So what would you include in a scratch ‘n sniff guide to Suffolk?

 

Hawkedon by Rosemary Jessopp
Hawkedon by Rosemary Jessopp

I recently contributed to a BBC Radio Suffolk feature about the recent launch, by the York tourist board, of what is claimed to be the UKs first scratch-and-sniff travel guide designed to attract visitors with a real time evocation of the scent of the county, The guidebook is a sensory journey across all aspects of regional life, from the centre of the city to its wildest and most isolated places.

We know how important smell is in the formation of sense memory as Kate McMullen, head of Visit York, says: “Countless scientific studies prove that the human sense of smell is one of the key facets in forming strong memories. We commissioned this scented guidebook to give potential newcomers to York a fun flavour of the many lasting memories that a trip to our historic city could provide.”

Produced with the input of a team of scent “engineers” who analysed a range of smells before recreating them in a laboratory in a process identical to that found in the perfumery industry, the smells were then turned into a printing varnish and applied to the photographs on the pages. A good old scratch will release the scent.

There’s the spooky sulphurous smell associated with one of the city’s smelliest ghosts and an evocation of coal, steam and oil from the Victorian railways (“a nostalgic infusion of coal, steam, engine oil and iron”); an olfactory reminder of its antique shops ( “a musty infusion of leather, old books, gold, silver, wood and dust”) and the smells of horses galloping to the finish line at York Racecourse ( horse hair, hoof oil, grass and fruit punch). Visitors are reminded of the time when the air was enriched by an aroma of chocolate, mint and vanilla as the great chocolate making families of Terry’s and Rowntree worked their magic. The scent of loose leaf tea and cream cakes from Betty’s of Harrogate and strong Yorkshire cheeses such as Wensleydale and Swaledale rounds off the culinary tribute.

It might be the UK’s first odiferous guidebook but it isn’t the first worldwide as that honour belongs to New York City which chose to commemorate sewer steam, hot dogs and pizza alongside the garbage that, no doubt, the latter two scents make up a goodly amount of.

By Cheryse Caba
By Cheryse Caba

So, asked BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Mark Murphy on his mid morning show, “if we were to do the same here in Suffolk, what smells would you include?” Many of the respondents displayed those well known Suffolk traits of pragmatism and practicality, mentioning traffic smells and the salt, fish and industry of local ports, whilst others waxed lyrical.  Here’s some of the most interesting replies sent to me when I canvassed some suggestions, accompanied by a bit of background information.


(1) “Fields of oil seed rape and freshly cut wheat and corn on country runs” says Labour’s parliamentary candidate, Jane Basham when I ask her for her favourite Suffolk smells. The rolling fields of the county grow dense with the smoke blue of borage, acid yellow froth of rape plants and acres of cereal crops. As late summer approaches, the scent of hot straw baled and left in the fields settles low in the air and towards the end of the day, the sun gets low on the horizon and its rays catch the dusty straw motes as they hover in a thick, golden light. The only sound is of crickets hiding in the verges and the bells of the great wool churches of Sudbury, Lavenham and Long Melford as they call the failthful of South Suffolk to prayer.

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Some of the loveliest walks can be found in Jane’s constituency along the South Suffolk valley on the north and south sides of the river Stour. The north and east sides take you from the south side of Long Melford to the north side of Sudbury and onwards through both Little and Great Cornard to Bures. The steep lanes that rise up sharply from Bures Road are thickly hedgerowed and climb to the high points of the county at Arger Fen, surrounded by fields of crops and patched by thickets of mixed broadleaf trees and shrubs. The A134 Rodbridge Corner to Borley road takes you past Long Melford Country Park which borders the Stour and lies to the south and west side of the river from Ridgewell in the west. Rodbridge Corner was once the site of a Roman villa, a vestige of the nearby Roman settlement which once underlaid nearby Long Melford. Continue to Borley, site of the notorious rectory hauntings or travel onwards to Foxearth, Bulmer and Twinstead, ending up on the outskirts of Mount Bures which abuts the county of Essex. The views around Foxearth and up to Borley are panoramic because this is a gentle and undulating landscape, in part due to the clay plateau upon which Foxearth is perched at its western end.

The tree cover is minimal affording walkers a good view of the entire valley and the signposts are engraved with intriguing place names. Don’t be fooled by the French sounding names of the hamlets of Belchamp Otten, Belchamp St Paul and Belchamp Walter. Yes, the modern form  of ‘bel champs’ means ‘beautiful field’ in French but they are actually Old English placenames that refer to ‘the settlement on the baulk or ridge’.

The landscape is loam and chalky clay, a leftover from the great Anglian glaciation, fully fertile and edged by well maintained hedgerows of elm and hawthorn, field maples, oak and ash. Ancient holly bushes loom deep in woodlands thick with cherry, oak and hornbeam. Roadside plantings of old limes cast dappled shade and drip honeydew and sooty ash from the many ants that grow fat on sap whilst modern shelterbelt plantings of alder girdle horse paddocks.The roads and pathways bisect and skirt clusters of hamlets and villages with their mixture of Medieval, Jacobean, Victorian and Georgian architecture: colour washed, buff local brick or tar pitched; beamed, thatched or red clay tiled roofs and estates of solid brick built to house a post war population.

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Around Long Melford

(2) The scent of hemp and algae covered rusting metal- the great ropes and  clanking chains of our Suffolk shipbuilding industry” reminds Edward Miller of our watery history. Suffolk, more than most other counties, has a shifting and permeable boundary, subject to the vagaries of time, tide, wind and water along its coastline. The watery fimbrels of creeks and rivers piled on the pressure for invading forces and made navigating the county so very challenging in times past. Crossed by five estuaries with diverse terrain and features, the Suffolk coast is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and its watery nature has made road building virtually impossible, protecting it from the thoughtless development that other coastlines have been subjected to. From drained marshes, managed reedbeds and deep creeks filled with dark waters to shingle beaches, striated cliffs, heathlands full of tumbled bushes of gorse and forests that march right up to the waves, the landscape is at its best chartered by boat or on foot.

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The intriguingly named Johnny All Alone Creek is one such place, halfway along the river Stour and surrounded by nothing more than grazing marsh to the west and a stretch of shingle beach to the east. Walkers along the Stour/Orwell long distance path which follows the river wall are few; river crafts here are far more prevalent in a landscape pockmarked with brackish rindles and mud flats which are home to avocets, godwits and curlews which stalk the waters and scoop up beakfuls of tiny shrimp.

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Explore Pin Mill between the rivers Orwell and Stour where both estuaries run relatively straight between deep wooded cuts or travel to Woodbridge on the river Deben with its gently curved trajectory which nonetheless requires its sides banking to keep the rising tide from the surrounding farmland. Then there’s the river Waveney and the two other northern estuaries, the Blyth and Alde, with a mild rise to their valley slopes and less assertive flood defences or the river Stour between Mistley and Flatford Mill. Pleasure craft, working fishing boats and the old hulking Thames barges can be seen marooned at Pin Mill during low tide. Winds catch the gorse and pine which grows along the bluffs rising up from the river and carries their scent down to the boatyards where it mingles with estuarine mud and salt, the iodine of the seaweed encrusted rills and gullies and bloody iron tang of the chains as thick as your arm, tethering the crafts to the shore. Jane Watson is another fan of the sealubber scent of Woodbridge from her years spent living there: “that salty sea water from Woodbridge…I love it.”

Run by Des Pawson, one of the world’s leading authorities on knots and sailors’ ropework and a researcher and historian on the subject, the Museum of knots and sailors ropework is one of those niche museums that is both labour of love and repository of centuries of skills and knowledge. As Des says, “Rope and knots are my life and have been since I was a boy” and alongside his business ‘Footrope Knots’ which sells handmade knotted items, Des is determined to ensure that Suffolk rope making is not consigned to the footnotes of history.

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Shipbuilding may sound romantic but it is an industry darkened by sweat and graft and marked by waves of immigration and importation, resentment and assimilation. By the 13th century the industry was flourishing in the county town of Ipswich and by the late 16th century, sailmaking was hugely profitable too although the latter declined as the 17th century waned. Timber and iron came here from the Nordic north and chandleries acquired their hemp for ropes from Latvia. Dockers greeted the import of coal and iron from other parts of the UK and waved goodbye to holds packed full of goods made from this iron. By 1842 a wet dock had been constructed although Ipswich was no longer an international port of importance but this domestic to-ing and fro-ing kept the place alive. Down river, Woodbridge too had been a centre for boat building, rope and sail making since the Middle Ages: both Edward III and Sir Francis Drake had commissioned the construction of fighting ships in the town.

The establishment of Woodbridge’s Custom House followed the increased prosperity that followed the religious settlements under Elizabeth I and the wool trade saw local merchants in Hadleigh, Sudbury and surrounding villages grow rich. The tensions that arrived with Dutch refugees and the competition they posed to local labour forces have strong parallels with present times as the county sees the arrival of migrant workers from Poland and Eastern Europe. They settled across South Essex (Colchesters Dutch quarter bears witness to their aesthetic input) and Suffolk and then, in the 19th century, competition from the northern English factories with their cheaper mass produced yarn and cloth saw the end of boom times for Ipswich and other ports although the silk weaving industry in Sudbury benefited from companies moving out of Spitalfields in East London.

By Rhodie Ike
By Rhodie Ike

Now, with the increasing importance of the leisure and tourist industry and the consequential redevelopment of the marina at Ipswich and Woodbridge’s Tide Mill, we are seeing new life breathed into our old Suffolk ports alongside the huge importance of Felixstowe, just down the coast which is one of Europe’s most important commercial ports and never fails to remind locals of its presence: “the malted smell that drifts from Felixstowe docks when the winds in the right direction”. The spectacle of humongous cargo ships steered into port by floodlit tugs and pilot boats whilst crowds gather at Languard and Shotley to watch is something that particularly delights children.

Ipswich Marina
Ipswich Marina

(3) “The smell of fish and chips in Aldeburgh”; “the smell of the sea” are among the most frequently cited smells of Suffolk and definitely some of the ones that stir up the most nostalgia and longing. The Aldeburgh fish and chip shop is one of the most famous takeaways in the UK, scene of queues down the street and conveniently next door to a well regarded pub with benches out front so you can sit and drink an ale with your chips. There’s a sister restaurant, The Golden Galleon, with a plaster mermaid at its prow and sit down space inside.

Fact is, fish and chips by the sea is an example of food in context, eaten just steps away from one of the best store cupboards in the world- the North Sea. Tidy rows of black pitched and weatherboarded huts along the shingle beach chalk up details of the daily catch on blackboards; sole, lots of crab, skate, plaice and decent lobster with shells tinted hypoxic blue. The fish comes twice daily and locals buy what arrives, eschewing an over reliance on the pre planned shopping list.

Yes, we’ve probably had our fill of food blogs and articles from over excited out of town food writers who are excited by ‘local colour’ and an interminable wait in a chip shop queue, punctuated by swigs from a mini bottle of champagne. Rapturous prose follows their route along the seafront alleyways down to the water where they eat their meal straight from the paper. I’m not going to tell you how the air sizzles with iodine-like inhaling an oyster- nor go on about the pleasure of licking salt and vinegar from your fingers in a brisk on shore wind because I will sound like one of them. Also, contrary to received knowledge, this isn’t the best fish and chip shop in Suffolk but it is really good nonetheless; fish from the neighbourhood cooked in fresh bubbling hot oil. It is Mark Murphy’s quintessential Suffolk smell and he knows what he is talking about, I reckon.

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(4) The sickly sweet nostril prickling scent of scorched sugar from candy floss and sugar beet: the latter is transported to the British Sugar factory on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds. Belching great gouts of steam into the sky and visible for miles around, the factory acts as sentinel, telling locals that they are home- it is the steam, as garden designer Janey Auchincloss points out, that they have the association with. Despite the appalled reaction of nature writer Roger Deakin, many locals are pretty tolerant of the factory, smells and all, and manage to live alongside it: “sugar beet: not lovely, not awful” as Jane Watson says. Deakin really was pretty hard on the sugar beet factory, in part because back in the 80s, toxic effluent was leaked into the river Lark and sugar is a particularly malevolent contaminant, deoxygenating water by encouraging a massive overgrowth of bacteria. Interestingly this is one of the reasons why people with diabetes who have poor blood sugar control may also struggle with lingering bacterial infections, especially of the skin.

Anyway, Deakin reminds us that lorry drivers refer to Bury St Edmunds as ‘sugar city’ and finds it easy to see the factory as a “giant conspiracy against the nations health…it looks at its most satanic at night, when clouds of evil smelling smoke and steam billow like candyfloss out of e forest of steam chimneys and high tech ducting, floodlit in lurid pink and orange.” He continues…“The place looks like a missile launching site…with a system of deodorising mist sprays…perfuming the evil smeling air…a gleaming new spinney conceals vast lagoons full of rotting beet sludge” then ends by referring to “a pot pourri of perfume and stench [which] assails the puzzled nostrils of the traveller.”

Sugar beet steam obscures Tayfen meadows in the town By John Goldsmith
Sugar beet steam obscures Tayfen meadows in the town By John Goldsmith

The thing is, although residents in Bury St Edmunds know not to open their windows when the wind blows in a certain direction or when the pits are being cleaned, I haven’t encountered anyone who vehemently objects to the smell; indeed most people were fairly pragmatic about it, recognising that this is a place that employs not only a significant amount of local people in the factory, but also in the surrounding farms and their associated agriculture. The smell is sweet with a weird vegetal note, reminiscent of the smell of decaying old rhubarb leaves as you dig them back in, exposing fresh growth at the crown of the plant or a potato grown soft and rotten at the back of the vegetable bin. Anyway, we all need to remind ourselves that before the sugar beet began to yield its sweetness, there existed, within the sugar industry, a practice that was responsible for far more unpleasantness than a bad smell.

In an address to the Oxford Symposium on Food, Cathy K Kaufman talks of the initial dream that the sugar beet would render slave produced cane sugar obsolete. Some 19th century American abolitionists saw the root as the ultimate weapon against a cruel system which enabled the southern states to undercut prices through the use of human slaves. As was said in National Era, the options for refining sugar needed toshow that the sweet may be obtained without the bitter, and that there is no necessary connection between bondage and Muscovadoes.” Those early dreams of ending the plantation system via sugar beet sugar came to nothing at that point as commercial production only became viable in 1870 after the American Civil War had done away with the Confederacy and the slavery which was its social and economic foundations.

Sugar beet factory viewed from Barton Mills by Andrew Ridley
Sugar beet factory viewed from Barton Mills by Andrew Ridley

Previously the post Enlightenment and early industrialization periods saw huge demand for sugared hot drinks which caused prices to skyrocket. Initially sugar sweetened tea, coffee and chocolate remained costly luxuries for the wealthy in the 16th and 17th centuries but over the next 200 years, these libations became more democratically available and by the 19th century, the British, French and American working classes routinely drank coffee and tea. The sweetening came from tropical sugar cane from Asian and other colonial outposts. Hence slavery and, of course, the great wealth which it generated in the United Kingdom. The battles between various colonial empires meant that imported supplies of sugar were vulnerable to all manner of economic and political vagaries- a simple shipwreck of a vessel loaded with cane was a potential disaster- so European scientists started experimenting with the extraction of sugar from a variety of plants, via an edict from Napoleon to cease reliance on imports of British sugar cane. Eventually they began to be successful and cane sugar started to lose its monopoly.

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As for that other sugary scent….the bags of bum pink candy floss festooned from kiosks along our seaside promenades are in rude contrast to all that Arthur Ransome seaside stuff and those burned sugar whiskers, spun as you wait at fairgrounds, are the focus of much nostalgia from those of us d’une certain age. From the fairs of our childhood on the ‘Rec’ in Great Cornard to the arrival of those brightly painted trucks on Long Melford Green in the shadow of its great church, candyfloss and the other fairground smells never fail to evoke the sheer excitement of the this gaudy extravaganza coming to town- or trips to the sea. As Pauline said, “candyfloss was something that mum could afford- we were a family of five kids- and I loved the fact that it lodged in the corners of your mouth. I’d sit in the back of the car, travelling home and still be able to taste it hours later. That is, perhaps in hindsight, NOT a good thing for teeth!”

The waltzers always had a dangerous looking youth spinning them; sporting a gold hoop in his ear, a wicked grin and super tight jeans, he would leap onto the fast moving cakewalk and spin the car. His attentions were fuelled by our flirtatious screams and plenty of backward glances as we staggered around dressed in our best clothes because the fair coming to the town warranted a full day of Getting Ready in the seventies. Our hair would stick to the thick cherry flavoured Bonnie Bell lipgloss we wore: we left contrails of Charlie and Jovan Musk oil in our wake and made a deafening racket in our wooden heeled platformed sandals. Our teenage flirtations made us feel, as Margaret Atwood says in the Handmaids Tale, “like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.”


(5) The washing machine water was my grandfathers name for the weir at the Croft in Sudbury and he told gruesome tales to rival the Brothers Grimm of a current strong enough to suck a child down and hold them permanently in the embrace of the green jellified ribbons of river weed. This was a most effective way of keeping a curious child from getting too close and even now, decades later, as I walk the towpath I hear his voice.

Any scratch n sniff book of Suffolk would have to include the odour of fast moving river water ; dank, notes of ozone and muddy mildew that hunker over the flood meadows on a misty morning. Walking along the river, it is possible to identify the point at which its sluggishness, marked only by the dents made by the weight of pond skaters and the occasional fish burp, change into a sudden tugging then a brown watery rush to the weir. The weight of the water pushes it through the grille and flushes it through pondscum and decaying water lily leaves trapped in the iron bars. It churns over a ledge into the cow pond a few feet below then spreads out into a shallow basin whose muddy margins are tromped down into a mess of hoof prints. Hovering over the towpath is an aerosol mist of scent warning walkers of the weir well before the waterway does.

The Stour is well used by ‘wild swimmers’ and there are some murmerings about starting a campaign to redevelop the neglected Victorian swimming pond near the Croft which was closed in 1937 after an outbreak of Diptheria. Pictured below, in 1923, the pool came with changing rooms and the surrounding fields made it a perfect place for stretching out with a book in the sun.

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The ornamental stone steps and rusting foot ladders still remain, close to the footbridge where ducks gather. Walking along the river from the meadows on Melford Road to the Mill Hotel. I can imagine the rope swings that would have hung low over the water and local kids jumping from the bridge on a hot summers day. The water is silky and brown and slow moving here and the frogs eye view is of nothing but fields and the tree line.

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The Sudbury Museums site tells of the affection American airmen posted nearby had for the town and its river during the Second World War. “Americans had fallen into the swing of Sudbury life and few Sudbury homes were lacking in American friends. At Sudbury the meadows are broad and green, and the river flows close to the edge of the old buildings that spring up from its eastern bank. You can walk down to the river across the green in front of St. Gregory’s church, cross a little bridge and sit on a bench under the plane trees, and look out across the meadows to the fields that rise beyond them, and the line of tall trees crowning them. You cannot get much closer to the heart of England anywhere.”

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“You would never have known that there was a war being fought on this island and elsewhere in the world. Or that this was the twentieth, and not the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Not until you looked across the meadow again, and saw, white and ugly under a copse of willows, like one monstrous overgrown white mushroom, a concrete pillbox.”  Although the swimming pond closed before their arrival, local GIs did swim in the river and afterwards they would saunter through the town, damp trunks bundled into a towel and go for a coffee at the cafe in Station Road (later known as The Bongo).  Run by Basil Gates, it had a very popular snooker table at its rear.


(6) Oil paints squeezed onto a palette; that sharp and rich chemical scent as the knife scrapes through represents Suffolk’s great artistic legacy eau d’atelier maybe?  Imagine how the studios of Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, Cedric Morris, Maggie Hambling and other great painters smell: a melange of turpentine fumes soaked into rags and wooden floors; of freshly shaved pencils, primed canvas and crushed stubs of charcoal scattered on floors; clove oil as thinner, cigarette smoke and sweat and old bottles of solvent with their layers of greenish sediment…and not all the scents are harshly ‘chemical’ either. Leonardo Da Vinci apparently used oil of lavender to regenerate a dry canvas and the Early Dutch painters ( Hubert Van Eyck, Rembrandt) added great sweeps of it across their entire canvas as a diluent. After the 14th century spike lavender became the artistic fashion and added another olfactory layer to a scene already replete with them and the work of the artist themselves.

Suffolk provides inspiration for many artists and its literal and metaphorical depictions can be seen on the walls of some of the worlds most important galleries. To walk the Stour valley and the Suffolk coast between Southwold and Aldeburgh is to see the county through the eyes of its greatest artists and to gaze upon an iris is to experience what inspired Cedric Morris (Hambling was a protogeé) who painted in the garden of his Higham Farm home and at Benton End, near Hadleigh.

Listening to Maggi Hambling talk about painting in oils is a visceral experience in itself where she describes oil paints as “very sexy stuff… which you have to love to work with.” Hambling discovers new things in oil all the time and has to juggle the weird telescoping of artistic time where an oil painting can take forever to make then requires bringing together in one moment. “ Things happen that have never happened before when you paint… Oil paint has a great life force of its own.” 

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough
Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough

The fact that art is about commingling of all five senses should not be forgotten either, despite the focus on scent. Get up close to a Constable, Hambling or Gainsborough and there’s the studio right in front of you, saturating the canvas with aroma but there’s so much more too. Constable paints Suffolk hay and Suffolk punches and Suffolk fields. Gainsborough painted portraits and landscapes and you can smell the blue of the sky and the starch of the blue dress that Mrs Andrews wore in her eponymous portrait. There is a sense of self embedded in the art and that self is built from terroir- the land and people- and the spirit of each piece springs from this. You can smell the salt spray and wild grey fury of the North Sea in Hamblings’ wave paintings too. and you can hear it all: great gouts of water smashing the sea wall, each wave different: made up of rivers of silver, turquoise and gold and the darker grey of its trough. In that same interview, Hambling talks of other oil painters and the way their work transcends time: “Oil painting can make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being made. Somebody looking at it can feel, with a late Titian or with a Rothko or a Van Gogh, as if they are there with the work being created in front of them. That’s something oil paint can do. So, yes, I suppose all these marks are energetic. They jump about. It’s all physical,” but equally, she could be talking about her work too.

Lovejoy filming in Clare from Sarah Barrington
Lovejoy filming in Clare from Sarah Barrington

(7) The smell of old books, of antique filled barns and tiny shops and our great libraries- old things”. Suffolk used to be the county of antique shops and book shops, both new and antiquarian, and whilst this might no longer be the case, this past casts long shadows over the present. Our library service has also endured cuts although at the time of writing it has prevailed, with branches in the smallest of towns and a mobile library which reaches the tiniest of hamlets. The libraries of my childhood are no more though as nowadays the stock is replenished more often and you do not see tatty books. I mourn the loss of those stiff pieces of cardboard tucked inside each book and the heavy ink stamp which friendly librarians allowed me to do myself. Upstairs in Sudbury library was a reference section with a giant atlas with its many maps telling of the worlds crops and rivers, the modern political boundaries and olden days when half the world was coloured pink. The inks smelled sharp and medicinal and they left smudges on the pads of my fingers. There is a wonderful quote by Ray Bradbury, “Every book has its smell. A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. A really old book smells like ancient Egypt.” which says it far better than I could. So where does that smell of old books come from? A paper surface acts as a magnet to dust particulates, all three sides of the book will preserve these as long as they are not cleaned. When you open an old book, the deposited particulates are stirred up and pushed up towards your nose because of the currents of air.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Matija Strlic of University College London described it as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.” Hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) comprise this scent, from the paper, inks, bindings and adhesives alongside the skin oils from readers. These all break down over time. Benzaldehydes lend hints of almond and vanillin imbues the pages with a powerful emotional resonance as vanilla is associated with babyhood. The sweetness of toluene and ethyl benzene and floral notes from 2-ethyl hexanol add to this olfactory soup.

Sltrlic led a study published in Analytical Chemistry in 2009 that found 15 VOCs which break down more rapidly than others and this may assist librarians and conservators on identifying those books most vulnerable to degradation. What can be done about the degradation in book and antique shop numbers and library services is a point of debate. Lovejoy did much to promote the county of Suffolk as an antiques filled haven and there is much talk of a new series which is currently being written.

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Lovejoy filming in Clare- from Sarah Barrington

The BBC show ran between 1986 and 1994 and starred actor Ian McShane in the lead role as a roguish antiques dealer with around 15 million viewers regularly watching his iwheeling and dealing in Clare, Long Melford, Cavendish and Lavenham, giving the region its name of Lovejoy Country. There has been rumours that Tony Jordan, creator of TV hit Life on Mars, is developing a remake with his company Red Planet Pictures and will use the original Lovejoy novels as a basis for a new series. But where will Lovejoy wheel and deal now? The growth of online auction sites such as EBAY and rising business rates and rents has led to the demise of many of our antiques centres although Long Melford and Clare still have some; the latter has a thriving auction room too as does Bury St Edmunds. When Lovejoy first filmed, Long Melford had over twenty antiques shops and this number has more than halved over the last fifteen years meaning that Lovejoy may have to branch out. Clare resident Sarah Barrington, owner of a gift store in the town called Blue Dog was not living in the town when Lovejoy filmed but sent the images shown above of the original series filming nearby.

 

Great Livermere- a walk through its ghostly past

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Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).

The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.

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Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.

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There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.

Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.

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Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.

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MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.

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James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially  ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.

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He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.

Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’

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Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book,  Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif.  Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’

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Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.

11019576_1606444612926510_8150682106061838482_nLaying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.

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The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.

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Exploring East Anglia by Train

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

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

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

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

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

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The eel sculpture in Ely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stowmarket's Gipping Valley
Stowmarket’s Gipping Valley

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

Ipsiwch marina and harbourfront
Ipsiwch marina and harbourfront

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

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 The Mayflower Line– Manningtree-Mistley-Wrabness-Harwich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mid Suffolk Light Railway-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aylsham water pump
Aylsham water pump

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

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

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

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

The Talbot Trail of Sudbury

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The literary links of our East Anglian towns have long interested me and I have written about the 101 Dalmatian topped bollards commemorating the Sudbury stopover made by the dogs in Dodie Smiths famous book here. I already knew that this handsome bronze could be found by the railings of St Peters church and that the town has staged festivals celebrating the book but what I didn’t know was that it is part of the Talbot Trail, a series of bronze sculptures that depict the towns history which are mounted on red painted bollards at significant locations around the town.

Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury.Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk,’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square.They had hoped they’d meet some dogs and hear if any news of the puppies had come at the Twilight Barking, but not as much as a cat was stirring. While they were drinking at the fountain, church clocks began to strike midnight..” (From 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith)

Named after the Talbot, a breed of hunting dog that features on the town coat of arms, or to be more specific, the dog owned by the notorious Simon of Sudbury, the head of the Talbot appears sometimes in red, sometimes in black. This early breed of hunting dog is thought to have been brought to England with William the Conqueror and to have links with what we now know as the modern beagle and bloodhound.

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Borough status was granted to Sudbury in 1558, rewarding its loyalty to Mary the First against the claims of Lady Jane Grey and the design originated from the coat of arms of the Theobald family who Simon was a scion of (although the arms origin is disputed by some who claim it originated from the Sudberry family). Simon of Sudbury went on to become Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury before being killed by rebels in the Peasants Revolt 1381. His legacy to the town was in the form of a college for priests which was located on what is now the site of the old Walnuttree Hospital which itself went on to become the location of the local workhouse. And his head, but more on that later.

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Sudburys Tourist Information can be found inside its library on Market Hill and the Heritage Museum at the side of the town hall, prominently placed on Market Hill and built by Thomas Ginn between 1826/27 in the Greek classical style, also supplies Talbot Trail guides. The idea is to obtain a booklet from the tourist offices and then mark off the bronzes as you proceed around the town, returning to get your stamp of completion when you have seen them all. The town hall houses a general display and information about the towns past and the town gaol provides inspiration for the first bronze marker. Sadly a few of the bronzes have been stolen (presumably by scrap metal thieves) and it is to be hoped that they will be replaced by resin replicas if not another bronze.

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The Town Hall and museum itself has an interesting history in their original role as gateway to the Sudbury Courtroom of Assizes and the good sized Victorian doorway that forms the entrance was once its gateway, located on the appropriately named Gaol Lane. Placed in the basement, the gaol was used to hold prisoners on their way to and from the court although the diminution of arrests for debt resulted in its decline and less cases to provide an amusing morning or afternoons entertainment for the landed gentry of the region. The site of the original gaol, before the Town Hall was built, was at 25 Friars St and was called a ‘miserable little prison’ by James Niell writing in the Gentlemans Magazine- a blue plaque marks its site.

Going on from Pongo’s bronze head which is number two, we move onto an historical icon rather less benign; Boudicca or Bodicea, The Queen of the Iceni who history indicates is likely to have gained the support of the Trinovante at Sudbury in AD 44 on her way to attack and overthrow the Roman garrison at Colchester and burn the entire town to the ground. Sudbury is thought to have been a Trinovante stronghold in those days and the Trinovante tribes supported the Iceni, ‘next door’ so to speak. However controversy again rears its head with some locals claiming that Boudicca never actually made it as far as Sudbury and decided instead to stop on the other side of the river Stour and go on to Colchester. It is believed that she reached the tiny village of Newton, site of a well dating back to Roman times which belongs to one of the households there and is known as ‘Boudiccas well.’

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When Boudicca and her warriors were on their way to attack Colchester, a local legend says that this was a resting place for them, hence its name. Roman writers also record an unpleasant episode involving Boudicca and her Iceni tribe which saw her whipped and her two daughters raped in an attempt to subdue her opposition to them. Boudiccas revenge was bloody and dramatic- her tribe united with the Trinovantes, attacking and almost driving the Romans from the whole country. One of the battles is believed to have been near Haverhill, some fifteen miles from Sudbury.

Charles Dickens’ famous association with Suffolk, inspiring so much of his work, includes Sudbury and is represented by bronze No 4 which depicts ‘Rotten Row,’ set in the imaginary town of Eetanswill in his book, The Pickwick Papers, which was, in part, written whilst he was a guest at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds. Written in 1836, the ‘Rotten Borough’ was thought to be inspired by Sudburys long history of electoral and political corruption where, in one election, a wealthy Sudbury parliamentary candidate was accused of spending over ten thousand pounds in bribing local voters. A character in the story, The Honourable Samuel Slumkey has an electoral agent that is said to be based upon a Sudbury solicitor called George William Andrews who Dickens would have encountered during his reporting.

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Small town politics have always been hotbeds of gossip, intrigue and double crossing and this remains the case today- maybe in Sudbury, maybe not- and has inspired all manner of authors and writers alongside Dickens. In 1835 Dickens was covering East Anglian election meetings for the Morning Chronicle and after condemning Chelmsford as “the dullest and most stupid place on earth” in a letter to fellow journalist Thomas Beard, came away with no better impression of Sudbury or, to be fair, most of our other regional towns. Some steps had been taken to combat some electoral abuse in the form of the Great Reform Act of 1832, addressing the “rotten boroughs”  which all too often sent MPs to Parliament despite having very small populations, but until 1870 little legislation of any great effect came into play and, in the 1840’s, Sudbury ended up disenfranchised as a named seat because of its rotten practices.

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Sudbury had its own version of Mo Farah in the form of the ‘Running Boy’ when, in April 1879, a young apprentice by the name of James Bigmore ran alongside the Norwich coach, all the way from Sudbury to Norwich, a distance of 60 miles in 6 hours and bronze No5 depicts this remarkable (if bonkers) feat of endurance, although the contemporary and dreadful service offered by Greater Anglia rail between London-Norwich today might mean locals adopt the example of James and start running it because it would probably be as swift. The story was reported in the Ipswich Journal as a race undertaken for a bet or wager:

“James Bigmore, the Suffolk Pedestrian started on Monday the 1st, at Sudbury to go 50 miles in nine hours, on a half mile piece of ground, which he performed in eight hours and 50 minutes.” (Ipswich Journal:  March 6th 1824).

Nearby Boxford had its pub and lion owning Wall of Death artiste in the form of Tornado Smith but Sudbury can boast the Great Blondin, subject of bronze No 6 and a trapeze artist who, in 1872, visited the town and, on a rope suspended across the yard behind the Anchor Pub in Friars St, demonstrated his prowess by pushing a Sudbury resident along a rope slung across the gap, in a wheelbarrow. The Suffolk Chronicle failed to report on this visit but did excitedly report on his visit to Ipswich, reminding readers of the artistes various feats of balance:

“On the 16th July, he again crossed Niagara, wheeling a wheelbarrow.  On the 5th August he crossed again, turning somersaults and performing extraordinary gymnastics on the rope.  On the 19th August he performed the unprecedented feat of carrying a man across the Niagara River on his back, thousands of spectators looking on, and momentarily expecting the death of one or both of the daring men.  On the 27th August he went over as a Siberian Slave in shackles.   On the 2nd September he crossed at night, and stood on his head amid a blaze of fireworks…the last performance at Niagara was given before H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.   On this occasion, Blondin put the climax to all his other achievements by crossing the rope on stilts.” (Suffolk Chronicle:  May 24th 1873)

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Born Jean Francois Gravelot in Northern France, the Great Blondin became obsessed with crossing Niagara Falls, succeeding in Feb 1859 on a rope measuring some 1,100 foot long and 3 inches in diameter. He even performed high wire at the Crystal Palace pushing his five year old daughter in a little wheelbarrow. He went on to cross Niagara eight more times, was easily the most famous artiste in his speciality  and died aged 73.

Bronze No 7 needs little introduction, being a memorial to one of Sudburys most (if not the) famous sons- Thomas Gainsborough, born in the town and previous owner of the eponymous house in the eponymous street, now a museum.  Scion of a weaving family also involved with the wool trade, both industries being closely associated with Sudbury, at the age of thirteen Gainsborough went to London to study art in 1740, training under the engraver Hubert Gravelot and eventually becaming associated with William Hogarth and his school of painting.  This bronze shows Thomas and his wife Margaret and is located not too far from Gainsborough House, the museum and well worth a visit to see his work.

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Vital to the prosperity and livelihood of the town was its proximity to its river, the Stour which provided a navigable connection to the sea and a way of transporting the products of regional industries- farming, bricks, wool among many. A river with two names, the pronounciation of which causes much good hearted debate, it can be pronounced Stower (rhyming with myrrh) or Stour (rhyming with hour). I am not going to disclose which I favour. Bronze No 8 depicts the river transport so crucial to the wellbeing of Sudbury.

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During the reign of Queen Anne in 1705, Parliament passed an act which made the River Stour navigable from Sudbury, Suffolk to Manningtree, Essex, making it one of the country’s earliest statutory rights of navigation. Sadly many of the locks have now disappeared rendering the waterway navigable only by lighter craft along the entire length. The journey from Sudbury to the estuary normally took around 2 days, with an overnight stop halfway at Horkesley where bunkhouses offering refreshments were provided. Goods, particularly bricks were taken down river via pairs of horse drawn barges and brought other goods back and were often featured in John Constable’s paintings. In 1914 the entire Sudbury fleet of around 20 lighters was scuttled in the Ballingdon Cut part of the river because of the fears of invasion at the start of the First World War.

Nowadays there are companies offering pleasure craft rides along the river, Sudbury Rowing Club operates from premises behind the Quay Theatre and the latter itself offers visitors the chance to see an exquisitely restored granary in a glorious setting. The river and water meadows are famously depicted by Constable and are one of the regions best walks with miles of beautiful views and safe, well maintained pathways.

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Sadly dancing bears remain one of the more reprehensible ‘tourist attractions’ in some countries but thankfully Britain has moved on from this ‘entertainment’ although back in the day, Sudbury saw its fair share of visiting bears and traveling showmen who trained their captive bears to dance at the end of a chain connected to a ring through the animals nose. In the 19th century and before the establishment of zoos, travelling menageries or single travelling showmen reached the height of their popularity, partly because overseas trade encouraged a marketplace for animals but also because publicity glorified the experiences of explorers and travellers and created a public hungry to see living creatures in the flesh.

Brought  by Victorian showmen to entertain the locals, the muzzled bears were housed down the passage beside 54 Church Street before and after their ‘performance’, near to where the showmen lodged in cheap accommodation at the rear. Bronze No 9 depicts two of the bears and is much admired by children brought up on a literary diet of bears treated considerably more amiably than those in our Victorian past.

Although I used to live in Clare, with the motte of the famous Clare Castle at the bottom of my garden, Amecia, the daughter of the Earl of Gloucester in the 12th century who married  into the powerful De Clare family and brought her wealth to Sudbury, was unknown to me.  Bronze No 10 commemorates her and her founding of a hospital by Ballingdon Bridge, itself thought to have been constructed with stone from northern France, a legacy of her family heritage. Originally a Norman family, the De Clares took their name from Clare in Suffolk where their first castle, and the seat of their barony, was located. The family went on to hold huge estates across Wales, Ireland, and twenty two English counties by the 13th century with a descendant, Gilbert, going on to become one of the twenty five barons involved in the administration of the Magna Carta in 1215.

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Sudbury had come into the possession of the de Clare family through the marriage of Amicia Gloucester to Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford, around 1182; the couple were described as relatively generous Lords of the Manor but it was vital that the town, bursting at its seams, be allowed to expand. But in 1314 the last of the male line of the family died out with the death of young, childless Gilbert at Bannockburn. It took some time to sort out the estate but after being divided between Richards sisters, Sudbury became the property of Elizabeth De Burgh who set about endowing and expanding the town via a new trading centre incorporating the field which was the site of the annual trading fair:s a field we know now as Market Hill. Amicia also granted grazing rights to the Hospital of Saint John for four cows and twenty sheep on Kings Mere (now Kings Marsh) and Portmanscroft (now Freemans Common).

Amicia and the family of the De Clares were great founders of religious houses and no less than sixteen monasteries were established by them. Amicia endowed the Hospital of the Knights of Saint John at Jerusalem, near Ballingdon bridge, with the tolls charged by bridge users and the rents of nearby houses. The Monasticon Anglicanum (1654), refers to a hospital situated in the messuage of Saint Sepulchre which was also endowed by the Clare family. There were three hospitals  in the town: St Sepulchre’s, the Knight Hospitallers near Ballingdon bridge (the site now known as HospitalYard) and John Colney’s leper hospital dedicated to Saint Leonard and situated near St Bartholomew’s Priory and Chapel on the Melford Road. Human skeletons and remains of foundations of buildings have been found near and on the site of the church and during the excavation of a cellar in School St, the street adjoining Stour Street in 1800, many intact skeletons were disinterred.

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The De Clare family are also closely associated with the common lands that surround Sudbury, especially its water meadows and subject of bronze No 11, depicting lands that have been continuously grazed for over a thousand years: a topic close to my heart because my own daughter is eligible to be made a Freewoman of Sudbury although, at time of writing, she has yet to take it up. in 1260, Richard De Clare gave the pastures to the burgesses of Sudbury for a rent of up to 40 shillings a year, and to this day Freemen and women recieve their share of this rent alongside their own grazing rights. Historically, they would have been the only people of the town to have a parliamentary vote and although the role now is purely honorary, they still work hard to preserve the traditions. The grazing of cattle is central to the management of this delicate and beautiful eco system because their continual grazing keeps the land at a specific point in its succession, creating an open pasture land and the frequent flooding that occurs from the neary Stour keeps the grass lush because of silt deposition, providing a great diet for the cows that dine out there.

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Another of Sudbury’s famous events was the Peasants Revolt of 1381 which saw the head of Simon of Sudbury separated from his body after angry poor locals rebelled against the imposition of a Poll Tax of 15p, to go to the King and support the war with France. As Chancellor, gaining support for this was Simons job and it didn’t go down too well. Bronze No 12 commemorates this. An event that has its roots in the aftermath of The Black Death of 1348-9 that wiped out a third of the population, the resulting crucial shortage of labour meant that surviving labour forces were able to exploit the situation as for the first time competitive wages were on offer. The government sought to control this with a ruling in 1351 that saw rents and wages fixed in an attempt to control this labour/wages situation but it was unsuccessful as were attempts by subsequent governments. Labourers were understandably miffed at this measure designed to prevent them from earning more than basic wages for their work and were clearly not going to give up without a fight. When you consider that the King had to pawn his own jewels to the City of London as a surety for a loan of £5,000 to fund the war with France, you can see how both sides were fighting a cause neither could afford to lose.

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Research shows that local women were instrumental in this protest and the leader of the group that arrested Simon and dragged him to the executioners block was a woman called Johanna Ferrour. The poll tax was deemed to be much harder on married women who were taxed separately from their husbands, regardless of their employment status or income, and their pole position (sorry) in the protests against the Poll Tax was explained by this. As for Simon, he was beheaded near to the Tower of London but his head, complete with axe marks, resides in a vault in Sudbury’s St Gregorys Church, something that seems rather unchristian in my opinion and making his image the subject of unlucky bronze No 13 – a clear case of art imitating life.

The final bronze in the Talbot Trail depicts ‘Kemps Jig’, danced famously by William Kemp who, instead of running to Norwich from London as the famous Running Boy did, decided to dance from London to Norwich in 1599. His partner was a milkmaid from Sudbury who got cold (dancing) feet in Long Melford and rather sensibly gave up there. When you consider the likelihood of infected blisters and the lack of antibiotics, she appears to be one very sensible women (if not much fun), although getting up at dawn to milk herds of cows would dampen anyones dancing ardour.

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More commonly referred to as Will Kemp, he was an English actor and dancer who specialised in comic roles including being an original player in Shakespearean early dramas. He may have been associated with the role of Falstaff  and became one of a core of five actor-shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men alongside Shakespeare and Richard Burbage. To counter claims of falsehood after his dancing marathon he published an account of the event, referred to as ‘The Nine Daies Wonder,’ with its wager that he could achieve it in less than ten days. Which he won. (Thank goodness because the sum of £100 on the table was a ruinous amount to lose in those days.) Kemp also inspired a tune titled ‘Kemps Jig,’ which became well known during the times of the Renaissance and was arranged specifically for lute players.

Kemps account went on to be sold by the west door of Saint Pauls Church in 1600 and was described as thus in the epigrath, addressed to Mistris Anne Fitton, Mayde of Honour to the most sacred Mayde Royall Queene Elizabeth:

“Containing the pleasure, paines and kinde entertainment of William Kemp between London and that Citty in his late Morrice.

Wherein is somewhat set downe worth note; to reproove the slaunders spred of him: many things merry, nothing hurtfull.

Written by himselfe to satisfie his friends.”

William Kemp / Amaranth Press
William Kemp / Amaranth Press

If you’ve worked up an appetite after walking the trail then Sudbury has a variety of good places to eat, some actually on the trail. Along Friars Street is the Rude Strawberry which provides home made snacks and small meals alongside high quality teas and coffees. Ingredients are locally sourced where possible. Slightly out of town in Borehamgate Precinct is the hub of all things chocolate,  Marimba whose Hot Chocolate Melts are made from flakes of real chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Ecuador. Gainsborough Street has the CoffeeHouse and the Waggon & Horses Pub on Acton Square is very close to St Gregorys Church and the beautiful Croft with the river Stour flowing nearby. Finally, should you be craving a properly handmade burger with all the trimmings, then Shakes N Baps is for you, right by Belle Vue Park.

Sudburys Talbot Trail pdf can be downloaded from here.

Living On The Edge, a local blog has also visited the Talbot Trail.

 

 

Walking on the beaches…. in Suffolk

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

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

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The beach at Ewerton

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

Southwold pier
Southwold pier

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

View across the Denes
View across the Denes

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

Walberswick
Walberswick

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

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

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Dunwich

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

Shingle Street
Shingle Street

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

Felixstowe
Felixstowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kessingland
Kessingland

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

The cliffs at Pakefield
The cliffs at Pakefield

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

Aldeburgh
Aldeburgh

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

Thorpeness
Thorpeness

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

Approaching Sizewell from Dunwich heath
Approaching Sizewell from Dunwich heath

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

Abandoned Coastguard Station Orford Ness

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

Orford
Orford

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

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Ramsholt

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

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

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

The ghostly tales of Norfolk and Suffolk

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Photo by Candy Orr

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-

foxearth.org.uk
Photos from Foxearth.org.uk

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.

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Harry Price in his lab.

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?

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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.

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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.

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Borley Rectory – title image

(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.

Image from www.mildenhall.af.mil
Image from http://www.mildenhall.af.mil

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’-

Fye Bridge by www.broadlandmemories.co.uk
Fye Bridge by http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk

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.

Augustine Steward Building
Augustine Steward Building from ParanormalDatabase.com

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-

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Photo from eerieplace.com

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.”

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Now Jean 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.

The Wartime Memories Project - RAF Bury St Edmunds, Rougham, USAAF Station 468
The Wartime Memories Project – RAF Bury St Edmunds, Rougham, USAAF Station 468

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.

Flying Fortress crash landed on Mount Rd in Bury St Edmunds- photo by Flying Fortress Pub archives
Flying Fortress crash landed on Mount Rd in Bury St Edmunds- photo by Flying Fortress Pub archives

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.

Find out more from the Airfield archives.

(5) The free ranging Black Shuck-

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“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.

Abraham Fleming's account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog Black Shuck at the church of Bungay, Suffolk A straunge, and terrible wunder
Abraham Fleming’s account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog Black Shuck at the church of Bungay, Suffolk A straunge, and terrible wunder

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 'clawmarks' of the Black Shuck at Blytthburgh Church by gothicbohemianstock.deviantart.com
The ‘clawmarks’ of the Black Shuck at Blytthburgh Church by gothicbohemianstock.deviantart.com

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?

Bungay street light, photo by permission Keith Pane
Bungay street light, photo by permission Keith Pane

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.

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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.

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All Saints Church before its collapse into the sea. Photo by Eastern Daily Press

 

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.

Dunwich beach
Dunwich beach

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.

Dunwich leper hospital ruins
Dunwich leper hospital ruins

 

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.

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Ruins of All Saints

 

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.

Dunwich heath to Minsmere trail
Dunwich heath to Minsmere trail

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day at Pin Mill in Suffolk

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

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

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

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The Orwell Bridge

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

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Walking down to the Butt & Oyster

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

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Thames Barges

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

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Walking along the west edge of the river

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

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

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Meadows running alongside Woolverstone Park

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

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

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Butt & Oyster Pub

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

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

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

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

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Winter walking in Suffolk

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Photo by Helen Schofield

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

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

Ickworth Park
Ickworth Park

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

Clare in winter
Clare in winter

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

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

Needham Lake
Needham Lake

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Castle Country Park
Clare Castle Country Park

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

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

The Stour in Winter
The Stour in Winter by Cheryse Caba

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

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

Lackford Lakes
Lackford Lakes

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

Brandon Country Park
Brandon Country Park

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

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

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Ickworth in the Autumn and Winter

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

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

Thornham Walks
Thornham Walks

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

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

Beccles trails
Beccles trails

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A stay at Alde Garden

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

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

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Badger Cottage

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

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

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Two nights in Badger Cottage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A night in Dragonfly Yurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alde Garden website

Badger Cottage page

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