Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable’- an interview with HP Wood, author of Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet

Magruder's Cover

H.P. Woods spent a fair few summers propping up the bar at Coney Island’s Sideshows downing Coronas with her friends and sometimes buying a round for Michael the Tattooed Man. The granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician, she read for a degree in theatre studies and took a series of girl-gotta-make-rent jobs in New York City before she settled into the world of publishing. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes and has now written her first novel, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet (Sourcebooks Landmark) which was published earlier this month.

Woods went back to Coney Island for inspiration for her story, setting it in May 1904, when the resorts newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened with the hope of making back the cost of its investment. many times over. As crowds continued to flock to seaside resorts in their thousands, Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive in the city by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine but a series of unfortunate events leaves Kitty alone in the city with nobody to turn to except the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet.

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Cyclops from “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008” at the Brooklyn Museum

Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Kitty is taken under their wing and with their help she endeavours to find out what happened to her mother only to run into problems when a plague hits Coney Island and the resort is placed under quarantine. As the once-glamorous resort is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen, is Kitty’s missing mother the least of their problems?


Coney Island is as much a character in the novel as Kitty and the Unusuals. Once the largest theme park in the USA (between 1880 and World War Two) Coney Island drew crowds of several million visitors per year as they flocked to the three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park based there. They promenaded on its iconic boardwalk, congregated at Nathans HotDogs and Childs Restaurant to people-watch and shoot the breeze and soaked up the sun and sea air on the beach, just a few miles away from the hot, dusty and crowded streets of New York City.

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On the beach at Coney Island in 1902

The amusements attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists and carneys and their innovation and imagination birthed a new age in theme park design. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were built in Coney Island, alongside what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway. As night fell, over 250,000 electric bulbs lit up the skies at Luna Park which was soon nicknamed Electric Eden after its opening in 1903 and crowds gathered inside Lilliputian Village which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet has been described as “gloriously original, colorful and alive…. a magnificent riot of unique turn-of-the-century characters…fools and sages, snakes and saviors” and a “cracking Coney Island roller coaster of an adventure, full of marvelous, colorful, and unapologetically authentic characters and a bright, breathless debut….” so  I asked HP Woods about the book and her inspiration. Here’s what she has to say.

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 Can you tell us about your family background of inventors and magicians?

Arthur F Poole was the inventor in the family and his main contribution to the world was an electric clock, which he spent the majority of his life and fortune perfecting… only to have a better ones be invented by others in the years that followed.  His son, my actual grandfather, was something of an inventor as well, and he was the only one who knew how to make what he called “a little doodad” that was required to make his father’s clocks run properly.  When he died in the 1970s, the little doodad went with him, and it is nearly impossible to make the family clocks run properly now.

So it is, if not a sad story, certainly one tinged with a certain irony and/or absurdity.

Theron Wood was a traveling sideshow magician in the 1920s and 1930s.  He gave it up to raise a family in central New York, although he did still perform from time to time.  My 11-year-old daughter is actually quite good at a basic coin trick that has been passed down in the family.  It’s a shame he never got to meet her… although I’m told that he was absolutely determined that women should not do magic, ever. Or wear trousers. So, perhaps it all worked out for the best.

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An advertisement of Theron’s, from when he settled down in NYC.

Is Magruders a story that has always been there, waiting to be told?

Ha! In a sense, Magruder’s is a story that has ALREADY been told!  By which I mean, the central premise—girl and mother check into hotel, mother gets sick and is “disappeared” by said hotel to cover up her dire illness—is apparently an “urban legend” that predates me by some time.  I was not aware of this when I was writing.  I came across the story in a book called The People’s Almanac, where it is presented as fact.  I’ve since been shown other versions of the story in other books, all likewise presented as fact.

In my blissful ignorance, I became very curious about what had become of the girl. As there was no information available (which makes sense in retrospect, the story being false!). I decided I had to write my own ending.  I set it in Coney Island because I have an abiding love for the place.

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Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island, 1938. Reputedly, he could rotate his head 180 degrees.

 

Tell us about your research process…

For research, I read a lot about the history of sideshows; I had studied them a bit while getting a theater degree in college, but I really delved into it much more when I was writing the book.

I read a lot about the plague.  Two books about the Black Death, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, were incredibly important to me. I also read about plague epidemics that hit San Francisco and Honolulu in the early 1900s.  Many events in my book, such as the spineless government cover-ups and scapegoating of immigrants, did actually occur, just on the West Coast rather than New York.  (Trivia moment: the Governor of California was thrown out of office in a scandal related to the fact that he spent two years lying about the existence of plague in his state.)

I’m very envious about your time spent at Coney Island and in the theatre. Were you actively storing up stories and vignettes back then?

I never worked at Coney Island, I just lazed about a great deal. But I did spend almost all my time until the age of about 24 in or around theater: amateur productions, student productions, professional, whatever I could do.  When I needed a job in high school, I got one in the box office of the Hartford Stage Company, which is quite a respected regional theater here in the US.  After college I worked at places like the now-defunct (not my fault!) Circle Repertory Company and New York Theater Workshop.

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The author, in her 20s, at the sideshow bar, on the Coney boardwalk

The playwright Lanford Wilson once stole my pen, so I’ve got that going for me.

My point is, as a writer I connected to my sideshow characters via that background, as fellow theater-types.  Not as biological oddities or weirdos.  And I think that does give the book a different angle on “freaks” than many other books have.  I don’t see the characters in Magruder’s as exotic in any way.  They are exoticized by others, for sure, and that’s a big deal in terms of how they live.  But I see them as regular showfolk trying to make a living and get by in an often-hostile world.

For instance, Zeph, a character who had his legs amputated after an accident, has to go around either on his hands or in a special vehicle.  There are little details about the gloves he has to wear, the handles that are bolted into furniture so he can climb around and reach things, and his utter shock at a girl ever flirting with him.  But all of this is discussed in passing.  It’s not, you know, Here Is A Disabled Character Let’s Discuss That.  It’s not exotic or weird, nor is it romantic or tragic. It’s just part of his regular day.

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The character of Rosalind is genderfluid but again, it’s just a fact of life. There’s no “coming out” narrative here.  In fact, Rosalind drops his boyfriend, Enzo, because Enzo hesitates to be “out” in public and Ros ain’t having it.

The character of Kitty, who is the newcomer to Magruder’s and therefore the reader’s surrogate, is just expected to catch up with all this.  It’s normal life at the Cabinet.

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Can the reader seek out their version of Magruder or is this a world and lifestyle that is completely gone? Our opinions about what makes a curiosity might have changed…

 Well the Coney Island Sideshow  is alive and well, that’s for sure.  In fact, yours truly will be reading from Magruder’s there on July 9, mark your calendars please.  They even have a sideshow school where you can take classes in fire-eating and banner-painting. Meanwhile, the World of Wonders Sideshow  still tours the US during the summer.

So I don’t think the tradition has completely gone away—although it is, as you hint, far more niche than it used to be.  One positive development, though, is that sideshows are much more performance-based now.  In other words, sideshows involve showing off weird skills, rather than exploiting biological differences.

Coney Island itself has had something of a resurgence of late.  New amusement rides, new restaurants, even a hotel going in finally.  But of course, that always sets up a different conflict, of the preservationists versus the gentrifiers.  By my nature I tend to side with the preservationists, but not all change is bad, either.  I’m glad that Coney Island doesn’t look like “The Warriors ” anymore.

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Michael Dolan: CC/ Flickr / Freak show signs at Coney Island

How challenging is it to balance the readers need for space to create his own image of Magruder’s curiosity cabinet and your obvious pleasure in describing it to your readers? I could have happily read a straight ten page description of the attraction as a section in itself but other readers seem to prefer more space. 

This is kind of a dream-come-true question for me, because I think of myself as being terrible at description!  As a reader I guiltily skim it.  I view myself—I think because of my theater background—as primarily a dialogue girl.  But since this isn’t a script, I knew I had to try to put the reader in the specific location.  I worked really hard at the description but never thought it was good enough.

I will say, it was hard to stop myself piling on more weird exhibits, just because they are fun to invent and/or discover.  Just to give you one tiny example, there really is a book called Ought I Be Baptized?  I saw it at a tag sale, and it must have been 500 pages at least.  You wouldn’t think that query would need such a thorough investigation but somebody clearly did.

But at a certain point I just wanted people to start talking!  So, returning to your actual question, I think I just followed my own instincts as a fairly impatient reader.  Don’t bother describing the furniture, gimme an argument.

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 I’ve always been interested in the tension that exists between what fascinates us and what repels us. The Victorian freak show was the incarnation of that and although it no longer exists in such a straightforward way, some might say we have its modern-day equivalent ie Jerry Springer, reality shows like The Kardashians and Donald Trump. What do you think about this? Are we less honest and self-aware about our need to ‘other’ some people than the Victorians were? 

My initial reaction is to deny any connection between my beloved Unusuals and Trump!  But I take your point.  However I am not so sure if the situation can be generalized as us being “more” aware or less.  In fact researching this book kind of led me to the supposition that humans really don’t change all that much.

Sideshows made their money by pinging whatever raw nerves society happened to have at the time.  Studying their history, you can see that very similar acts keep appearing and reappearing, but with adjustments based on whatever was bugging people at the moment.

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So for instance, there’s a famous act usually called Spidora or similar, in which a woman pretends to be part woman & part spider.  It’s an old act.  But what interested me was, the cause of the spider transformation changes over time.  Originally it would have been something simple like, a bite from an especially mean spider. So in that instance, the uncontrollable natural world is the enemy.  But later, “atomic radiation” was the culprit.  In the 1980s, that was adjusted to “toxic waste.”

In Magruder’s, you get to see Rosalind’s performance as a half-and-half, meaning one side male, one side female.  It’s an act whose popularity tracks pretty closely with the suffrage movement.  In the same era, you’d have cartoons in the newspaper showing “a suffragette at home,” where her husband is wearing a frilly apron as he cleans with one hand and holds a baby with another.  So there was tremendous gender anxiety at the time, and it was turned into performance at the sideshow.

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Anyway, it’s not hard to “read” Trump in this light.  He is performing hyper-masculine aggression at a time when a certain segment of Americans are feeling emasculated—by the post-Fordist economy, by globalization, by feminism.  By the very fact that a black man has led the free world for 7.5 years. Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable.

I honestly don’t know enough about the Kardashians to get a read on them in this way, but I guarantee you there is some social itch that they are scratching, just like Spidora did back in her day.

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Who are you reading and what other books in the Magruder theme might you recommend to readers newly interested in this subject?

I am reading More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which has pretty much nothing to do with Magruder’s, but you asked!  There are loads of novels about sideshows and Coney Island, most of which I avoided reading because I didn’t want to copy them.  But Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is supposed to be excellent, as is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  (Aside to that one damn reviewer who dismissed me as “derivative” of Hoffman: I started my book several years before Hoffman’s came out. And indeed I had myself a good long cry when I found out about hers, because I was certain all my work was for nothing. Humph!)

The Platonic Ideal of a “freak” book is of course Geek Love.  It is a Modern Classic that means a great deal to a great many people.  It’s not some dumb old commercial “beach read” like mine: Geek Love is respected as Great Literature.

I hate the bloody thing.  I can’t stand how profoundly, aggressively ugly and cruel all the freaks are. (Yes, I understand that it is social satire.  I “get” it, I just don’t “want” it.)  Jean-Luc Godard said that in order to criticize a film you need to make another film… And you could definitely interpret my book as a response to Geek Love in that sense.

And finally, on my website  I have a page called Magruder’s Library, which lists the books I read as research.  So there you’ll find the real history of Coney Island, sideshows, plagues, and all manner of other oddities.

Coney Island Freak Show

 

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet is out now.

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Michael Dolan / Flickr: Coney Island in 2010

https://twitter.com/swordswallow


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

48 hours in Harwich and Wrabness

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Harwich Lighthouse // 1820 John Constable 1776-1837 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01276

Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above]  of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour  as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.

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The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here.  Ports are  a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.

Copyright Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Image of Harwich by Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal. 

Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”


[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]

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View towards Harwich’s lighthouse by Chris Allen // CC 2.0

The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port  where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s  livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.

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An 1804 seafarers chart of Harwich by Graeme Spence

And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.

I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?

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Anchor in front of the Maritime Museum

John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth]  to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”

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Image of Half’penny pier by Nick MacNeill via CC 2-0

Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP  and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.

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Ariel shot of Redoubt Fort by John Fielding //Flickr CC 2.0

Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.

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The Harwich floods of 1953/ imaga via Ruth Wright on Flickr/ CC 2.0

A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.

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The Electric Palace Cinema: photo with kind permission of the cinema

Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.

Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel  which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.

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Photo: courtesy of The Alma Inn

The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones,  the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.

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Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and  ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:

Delight of our appetites,
Oyster, flee the liquid plain;
Enter the pomp of the feast,
Leave this perfidious element,
And, since you must die, rather die in wine.

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There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”

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It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry  Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.

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It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.

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Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.

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Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry. 

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Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.

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If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank.  The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.

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The Stour estuary from Wrabness, the Royal Hospital School in the distance

Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.

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Wrabness foreshore by Roger Jones// CC2.0

There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.

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In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.

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Stour Wood at Wrabness by Peter Pearson// cc 2.0

I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).

 

 

 

Ten Reasons to Visit the Caister Region of Norfolk

In association with Haven Caister

The big skies of Norfolk  make it the perfect place to take a holiday with your family, with mile after mile of unspoilt beautiful coastline, famous wetland reserves and the Norfolk Broads National Park. Romantic castles, windmills and forests abound, plus some of England’s most historic towns and cities, all surrounded by wildly beautiful countryside. With theme parks and zoos, museums and a myriad of festivals and fairs, plus fabulous regional food, Norfolk is the perfect place to bring your family. This feature focuses upon some of the lovely places to visit and things to do within twenty miles of Caister on Norfolk’s East Coast.

1. Best thing about the coast

The coastline around Caister has more than 15 miles of gently sloping, clean and patrolled beaches. Locals have been catering to holidaymakers since the 1700s, so they know what they are doing! From the bright lights of the Pleasure Beach to the amber-strewn cliffs near Hopton and wild dunes of Winterton-On-Sea, the coastline around Caister and Great Yarmouth offers something for everybody – and is bursting with wildlife too.

2. Best beach

Within 20 miles of Caister is the Blue Flag awarded beach at Mundesley, with wild sweeps of golden sand. It’s patrolled by its own inshore lifeboat and coast watch, so it’s very family-friendly. Ice creams and drinks can be bought from several seafront cafes and shops, and there’s ample parking. Great Yarmouth Beach offers boat trips to Scroby Sands to watch the seals basking on their own sandbank ‘beach’. The beach at Sea Palling, with its manmade coastal reef, is another perfect family beach and just a short drive from Caister.

Winterton on Sea

3. Best child-friendly café

Fish and chips taste best with a sea view, and The Old Manor Cafe at Caister-on-Sea is perfect for this, providing generously portioned, child-friendly food and surroundings. The friendly staff who are happy to accommodate dietary restrictions will keep you returning, and the efficient service means your excited children won’t be kept from the beach for too long. The Norfolk Broads are also dotted with small independent tea shops that welcome families with fresh food and baking.

4. Best pub

The Archers Eating Emporium at Reedham has a bucolic riverside setting with its own slipway, ferry and moorings, making it the ideal choice for families coming by boat! At this family run establishment -a winner of a Les Routiers Award for hospitality – you can eat, drink and watch the river and the world go by. Baby and child facilities are provided and pets are welcome.

The Gunton Arms
The Gunton Arms

5. Best child-free night out

The Gunton Arms, north west of Great Yarmouth, overlooks the Gunton Park deer estate and is a traditional pub with a modern vibe. The chef uses local, seasonal produce, like Cromer crab, Gunton Park venison and Norfolk fruit and vegetables, which you can enjoy surrounded by a collection of modern art rivalling any top gallery. After your meal, stroll around the beautiful grounds and enjoy the peace of the Norfolk countryside.

6. Best outside space

Fritton Lake Outdoor Activity Park. Kids can ride bikes and go-karts, enjoy the adventure playground with its giant inflatable pillow, play golf with mum and dad on the pitch and putt course or try out life on the river with a choice of three types of boat. Rainy days are covered too with an indoor soft play and activity centre plus a relaxing coffee shop for adults. There’s also nature and history trails, pony rides and fishing.

Hippodrome7. Best hidden gem

The Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth is described as East Anglia’s own Albert Hall, and has been staging family-friendly shows and circuses for decades in the historic building. With a variety of seasonal ‘spectaculars’ on show throughout the year, take in a show then tour its circus museum which allows you to interact with props, memorabilia and recreations of a famous Houdini stunt!

8. Best free visitor attraction

Visit the gorgeous rescue horses, ponies, donkeys and mules in their pretty seaside setting at the Caldecott Visitor Centre; an animal sanctuary near Great Yarmouth. With over 70 acres of paddocks that are home to some special animals including Prince the handsome Heavy Horse, you and your children will be both charmed and entertained. Caldecott offers tractor rides (weather permitting) and tours plus a childs play area for burning off some energy. If you get hungry, a café offers light meals and snacks. The Horse Wise Education Centre contains interactive displays telling visitors about their important work and there is a gift shop attached. Entry to the sanctuary is free but donations are appreciated.

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Bewilderwood

9. Best days out 

BeWILDerwood offers a magical day of adventure, excitement and activity in a forest setting. The woodland theme park is filled with mythical creatures, treehouses, zipwires and jungle bridges, where parents are encouraged to lose themselves and play alongside their children. The food is part of the experience, prepared from locally sourced ingredients, and all manner of dietary requirements can be catered to. If you prefer, you can bring your own food, plus buggies/wheelchairs can access most of the site. Toddlers even have their own Toddlewood – a mini version of the older rides and activities!

Explore the remains of a third century fort at Burgh Castle on the other side of Breydon Water. The fort predates the settlement of Great Yarmouth, and is a great place to enjoy the spectacular sunsets and views. For older or more active children, spend the day at Berney Arms visiting the windmills on the river Yare, then walk back to Yarmouth along the Wherryman’s Way. There’s no need for a car if you take the Wherry Line Train out to Berney Arms station. Have a look around the gorgeous scenery and eat lunch at the pub.

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Norwich Lanes

10. Best places to shop

A short drive or bus journey will take you to the historic and eclectic city of Norwich. Make sure you visit the medieval lanes area of the city – a series of alleyways and open courtyard spaces centred around the Clock Tower which is home to some of the more intriguing shops and attractions. Being mainly pedestrianised, the Lanes are family-friendly with beautiful architecture, street entertainers and food, plus many resting places for tired little legs. Museums and Norwich Castle can be found nearby.