumps of waterlillies. The river paths can get muddy after it has rained but most of the park is accessible if a little bumpy underfoot for wheeled visitors. There are two areas of grassland, with the southern area allowed to grow naturally, crossed by mown paths, picnic tables and chairs and a toilet.
Hainault Forest Country Park– Having retained its Green Flag Status for 2015/16 from Keep Britain Tidy, this large woodland space which lies just outside the Romford stretches was one a haven for vagabonds and n’er do wells and also provided shelter for fugitives from London’s plague filled streets. Nowadays, the park is a haven for families and the only creatures hiding in the trees are creepy crawlies such as giant spiders and a grim reaper, which are all to be found hiding in the mile long monster trail. At dusk, the coppiced hornbeams cast spooky shapes for those of you seeking some Autumnal and Halloween fun (the park is dominated by veteran hornbeams – around 12,000 of them) and there’s an adventure play trail too. This is beautifully designed with climbing posts and rope bridges, adventure play towers and a circular swing in the shape of a spiders web (perfect for children who have disabilities) plus woodland trails with site specific sculpture and wildlife information to spark their imagination and help them become fully engaged with their surroundings.
And that’s not all. There’s a boating lake and Foxburrow Farm, an all weather animal petting area with badger faced sheep, nubian goats and mangalitza pigs among the many attractions. Guided walks, segways and orienteering are also on offer plus a land train which takes passengers on a scenic 15 minute ride departing from the zoo and travelling around the lake and surrounding areas. The route is not fixed and varies year round according to the weather. The park has toilet and changing facilities, carparking and plenty of places to picnic.
Nowton Park, West Suffolk– A woodland park in the grand Victorian style, this was once the grounds of a large home and is now managed by St Edmundsbury Council who fund a wide range of nature related activities for all the family. Located on the outskirts of the town (there’s a bus service which stops nearby), the park has a cafe, changing facilities and toilets plus a small adventure playground but the real fun is to be found in its various habitats from open flower studded meadow to bluebell and harebell edged woodland walks. Scramble over logs, join in with bat walks and nighttime stargazing and look out for the wild and wacky trees planted by the Victorians: a lightning struck Douglas fir; a catalpa (Indian bean tree) that appears to be consuming a fence; yews that spin and twist and finally, the giants of the tree world- the redwoods.
In addition, felled tree trunks have been left in situ for children to swarm over and ape the Enid Blyton-esque childhood antics that modern life sometimes deprives them of. The east and west arboretum and folly woodland walk has been newly landscaped with sinuous bark litter covered walkways curving around specimen plants, camellia, Cedars of Lebanon and a flint and stone tumbled folly. There’s also a folly and pond planted with a Japanese feel- willows, specimen trees and bushes, airy, light with the branches traced against a more visible sky.
Tyrells Wood, Norfolk- is a well used broadleaf wood, quiet and off the beaten track (it runs parallel to the A140 to the west and Ansons Lane to the east) and dating back to the ancient woodland site at its centre. The Boscus de Grischave can be found in records dating back to 1251, is indeed thought to date back to the Ice Age, and it is home to veteran hornbeams which have been pollarded into fat twisted trunks and the elderly relics of coppiced hazels.
Tyrrells Wood is arguably at its best in the Autumn where a roundabout route takes walkers past oaks which once provided the great and good of Norfolk with the finest of timber, birch and ash, and yellow field maples turned butter gold by the warm days and cold nights. Rowan berries and haws light up the brush, glowing as red as the eyes of the woodland creatures whose gaze are caught in the beams of torches at nightfall. The silver patched trunks of the birches shimmer in the gloaming, their lemon tinted leaves strafed and spinning from gusts of wind which appear to swirl out of nowhere. There’s no way markings or facilities as such: this is a place to savour as is.
Priestley Wood, Suffolkis a dream of a place for eagle eyed plant spotters with more than 130 species recorded here, making it an important SSSI. Located in the parish of Barking in the Gipping Valley, there are over 24 miles of public footpaths in the vicinity and the ancient woodlands of Bonny Wood, Priestley Wood, Swingens Wood, Park Wood and Ditch Wood provide a timeless natural habitat for flora and fauna. Priestely Wood is now owned by the Woodland Trust and we are allowed to wander its many paths. Part of Bonny Wood is owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust with paths open to the public.
Deep in these woods, grows a lonely wild pear, miles away from the only other one which exists in the country and you’ll find several varieties of wild orchids cowled away in the undergrowth alongside ramps in the Spring, the broad leaved helleborine, foamy blossoms of anthriscus and carpets of woodruffs with their proudly Tudor leaf-ruff. Their names are testimony to folklore, quirk, legend, and utility, in the case of the pignut. Barren strawberries, the bulbous buttercup, yellow pimpernel and creeping buttercup are all names to recite to your children and make them laugh. Tell them that harebells (campanula) are sometimes known as fairies’ thimbles and were thought to shelter fairies who were at the beck and call of witches and wished to have no more of this.
The tree cover is mixed broadleaf: a hotchpotch of ash, cherry, oak, hawthorn and hazel with a few small leaved limes and hornbeams lurking behind their more common neighbours. Nightingales surf the sky here, high above the surrounding fields, we are in the farming heartland of the Gipping Valley proper, close to Stowmarket which is home to the Museum of East Anglian Life with its insightful documentation of the people who have made this part of the country their home. Autumn is dramatically beautiful, the best time of year to come here in my opinion but Spring is no slouch either: Priestley Woods are one of the best places in England to see the bluebells so make sure you bookend the year with visits to this magical and simple place. Parking is not the easiest, there’s no public toilets.
Old Wood Norfolk– gives lie to the erroneous belief that Norfolk is flat which anyone who has cycled towards the Northern coastal areas of this county will laugh mirthlessly at. In Old Wood, undulating and marked pathways lope over ridges and slopes, suddenly raising the game (and youjr heartbeat) with their sudden and unexpected inclines. We’re just outside Sheringham and the land here is in a hurry to get to the North Sea, reaching its third highest point in this county, some 96 metres (314ft) above sea level. Take time out here to enjoy the views northwards across the tree line towards Sheringham and the North Sea beyond and gaze at a landscape which is slightly different from inland woods with its sandy heathland, acid soils which support a springy grass covering much beloved by the adders and slow worms which bask here on warmer days. There’s predominately coniferous woodland here- Douglas fir and Corsican pine- but the Woodland Trust intends to restore the site back to mixed broadleaf and heathland. Free parking is provided, some 500 metres away.
Pigneys Wood, Norfolkmight be small but it is mighty, having been recently purchased in 1993 and since then, this little wood a few miles from North Walsham has been extensively redeveloped. The site is a remarkably diverse blend of mature and new mixed woodland and some low lying wet grassland. Some 20,000 trees of 40 different species have been planted alongside other features such as a renovated barn, reed beds, and information boards on wild flowers, butterflies, trees and birds.
Despite its small size, Pigneys Wood is remarkably diverse, supporting a wide variety of trees, including a ‘listed’ 450 year old oak and its water features make it attractive to visiting children alongside the fauna that make their home here. There is a ‘scrape’, a shallow pond, which attracts migratory and wading birds and a dipping platform for children has been created alongside an interactive tree identification trail and guide. Dawn and dusk visitors stand a good chance of bumping into deer and barn owls can be watched as they swoop low over the open grassland. and a bird hide is under construction. There’s designated walks bordered by native hedgerows and provision for wheelchair access alongside plenty of viewing points where you can sit and enjoy the view or use the picnic facilities of which there are three. Dog walking is permitted throughout the wood but between March 1st and July 31st there are designated areas where dogs are not allowed unless on a lead.
Pretty Corner Woods, Norfolk is a Green Flag award winning site, jointly run by the Woodland Trust and the NNDC countryside team. With a lovely tea rooms and garden surrounded by a pretty wood to walk in, and despite its obvious popularity with tourists and locals, the woods manage to maintain a sense of tranquility rare in the busier months of the tourist season.Upper Sheringham in North Norfolk was first established in 1926, originating as a wooden pavilion. Originally a wooden pavilion, the tea room scores bonus points for its wood burning stove, dog friendly grounds and both indoor and outdoor.
Autumn sees the woods ablaze with colour, competing with the sensitively planted gardens surrounding the tea gardens and dipping ponds. You’ll see bats, butterflies and buzzards; hear woodpeckers before you see them and see barn owls before you hear this most silent of birds. The woods and heathlands are thick with red campion, dogs mercury and wood sorrel and deer are often spotted nibbling the seedheads from the tall grasses. Country Rangers organise a myriad of events (booking advised in the busier months) and alongside summer festivals, you’ll have the chance to participate in woodland crafts such as bodging and archery. This Autumn, the site is trying to raise awareness of the plight of the bee with a craft sale in its shop.
There is free car parking and a picnic area if you prefer to bring your own food. There is a bus stop situated next to the woods with good links to Sheringham and the surrounding area.
The Walks, Kings Lynn in Norfolk might not be a woodland in the strictest, most romanticised of senses, but having been originally conceived as an urban space somewhat different to the grand Victorian park, the Walks still works well as a promenade for locals and a green lung away from the hustle of central Kings Lynn. It is the only surviving 18th century town walk in Norfolk and provides historians with a fascinating insight into changing fashions in urban planning and forms a vital part of Kings Lynn’s social record over its two centuries of development and revision. It’s a wonderful place as it stands, injecting Autumn deep into the concrete and brick of urban Kings Lynn.
Built originally upon a central historic spine earthworking and identified, by Norfolk Landscape Archaeology, as ‘part of one of the most complete systems of earthwork town defences in eastern England’, the earthwork mounds, banks and watercourses imbue what would otherwise have been a flat site with a softly undulating form. These gentle ascents are home to shrubberies and plantations (‘Seven Sisters’, seven trees planted in a circle in 1760), a medieval pilgrims trail, and a tree lined walk with semi-circular seating areas. The trees are regal, all 800 of them, offering a sturdy and venerable home to squirrels, woodpeckers and a myriad of creatures. They shed leaves in their thousands, piles of rust, gold and orange to kick up, collect and take home. The highest point of the Walks is the Grade 1 listed Red Mount which houses a unique 15th century chapel and provides visitors with elevated view points of the landscape from the structure itself and from the mound which partially surrounds it. The Red Mount houses a unique 15th century chapel. The landscape itself is Grade 2 and has been preserved via a 3.4m restoration project with a cafe, play and games area having been created.
So tranquil and hidden that encountering other people here tends to come as a surprise, Bulls Woodnear Cockfield in West Suffolk are a bit of a local secret. Park up on the concrete concourse at Palmers Farm next to the woods and enter a wood which is one of the last pieces of the ancient Cockfield woods which were referred to in the Hundred Rolls of 1279.
Especially beautiful in Spring, this is also a place to come in Autumn for a subtle show of colour and change as the tres shed their leaves and reveal their essential selves. Spring sees rare oxlips carpet parts of the woodland floor and the Early-purple orchid is also plentiful here alongside the spurge-laurel, wood anemone and herb-paris which tend not to be associated as strongly with ancient woodlands. There’s Autumn birdsong too: tawny owls swoop low through glades denuded of leaves, long tailed tits loop through the air and treecreepers and chiffchaffs make the woods their home. The traditional method of coppicing encourages wildlife and local volunteers take charge of this. Trees local to the woods include ash, hazel and field maple while the oaks are normally left to mature into standard trees. Dogs on leads are welcome.
Wayland Wood in Norfolk is reputed to be the site of The Babes in the Wood legend and is the not so silent keeper of a tale which inspires both sadness and sheer horror in all who hear it. The wood is no silent witness either: this is one of the more densely planted, wilder Norfolk woods, said to be haunted by the souls of the young abandoned brother and sister whose ghostly cries for help are echoed by the creatures who make the woods their home. The darkness is literal too because this is not only one of the counties largest woods, it has also been intensively coppicedsince the 10th century and its thick cover is a result of the traditional woodland management techniques which have heightened its ability to support such diversity of flora and fauna, making it a SSSI. These woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age and the nearby Thompson Common is renowned for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which provide a home for water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil upwards. Starting in nearby Stow Beddon, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk that encompasses this phenomena and many other local sights.
Walk here and enjoy a splendid mixture of tree species: hazel, oak, downy birch, bird-cherry, sallow, ash, hornbeam and field maple alongside over 125 species of flowering plants. The ground is thick with bluebells, water avens, yellow archangel and wood anemone, whilst the early purple orchid is happily established here alongside the rare yellow star of Bethlehem. As you’d expect, the air is filled with the sounds of woodland birds including breeding nuthatch, bud stripping bullfinches, and the marsh tit and the bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population. Over 25o types of moth are on the wing come dusk, one of the best times to walk here if you bring a torch to light your way although the crepuscular gloom does bring home the sadness of a tale which saw two infants left for dead in the woods because of the usual motives of money, ownership and avarice.
The woods at Dunwich, Suffolk is undergoing a process of rewilding which will see it transformed back into indigenous coastal healthlands and the existing conifer plantatiions removed. However, it is still a strikingly rich mosaic of woodland, heathland and wooded pastures which abuts a romantically desolate coastline designated as an AONB. Grazed by wild Dartmoor ponies, there are numerous walks and trails past hedgerows bursting with life and the heavy honeyed scent of gorse from the heathland which edge the approach roads to the village. Gentle climbs offer sweeping views of Dunwich and the sea where the majority of the ancient village lies, having succumbed to sea storms centuries ago.
Dartmoor ponies grazing the open areas, Dunwich Forest is being transformed From a conifer plantation into a rich mosaic of woodpasture, wet woodland and heathland. Radar gate on Sandlings walk entrance, all other kissing gates motorised wheel chair/buggy accessible. Some rides may be difficult for non-motorised wheel chairs, particularly in wet weather/winter.
From the beach car park this route heads inland along leafy bridleways and through the woods of Dunwich Forest. Although much of the planted stock in this area is coniferous, giving a background of consistent pine, it is a walk with infinite variety as the hedgerows and deciduous glades constantly change with the seasons. During spring and early summer the swathes of gorse add an extra dimension with their vibrant yellow flowers and sweet aroma. On the return section of the route there are a couple of gentle climbs that ultimately lead to great views over Dunwich and toward the sea. Summer is also a great time to make sure you visit the garden of The Ship at Dunwich as it is home to England’s oldest fig tree – believed to be over 600 years old – and it looks magnificent in full leaf.
The ancient coppiced landscape ofBonny Woods near Needham Market can be traced back as far as 1251 and is part of the Barking Tyewoods which are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Although the Suffolk Wildlife Trust states the woods are at their best in the Spring when wood anemone, woodruff and herb-paris bloom, Bonny Woods are still beautiful in the Autumn and Winter when it reveals its historic bone structure and the shape of the trees tell a story of land management. The woods have been variously owned by Elizabeth the First (1561) who purchased them from the Bishop of Ely and sold on by James the First in 1611.
Badger live here and at certain times of the year, you will be amused by the mating displays of woodcock as they strut and mince about at dusk. Mowing, coppicing and raking by the SWT keep sunny rides open and locals enjoy walking dogs here although they must be on leads. Park in Barking Tye Village Hall car park .The woods do not have disabled access.
Lackford Lakes, in West Suffolk is one of The Millers Tale’s favourite places to walk in because of the diversity of habitats it offers and extensive programme of family events. Abutting West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, the SWT managed reserve has been established on flooded gravel pits which feed a labrinyth of reed beds and marshes, lakes, waterways and wooded areas adjacent to the remarkable Brecklands landscapes. An Autumn walk here will reveal tree lines ablaze with colour, a fiery backdrop to lakes which are home to cormorants, grebe, egrets, swans and Egyptian geese among many many species. Come in the hour before dusk and watch the cormorants prepare to roost in the trees which grow on little islands in the largest lake. Silhouetted against the sun, they extend their wings to warm them before night removes the heat from the sky and look, for all the world, like a Japanese painting.
Other birds including shoveler, lapwing, goosander, bittern and goldeneye depend on the lakes during the autumn and winter months. The broadleaf and coniferous trees that make up the Kings Forest are a distant echo of the small wooded walks which wend their way from bird hide to bird hide, with stands of birch, hazel, blackthorn and oak. The paths wend their way alongside meadows and the scrubby Brecks with their small scale mosaics of sedums, lichens and mosses. Kingfishers and otters fish and live here along the small streams, ponds and reedbeds and the bird hides provide daily opportunities to watch them- ask rangers for advice as to the best times and places or check the whiteboard in the education centre entryway where visitors record their sightings. Dipping ponds are kept for kids to use with rangers to guide and explain and the education centre offers tea, cakes, a close up view of bird feeders and the nest cams.
A large part of the reserve is accessible to buggies and wheelchairs and the hides are ramped.
North Covebetween Beccles and Lowestoft offers a relaxing walk amid mixed wetland habitats: grazing marsh, wet woodland and pools nestled along the Waveney Valley. The ponds, dykes and meadows are important habitats for marsh ferns, bog pimpernel and golden saxifrage whilst the mature woodland is home to birds such as the warbler, siskin, redpoll and all three types of woodpecker. Woodcock nest and feed in the scrub and young carr and sparrow-hawk hunt here their swift swooping flight low to the ground and ascending flight clear against tall and wide Suffolk skies.
If you like dragonflies, this is the place for you and late summer will find grass snakes and common lizards soaking up the last of the suns heat before late Autumn and Winter sees them retreating. Cattle graze here and provide and important management service, keeping scrub at manageable levels. The Beccles Bird Society co maintains the site alongside the SWT which gives some idea of its avian importance. The woods form part of Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Suffolk Broads Living Landscape which is a project intending to develop a rich landscape of wetland habitat from Lowestoft to Beccles. This will be home to a host of unique Broadland species such the rare Norfolk Hawker dragonfly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The Mayflower Line– Manningtree-Mistley-Wrabness-Harwich
The owner of the gift shop in Clare, TheBlue Dog(@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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Gainsborough Line– Sudbury-Bures-Chapel & Wakes Colne-Marks Tey and back.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 NorthNorfolkman 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-
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
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 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, 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.
As a small girl, one of my favourite push-me-pull-me activities was to terrify myself by avidly reading ghost stories (I read ‘The Shining’ aged eleven) and I coped with their scariness by telling myself that they were imaginary events with no existence outside the minds of their authors. One evening I was staying at a friends house and picked up her fathers copy of ‘Haunted England’, devouring it from cover to cover, huddled up in a black leather office chair that swiveled round and round. As I got further into the book, I grew more and more preoccupied with ensuring the chair faced the (now open) office door in that drafty cranny filled Edwardian house. A room that had always been as familiar to me as those of my own family house became filled with strange noises and unpredictable shadows and from that moment on I could no longer regard ghostly tales as entertainment nor see my everyday spaces in the same way. The thought that ghosts might be real and they might live near me was just too much.
Still, this did not stop me from going on a ‘camping trip’ to the grounds of the notorious Borley Rectory aged sixteen or so, although I was fortified and dulled, sensate wise, by copious amounts of cider sold to us via the off licence at the back of a local pub. (Things were laxer then.) I eventually passed out from sheer fright and drunkenness half in and half out of the tent, only to awaken hours later covered in dew and miniature cobwebs from the money spiders that infested the grounds. I haven’t been back since and despite the fact that I don’t think I saw anything from any world other than my own, I remain thoroughly spooked by the worry about what it would have meant to me and my spiritual standpoint had I seen ‘anything.’
The two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk possess a subtle spookiness: of mists drifting across the flatness of the Fens and the Broads, of a strange and porous landscape, bordered by a coast that is continually beleagered by the elements, arranging itself in a new form after each winter. A landscape of graphic linear horizons under wide skies contrasts with this sense of impermeability, rendering us more receptive to stories of ghosts and strange creatures themselves slipping through the semi permeable membrane of time itself. Told by cottage fires to children to scare them away from danger and in pubs and public gatherings over the centuries, the stories serve many purposes as well as that of entertainment. The very real dangers faced by our ancestors and the risks remain a familiar fact of life for inhabitants of this watery landscape- we may not face wolves and marauders in boats from the far north, but we do have floods and tides, land erosion and loss of habitat. We are vulnerable and somehow we have to find a way of managing the feelings this engenders.
It is not hard to conjure up the ghosts of the invaders and settlers who left their burial mounds, hidden treasures, caves and ringed settlements of huts, circled against fresh invaders. They arrived during times of war to defend us and left us their airfields and castles, whilst others built churches, cathedrals and monasteries to commemorate and celebrate their gods. The ancient towns and cities bear rings of concentric history from medieval grids and the black and white of the Tudors to the narrow alleys, grand squares and almshouse courtyards of their Victorian periods. To walk around the region is to slide from century to century and it is not hard to imagine that others, from times past, walk alongside you too. Here are their tales, some more well known, others less so.
(1) Borley Rectory, ghost hunters and artifice-
Harry Price was one of England’s most famous ghost hunters, dedicated to his mission to investigate suspected hauntings and with the potential to expose the fraud that might lie behind them. Since the early 1920’s when news of the suspected haunting at Borley first became public knowledge, the burned out remains of this rectory and its graveyard and grounds in a small village near Sudbury in Suffolk has captured the imagination of the public to become arguably, one of the most, if not the most famous of all national ghost stories. It is a tale full of gothic tropes- nuns, ghostly writings and fierce fires with strange figures seen in the flames. Pure Vincent Price.
Borley Rectory was built in 1863 for the Reverend Henry Bull on the site of an ancient monastery.The ghost of a sorrowful nun who strolled along the so called “Nun’s Walk” was already well known locally at the time, believed to be a disobedient sister from the nearby nunnery at Bures who had fallen in love with a monk from the Borley Monastery. The two had tried to elope and upon their capture, the monk was executed and the nun bricked up alive in the cellars of the monastic building. The family weren’t too bothered by her presence but their guests began to be startled by the nun appearing to peer at them through the windows of the new rectory and servants rarely stayed long. When Henry’s son Harry took over the rectory the visitations were reported to have increased with a ghostly coach and horses seen racing up the rectory drive.
The Revd Eric Smith and his wife arrived at the rectory in 1927 and they invited well-known psychic researcher, Harry Price, to visit, setting off nexplicable poltergeist activity where belongings were broken and stones thrown at the family and Harry Price. The Smiths only lasted two years before they moved, to be replaced by the Revd Lionel Foyster and his family whereupon the ghostly presences increased their activities. The resident ghost appeared to hold a penchant for the rector’s wife, Marianne, displaying its ardour in a bizarre manner- hurling objects at her and leaving messages scrawled all over the walls. Witnesses claimed to have seen these appear in from of their eyes, although most of the writing was illegible and unintelligible. Finally the family decided have the Rectory exorcised and life quietened for a while afterwards but the manifestations eventually returned in a variety of new ways with inexplicable music emanating from the nearby Church and servant bells ringing by themselves, communion wine turning into ink and “something horrid” attacking one of their children. The family left and successive Rectors refused to live in the rectory and who would have blamed them?
Upon his return in 1937 with a large team of investigators, Harry Price recorded a number of phenomena, the most chilling occurring during a seance where a ‘communicant’ claimed that the the rectory would catch fire in the hallway that night and burn down. A nun’s body would be discovered in the ruins. Nothing happened until exactly eleven months later when the rectory burned down after an oil lamp fell over in the hall. Locals claimed to have seen a nuns face peering from an upstairs window and ghostly figures cavorting around. When Price returned yet again in 1943, he discovered the jawbone of a young woman and gave it a Christian burial in an attempt to bring peace to the site. Locals still report supernatural happenings in the graveyard and the place has cemented its reputation as a spooky place to visit, regardless of whether these events happened or not.
If you are interested in Borley and its history, Neil Spring’s book ‘The Ghost Hunters’ tells the story of the rectory and Harry Price via the character, Sarah Grey, one of the new assistants taken on to explore the hauntings. Sarah says: “I knew of Borley Rectory, too, before I visited it with Harry – supposedly the most haunted house in England. I knew there was no such thing as phantoms; the many witnesses must be mad, or lying. I knew I could visit Borley Rectory without fear, return without harm. These are the things I thought I knew. I now understand the true meaning of terror.”
A new animated documentary film called ‘Borley Rectory is also currently in production. Noir-ish is style, the director Ashley Thorpe describes it as a ‘love letter to another age of horror’ after reading about Borley Rectory as a child in the Usborne Book of Ghosts.
(2) Newmarket gypsy boys grave-
In times gone by, a crossroads wasn’t merely a place where four routes intersected but was actually accorded a religious and spiritual meaning and people who committed suicide were sometimes buried nearby. Until the late sixties, suicide was treated as a crime ‘the murder of oneself’ and the families of suicides were not granted permission to bury them on consecrated ground. This is where the term ‘committed suicide’ originally comes from and refers to the commission of an unlawful act. Families would seek some form of religious meaning in burial by selecting a crossroads as the burial site of their loved one so they could be buried near what they saw as the shape of a cross in the road.
Drive in either direction on the B1506 near Newmarket and Moulton and you will reach a crossroads caused by an intersection with the B1085. Nearby is the unmarked grave where Joseph, a young lad from a traveler family, took his own life in the 17th Century and was subsequently buried. It is believed that some sheep from a flock he was herding went astray one day and, believing he’d be accused of their theft and knowing he would not get a fair trial in a society prejudiced against gypsies, took his own life rather than be hung for something he did not do. This is believed to be his grave and gypsy families erected a cross there in the seventies. In his book “Paranormal Suffolk,” the author Christopher Reeve says: “cyclists are mysteriously forced by some strange unseen power to dismount as they near the spot.” and local riders have long reported their mounts shying away or refusing to go close. Conversely there is also a well established tradition of race goers visiting the grave for good luck too. The belief is that if any flowers should appear on the grave during Derby week, then a horse from the Newmarket stables will win and the colour of the graveside flowers will foretell those of the silks of the winning jockeys.
(3) Tales of Norwich from ‘The Man in Black’-
Book yourselves on a Norwich Ghost Walk and you wil get two hours of ambulant history and ghostly tales as you tramp the streets of this atmospheric city with the ‘Man in Black’, a lugubrious Victorian historian and tour guide. Our favourite location, Fye Bridge is a 13th century structure rebuilt in 1829 and the site of a medieval ducking stool used to ‘test’ for witches. Should the poor women survive her ducking, she would then immolated on a wooden pyre, surrounded by baying crowds. Locals report multiple sighting of the ghosts of these witches, all of them carrying their own faggots –the piles of wood on which they would later be burned: a particularly sadistic executioners touch. The ghost walk uses local actors to simulate scenes from the past such as the ‘Faggot Witch’ who curses you and shakes her sticks as you pass.
Nearby Magdalen Street has been described as one of the most ‘haunted places in Britain’ with No19 infested by ghostly footsteps echoing through the empty parts of the building, cold spots and drafts, and a shadowy figure on its stairs, maybe as a result of a nineteenth century murder committed in the building. Staff at the Adam and Eve pub report a sighting of a ghostly hand holding a head in the car park, the terrifying sensation of somebody running hands through their hair and odd noises. Lord Sheffield, who died at the inn in 1549 is believed to be the culprit here.
The aptly named part of Norwich known as Tombland is the site of the Grey Lady hauntings, believed to be the earthly manifestation of a very unhappy and inadvertent victim of the plague. When the disease killed the occupants of the nearby Augustine Steward building, the house was boarded up for several weeks to prevent people entering or leaving but sadly a young girl in the house had survived the plague, only to starve to death, unable to escape. Her grey robes fade away to nothingness below the knees as she drifts around several location in the older parts of the city, it is understandable that after such confinement, unable to escape, her ghost is certainly not going to limit itself to one site.
(3) Disappearing and reappearing mansions in Suffolk-
Perusing the Bury Free Press last spring I was intrigued by a letter from a Jean Batram who spoke of her disquiet after seeing a house apparently appear then disappear moments later as she drove through the village of Rougham. She explained: “About five years ago, we were having a Sunday afternoon drive, coming into Rougham and going along Kingshall Street (I’d never been that way before) and up to the last bungalow. Looking across the newly harrowed field I saw a large house on its own very, very plainly. I said to my husband ‘look at that lovely house, I’ll take a look again on the way back’.
But coming back later, the house was gone and I asked if we were on the same road and he said ‘yes’, so I remarked ‘how odd’ as I knew very plainly that there was a large house standing on its own quite near across the field with trees behind it.”
NowJean was not the first person to see this strange vision and indeed is one of many over the last century and a half. In her book, ‘Ghosts of Suffolk’, Betty Puttick christens the apparition the “Rougham mirage” and goes on to talk about an eye witness account from 1860 when another local by the name of Robert Palfrey saw a large red brick double-fronted house behind ornate iron gates, only for the sight to disappear in a blink of an eye, right in front of him. Several decades later, his own great grandson reported the same phenomena whilst out with his horse and carriage. He drove past it and upon his return trip, noticed the house was no longer there. What is so odd about these sightings is that the house is described as not only being very large, making one wonder how locals had such little awareness of such a house being constructed, but was also of Georgian appearance. That period of architecture ended around 1830, only thirty years before Mr Palfrey’s sighting so it would seem likely that had it existed, locals would report their memories of its construction. Remember how under populated rural regions were then (and still are)? You could not hope to slip in and out of a village let alone build a house in one, unnoticed. The building of such a house would have involved hundreds of locals, from those sourcing and supplying the raw materials to the many who would have been intrigued and gossiped about the potential inhabitants.
Well known and respected psychic researcher Tony Cornell carried out his own investigations in the seventies and could find no corroboration of either its existence or the lack of; however he did find some evidence of the existence of a residence called the Kings House, demolished in the early 1800’s through his research of local maps. The mystery continues although I look away from the alleged site whenever we drive past, frightened that I might accidentally see it (which would be NOT a good thing for this frightened of ghost houses person).
(4) And haunted airfields-
Suffolk and Norfolk provided a temporary home to thousands of the ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’ American Airforce men during the Second World War and it appears that some may have decided to remain here, long after their corporeal life was over. Rougham Airfield (What it is about this little village that makes it so seductive to ghosts?) has long been reputed to be the eternal wandering grounds of a number of these young men from the U.S. 8th Air Force 1942-1945 who tragically were killed during their posting here.
After the wars end, most of the airfields north of the village were returned to the farmers and were reintegrated into the surrounding arable fields, although a few acres became the Rougham Industrial Estate, whilst the remaining grass taxi and runways were turned over for commercial and civil use. The control tower remains though, and now forms the hub of the Airfield Museum with frequent open days, kite festivals and other events, giving the public a chance to visit.
Towards the end of the war, an American airman nicknamed L’il Butch wandered around the base, triumphant after his successful return from yet another bombing raid over Germany. He must have been greatly relieved to be back at base as he wasn’t too far off the end of his active service in England. He was seen and waved to by several of his colleagues as they too arrived back or headed towards their own planes. The curious thing was that several months earlier, L’il Butch had actually been killed on a bombing raid over Germany and had not returned at all. He seemed to not know that he had died, according to his friends, and apart from their knowing that he was dead, his ghost gave no indication of being in anything other than the rudest of health.
Hauntings at the airfield were said to have increased from the seventies onwards, with locals reporting sightings of ghostly apparitions of American servicemen walking the fields and runways of the base and the noise of aircraft could be heard as they landed and took off. Eerie voices echoed around the control tower: one in particular sounds very distressing and is believed to be that of a pilot who ran out of fuel and crashed his plane at the base: ‘Why wouldn’t you let us land?’” he has been heard crying out in distress. Should you wish to further channel the spirit of these good natured and brave men, then Lavenham’s Swan Hotel has the Airmen Bar with one wall covered in their signatures. They relaxed and drank here and Glenn Miller was reputed to have set out on his fateful flight after visiting the bar. As Bernard Nolan stated in the East Anglian Daily Times: “We could get to Lavenham quite easily from where we lived in a Nissen hut just a few fields away. I can recall that we used to walk across the muddy fields in our flying boots, and we would take our boots off and leave them on the road and pick them up on the way back from the pub We usually came here to the Swan – it was one of our favourite haunts.” It is such a shame that so many of the cartoons and graffiti created by the airmen has now disappeared although the group Eighth in the East was established to record and research the legacy USAF had (and still has ) upon East Anglia.
“And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring. And its wild bark thrill’d around, his eyes had the glow of the fires below, t’was the form of the spectre hound.”
Or as Enid Porter said in ‘Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore”: “The noise of rattling chains over the desolate fields on moonless nights announced the invisible presence of these hounds; sometimes their heavy breathing might be heard. The important thing to do was to take shelter immediately, at home if possible, and to lock and bolt doors and windows so that the fearsome animals, foretelling death or other disaster, could not come by”
The Anglo Saxon had a word for a devil or demon; ‘Scucca‘, as did the Norse Vikings; ‘Shukir‘ and both of these served as shorthand, after a manner, for their Norse ‘Dogs of War’, the gods called Odin and Thor. Some historians claim this was the name of Thor’s faithful old dog whilst others state the dog actually belonged to Odin. So one of both of these may have given their name to the ‘Black Shuck’, the East Anglian colloquial name for a terrifying canine beast that is super sized (and I don’t mean St Bernard sized- think bigger). Huge and black with eyes the size of saucers, the Black Shuck pads almost soundlessly behind you, dogging your step and getting closer and closer: your inevitable fate, should you look directly into those eyes, is death within six months to a year. Equally its name may simply be a bastardisation of’ Shucky’ which simply means shaggy, and the legend merely a story of the shaggy dog kind.
The Black Shuck is a local version of a legend that is common to many parts of the UK and even in East Anglia, he is known by other names: the Galleytrot in Suffolk and Old Scarfe in other parts of Norfolk. In Essex they call him the ‘Hateful Thing.’ One of his more famous stamping grounds lies between Sheringham and Overstrand where, in 1890, a young boy reported being hounded farther out to sea by a large dog that would not let him come ashore. There are numerous sightings over centuries, all remarkably consistent regarding behaviour and appearance, although Overstrand village legend also tells of a gentler Black Shuck. In this version, a Dane, a Saxon and Shuck the dog were inseparable friends who were drowned whilst out fishing one day and the Dane ended up being washed up at Beeston while his friend, the Saxon, washed up at Overstrand. Shuck roams the coast between the two looking for his friends and masters, doomed to never be reunited with them and to this day the village of Overstrand bears an image of this loyal hound on its village sign.
Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have based ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on another of the Black Shuck’s routes, around Mill Lane which passes by Cromer Hall but replaced the flatter Norfolk with a wilder Dartmoor. The description of Baskerville is remarkably close to the appearance of Cromer Hall although stories telling of black devil dogs abound in Devon too so it is by no means certain that Doyle used the Norfolk prototype as his inspiration.
The benefits of tales and legends such as these are pretty clear. What better way to keep people safely at home as night fell, away from beaches, cliff edges and lonely dark lanes than by frightening them? Or they may have functioned as a way to explain what was then, the inexplicable- tragedies, misadventure and disappearances as people attempted to find their way home in the dark, in an inhospitable place. Curious children can be protected from drowning by an over elaborate tale of how one of their compatriots nearly drowned themselves after venturing too close to the sea. In addition, if you are involved in smuggling or other beach side capers, here’s how you warn away the curious and those who might wish to make a move on your lucrative trade.
What was probably a lightning strike in a church in Blythburgh, resulting in black striations on the inside of the church door, which locals described as the claw marks, sounds far more sinister blamed upon a gigantic black dog leaping from a beam up high, killing a boy and two grown men, before leaving the building with ‘a great thundering sound?’ It also avoids having to ask awkward questions of a God who sends a storm to kill pious church goers- and far more comfortable it must be to blame it on a black dog sent by a devil instead. Of course this would be encouraged by the church who could further turn such tales and subsequent fears to their advantage: “Pray harder, tithe more to prevent such evil visiting us again” maybe?
East Anglia is littered (get it?) with all manner of Black Shuck iconography, from the signs of its villages to street lights topped by weathervanes such as this one in Bungay, designed by a local child in a competition in 1933. The hound rides a lightning bolt and refers to his appearance in the town in 1577 during yet another thunderstorm which killed several worshippers in St Mary’s church. Two were killed after being touched by the animal and a third died after being “drawn together and shrunk up as like a piece of leather” according to Abraham Fleming’s account of this event in his pamphlet of 1577. This latter description sounds more like the effects of the intense heat of a bolt of lightning. The weathervane cum streetlight, which was erected on the site of the old water pump has an inscription which reads: “All down the church in midst of fire the hellish monster flew. and passing onwards to the Quire he many people slew.” Should you want to know more, then ‘ byShock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Folklore’ by Dr David Waldron and Christopher Reeve is a great (albeit non academic) account of the history of not only the Bungay and Blythburgh events, but the historical and cultural background to the myth.
Should you wish to toast the legend of the Black Shuck then there are available locally, several fine ales brewed by some small independent breweries in regional hostelries or via off licences. Hellhound, a Suffolk brewery based in Hadleigh,started up only a few years ago, has Cerberus as its logo and brews Black Shuck, a 3.9% porter described by them as dark bodied with notes of caramel and raisin and is a ‘breakfast stout’, brewed with porridge oats and coffee. We drank it at a Norwich pub called The Murderers, a suitably named place for an ale named after a dark legend. In Old Buckenham, the Wagtail Brewery brews ‘Black Shuck’, a stout using malt from Wells-next-the-Sea. According to the label: “Since Viking times, the inhabitants of Norfolk have told of a wild black dog with flaming red eyes, the appearance of which bodes ill to the beholder.” Made as a vegan beer in total contradiction to its namesake who we feel sure is NOT a vegan, this ale is shuck dark with a very mild scent of coffee, roasted and woody in the mouth.
(6) The haunted drowned town of Dunwich
From a land haunted by dogs and people, we turn to a land haunted by an entire disappeared village, a place once inhabited by real Suffolk folk, busy and full of life. By the eleventh century, Dunwich, right on the edge of Suffolk where it meets the tea coloured waters of the North Sea, was one of the greatest ports on the entire east coast with a naval base, monasteries, churches, huge public buildings and its own mint. Locals lived well off the fat of their labours in shipbuilding and trade and a fishing fleet of more than seventy ships went out every day. From its earliest beginnings as a Roman fort, Dunwich became the capital of a Saxon kingdom and the place where St Felix converted East Anglians to Christianity, and the tenth largest in England with two parliamentary seats. There was much to be lost when the town eventually tumbled into the North Sea that had provided it with such a good living.
Prior to this disastrous and terminal event, the towns expansion and prosperity had been curtailed by a huge storm in 1328 which tore through the town, shifting the shingle of the seabed, changing the current and ended up blocking off its harbour. Walberswick became prosperous off the back of this because ships were diverted there and this caused animosity between the two towns. During the subsequent storms, houses, churches and windmills were lost and by 1540 the sea had engulfed the market place and Dunwich was lost. All that was left was the 13th century Franciscan friary on the edge of the cliff and the Leper Hospital chapel in the present churchyard.
Coastal erosion has not ceased and the land continues to recede at a steady old rate, first recorded in Roman times. The soft boulder clay of this coastline is crowned by a layer of shingle which has an essential impermanence, shifting so much the coastal mappers cannot keep up. Man has not helped either with the construction, in the early 20th century, of a new pier at Lowestoft. This altered the tides and the current began to encroach upon and take All Saints church, formerly one of Suffolk’s most impressive churches. That one church tower remained upright on the beach until its eventual collapse in 1900. Until the 1950’s walkers still came upon its masonry, littered across the shoreline and the former graves gave up their contents, scattering bones across the cliffs. The thundering surge took not only the village, all six parishes of it, but also wiped out an entire hunting forest, hills and the harbour which was stopped up by a shingle bank so impenetrable, its fate was sealed forever.
Today Dunwich is a little village of less than 120 residents although its numbers swell hugely during the tourist season. There are some fishing boats left, a shadow of the former fleet and the gorgeous pub ‘The Ship’ which sprawls on the corner of the sandy tracks down to the beach. The Flora tearooms cook and serve up hundreds of thousands of plates of expertly friend fish and chips and the heath teams with walkers and bird watchers. Near to the pub is the Dunwich Museum that tells the tale of this lost place.
“But!” I hear you cry…“What about the haunting? “
That lost undersea world, our nearest thing to Atlantis has attracted many pilgrims over the years who come to sit on the sand and perch on the cliff tops, listening for the church bells, ringing their futile and haunted peels from the bottom of the North Sea. “Where frowns the ruin o’er the silent dead?” we might ask as we sit on the beach at night, the only light coming from the few buildings that cling to the marram grass tufted cliffs, and the only noise the soft clatter of the thick crust of pebbles that make up the beach here as the waves move up and over them. There is a myth that Dunwich had over fifty churches, perpetuated by Thomas Gardner, a Southwold historian, but there weren’t that many.
The seabed here attracts divers and snorkellers, attracted by an subterranean history as rich as that of ground sites and experienced divers, who are not easily spooked nor vulnerable to all manner of fancies, tell of unsettled feelings, of not being alone down ‘there’. Fishermen too, another breed of folk not prone to flights of imagination talk (although they do like a good yarn) speak of seeing an Elizabethan sailor who wanders the beach at nights fall, eventually wading out to a boat anchored a way out to sea. They hear the bells, infinitessimally muted by a hundred of more feet of waters, hear the cries of ghostly children playing on the beach at dusk and see the phantom horseman astride his steed. Said to be a former squire of the Dunwich heathlands (now owned by the National Trust), he only appears during the full moon when the tides turn, scaring those that encounter him. The phantom horseman is not the only phantom horseman either and when there’s a full moon, locals have seen the ghostly apparition of a past landowner racing his horse across the heathland at full gallop.
Walk the cliff path near the grade II* listed Greyfriars Priory ruins and you may see the apparition of a man, striding along in angry search of his adulterous wife who ran away with her lover. The ruins of the priory and those of the old leper hospital in Dunwich are the haunt of ghostly monks (I have yet to come across a priory that isn’t home to a monk ghost of three!) who roam its grounds, blissfully unaware that it is in need of urgent repair. Finally, if you are brave (and daft enough) to visit St James Church at dusk, you may bump into the spectral remains of the leper inhabitants who are said to haunt the churches graveyard.
That old East Anglian ghost mascot, the Black Shuck likes it here too and its glowing red eyes have been reported to peer at visitors who come here at dusk (who in their right mind would want to come to such a spooky place at night?) with a notable sighting reported in 1926 of a giant dog which loped around the tumbled stones. Dunwich has a plethora of animal ghosts with flocks of ghost sheep and cows seen along the shoreline, reminders of the real animals who were once raised here and perished during the storms, their water logged corpses washed up along the shore for months afterwards.
One of the worst tales for sheer weirdness is the encounter a young couple had with a pair of ghostly disembodied legs along the Helena Walk Trail in 2011. Hearing strange footsteps following them, they turned around to see these spooky floating legs, hovering a few feet above the pathway. Wearing dark trousers and boots, the legs ran away into the trees lining the pathway and may have belonged to the ghost of the brother of the Lord of the Manor who apparently fell in love with a local serving maid. Banned from ever seeing her again, he is said to have pined away and died from a broken heart. I do not know how he became separated from the rest of his body.
(7) The wailing babes in a (Norfolk) wood
The trope of the pint sized ghost- that of a child- is a familiar one over the centuries and in many cultures, one that should fill us with nothing but sadness for the tale of a young life cut short. Yet all too often films and books with stories of child ghosts and spirits (is there a difference between the two?) are the scariest. What lies behind this might be the fear of the partially formed spiritual and religious persona, a child with an incomplete grasp on (adult) morality and therefore more vulnerable to inculcation by evil. I don’t know.
Or maybe the thought of these ghostly spectral children are too vivid a reminder of the vulnerability of our own children, of our family happiness and security? What could be worse than the spectre of your child, a child, so near and yet so far away, hovering in the doorway, in a wood or other familiar place? I think that as a mother, I would be driven out of my mind by this, not comforted. With ghosts (and specifically the ghosts of children) A fear of something I want to keep outside has somehow made its way inside and lodged itself into the realms of possibility- that one of my own children might, one day, die before me. Anyway…<pushes that thought firmly out of my mind>, we go on.
In 1595, Thomas Millington published the story ‘The Babes in the Wood’ in Norwich and again in ballad form as ‘Children of the Wood’ in 1640. Millingtons story was written in a time when some Protestant and Catholics were making all manner of wild accusations at each other, so it may have had a nefarious and political intent. But folk tales tend to contain a grain of truth….
According to folklore this tale was based on a wicked uncle from Norfolk who decided to dispose of his two child charges in the local woods, Wayland Woods, known previously as ‘Wailing Woods’- an ancient woodland near Watton. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), oak, ash, hazel and bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population and the woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age. The nearby Thompson Common is renowned for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which provide a home for water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil upwards. Starting in nearby Stow Beddon, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk that encompasses this phenomena and many other local sights.
To date, no other place has been strongly associated with the tale and it is now believed to be at least partially based upon a true series of events in the sixteenth century. The name ‘Wayland’ is derived from the cries of the children calling for help, cries that woodland walkers allege they hear to this day. Other sources say the Vikings named the woods Waneland, a place of worship which may be another origin of the legend. In pagan times it has been alleged that people sacrificed unwanted children to appease and praise the gods, often by leaving them in remote places. Could these two tales have melded- the pagan woodland sacrifices and the 16th century deaths into one combined source of the legend?
The legend tells that these two children were left in the care of their uncle at Griston Hall on the edge of the woods, following the death of their parents. On reaching the age of majority (21) they were to inherit their father’s fortune, but should they pass before this time the wealth would go directly to the uncle. The uncle plotted to dispose of the two children to stake his claim to the wealth after hiring two cut throats to take them and murder them in the woods. One of the cut throats appear to have possessed a stronger moral code than the uncle though (only ever so slightly though) and killed the other in order to prevent him from going ahead with the murder. The surviving cut throat abandoned them there (remember the children were aged three and one under two) and they died of exposure and starvation. Their bodies were found under an oak tree where robins had covered their bodies with leaves, an absolutely heartbreaking detail. In 1879, the tree that the babes had reputedly been left under was struck by lightning and destroyed.
Griston Hall used to contain a wood carving that was described as depicting the tale of the Babes in the Wood, placed there by a family descendant as reminder of his ancestral cruelty. The village signs of Griston and Watton commemorate the tale and locals will tell of the white wraiths seen flitting from tree to tree in the woods as darkness falls. Ground fog or the spirits of these unfortunate children? Who knows.
If you enjoy a bracing walk by the sea, Norfolk’s coastline risks spoiling you for any other. There’s traditional resorts where the beaches are home to sunbathers, deserted miles of sand backed by tufted-dunes, and sheltered rock-pools formed from the foot-beds of cliffs. Many of the counties beaches are popular with beachcombers who are attracted to the ancient stories embedded within the rapidly changing coastal landscape. You might recall that a caravan of King John’s treasure was lost to a rising sea in 1216 while he was attempting to cross The Wash between King’s Lynn and Long Sutton. The treasure supposedly includes crown jewels, jewellery and gold coins. Farther down the coast, the cliffs have given up the fossilised remains of elephants, the foot-beds of fifty human footsteps preserved in clay and a multitude of other strange and mysterious creatures. Here’s my list of favourites and please do leave a comment if there’s any you think I might have left out.
Hopton on Sea, a curve of white-sand beach south of Great Yarmouth in South Norfolk, the beach is divided by large groynes, a sea defence system and backed by maram-covered cliffs that provide shelter from the winds. Flights of concrete steps offer a safe ascent. Popular with riders, kite flyers and walkers, the Scroby Sands offshore wind-farm is visible from the beach and local boat trips will take you out to see it up close, a sight that takes the breath away. Also common are the seal colonies, their slippery-sleak heads popping up like buoys to accompany your boat. Hopton is part of the ‘walk4life’ campaign and information display boards between Hopton and Gorleston beaches have details of timed walks.
Bob Hall Sands I will probably be taken out and shot for publicising this truly secret Norfolk beach among the salt marshes near Wells-next-the-Sea. A thorough knowledge of the tide timetables is required because that tide needs to be going out to enable you to motor through the marshes which remain passable 3 hours each side of high tide (under normal wind and pressure conditions). You must also beware the low lying fog which can be very disorientating and once on the marshes, you’ll have to leave your vehicle and walk. A mile or so of sand between the dunes and the sea is thus revealed. The terrain is deserted, and in winter becomes the roost of thousands of pink-footed geese who soar over the broad terraces of sand-flats that are exposed at low tide. Let your eyes rest on the expanse of mud and sand where shallow channels of silver-water rush to return to the North Sea.
Weybourne has banked and pebbled beaches- the start of the cliffed region of the Norfolk coast extending all the way to Happisburgh. Weybourne is a fishing resort situated in the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it makes a fantastic start or end to a day here if you travel via the North Norfolk Railway, spend some time in the village itself (very attractive) and watch the sea fisherman, huddled against brisk onshore winds. Surrounded by farmland, woodland and heathland, the area is excellent for walking too. Nearby Kelling Heath is dark skies territory and a popular gathering point for astronomers and star gazers with several events planned over the year. A nearby campsite provides accommodation, food and company for those not wishing to spend the night on the beach.
Overstrand draws plenty of admirers of the amazing views of beach, sea and horizon from the cliff top path which is eroding rapidly, Offering panoramically lovely walk to Cromers along the top, about one and a half miles away, there is a path down to the beach which is a lovely spot for sunbathing. When the tide is out, the sand is perfectly flat and very compacted down making it good for ball games, running and walking although the tide comes in right up to the promenade so do check the times before departing. There is a cliff top car park with a small cafe, toilet facilities and ice cream van in the warmer months
Hunstanton, two miles of Blue Flag Beach in the locally nicknamed “Hunny”, the Sea Life Centre, a comprehensively equipped swimming pool, donkey rides, rock shops and amusements keeps Hunstanton firmly up there in the best trad resort stakes. However walk a little way and you’ll arrive at Old Hunstanton with its beach pockmarked by rock pools and shelteed by red sandstone cliffs- famously striped as a result of layers of fossil-studded sediment, they are breathtaking at sunset and sunrise. The only west-facing resort on the east coast of England, this melange of classic Victorian resort and modern attractions can be seen in its entirety by riding on the seasonal land train. This carries visitors from Searles Leisure Resort to the Lighthouse and back again for a small charge. The driver has been very amenable to emergency pit stops for children’s loo breaks, the purchase of ice creams or to take photographs. There are large soft dunes, miles of golden sand both providing the kind of background to a traditional seaside holiday. However the sea comes in slowly and provides enticing shallow waters for kids to explore and play in: because of this islands can form and care should be taken that you and youngsters don’t become cut off. (There are no lifeguard patrols here as there are on the main resort beach.)
Scolt Head Island, at just under four miles long, has one of the most inaccessible and beautiful stretches of sand in the district, namechecked by those Norfolk folk in the know as one of the best places to escape to. High dunes and soft sands tufted with Marram grass lie at the end of a walk from the quayside on the east side of the creek, all the way along the raised sea wall and offer shelter from the sea breezes. If you have little ones with you, the ferry from Burnham Overy Staithe, operates either side of high tide and is a great way to see the coastline from another perspective- that of the famous seals that make this their home. The beaches are littered with shells, lovely to hunt for and admire. The island belongs to the National Trust and Norfolk Wildlife Trust and is a non-intervention reserve where coastal processes are allowed to naturally occur without any interference from man The west of the island is shut off to the public during much of the summer season so that breeding birds are not disturbed.
Brancaster’s strong tides makes this pretty coastline of salt marshes and intertidal flats not the safest for swimming and it has seen its fair share of tragedies over the years. Sadly members of my own family joined the official search for a family of children who sadly drowned here some years ago so please do take care. However, the soft sand is perfect for sandcastles and at low tide it is rippled with coastal lagoons which are safer for children with their warm water and sealife waiting to be discovered. The beach is backed by a golf course (what a view as you tee off!) and at low tide the 1940s shipwreck of the SS Vina emerges from its sandy, watery grave, barnacle-covered bilges and superstructure fully exposed. Avocets, oyster catchers, terns and seals lounge and bob about making this a nature-spotters paradise. For hungry people, ice cream is sold from a booth on the beach and there are decent pubs nearby too.
Holkham is truly an awe inspiring beach, backed by nature reserves and the watery border of the large Holkham Hall estate. Behind the shoreline lies a shallow half-moon basin, which, at very high tides, rapidly subsumes into a shallow lagoon. Perfect for children because of the wide expanse of soft sand and gently shelving beach, salt-water shallow pools, sand dunes and wooden boardwalks to clatter up and down, you will be transported back to the Blyton-esque seaside adventures of your own youth. The beach is edged by a ridge line of piney-woods where pine cones crackle and sizzle on a hot day as the heat encourages them to split open and drop their seeds. Children can run amid tall trees that let in dappled sun – ideal on a hot day when you need shade but do not fancy a trek back to the car-park. In addition the dunes provide plenty of shelter. The nature reserve is incredibly diverse with tangles of creeks and saltings- shifting, yellow tongues of sand spits taper off into the salt-marsh and woods of Corsican Pine, their stepped and branched trunks piercing the skies and forming a perimeter around the acres of green pastures and grazing marshes. Sit in the bird hide or alongside Salts Hole at dusk and hear the reserve come alive.
Holme next the Sea marks the start of the long distance footpaths along the North Norfolk Coast, running all the way inland to Thetford called the Peddars Way and Norfolk Wildlife Trust manages the Holme Dunes Nature reserve. Located on the counties northwest corner, where The Wash meets the North Sea, Holme Dunes is superbly located to attract migrating birds (over 320 species) as well as other wildlife species including natterjack toads, butterflies and dragonflies, many visible from the three bird hides. The little village perched on the far north west point of the county has a small pub and church but boasts a sandy beach popular with holidaying families seeking that classic bucket and spades holiday. A second Bronze Age wooden circle discovered on a Norfolk beach at Holme has been dated to the same year as its neighbour, known as Seahenge. Archaeologists have been testing wood from the second henge and believe it was also built using trees felled in 2049BC. You will have to pay for a daily membership to the Wildlife Trust but you can then drive a mile down to the Wildlife Centre and wander through the reserve forest to access the beach further down- the golden sands will be pretty much deserted.
Horsey is home to thousands of wintering seals on a beach accessed via a gap in the very necessary sea defences in this flat part of the region. The famous National Trust owned Horsey Windpump is worth a visit as is Horsey Mere, a wildlife watery reserve open Spring to Autumn. A voluntary beach closure is in place until the end of January – by which time it is expected that most seals will have left – to help keep them safe. In warmer months there is a kiosk at Staithe car park selling a range of drinks and snacks. Behind the beach you will find a trail along fields and dykes to Horsey Mere, one of the few expanses of water in the Broads owned by the National Trust. Carry on along the path and you will arrive at Horsey Windpump where you can admire views over the countryside and beach after climbing to the top. There is a cafe too.
Wells-next-the-Sea has a coastline which gradually merges into the beach at Holkham, making a glorious walk. Driving along the road to the car park the glorious views are kept secret until you are nearly at the beach car park. From the far side of it, choose one of the footpaths over the tree-covered ridge and you will emerge onto one of the most secluded and self-contained beaches on the Norfolk coast. Yet more pine-woods shelter the pretty beach huts and a very popular beach cafe where sandy feet are welcomed. The food here is amazing and the views are of those woods and the beach. A lovely dog shower means four legged friends are welcomed too. Some strong currents at sea mean summer lifeguards need to be on their best game but the creek is perfect for swimming at low tide and is a crabbers smorgasbord at other times. Check the tides before leaving as high tide sees the waters lapping the base of the beach huts.
Cley, a long stretch of stones and shingle, diverse bird life (another twitchers paradise this) and a beautiful walk from the village with its landmark windmill. The sea is deeper here so it is for competent swimming as opposed to miles of paddling in the shallows. Not the place for resort type facilities, this is where to come if you don’t want the kids to be pestering for ice creams, donkey rides and amusements because there aren’t any. The beaches are backed by miles of wild and uninhabitated marshlands, home to many species of birds and it isn’t just the beach that is a haven for paradise. Divers have discovered the remains of a prehistoric Oak forest just 300 metres off the Cley coast. Eight metres under the sea, the forest could have been hidden since the ice age and stretching as far as the continent. It now provides a safe environment for a multitude of creatures and a great diving experience.
Cromer, like its neighbour Sheringham, is a blue-flag beach. The famous pier with the even more famous End of the Pier show is the towns landmark and deservedly so. A great place to drink hot chocolate and admire the skies of Norfolk or drop a crab line or two, the pier is the icing on the cake of a well-managed, sandy beach. Lifeguards and water sports zones ensure that bathing is as safe as it can be. No dogs on the beach from May to September though. West beach (left of the pier) is a mix of sand and stone and tends to be less busy, especially towards East Runton. Swimming is best at low tide because of the expanse of hard compacted sand which is exposed- much kinder than the stones upbeach! You’ll see the rock pools all the better too. Avoid swimming east of the pier under and around the first breaker because of a strong riptide. Huddled below the historic town is East Beach, stretching below the 62 metre high cliffs and with those views of the historic old buildings ranged far above.
Cromer has no harbour, so the fishing boats are pulled onto the shingle by the cobblestoned Gangway which is close to a fabulous shop selling the eponymous crab that is justifiably famous because of that extra-sweet flesh, attributed to their slow growth on the chalk reef just off the coast. Nearby is Cromer Pier with the historic Pavilion Theatre and cafe selling good hot chocolate at its end. There’s great walking here too- start off at the Esplanade and walk east towards Overstrand, or west to the large beaches of the Runtons (where elephant bone fossils have been found by beachcombers). Or climb the 200ft high Beeston Bump, beyond which is nestled Cromer’s sister coastal town of Sheringham and The Mo, another seafront museum.
Sea Palling is situated on a part of the Norfolk coastline that is permanently under threat of erosion and submersion. This is a blue-flag stretch of yellow sand, flecked by shingle, larger stones and spined by dunes; the defensive stones hunker along the beach, providing irresistible climbing for kids. A sea-defence scheme, built in the mid-1990s by the Environment Agency, incorporating some man made reefs, helps to mitigate some of the flooding. Zoned for watersports, the reefs also help keep a lagoon-like glassiness to the water in the summer, making it gentler for swimmers and there is deckchair hire, lost child and first aid services on the beach. The town has a pub, the Reefs Bar, situated at the foot of the ramp leading to the beach, cafes, amusement arcade, a Post Office and general store, farm-shop and a stall which sells fish caught locally.
Waxham, just to the south of Sea Palling is home to nearly as many seals as human visitors and they often bask on the sand; a likely site should you decide to walk between the two resorts. The resort (if you can call it that) is hidden away amongst trees and sand dunes, has no regular car park (just park along the side of the road) and no amenities close to the beach, making it a bit of an insiders secret. Part of an AONB, the views stretch for miles. A restored barn-cum-cafe keeps people fed and watered and enjoys a sheltered location behind the grass tufted dunes. The village is tiny and houses the Old Hall inn with a separate kids dining area should you wish to use it. Lobster and crab are seasonally available, there is a beer garden and several bedrooms to stay in should you decide to make a weekend of it.
Mundesley Beach with its decent sized waves attracts surfers and other water sports fanatics but that’s not all. A beautiful sandy stretch of coast backed by beach-huts with lifeguard cover and shallow waters at low tide make it popular with families too. Only twenty miles from Norwich gives it added flexibility for a quick trip and this long stretch of sandy beach continues to Bacton and Walcott along the coastal road between Cromer and Caister. Although Victorian Mundesley lost its railway, it still retains the charm of those times, avoiding the excesses of other resorts. On Walcott beach cliff top you’ll also find high quality ice cream van for miles; Mark’s Lamarti van is always there serving homemade ice creams with a great selection of toppings.
Winterton on Sea was mentioned in the Domesday Book and is another pretty, sandy beach backed by dunes and nature-reserve grasslands that are also home to the Natterjack Toad and a colony of around 30 to 40 seals. Only eight miles from Great Yarmouth, the beaches are kept safe by an active coastguard lookout tower which has been moved onto the dunes as a result of erosion and is part of the Sea Safety Group that has five stations across East Anglia, all manned entirely be volunteers 365 days a year. Populated by a wide variety of birds including terns, the beach seldom seems busy and back onto an AONB which helps temper any attempts to busy things up. There’s a small cafe nearby though with a sea-view terrace.
Gorleston Beach is another triumph of the Victorians: 3km of resort with every amenity a person could want. Gorleston’s two beaches – north and south – sit in a bay between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, overlooked by promenades that ascend the cliffs. North Beach has that Victorian feel with immaculately-kept gardens leading down from the hilltop and the beach is backed by a rock armour-protected concrete sea wall with timber groynes. Built in 1927, there’s a paddling-pool and a large boating-lake, reflective of a time when yachting was a popular hobby for children. South Beach is is an unspoilt and wide beach, part sand, part shingle, quieter and part of the ‘trim trial’, with its system of timed walks. The beach has a manned RNLI lifeguard lookout tower due to its strong current and pretty large, rolling waves.
Great Yarmouth’s pleasure beach and Golden Mile offers that classic British mixture of sand, sea, beach-front promenades and its amusements, a mixture of high-octane rides, penny arcades and family fairgrounds spread over more than nine acres. The Greater Yarmouth coastline stretches along 15 miles of beautiful sandy beaches backed by dunes and pierced by the two piers. At the northern end the Britannia Pier is built above the beach and has donkey rides departing on the sands below it. The Wellington Pier is located further down Marine Parade towards the southern end of the strip and trips to see the seals at Scroby Sands leave from the shoreline between the two piers. The Central Beach is a another sandy beach between Britannia and Wellington Piers adjacent to Marine Parade; all have life guard cover.
Scratby Beach near Great Yarmouth is a wide curving, ochre-coloured, quiet sand and shingle beach found at the base of low sand cliffs, protected by a row of huge boulders there to protect the sand dunes from erosion. Popular with dog walkers, sunbathers and families, the northwards walk along the cliff tops offer panoramic views over the sea and of the cliffs covered with indigenous plants, and the many windsurfers who are especially prevalent in the winter months. The beach can be reached via a slope and steps and there is parking and public toilets on the cliff top.
Caister is another popular holiday destination for families with its own independent lifeboat-station which marks the start of the resort’s South Beach zone. Wide dunes lead down to a glorious, golden-sandy beach with views of the Scroby Windfarm. Drinks and ice-creams are sold from a beach-cafe and a large free car-park is behind the lifeboat station. Another Winter surfing destination, the offshore southwesterly winds make it particularly popular. The North Beach is near to Great Yarmouth and has a long concrete esplanade and sand-dunes leading to another sandy, golden beach. There’s a small free car-park alongside the beach along with public & disabled toilets and wheelchair access is easy on the esplanade although further access onto the beach is limited.
California Beach merges with Scratby Beach and offers wide, sand and shingle beaches at the bottom of low and sandy cliffs. The beach is accessed via steep steps down the side of the cliff or can be walked to from Caister, along the beaches. Refreshments are available at the beach entrance point along with public & disbled toilets but public parking is very limited. Disabled access is by steep slope and stairs and may not therefore be suitable for all levels of disability.
Hemsby Beach near Great Yarmouth fronts a lively resort with shops, amusements, attractions and cafes alongside caravan and holiday parks. Wide, golden sands backed by dunes make it versatile and safe with RNLI lifeguards patrolling between the red and yellow flags in summer, 10am and 6pm. Hemsby Beach is also home to the Inshore-Rescue and takes part in events such as the Herring Festival and the new Viking festival in June. All amenities are within easy reach along with deckchair hire, public & disabled toilets and paid parking via a large car park lies next to the beach.
Burnham and Burnham Overy Staithe lies along a series of inlets, creeks and fimbrels of gullies, interspersed with small, pebble-beaches and larger expanses of sand that overlook Scolt Heads Island. Pure-white sands are speckled with dune-hills and marram grass and from the west end locals swim and canoe across a narrow and deep channel to the island; a fabulous uninhabited nature-reserve, and England’s only desert island. Return via those mud-creeks and swimming-holes on the Cockle Path.
Happisburgh Beach was the location of the first known occupation of Britain, a Paleolithic marvel which has yielded all manner of fossilised clues to the creatures that roamed this ancient place, including us, man. Standing sentinel is its famous lighthouse, all candy red and white stripes (which can be climbed, affording amazing views). Locals recommend going a little way beyond Happisburgh to Cart Gap where there is a car park and easy access to the beach. It’s similar to Sea Palling with wide sands that are perfect for picnics and sandcastles plus pools of blue seawater at low tide for children to splash in. And those spectacular views have to be seen to be believed! Stay aware of the cliffs which are subject to sudden falls and slips: layers of brown clay can slip away to reveal the claggier blue which is hell to remove from clothes, hair and shoes. Just down the beach from Cart Gap lie the last remains of Eccles, one of Norfolk’s lost villages, whose ghostly remains could once be seen on the beach at low tide and where tales are told of the church bell ringing under the waves. The Dunwich of Norfolk, so to speak.
Sheringham Beach is an old fishing village that developed into a resort when the railway arrived in late Victorian times. It has a lovely safe beach for small children which holds the European Blue Flag award for cleanliness and all the amenities of a resort town with a colourful annual carnival and festivals celebrating local seafood. Wonderful views of the coastline and surrounding countryside can be seen from a trip on the North Norfolk Railway between the town and Holt. The surrounding woods of Upper Sheringham (including Sheringham Park), have views over the sea, and miles of bracken-covered undulating uplands, smothered with gorse and purple heather.
Trimmingham Beach is just east of Cromer and is reached via a cross country stroll through fields and woods followed by a bit of a scramble down a slope that might be best done after a period of dry weather. Drive towards Trimingham, heading towards Cromer and keep an eye out for a large hill with a military base that has a dome resembling a giant golf ball. Before you reach this and half way up this hill there will be a small right turning called Vale Lane. Follow this down and then take a sharp left at the interception to a Tarmac Road. This will eventually take you down to the beach with a large amount of parking space at the bottom. The beach is truly deserted and local speak of a shipwreck here years ago and of lost treasure. Trimmingham has the youngest chalk substrate on the United Kingdom mainland and a few shells can be collected from the small cliff face. The chalk has actually been tilted and folded by glaciation, and is a geologically important site.
East and West Runton Beaches, the latter is most well-known for the Elephant, or woolly mammal, which was discovered in 1990, dating back to the Ice-Age and one of the oldest fossilised elephants to be found in the UK. The remains were found in the cliff-face which is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and now, for this reason, an important Norfolk beach. As you’d imagine, the beach is a big favourite among fossil hunters and low tide reveals lovely hard sand, excellent for walking. You can easily walk from West to East Runton (about a mile), but only at low tide and keep an eye on it, otherwise you’ll get stranded as when it comes in, the corner is cut off. You can also walk to Sheringham, but again, beware of the tide. The rolling nine-mile-long glacial Cromer Ridge that runs beside the coast is responsible for the less than flat contours of the countryside and its apex, at Beacon’s Hill, is just a 15-minute walk south from West Runton, and rises to 338 feet above sea level.
Snettisham Beach backs onto the Coastal Park with reedbeds, scrub and marshland behind the shingle beach, and is also adjacent to the RSPB Snettisham Reserve. It sits on the Wash and is composed of shingle and, although the tide does go out quite a long way, it leaves mudflats, as opposed to hard sand, making it something of a feeding ground for coastal birds and site of amazing sunsets. Snettisham Coastal Park was established in 1984 and is owned by the Ken Hill Estate, comprisingheathland, marshland, reedbeds and scrub. It extends to Heacham and is a popular wildlife walk. A wooden bridge takes you from its carpark onto the walk proper, over a pretty bridge. October 2014, saw a new public right of way added to Snettisham Beach and you can walk along the sea-bank from the beach car-park heading left towards the RSPB Reserve.
Walcott sits right on the edge of the coastline, with a main road running parallel to the beach and is the only Norfolk village where this is the case. A tiny village on the far point of the east coast, it is pretty quiet and has been repeatedly attacked by the forces of the North Sea -badly damaged in 1953, 2007 and 2013. In 1953 The North Sea flood resulted in the vast majority of the village being lost to the sea and in bad weather the road is not passable. There is a particularly good local fish and chip shop too. Not the most spectacular of beaches but worth a drive past and a look.
MorstonQuay and Blakeney Point- Morston is around 1 mile west of Blakeney – a lovely walk along the coastal path and its quay is situated just within the shelter of Blakeney Point, a wonderful backdrop to the quay area with its salt-marshes in the foreground. Seal spotting boat trips depart from here year round alongside a small scale seafood and fishing industry and there are all kinds of water-based activities based here too. Blakeney Point is a nature-reserve, an impressive 4 mile long stretch of coastline home to a fantastic spectrum of wildlife which lives on its sand and shingle spit, salt-marshes, dunes and surrounding sea. Common and grey-seals live and breed here too. Visitors can walk out along the shingle-spit towards Blakeney Point from Cley Beach- about a three and a half mile walk but very exposed to coastal winds and the cold air. Tidal flooding can also affect the area. Parts of Blakeney Point are closed for portions of the year to visitors on foot to protect wildlife and this is the time to access it via boat from Morston Quay. Toilet facilities at the Life Boat House on Blakeney Point are generally closed October to April.
Salthouse -The small village of Salthouse is set beside a high ridge above the salt marshes that border the North Norfolk Coast. In times gone by there would have been salt pans and large piles of salt crystals ready for transport, although no more. The beach is a large pebble bank with little shelter from the penetrating north winds and severe weather. The village contains the attractive church of St. Nicholas, a post-office/shop and a lovely pub overlooking the marshes. Worth a visit for Cookies Crab Shop which has been selling quality shellfish for over 3 generations and serves seafood based meals and snacks in its gardens overlooking the marshes or for eating on the beach.
Rimmed by deflective sea-defences and graced by dunes and glorious sand, the greatest and most mysterious aspect of Eccles beach lies underneath it- a lost village which has been overwhelmed by the deposition and erosive action of the might of those North Sea waves. All that is left of Eccles is the Bush Estate – a collection of pre-war bungalows and caravans tucked behind the sand-dunes and on January 25th 1895 St. Mary’s church finally tipped into the sea. Those of us who visited the beach in the 80s will remember the tower stump of the church which appeared at low tide but the subsequent building of an off-shore rock reef by the Environment Agency resulted in an elevation of sand levels, thus obscuring it. However, pieces of flint masonry from the tower can still be found along this section of coast and in Norfolk Life, Lilias Rider Haggard (1892-1968) recalls visiting Eccles when she was a child and witnessing the gruesome sight of skeletons exposed in the sea-washed graveyard. The line of lost villages and the land they sat upon starts from Hopton and continues past Winterton on Sea but for now, what we have left is a lovely and wild stretch of coastline which, when the summer holidaymakers fly back to their winter grounds, becomes ours again to stroll, birdwatch and enjoy picnics on, well wrapped up against the winds which are responsible for those lovely dunes.
A Norfolk Wildlife Trust site with dunes, freshwater pools and marshes which are home to more than 320 bird species including Avocets and Oystercatchers. Located on Norfolk’s northwest corner, where The Wash meets the North Sea, Holme Dunes is superbly located. The visitors centre is open daily from April- October’s end and at weekends for the other times of the year. The coastal footpath runs through the site, bordered by silvered clumps of Sea Buckthorn ablaze with orange berries as the summer draws to a close. Interest young children by telling tales of the military remains from WWII that can be seen around the reserve, including the remains of a target-railway used to train artillery. The half-hidden relics of our past date back even further too and include Roman pottery and, in 1998, a well-preserved Bronze Age timber circle, which became known as ‘Seahenge’. The circle was uncovered by strong tides, having been hidden for some 4,000 years (no longer at Holme, the structure was removed for preservation purposes by archaeologists).
Some well known, others not so, here are some of the loveliest places to visit either en famille or for some much needed down time alone by the water, in it, above it or doing things on it.
(1) Blakeney Point in Norfolk
The best way to arrive at Blakeney Point, a sand and shingle spit stretching out into the sea from the heart of Blakeney national reserve, is on a boat trip from Morston Quay. You not only get a chance to see grey seals basking on the sandbanks, but you leave the boat at the blue Old Lifeboat House, home to National Trust rangers and now a visitors centre packed with information. From there, you can explore the rare habitat and its inhabitants, which range from sandwich terns to otters and yellow-horned poppies. The more energetic might opt to walk back to Morston , a worthwhile though demanding tramp across four miles of shingle back. Nearest train station: Sheringham, then get the CH3 bus to Morston. There is restricted access to the western end of Blakeney Point from April to mid-August, to protect birds nesting on the shingle, and from November to mid-January during the seal pupping season.
(2) Lackford Lakes, Nr Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
A man made landscape of reclaimed gravel pits in the valley of the river Lark, Lackford Lakes is owned and managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and boasts a year round programme of family events. Walk around this ever changing landscape of reed beds, meadows, pastures, woodlands and wetlands and watch Kingfishers, bitterns, otters, cormorants and many other creatures as they go about their business from one of the bird hides cleverly positioned to give access to different habitats. The sailing club SESCA is based here too should you wish to learn in one of the UK’s most beautiful environments. We often come here at dawn or dusk, a time of great animal activity and sit quietly watching bats pour in and out of their converted pill box home overlooking meadows full of grazing cattle and Jacob’s sheep. A well equipped visitors centre offers drinks, cakes and ice creams plus a bird viewing window and also sells bird food and other equipment.
(3) The Little Ouse at Thetford & Santon Downham, Norfolk and Suffolk borders.
The River Little Ouse, a tributary of the Great Ouse, once had more than one natural course and runs alongside a popular walking trail that runs between Thetford and Brandon and traverses Thetford Forest via Santon Downham. To the North is Grimes Graves, the amazing Neolithic flint mining site which is reachable via forest tracks or from Santon Downham Village. These same forest tracks lead to High Lodge and Go Ape!, both popular places for activities, picnics and family fun.
The Little Ouse runs through the Brecks, one of the most fascinating and unique habitats in the country- tranquil forests, open sandy heaths ablaze with sulphur yellow Gorse in the summer and a patchwork of agricultural land. The Brecks cover 370 square miles, has the rare nightjar and stone curlew as residents and bears the marks of the Ice Age that created this landscape of Pingoes and scrubby low growing plants, ancestors of those which were once all that could grow in the Permafrost that characterised the Ice Age.
Alternatively, stay in Thetford and sit or walk by the river from St Mary’s Priory to the fishing lakes (photographed above), watching skeins of electric blue dragonflies dart above the riverbank. Occasional kayaks and row boats pass by too, trailing ducks in their wake. A beautiful place to take a picnic, a sandwich and a book, we often come here just to relax and get away. Ten minutes is all it takes to recharge.
(4) The Lido at Beccles, Suffolk
Sadly becoming an endangered species, outdoor pools are something to treasure and we encourage not only their patronage, but donating whatever spare change you have to their funds for upkeep. We have such warm memories of the sadly defunct Sudbury swimming pool with its competition height diving boards, pool side tiers of concrete sun decks and hut selling post swim cups of hot cocoa.
Beccles Lido is run by a community run charity who bought the Lido from Waveney District Council and re-opened it in 2010, restoring the 1m springboard, installing a slide, all-weather awning and a fun giant inflatable aquarun. Canoe hire is also available and there are separate toddler and paddling pools, also heated. With paved and grassy areas for sunbathing, as well as picnic tables, chairs, sunloungers and a covered outdoor eating area, families are well catered for and a well stocked Splash Pool Bar sells hot and cold meals and snacks, cold drinks, icecreams, delicious Fairtrade teas, coffees and hot chocolate.
(5) The Kings Lynn Ferry Ride, Norfolk
Got a boat mad child or fancy a trip across river yourself? A trip on the Kings Lynn Ferry after exploring the towns maritime trade, its fishing communities and its famous navigators via the Maritime Trail, will give you a different take of the architecture of the town from the west bank of the Lynn. This town with its royal links was originally known asLin and in 1101, Bishop Herbert Losinga (the same Bishop that established Norwich Cathedral) founded St Margaret’s Church and the town became known as Bishops Lin.
Trade built up quickly around the waterways and a few years later a second settlement was established to the North, each with its own church and marketplace. In 1537 King Henry VIII decided he would take control of the town from the Bishop of Norwich and it became known as King’s Lynn; the town growing rich from trade within Britain and abroad. By the middle ages, the town ranked as the 3rd port of England and was considered as important as Liverpool. Although the town’s importance then declined, King’s Lynn today is a still an important regional centre for a largely sparsely populated part of England.
Fishing has always been a strong part of Lynn’s history. Queen Elizabeth I granted Lynn fishermen the right to “free and uninterrupted use of the Fisher Fleet for ever and ever.” Lynn’s whaling ships would sail to Greenland every March and return back here in July with their catch. On their return this quay would be full of excitement; today it is an attractive place to sit and watch boats sail by from wharfs converted into bars or restaurants and a visitor centre. Mid-way along King Street you will find Ferry Lane leading to the ferry service.
(6) Sea views from the summit of Muckleburgh Hill, Norfolk
Got children who enjoy a physical challenge? The hill may only be a few hundred feet high, but it is a spectacular view from the summit of the coast and glorious Norfolk countryside in all directions, making it a great adventure to climb for people of all ages. Dense woodland, at the base of the hill makes finding the path to the top a bit of a puzzle, but when you do find one of the network of woodland paths and climb it, you are rewarded with views over Weybourne andSheringham to the east and Salthouse and Cley next the Sea to the west. Immediately below Muckleburgh Hill is the Muckleburgh Collection, a museum of military hardware.
Nearby Weybourne, a pretty village, is home to the North Norfolk Railway station and goods yard. The station has a workshop and is home to various railway vehicles that adults and children will enjoy looking at. Steam trains regularly pull into the station and you can ride the “poppy line” to Holt in one direction and Sheringham in the other. It is easy to stop off at the villages and towns along the route, catching a later train back. This means adults can leave the car behind and enjoy some libations at some of the excellent village pubs, many spectacularly beautiful with corresponding views.
(7) The Rodbridge Picnic Grounds, Nr Long Melford, Suffolk
A proper river side tramp where kids can run amok over the scrubby grassy paths and fields, splash through the muddy woodland tracks and paddle, it is best to put the littlest one in the back carrier or fit mudguards to the all terrain buggy when you come here. Walking boots or wellies are also advisable. Rodbridge Corner is a place we adored as kids where we’d hurtle up and down the hummocks dotted with rabbit warrens (a kind of mini race track), eat our fish and chips in the car park then walk the river path, stopping to smell the scent of the river as it bumps over the weirs. A wonderful place and free to use. Might be an idea to avoid the car park from dusk where local people have reported a problem with it being used for more nefarious purposes (dogging) although we haven’t had any problems yet, have seen nothing and wouldn’t advise walking along an unlit river path at night anyway.
The nearby towns of Sudbury and village of Long Melford will provide those fish and chips should you not have brought a fancier meal!
(8) The Croft in Sudbury, Suffolk
An embarrassment of riches awaits the river lover in Sudbury, embraced in a loop by the famous river Stour. Captured so often by famous artists and possessed of many bucolic stopping off points for paddling, boat sailing, water sports or simply musing or walking along the path, the railway walk (the railway line follows the river for many miles) or water meadows also offer hours of outdoor exercise and beauty. Just keep an eye on the cows that graze the common lands and don’t let your dog worry them.
The Croft offers an old boating lake, the ‘washing machine water’ aka Weir, a cow pond around which you will find groups of picnickers and the old bridge populated by generations of ducks kept fat by generations of locals. Park quality grass for sunbathing (although keep an eye out for duck poop before you sit down), stands of trees and bench dotted tarmac paths make this popular because it is less then 400 yards from the town centre. A short walk down the riverpath leads you to The Mill, now turned into a hotel and complete with walled up cat (an ancient practice), or you can walk along the Railway walk in the other direction to Brundon Mill where the swan feed, resplendent with a hundred or more swans, awaits. The meadows around Sudbury are the oldest continuously grazed land in England and are crossed by many footpaths, making them excellent for walking.
The Croft is just off the Sudbury one way system, past the fire station and St Gregory’s church and can also be reached from North Street. Turn left at Argos, pass the short stay car park and turn right by the entrance of the Waggon and Horses pub. The Croft is across the main road. As you cross the bridge at the Croft, keep an eye out for the poignant memorial to the left, set with flowering plants. A tribute to a family from nearby Great Cornard who died in the Yugoslav air disaster in May 1971, we always stopped here to lay flowers because our grandmother taught the children at playschool. Roger and Margaret Green and their sons, Simon and Ian, were on board the Tupolev-134 which crashed at Rijeka airport when attempting to land in a heavy rainstorm; 78 of the 83 people on board were killed. Simon was a member of the Round Table and his fellow Round Tablers cleared the land of bushes and scrub.
(9) Sea Views at Wiveton Hall Cafe in Norfolk
Slip off your shoes, sit yourself down on one of the candy coloured outdoor seats, exhale and look out to sea from this playful cafe which is nonetheless deadly serious about the quality of food it serves. The views out over the marshes to the sea are superb and, under the pine trees; sand and pebbles underfoot, you will think you are in the Med. Take a walk along the beautiful Norfolk coastline before or after your meal, pick fruit on the estates fruit farms or wander around flint faced, Dutch gabled Wiveton Hall, built in the 17th century on what had been monastic land where the sea once came almost to the door. Should you decide never to go away again, the hall offers accommodation in either its spacious wing or self catering farm cottages.
(10) Wild Swimming in the river Waveney, Suffolk
The Waveney was much beloved of the nature writer Roger Deakin who used to live in Mellis and who was one of the ‘pioneers’ of the new Wild Swimming movement. A two mile loop around Outney Common starts and returns from Bungay, one of Suffolk’s tiny towns where you will still find independent stores and good places to eat. With its own river meadows at the bottom of Bridge Street that are ideal for a swim and a riverbank picnic, there is also canoe hire at the Meadow Caravan park, next to the river itself. Should you swim at dawn or dusk, keep an eye out for the otters- they live happily here. Grid reference: 52.4572, 1.4413
(11) Peer at the view from a Pier
Fly over the coastline of East Anglia and you will see venerable examples of the quaint Victorian habit of building out to sea; a perfect example of follies on a grand scale for what else would you call a pier- those curious testimonies to holiday frivolity on stilts? From Cromer and Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk to Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Aldeburgh and Southwold in Suffolk, our counties have worked hard to maintain and develop their piers resulting in yet another generation of coastal visitors who enjoy their very British charms.
Southwold Pier boasts the the famous ‘Under the Pier Show’, an assortment of bonkers Tim Hunkins creations- Steampunk crossed with Victoriana; a penny arcade, the Clockhouse cafe and pizza place plus those wide planked boardwalks to walk along and sit on, looking out onto those stupendous Suffolk sunsets and sunrises. Tasteful to attract the Notting Hillers, this pier doesn’t have that brash gaudy seaside appeal of other resorts (which we also love) – think Enid Blyton as opposed to the local fair.
Gt Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier carries on another great British seaside tradition- that of the live show, amusements and carney style food- candy floss, doughnuts, rock and hot dogs and is none the less enjoyable for it. Attracting hordes of visitors all year round, the piers original wooden structure was designed by A.W. Morant, opening in July 1858. A wooden construction leaves piers at risk of fire and Britannia Pier has certainly had a fair share of these- the first in 1907 and the second in 1914, badly damaging the newly built pavilion. Ironically, both the ballroom and pavillion survived the war, only to be both destroyed by yet another blaze in 1954 and subsequently rebuilt where they thrive to this day. Felixstowe Pier is very similar with amusement arcades, a lovely boardwalk, plenty of food and proximity to safe clean beaches.
Cromer Pier boasts and end of the pier show and claims this to be the last remaining true show of its kind. Opened in 1902, Cromer Pier was damaged by the 2013 storm surge and is newly repaired in time for summer where the famous Cromer crabs can be caught from the sides. The decks are lined with buckets and lines and on fine days, fringed with children and adults all hoping to net the big one!
Lowestofts Claremont Pier can be found between Lowestofts Award winning beaches to the south of the town and has an award winning restaurant, a family-orientated amusement arcade and luxurious casino area. The latest additions include a large wooden floored roller skating rink and a contemporary multi-purpose venue. Like all piers, it was seen as a possible security threat during the Second World War and in 1940, with the Axis Forces sweeping across the Continent, the Royal Engineers blasted a hole in the pier to stop the Luftwaffe using it as a possible landing place. Visitors will be relieved to know that this hole is now repaired!
(12) Or look out from high from a Lighthouse
Due to its long coastline, East Anglia has always had a strong connection with the sea, and this has led to the building of some fine lighthouse. Many of these have been adapted over the years and not all have survived. Some lighthouses have been converted to private homes and are no longer available for public viewing from inside. However, some classic examples of these famous seaside icons still exist and they are well worth seeking out.
Although Happisburgh Lighthouses (there are a pair of them) are privately owned, they do open on particular weekends to the public – Easter and Bank Holidays. Built in 1791, the pair formed leading lights marking safe passage around the southern end of the treacherous Happisburgh Sands but it was not always effective, as the graves in the churchyard show. Inside, the 96 stone steps wind their way up the inside to the light at the top (134 feet above sea level) and when you reach the top, you can see the working lamp, some 500 watts of light, and visible for about 18 miles. The views of the coast and village are spectacular – on a clear day you can see for about 13 miles.
Other great lighthouses to visit are Southwold Trinity Lighthouse which can be explored and one in Hunstanton which is now a private holiday home and sits near to the ruins of St Edmunds Chapel on the cliffs.
(13) A steam launch ride through the Broads
The lovely Museum of the Broads offers rides in their own steam launch down to Barton Broad, giving visitors a taste of Arthur Ransome style nostalgia. The only museum to be actually located on the waters of the Broads, the museum can be found at Stalham Staithe. Find out about the boats of the Broads and see how peoples working lives shaped the landscape with activites for all the family and a cafe to keep them well fed too. ‘Falcon’, their Victorian steam launchruns hourly from 1030 – 1430, conditions permitting and because she is an open boat, you will need to dress warmly in waterproof clothing. Booking ahead is advisable and toavoid disappointment, please telephone 01692 581681 to book seats. The photo is courtesy of the Museum.
(14) Or be ferried across a Suffolk river
The Walberswick to Southwold Ferry is a much loved Suffolk institution, carrying locals and visitors across the mouth of the River Blyth for decades. The route is understandably a seasonal one and the timetable is available on the link- dogs go free of charge too and adults only pay a pound. The seaside here is backed by a thousand acres of heath and marshland and is protected as an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB). The seaside town of Southwold is a short stroll away with its quirky cinema, ice cream and cake hut by the dunes and a plethora of independent shops. Walberswick is famous for its crabbing and used to hold a well attended festival. Both will provide you and the kids with an unforgettable day out.
Adaptable, succulent and THE taste of an East Anglian Summer, the crab is one of our great local delicacies and also provides children with hours of entertainment along the beaches and jetties of the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. Although the famous Walberwick Crabbing Festival had to be shelved because it grew too popular, it is still an easy and inexpensive way to get close to nature as long as you remember to put the crabs back.
The old Suffolk name for it is babbing, derived from the bab, a weight tied to the end of a line. As dialect expert Charlie Haylock writes in his book, Sloightly On The Huh, “He caught hell ‘n’ all th’uther day when he went a’babbin” and the whole practice has its roots in practicality and the provision of free food for the family.
The edible crab, or brown crab, (latin name Cancer pagurus), is the most abundant and largest crab you’ll encounter along the Suffolk coastline and they are commonly founf near to our piers, jetties and wharves, hiding under rocky outcrops on beaches and clustered around harbour walls. Crabs need shelter in bad weather and somewhere to escape predators and our seaweed-strewn coastlines is home to plenty of crabs, hastily scurrying away when they are disturbed. The flinty, chalky seabeds of the Norfolk coastline makes for excellent ‘gillying’ (crabbing in the local dialect) because the softness of the seabed literally gives crabs something to get their claws into as they haul themselves along, fighting the strong currents of the North Sea. This Cretaceous chalk underlies the whole Norfolk coast and is permanently visible at West Runton at low tide and it forms the largest chalk reef in European waters, some 25 miles in length. This underwater seascape called the Cromer Shoal Chalk Reef has arches of chalk 3 metres high and gives life and shelter to an amazing array of marine life now has protection after being designated a Marine Conservation Zone. It is here that those famous Cromer Crabs are found.
The old jetties of Felixstowe Ferry and Walberswick and the quay next to the Ramsholt Arms Pub are some of the best crabbing spots in Suffolk and Cromer, Wells Next the Sea, Old Hunstanton, the east promenade in Sheringham, and Blakeney Quay are their equivalent in Norfolk. We have heard good reports about the Bridge off Stiffkey Marshes where the shallow brackish tidal water both attracts crabs and is easy to dangle your line into and crabbing under the road bridge at Oulton Broad on the eastward side is productive because it also has salt-water tidal surges. If you want to visit Walberswick to crab, then all you need do is drive along the road past the small triangular village green and the villages oldest pub, the Bell Inn, and you’ll soon arrive at the wooden bridges where generations of us have perched, lines baited with rancid bacon, and then hopped onto the ferry over the River Blyth to Southwold and its pier for more seaside fun.
The best time to crab is on an incoming tide because this is when they naturally come in to feed. At high tide the water can be fairly deep and wharves quite high up – using safety aids such as arm bands or a life jacket might reassure you a little when you see your young children sitting at the edge of a drop into deep water. I have (less than fond) memories of taking twelve adolescent boys from an approved school alongside twelve service users from a rehab facility to crab at Walberswick on the hottest day of the year- a busy afternoon spent constantly head-counting amid the nagging fear that we had lost several off the quay- in fact some of them seemed engaged in a permanent attempt to push each other off when they weren’t smacking their fellow crabbers over the head with stinking, out of date streaky bacon. The return journey home in a mini-bus full of hot, festering teenagers, the air redolent with the smell of crab, bacon, seawater and strawberry ice creams will never leave the memory.
Use a crabbing line sold from most seaside shops which is weighted and has the bait tied on at its end- if you are in Blakeney you can buy them at at Stratton Long Marine or at the Blakeney Spar. Don’t use hooks as these are seriously harmful to marine life including birds should you drop them into the sea by accident.You’ll see some crabbers using a fishing net to land their crabs but serious crabbers do frown on this as it gives an unfair advantage and doesn’t reward the dexterous and the patient. The crabs will cling onto the string and bait so be careful pulling the line out of the water when you retrieve them and get them into your bucket (which should be filled with seawater and be spacious- crabs don’t like to be too close to each other). Using smelly bacon rind, squid or sand eels, available from seaside shops and bait shops tends to work the best in our experience. Other devoted crabbers get fish heads from the local fishmongers or swear by frozen sand eels, described as caviar for crabs. When you have finished, carefully release the crabs back into the sea. Don’t keep them for too long and keep the bucket covered too and out of direct sunlight.
Should you prefer to go rock-pooling instead, the two counties have a plethora of places to choose from and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust runs rock pool rummaging events on West Runton beach (5 miles wets of Cromer) throughout the summer. Shore crabs, beadlet anemones, starfish and squat lobsters are the most commonly encountered species although there are many more. The rock pools at West Runton are on top of an extensive flat platform of chalk which is slippery because of its seaweed covering- the non-agile of foot will usually find themselves slipping and ending up flat on their butt at some point so wear decent footwear. Children who take part in rock pooling can also get involved in fossil finding, and these sessions not only help children to understand the natural world around them, but also how their actions affect wildlife and habitats. The striated cliffs of Old Hunstanton where multiple layers of sandstone and carr-stone have formed a wonderful habitat studded with fossils and rock pools are another prime location for exploring the hidden world of rock pools. The pools that form between the groynes on the beach by the Lifeboat House in Wells allows you to catch a good size crab or two, even at high tide, and solves the problem of toddlers teetering on the edge of a high jetty.
We couldn’t end this feature without adding one of our favourite recipes featuring crab- Grilled Crabs from Cromer with Parmesan and Heat. Cromer crabs can be brought from fishmongers all over the region plus Bury St Edmunds market and Mummeries fish stall on Diss market too.
Grilled Cromer Crabs with Parmesan and Heat
1 shallot (finely chopped)
1 clove garlic (crushed)
1 tsp salted butter
50 ml sherry
1 in shells
1 handful chopped parsley (finely)
1 handful breadcrumbs (fresh)
pinch of chile powder or cayenne
1 handful parmesan cheese
1. Gently fry the shallot and garlic in butter until softened. Pour in the sherry and bring to a simmer.
2. Add the crab meat, reserving the shell. Stir in the chile/cayenne then warm through for 4-5 minutes then stir in the parsley.
3. Spoon the mixture back into the crab shell. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and grate over a little parmesan and add a grind of black pepper. Place a few dots of butter on top.
4. Put under a hot grill for 1-2 minutes to crisp the bread and melt the cheese. Serve with hot toast.