(Previously published in the print edition of the Bury Free Press.)
It’s early October and already it feels more like a fresh start than New Years Day ever did. The latter’s odd meld of forced bonhomie, melancholy and lassitude from over-indulging never feels fresh to me. New Year has instead, the air of the last day before we’re packed off to some dreary wellness rehab/ resort where they torture you with pints of daily tea made of moss and old twigs, foraged by a hippie with a manbun. January resolutions inevitably require us to reflect upon our previous misconduct and Vow To Do Better meaning our Fresh Start is already tainted with guilt and dreary low-rent Calvinism. I’m predestined to fail under those circumstances.
October is better. October is the season of mists, a mellow kind of fruitfulness and- most joyful of all- entertaining twitter hashtags. Already we have #GBBO (my hate-follow because the miked sound of Mary and Paul chewing is worse than what we’d hear if they went to the loo wearing them) and #Strictly which is going to be JOYOUS because we have Ed Balls and his later-life self actualisation. To date Ed has given us pantomime boy-style capes, Elmer Fudd checks and a potted lesson in how to let go of the painful stuff without, um, RESOLUTIONS.
(Want to understand my weird obsession with him? Check out this post on the website ‘Put Up With Rain’). It’s all Jess’s fault.
October is a slight bite in the early morning air and a Titian landscape; it’s woolly tights in hedgerow colours and lining the shelves of the cellar with mulled this and damson that. There’s boxes of new pencils and Cash’s name tapes to buy and blackberries to pick in the slanting light of the early evening. It’s the best time to get stuck into period dramas and boxsets, Netflix binges and publishers’ autumn lists filled with chunky cookbooks and the latest novel from your favourite author. The memory of brand new school exercise books and writing my names on them in my best handwriting is still acute. Yes, autumn is a time for making plans but it is also a time to batten down the hatches and consolidate what we already have and despite my enjoying modern conveniences and a local market teeming with bi-weekly deliveries of fresh food, at this time of year my atavistic settler genes run deep and I feel the urge to lay down supplies for the coming winter.
Last week I was reading about a new book (Hygge, a Celebration of Simple Pleasures) whose author urges us all to adopt the Danish way of living snuggly. There’s been a rash of books published on the subject (whiff of bandwagon, apart from those written by actual Scandinavians) and a lot of (albeit pleasurable) guff written about a concept which basically means ‘cosy’ but I guess there’s something in it because the Danes took the top spot in the United Nations World Happiness Report in 2016. In the interests of balance I should also point out that the Danes also take more anti-depressants than many other nations although this may well be linked to better mental health treatment and an absence of stigma. They also have a lot of bacon which is associated with great happiness in my house, too.
V.S Naipaul was being very harsh on the Danes when he said, after winning the Nobel for literature in 2002, that ‘”If you are interested in horrible places, I can recommend Denmark. No one starves. Everyone lives in small, pretty houses. But no one is rich, no one has a chance to a life in luxury, and everyone is depressed. Everyone lives in their small well-organized cells with their Danish furniture and their lovely lamps, without which they would go mad.’ I personally would go mad without a decent lamp in the winter, without which I could not see to read (and it won’t be anything by Naipaul, the old curmudgeon) and there’s nothing wrong with a well- organized cell which is pretty much the only size of home a first-time buyer can afford anyway.
My problem with hygge is not based upon sweeping generalisations about an entire nation, although it can seem a bit Law of Jante at times. Charlotte Abrahams, (the author of aforementioned book) defines hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’) as ‘the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming’ which means that sadly I can never achieve hygge’s lofty goals because being emotionally overwhelmed by annoying things is my raison d’etre to be frank.
I have fallen at the first post.
Recently a news report on the FB page of my local paper, the Bury Free Press, struck terror into my heart. ‘At the beginning of autumn large male house spiders, gorged from a summer of eating moths and flies, start making their way indoors in search of a mate’ it told us. All I took from this was that OBESE SPIDERS ARE HAVING SEX IN MY HOUSE. My house, my home, my hyggelig-respite from the cruel world outside is full of spiders, entwined in the throes of eight hairy-legged passion and indulging in a bit of post-coital cannibalism too. (AKA the belts ‘n braces approach to GROSSING ME OUT.) Yes, yes yes I know its nature n’all but so are pustulant boils and who would want them pustulating in the corners of ones kitchen?
Greg Nejedly, a clinical hypnotherapist, offered some advice to those of us who don’t much care for spider promiscuity in the form of ‘taking deep breaths in order to…steer ourselves into a calmer state” which is probably less useful if you are reading this in Australia and a Sydney funnel web is bearing down on you. As someone who reacts very oddly to all manner of insect bites and forgets her epipen more than is good for her, I’ll forgo the calm breathing (and being a sitting duck) and rely instead upon good old-fashioned eviction techniques called a husband or anyone who is around except me basically. Another name for this is ‘you aren’t doing feminism properly’ from the mansplainers in the cheap seats.
I feel a bit mean when I criticise hygge because it feels like I am kicking a particularly well-meaning puppy but there’s yet more barriers to ever achieving it in my house asides from my ability to shrink every pair of cashmere socks I’ve ever purchased. It’s called ‘living on one of the roads popular with homebound clubbers between 1-5 am in the morning’. Hygge embraces the concepts of togetherness and sharing which is why the inebriated residents of my fair town do love to share their loud voices with us in the early hours of the morning. Instead of being annoyed at the drunken sots arguing outside our bedroom window: the hapless men breaking up loudly with invisible partners on mobiles; the groups of weaving women who want to share with us, their rendition of some dire Taylor Swift anthem to friendship, I could go full-on hygge and seek to embrace and share too.
I could have a whole new career offering relationship advice (LTB) to wailing lovers via my open window or end them a bottle or she-wee so they no longer need to urinate against the house wall (yes, this happens). When my hyggelig deserts me I fantasise about recording what is going on and playing this lovely, mellifluous soundtrack at 6 a.m outside the homes of those club or pub owners who do not take seriously the problem of anti-social behaviour and continue to sell ridiculous amounts of cheap booze to already drunk people. It’s impossible to feel cosy beneficence towards your fellow men and women when one is sleep deprived. Mess with my hygge at your peril.
The countryside and small scale urban landscapes of Suffolk have long seduced those of a creative bent with artists and writers taking inspiration from this county, situated as it is on the edge of the English landmass, punctuated by towns and miles of rolling fields and quilted by waterways. We take a look at some well known and others, less so.
Arthur Ransome has a long and renowned association with Suffolk, using it as both backdrop and inspiration for his children’s books. The Ransome family moved to Suffolk in 1936, and they lived at Broke Farm on the banks of the River Orwell where Pin Mill harbour could be seen from his window. Ransome moored his sailing boat, the Nancy Blackett here.Made famous in his novel, ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’, the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the Orwell and downriver from the mighty Orwell Bridge, overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily on a spit of land between the rivers Orwell (which inspired a pen name for George Orwell) and Stour. The waters infiltrate this strangely porous landscape with its fimbrels of mud-flats and saltings. The breeze carries a salty brackish-tang of mud that mingles with the honey scent of the gorse-covered headlands and their ridge-line stands of pine and oak. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.
The young adventurous protagonists of Ransome’s book were staying at Alma Cottage; located right by the Butt & Oyster pub and he had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard although his home was actually high up on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington.
Ransome’s first Suffolk based story, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, tells of an unintended voyage across the sea. The Swallow children have promised their mother they will play in the safe confines of the harbour, but their boat, the Goblin, loses its anchor and drifts away in a fog. The children end up sailing across the North Sea to Holland. In tribute, an annual sailing race now takes place from the sailing club at Pin Mill. In the second book, Secret Water, the Swallow children are once again in a pickle, marooned on an island with a small boat and end up charting the area of islands and marshes which, in reality, are south of Pin Mill at Hamford Water.
There are plenty of folks who live on the river at Pin Mill and quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red sailed Thames sailing barges are also a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here. Last summer (June 2014), Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brought it to Suffolk for the Felixstowe Book Festival and I had the great pleasure of seeing up close, the craft that bravely sails the pages of Ransome’s books. Keep an eye out for future visits next year, hopefully.
The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well-known (and signposted) trail that loops around Woolverstone Hall and the Park that surrounds it, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past those mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rising up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirting 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. If the weather is inclement, sit by the window with your book and watch the wheeling gulls, sent upriver by rough seas as they set down, then take off again from the maram grass covered islands and shores of this beautiful part of Suffolk.
The west and south of the county boast many fine examples of buildings and churches built by wealthy wool merchants of which Lavenham is probably the most famous of all, but how many of you also know that the village has a direct connection with the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and its composer Jane Taylor (1783–1824), an English poet and novelist? Jane and her family made their home at Shilling Grange in Lavenham’s Shilling Street and Twinkle, Twinkle was originally published under the title The Star in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Taylor and her older sister Ann. The poems were a special commission by the publishers Darton and Harvey and Twinkle’s simple verse belies the skill required to capture the tender relationship between a mother and her child as she introduces it to a universe beyond the nursery walls. In her autobiography, Ann, Jane’s sister, alludes to this skill as she reminisces about Jane describing her own writing process: ‘I try to conjure some child into my presence, address her suitably, as well as I am able and when I begin to flag, I say to her, “There love, now you may go”’.
It is not known if the poem was actually written in Lavenham or indeed, inspired by its West Suffolk night skies and many scholars claim that the poem was written in Colchester, where the family moved to. Jane did have an interest in astronomy though and would have had fine views of the Lavenham skies from the attic windows which her brother noted:
“The window commanded a view of the country and a tract of sky as a field for that nightly soaring of the fancy of which she was so fond,” Isaac wrote in 1825.
The two little girls attended dance lessons at the Swan Inn (now the Swan Hotel) tutored by an 18-stone dancing master from Bury St Edmunds and their father, a noted engraver, painted both children against the bucolic backdrop of their garden back in 1792. This portrait is now owned by the National Portrait Gallery although it is on long-term loan to the Bath Preservation Trust and is hung in the Georgian setting of the drawing room at 1, Royal Crescent, Bath.
The Taylor sisters were fairly prolific, publishing several volumes of tales and rhymes for infants but Jane died early aged forty of breast cancer on April 13, 1824 although her work continues to attract visitors to the village and particularly Japanese tourists who are especially entranced by this magical little poem and like to see the house its author lived in, now owned by the National Trust who have staged exhibitions at the nearby Guildhall. And one more star-related Lavenham fact for you: Molet House on Barn Street is a handsome black and white Tudor building and if you look closely, you’ll see that its doorway boasts an engraved star. This is the badge of the De Veres, the local lords of the manor, and is it known as a ‘molet’ or ‘mullet’ and is said to refer to a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem high in the skies, as witnessed by a member of the family called Aubrey the First during the Crusades. He went on to victory.
Here, he tells of this event, speaking of himself in the most self-important of tones: “God willing the safety of the Christians showed a white star ……. on the Christian host, which to every man’s sight did light and arrest upon the standard of Aubrey de Vere, there shining excessively.” It was subsequently claimed that an angel actually leaned down and threw the star onto De Vere’s standard himself, thus further legitimising Aubrey’s war efforts in his opinion.
Many places near to Ipswich are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment and their stories tell themselves -stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place, where, in 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaeologist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold and burnished jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and completely intact feasting set, and most famously, the ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum, although the original now resides at the British Museum.
Intensive archaeological excavations gave us wonderful insights into the lives of these Anglo Saxons: tiny fragments showed that rich textiles, dyed using plant matter, once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen over-shirts to shaggy woollen cloaks woven to keep out the searing winds blown straight here from Siberia and caps luxuriantly trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the boggy acidic peat which was composed of soil enriched by centuries of decaying bracken, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king, ruling over the hardy souls that once carved out a living from this harsh and inhospitable land.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship adhering to the highest of standards and benefiting from far-reaching international connections which spanned Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of glittery treasures, cavernous reception halls and strong, formidable warriors described in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s book, Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister tale of a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world who love the interactive displays and the chance to dress up. Take a copy of ‘Beowulf’ and recite it aloud to the kids: this dramatic piece of prose perfectly suits dark and stormy East Anglian winter days where you can declaim loudly into the wind in a kingly (or queenly) manner.
Suffolk has always been a place for migration. We began as the indigenous ‘South Folk’ whose toughness and shy self-reliance became hard-wired through centuries of fighting off challenges by land-grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility. You can see why our county sea-borders are home to such a compelling mix of people and the county town of Ipswich, with its history as a busy working port and status as county seat, has always attracted economic migrant workers from all over the world. 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 Ipswich whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area 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.
Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of 22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here as she saidin an interview with a regional newspaper:
“Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.”
With a well-established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says;
“I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”
Ipswich docks are undergoing regeneration and now bustle with a different kind of economic activity from their earliest incarnation (they first took shape in Anglo Saxon times). In a place where merchants once traded and dock workers hefted cargo onto the rust encrusted decks of the great ships that sailed between Britain, Europe and the rest of the world, the docks are now populated by sailors working on sleek pleasure craft. There are some fishing fleets still, sturdy and stout hearted as they putter in and out of their berths but the biggest change is in the crowds of locals, here to eat and drink and to live in flats on the redeveloped warehouses and wharves. At night, lights blaze not from the returning fishing boats but from the bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses that have migrated here. It is beautiful and has yet to reach its full potential, a very different one to its original purpose.
With its long and noble maritime history, one of our choices for a great place to eat and drink here was always going to be afloat and Mariners Restaurant is situated on a beautiful craft berthed on the newly redeveloped Ipswich marina, surrounded by sympathetically restored brick built warehouses and some maritime related businesses. The Mariner was built and launched in 1899 as the gunboat SS Argusfor the department of the Belgian State. Recommissioned in 1940 by the Belgian navy, it was sunk, raised and subsequently re-repaired by the Germans who returned it to the Antwerp based owners in 1945 and then rechristened as Flandria VII.
Sri Lanka, Dunwich, Orford and Ipswich all appear in Rona Tearne’s book, ‘The Swimmer,’ a tale of a relationship between a woman and a young male immigrant and, appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for a dreamy story of 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) who spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain and while he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair and when tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.
The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around the region: a crepuscular and brooding backdrop. Shaped by conflict and affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum, least not in such a mutable part of the world, shaped by immigration, where the human landscape is so very much, more than a sum of its parts. The fictional story of Ben, swimming in the stream, feeds into the rivulets of migration that in real life forms the fascinating story of Ipswich. From the Frisian potters originally from the part of Europe we now call The Netherlands who settled the Quay area in the 7th century and established the first large scale potteries since the time of the Romans, to the people arriving here from the Caribbean in the 50’s, stepping off boats like the Windrush at Tilbury before setting off downstream to Ipswich, their contribution is woven into the very fabric of the town.
In Something Might Happen, her murder-mystery novel from 2003, novelist Julie Myerson barely disguises the Enid Blyton-esque seaside town of Southwold, where she has a second home. Myerson’s storytelling again walks the line between humanity and the dark, jangling terror of what we are capable of, all set in the most domestic and cosy of surroundings, a place of aspiration and longing for the land-locked suburbanite. Yes, this coastal landscape could be anywhere in Britain, which is important for a nation of people heavily invested still in the Victorian idyll of a seaside holiday, but I see it as unmistakably East Suffolk, where miles of marshland act as buffer between land and sea. Myerson’s most recent book, The Stopped Heart, is also set in an unidentified rural part of England but again, to a Suffolk dweller the sights and sounds say unmistakably ‘home’: there’s the ‘bright, raw smell’ of a freshly skinned rabbit and the ‘smashed’ sensation one of the characters feels upon seeing the sea. There’s a move to an isolated cottage in the country and ghosts and past crimes returning to haunt us as Myerson expertly weaves together the story of bereaved Mary, newly moved to the country and Eliza, a 13-year-old farmer’s daughter, living in the same house a century earlier and addressing us directly from the grave.
Charles Dickens was a frequent traveller to Suffolk and toured the county giving recitals of his work and was also invited to open the lecture hall for the Ipswich Mechanics Institute in 1851. Sources have claimed that the Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouses in nearby Barham may have inspired the workhouse setting and tale of Olive Twist. We know that Dickens visited and read the records of a ten year old apprentice who lived there; the sordid and inhuman conditions which triggered a riot in protest must surely have made an impression upon him?
In 1835 he stayed in Ipswich and subsequently set some of the scenes in his novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there- it is believed that an Ipswich woman, a Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold was the inspiration for the character of Mrs Leo Hunter in the book, depicted as a woman with pretensions for the performing of charitable works and the writing of poetry. Opened in 1518, the Ipswich hotel he was a guest at was known then as The Tavern, later being renamed the Great White Horse Hotel with meandering stairs and corridors depicted in chapter XXII. The hotel is no longer in its original incarnation and is now home to a chain coffee shop and one other store. Dickens also stayed at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds (a short drive along the A14) and this ivy clad hotel, which fronts onto Angel Hill, still stands and you can stay in the very room in which Dickens slept and wrote. In Ipswich, there are plenty of good coffee shops in which to sit and read your copy of Pickwick Papers (which also mentions the Angel Hotel). Try Jacey’s Coffee House, Arlington Brasserie, Bakers & Barista or appropriately enough, Pickwicks Tearooms on Dial Lane. They all serve a decent cup of joe, plus food and other drinks.
Children may be interested to hear that the well-known nursery rhymes ‘Little Boy Blue’ and‘Humpty Dumpty’ may be satirical references to the life and fate of Cardinal Wolsey who himself was born and schooled in the town and whose bronze statue can be found at the junctions of St Nicholas, St Peters and Silent Street. These rhymes (and many others like them) served as a useful way of criticising, teasing or satirising figures of power and influence at a time when these behaviours, conducted openly would likely earn you a deadly fate, or imprisonment at the very least. Children love gory and dramatic history, as evidenced by the success of Horrible Histories and the pretty gruesome events behind seemingly innocent rhymes make perfect examples of how people living under oppression will always find a way of expressing dissent.Tell your children how the arrogance of this powerful man (who would not listen to any voice other than his own) is referred to in the line ‘Come blow your horn’ whilst ‘where’s the little boy that looks after the sheep?’ strongly implies that his ‘sheep like’ people are suffering at the hands of a self-serving and neglectful man. Humpty Dumpty references an interesting event in history, the loss by Wolsey, of his power, and by the time that this rhyme became popular, he had been charged with high treason, accused of delaying the annulment of Catharine of Aragon and Henry the Eight’s marriage. Humpty’s ‘great fall’ symbolises Wolsey’s own fall from grace. Indeed, Ipswich School lays claim to being the only school that warrants a real life mention in the works of William Shakespeare where, in ‘Henry VIII, Griffith has this to say about Cardinal Wolsey: “Those twins of learning that he raised in you, Ipswich and Oxford! One of which fell with him.” Further Wolsey related commemoration can also be found at 47 Nicholas Street where the Ipswich Society has mounted a blue plaque at Curson Lodge, to mark the birthplace of Wolsey on the opposite side of this street.
As a child I often drove past the roadside marker commemorating the execution of a witch near Hadleigh in Suffolk, causing me to develop a horrified fascination with this unpalatable aspect of East Anglian history. If I had known aged ten that the largest single witch trial in England took place in Bury St Edmunds in 1645 when 18 people were executed by hanging, I’d have flatly refused to travel there with my grandparents on market days.
Many people remain unaware of how Bury St Edmunds in particular influenced witch hunting and trials all over Europe and particularly in the United States. The presence of Matthew Hopkins, the self styled ‘Witchfinder’ led to East Anglia becoming synonymous with witch hunts and his continued activity was guaranteed by the fiscal benefits it offered- he made a small fortune because local parishes paid him a fee for his investigations. Suffolk and Norfolk had been made prosperous through the wool and other trades – the villages of Long Melford and Lavenham are testimony to this with their astonishingly dramatic churches built from wealth, and locals had money to spend in pursuit of proof of Puritanical compliance and religious devotion. It has been estimated that over 100 executions happened across East Anglia that can be attributed to the work of Hopkins. The 1603 Witchcraft Act brought an end to this in an era that had till then provided a ‘perfect storm’ of factors- a civil war, politics, religion and a belief in the supernatural underpinned by a collective external locus of control, which made Hopkins and his ilk so persuasive and successful.
This frenzy that gripped the Bury area in the 17th century served as template and encouragement for the Salem witch trials in the States resulting in around 200 witch trials in the area in the mid-17th century- another more grotesque link to add to the already strong connections between New England and East Anglia.
Says James Sharpe, professor of early modern history at the University of York and author of the books Instruments Of Darkness and The Bewitching Of Anne Gunter on the BBC Radio Suffolk website-
“It’s a very important part of the history of Bury St Edmunds. I think there’s a recognition that the trials were important for the development of law and the price paid by innocent people because others had accused them of witchcraft.”
Thingoe Hill in the town was the usual gathering place for crowds to watch the public hangings and burnings of witches- in 1662 two elderly widows from Lowestoft were put to death after being accused of casting spells upon the daughters of a local fish merchant, Samuel Pacey. Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were stripped naked and Cullender was seen to possess a growth on her body that was believed to be a teat used to suckle her Devil’s familiar (a pig, a cat or a toad, usually) which, added to other ‘evidence’ – misfortune suffered by neighbours, the deaths of horses, pigs and cattle, and a man being infested with lice, sealed their fates. The eminent men who sat in judgement on the women, a respected doctor and an esteemed local judge meant the trial and its proceedings acquired the status of ‘case law’ and in Salem, the presiding American magistrates studied the report of the Bury trial and modelled their system of inquiry and judgement upon it.
As a result, East Anglia has a plethora of visitor attractions and events that seek to remember this interesting period of history from museums to special attractions at local stately homes and parks. In Bury St Edmunds, the local museum on Market Hill called Moyse’s Hall has well curated exhibits of witch bottles and accoutrements, dead cats and shoes, either donated or recovered from houses where they were bricked up behind walls to ward off witches/evil spirits. Usually single shoes and not pairs were entombed near doors, windows and chimneys. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes- coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones.
Standing on one corner of the market place for over 900 years, Moyses Hall dates from the 12th century and can boast a rich and varied past as the town gaol, workhouse and police station. Serving as a town museum since 1899, it recounts the creation of the early town from the building and dissolution of the Abbey, to prison paraphernalia and artifacts of witchcraft and superstitions.
The numerous house cats that were buried alive in the 17th century in the hope that they would repel witches still turn up in East Anglia as old buildings are reclaimed and restored. The Mill Hotel in Sudbury, overlooking the Millpond and famous water meadows immortalised by Gainsborough and Constable, has on display its own mummified cat, walled up behind protective glass at the rear of the main reception. Remains of a cat were also found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011. Elizabethan House on Great Yarmouth’s South Quay has, in its attic, a perfectly preserved skeleton of a cat underneath the floorboards (The attic is not open to the public but they generously sent us a photo which is below). This ‘little palace’ as Daniel Defoe described it is located in the heart of the heritage quarter and showcases life in Tudor times through hands on displays.
Cats weren’t the only anti witchcraft technique used by domestic home owners. At the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum near Norwich, staff will tell you about how old pairs of trousers were found stuffed up a chimney, possibly to stop witches from flying into the house. When you consider the cost of fabric, the time it took to make and repair clothing by hand and the income levels of many working class families, their talismanic status is better understood. Giving up a pair of trousers was no easy decision.
Halloween saw Gressenhall Museum celebrating all things spooky with their ‘Witches in the Workhouse’ over two days a few years ago and this year they have ‘Ghostly Gressenhall. Discover objects of superstition from the museum collections and spot the bats hiding in the collections gallery then take a witch-rich tour and hear chilling tales in the dark corridors of the workhouse. Among the museum’s artefacts collected from all over the region to illustrate life in Norfolk down the ages is a witch bottle from the 17th century. Found near the Tumble Down Dick public house at Woodton, these bottles served as talismanic protection against actual or threatened illness. They were usually filled with urine or nail clippings, sometimes from the sick person, with nails, pins, or threads added in too, tightly corked and either set to heat by the hearth or buried it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in Astrological Practice of Physick (1671), ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’
Great Yarmouth’s Tollhouse Museum, a 12th Century medieval former merchant’s house has been transformed into one of the town’s most important civic buildings with a vibrant timetable of family friendly activities and many exhibits commemorating the towns past history of crime and punishment, often with a maritime flair. Built about 800 years ago, grand home of a rich merchant with its sturdy stone walls, finely carved doorway and arched windows, it was acquired by civic officials whereupon it served as courtroom for various different types of courts, the town gaol with the notorious dungeon known as ‘the hold’, and a police station. Over the years it has been home to pirates, robbers and murderers as well as countless common crooks. It has been attacked by rebels and rioters and gutted by enemy bombs. Staff here can tell you the story of Marcus Prynne, a local gardener accused of witchcraft in 1645; not all witches were female, a commonly held misapprehension, and the gaol cells are the site for spooky Halloween story telling as visitors ‘meet’ the witches on trial and find out their grisly fate in atmospheric evenings of costume drama.
Drive up to the North Norfolk coast to Davenports Magic Kingdom in North Walsham and visit the largest collection of magic and allied arts memorabilia in Europe- a time-travel tour through the history of British magical entertainment and the place of one unique family in that story. Admission cost includes the ‘Witches to Wonder’ exhibition, a 30-minute live magic show, live Headless Lady sideshow and a visit to the re-creation of Davenport’s 1915 shop with its very own magician demonstrating magic tricks from the period.
‘Witches to Wonder’ artefacts on display include a first edition of ‘Discoverie of Witchcraf’t, written in 1584 and now recognized as the first published material on conjuring, and the full-size reproduction of Harry Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Tank, built for the film Death Defying Acts starring Catherine Zeta Jones.
The oldest known bridge in Norwich is at Fye Bridge, down the road from ancient Tombland leading to Magdalen Street. A 13th century structure, it was rebuilt in 1829 and later widened and was once the site of a medieval ducking stool that was used for witches and if they survived they were burned to death. The Norwich author, George Borrow, writing in the 19th century commits to paper, some of the horror of Lollards Pit in Norwich where people were burned to death for their religious beliefs. Walking through the thronged crowds from the Guildhall Jail over the Bishopsgate Bridge they would spy the faggots of wood piled high on their pyre and be handed over by the church to the authorities and executed. The location married both symbolism and practicality. The pits were formed after the excavations for the nearby cathedral and so proved handy, avoiding the need for the removal of bodies at a time when disease could easily be spread and their location was just outside the city walls, symbolising the casting out of the condemned from the church and decent society.
Today the Bridge House pub (built over the holding cells) stands where once the pits and execution place stood and a plaque commemorating those who died so awfully is fixed to its wall. On the other side of the road, on the riverbank, is another plaque, hailing the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died all those centuries ago. It is said the screams of the people are still heard and witches can be seen crossing the bridge.
Moot Hall in Aldeburgh archives the life of this famous Suffolk seaside town which, around 1662, did not enjoy the relative prosperity and regard that it boasts today. Outbreaks of smallpox, loss of livelihood to marauding pirates, the three Dutch trade Wars (1652-74) which culminated in the terrible Battle of Sole Bay fought off Southwold in 1672 and the influx of sailors requiring help all caused hardship. Add to this a declining population less able to work and imbue the town with wealth and it is not surprising that the town was caught up in a wave of hysteria against so-called ‘witches’ which swept through East Anglia. Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to flush out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were imprisoned in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they may well have confessedand were all hanged in February 1646.
Framlingham Castle moat formed the backdrop to the ‘swimming’ of another suspected male witch named John Lowes, the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642. After being ‘swum’ in the moat, and found guilty after floating to the surface, Witchfinder Hopkins (Yes, him again) “kept Lowes awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645. A plaque dedicated to Lowes can be seen in Brandeston’s All Saints Church and an image of his hanging is on the village sign. The castle itself makes a dramatic day out for families with its majestic turreted buildings set at the edge of the small market town, surrounded by grassed park, a small pond and numerous places to eat and drink. The end of each October sees the castle putting on Halloween events based on witch hunting with children invited to participate in an interactive adventure.
The Millers Tale has gathered together some of the region’s best Halloween events in a guide here. From ghostly walks around Norwich to Scaresville at Kentwell Hall, there’s something for every age group.
Reading What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge as a child, I was struck by Katy Carr’s determination to embark upon a literary tour of England and Scotland in 1886, when she came over here via steamer on a trip given as a gift from a benevolent family friend. Describing us as ‘storybook England’ Katy paid tribute to our great writers by planning pilgrimages to many places associated with them. Visiting the grave of Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey and travelling to Winchester Cathedral so that she might have the privilege of seeing the grave of her beloved Miss Austen, Katy’s chance meeting with an oddly Dick Van Dyke like cockney verger by Austens grave, deals with a favourite cathedral legend- that the staff had not a clue who Jane Austen was, although if they’d read their own 1854 handbook all would have been clear. Katy’s outrage at our lack of appreciation for a writer she deemed the greatest of all was very amusing to me and a great twist on the popular misconception that Americans have little awareness of anything outside of their own national boundaries.
Our beautiful, historic countryside under wide East Anglian skies have seduced many a writer and artist. Writers such as Rafaella Barker claim the peace of the Norfolk countryside allows her a creative space she would struggle to find anywhere else “I live near the sea and I like the limitlessness of the horizon and being on the edge of the British Isles” and many local artists have placed East Anglia firmly as subject and theme of their work (Constable and Gainsborough). Cedric Morris, the famous painter and horticulturalist was co-founder of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Dedham in Norfolk. Morris took over the lease on The Pound, Higham, Suffolk, in 1929, and acquired the freehold in 1932, creating one of hismost accomplished gardens. A number of artists stayed there, including Francis Hodgkins, Barbara Hepworthand John Skeaping and their costumed parties were legendary. They remained there until 1940 when, after the fire at the Dedham Art School, they moved to Benton End. Morris inspired and supported Beth Chatto to develop her beautiful garden in Elmstead Market, now world famous and was a collaborator and peer of Ronald Blythe, writer of ‘Akenfield’ who now lives near Wormingford.
Blythes subsequent body of work draws deeply upon his surroundings, his home ‘Bottengoms Farm’, his position as lay reader at local churches and love of nature, history and theology. Meditative, opinionated and thoughtful, his “Word from Wormingford” diary for the Church Times has been written every week for two decades. Blythe was born in Suffolk. His family has lived here for centuries; even his surname comes from one of its river’s, the Blyth, and his farm was once owned by the painter John Nash whose wife invited him to see the place in 1947. In ‘Akenfield’ Blythe gave voice to a people previously neglected by nature and social history writers- the working class countryside folk. Blythe stated; “If you read John Clare, he makes you realise that they weren’t just lumpen creatures, even if they couldn’t read and write. They had dreams and visions which we don’t know about.”
The wheeling gulls and tandem cries of children; the eddying of water through sandy rills, fingered inlets and maram grass covered islands at low tide…. Arthur Ransome has a long association with both counties, first visiting the Norfolk Broads in the thirties and using it as inspiration for his children’s books Coot Club (1934) and The Big Six (1940). These two books centre upon the Broads village of Horning and touch upon the coming of change with the increasing use of motorised boats. In Coot Club, the ‘Hullabaloos’ on their motorised craft The Margoletta’ are the villains in the story and Ransome makes no bones about letting us know his opinion of their actions. Spending too much time in the riverside pubs, they ignore speed limits,make a lot of noise, are racketty and uncouth as they chase the gentle wind powered boat, ‘Teasel’.
“‘And so, rejoicing in their freedom, the outlaw and his friends sailed on their way, through a country as flat as Holland, past huge old windmills, their sails creaking round, pumping the water from the low-lying meadows on which the cows were grazing actually below the level of the river. Far away over the meadows, other sails were moving on Ant and Thurne, white sails of yachts and big black sails of trading wherries.’
We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water are set in coastal Suffolk and Essex, with the former involving a voyage to Flushing in the Netherlands and the latter the exploration of the islands of Hamford Water near Walton-on-the-Naze. Made famous in ‘We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea’ the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the River Orwell overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if the beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.
Occasionally Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brings it to Suffolk for events (Felixstowe Book Festival on 28th June being one of them) and people can see for themselves the craft that inspired his writing craft.
The very famous I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has its origins in her glimpse of an ancient medieval moated castle in 30’s Wingfield, Suffolk and her love of the classic Suffolk pink wash thatched cottages, the ruined manor houses that were once the heart of our villages and the families living in gentile penury- trying to maintain an appearance of a life they can no longer afford. Describing life for these families as one where ‘the past is like a presence, a caress in the air’, presumably a comfort in the hard times of the present, all is ‘drear, dank, depressing, boggy and raining’– an image of Suffolk we have little truck with. Even in the colder months, there is a seer, monochromatic and dramatic beauty; the moving tracery of bare tree branches as the unforgiving winds straight from Siberia swipe across the fields; the standing black edge of copses on a ridgeline beneath a dome of slate sky; the soft swells of fields and deep cuts carved into the earth by the many rivers and streams feeding them. It is a different kind of beauty to the bucolic and abundant green of summer but it is still beauty nonetheless.
We East Anglians have found easier and more functional ways of living with a past that is often wrought vividly upon the present- our surroundings are full of history which still impacts today. We find it less oppressive than Smith’s protagonists although accounts of beaurocratic skirmishes with local planners are writ large upon our regional newspapers each week. Does anybody recall the saga of the lilac painted house in the village of Clare which went on for months, divided villagers and caused no end of fury among historical purists?
Many places in Suffolk are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment. Their stories tells themselves, stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place. In 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaelogist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and complete feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum. Tiny fragments showed that rich textiles once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen overshirts to shaggy woollen cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the acidic soil, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship and extensive international connections, spanning Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of great halls, glittering treasures and formidable warriors described in Anglo-Saxon poetry was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s story Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister story about a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world.
The dry and sandy Brecklands yielded treasure of their own, inspiring Roald Dahl to travel to Mildenhall to interview the Ploughman who unearthed the remarkable find of Roman silver, now displayed in the British Museum. This formed the basis of a subsequent story ‘The Mildenhall Treasures’ where Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. The curator of the British Museum, Richard Hobbs writes about his association with the story and the treasure- “I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.” Dahl’s account is now accepted as a true account of their discovery.
Arguably the most famous visitor to Aldeburgh, (even more famous than Sir Michael Gambon who tried to solicit one of my chips whilst sitting next to me on the benches of the White Hart Pub next to the famous chip shop), Orlando the Marmalade cat was the star of a series of books written for children. Written by Kathleen Hale, who spent holidays in the town, Aldeburgh is renamed ‘Owlbarrow’ and many of the illustrations in the books feature landmarks in the town, most notably the Moot Hall. In this charming series, based in 1952, Orlando brought his wife Grace and their kittens to stay on the beached ship the Iona, now no longer in existence but depicted in the illustration below.
Kathleen Hale’s books have been treasured by children and grown-ups since they were first published; the illustrations being rich in detail and painterly enough to appeal to parents too. Only two of the many titles are still in print: A Seaside Holiday and A Camping Holiday, both stocked by the Aldeburgh Book shop which now owns the merchandising rights from Kathleen Hale’s publishers Frederick Warne at Penguin.
With its setting in the deepest reaches of the mysterious and watery Norfolk Fens, The Future Homemakers of America’ is the story of six young women in postwar Norfolk by Laurie Graham. Five are US Airforce DWs (Dependent Wives) living on the Crampton base, baking cookies, cakes and pies while crew-cut, square jawed All American husbands master the skies in fast and horribly unsafe machines that were deemed to be at the cutting edge of war machine technology. With dependable narrative tropes in its women, including Kath, a doughty Fenland woman alongside an historical background of those turbulent post-war years, illustrated by facsimiles of newspaper pages including some scarily lurid Jello salad and cake recipes, this is an easy read of a book that does manage to capture some of the culture shock felt by our USAF influx and those who came into contact with them. The Future Homemakers of America officially began in June of 1945, working to combine and unify hundreds of home economic clubs in high schools across the US and sought to unify young Americans across the land to become strong leaders in their families, careers and communities.
In 1945, when the first Future Homemakers of America chapter was founded, the mission and curriculum were basic: preparing young women to be homemakers. In recent years, more males have become involved and interested in the organization and finally, in 1999, the organization’s national chapters voted to change their name to Family, Career and Community Leaders of America to more accurately reflect the organization’s mission and to disassociate its leadership-building programs from societal stigma that the term “homemaker” has developed over the previous five decades. .
The historical connections between Norfolk and North America began in the 17th century, when a large number of migrants moved together to the newly-created colonies including the family of US president Abraham Lincoln who came from Hingham. Actors James Stewart and Walter Matthau were both stationed in Norfolk whilst serving for the United States Army Air Force (USAF) during World War Two and Reis Leming, a member of USAF personal based at RAF Sculthorpe, saved the lives of 27 people in the Norfolk Floods of 1953. He was awarded UK and US medals for bravery. The Eighth in the East’ project was established to document the story of the 8th United States Army Air Force in the East of England and is a great place to start should you wish to find out more about this fascinating period of history.
In complete contrast to this cosy tale of young American women going about their domestic (and not so) lives is the ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by the writer M. R. James. The story tells the tale of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery. When blown, the whistle unleashes a supernatural force that pursues and terrifies its discoverer.
From the age of three (1865) until 1909 the home of MR James, if not always his residence, was at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk. This had also been the childhood home of another eminent Suffolk antiquary, “Honest Tom” Martin (1696–1771) “of Palgrave.” Several MR James ghost stories are set in Suffolk, including “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (Felixstowe), “A Warning to the Curious” (Aldeburgh), “Rats” and “A Vignette” (Great Livermere). The wild, unearthly and limitless skies, beaches and horizon of the Norfolk and Suffolk coastal areas are effective backdrops for what James described as “putting the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me.” The shifting clifftops and shingle beaches, eroded by winds and tides and dunes that appear and disappear as if they were in the Sahara, often form the most incongruous of obstacles to total annihilation by the waters. Danger is covert and safety is illusory on the literary frontier of the British continent- the shoreline.
This oddly porous and shifting boundary between land and sea inspired author Jeremy Page to write ‘Salt’ and set it among the Blakeney saltmarshes of North Norfolk and the fens near the Wash. What forms a person, the surge and ebb of family history as it reaches into each new generation, shaping and eroding, forms the broad theme of this novel. Here, the sea gives up the half drowned body of a young German soldier after the Second World War where he is rescued and sheltered by Goose, a reclusive and mystic who predicts significant events by cloudwatching. Fed on Samphire, a coastal plant with spears that carry the essence of the sea, he impregnates her and sails away on a boat after she gives birth to their daughter. The repercussions permeate the story as do the other worldly descriptions of a landscape that gets under the skin of all who encounter it with its tangled and indistinct boundaries between land, water and sky.
Saturated with another kind of Norfolk- that of an 80’s childhood in the neon brashness of a seaside resort is ‘Weirdo’ by Cathy Unsworth, believed to be based upon the popular holiday destination of Great Yarmouth with its thin veneer of holiday gaiety. Think gaudy funfair, amusements and wide promenades festooned with bags of candy floss and racks of striped rock; the Harbour, model village and the dunes; Bernie Winters, Tarbuck, Orville the Duck and Jim Davidson appearing on the pier. Gaggles of teenagers fizz with the anticipation of kissing under the pier and can be found dotting the sea, top halves visible as they sway, buffeted by sand brown waves and cries like seagulls; their limbs yet to be bronzed by the sun and held aloft the water, pale and supplicant.
There is another side to all towns though and revisiting Great Yarmouth through Cathi Unsworth’s narrative introduces us to the seamier aspects of seaside life – the pubs, the bed and breakfast DWP benefit residents, the bail hostels, drugs and the prostitution. This crime story, switching between events in the early 1980s and 2003 where a former cop turned private detective, Sean Ward, is hired to look into a brutal murder that occurred two decades previously, really hits home. Seaside towns have always attracted a transient, migrant population and Gt Yarmouth is no better or worse than any other British town in this respect where hard working residents have just the short summer season to earn enough to sustain them economically through the other six months of the year. When you find yourself living in a town on the edge of the country, the sense of having nowhere else to turn is brought into even sharper relief and, should life not have gone the way you intended it to, the sense of being washed out to sea by rivers or washed up onto the shoreline by the tide is intensified. This is depicted perfectly by Kazuo Ishiguro’s in his novel Never Let me Go, which ends with Kathy in a Norfolk field, “thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.”
Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of ’22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here. “Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.” With a well established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says; “I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”
Appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for many books set locally and in ‘The Swimmer’ by Roma Teague we are thrown straight into the tale when 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain. While he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair. When tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.
The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around Orford where the book is set with this becoming a stunningly beautiful and brooding backdrop to the story. Shaped by conflict, affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum.
Former resident of the tiny Suffolk village of Mellis, situated on the ‘High Suffolk’ claylands where Oliver Cromwell once exercised his troops on the largest English area of unfenced common land, Roger Deakin was one of the Worlds most respected nature writers. Part of a distinguished group of East Anglian writers, artists and aesthetes that includes Richard Mabey, Adrian Bell and author of ‘Akenfield’, Ronald Blythe; J A Baker (author of ‘The Peregrine’) ,Cedric Morris the artist and plantsman based in Hadleigh, Robert MacFarlane, Mark Cocker and Patrick Barkham, Deakin sadly died in 2006 leaving a wealth of archived material and three stellar books- ‘Waterlogged’, ‘Wildwood’ and the posthumously published ‘Tales from Walnut Tree Farm’.
In Waterlog, he writes of his watery journey around Britain: an attempt to discover the country afresh by swimming through its seas, rivers, lakes, fens; its swimming pools and secret bathing holes in a manner both earthy and highly aesthetic. Deakin has the soul of a poet and writes so beautifully that I grieve his loss afresh with every word. Inspired by a rain splattered early swim in the moat surrounding his Mellis home, he experiences life through a ‘frog’s eye view of rain on the moat” and watching each raindrop as it “exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst” which inspires this watery odyssey.
Deakin swims the Hampstead swimming ponds also frequented by an eclectic group of dedicated wild swimmers from ladies left over from more genteel times and people having a pre or post work swim to young university students. He recounts a chasing off by an angry Winchester College river jobsworth and crawls along the brackish creeks of Cornwall like a cross between a mudlark and a catfish. And weeps over the brutal concrete incarceration of the River Lark upon his arrival in Suffolk ‘I stood outside the Bury St Edmunds Tesco. Here, the Lark had been treated with something less than reverence as it flowed through the forecourt car park […] The hapless Lark, which once meandered gently through water meadows here, had been neatly packaged in an outsized concrete canyon. No water vole would dream of venturing here, nor otter, purple loosestrife or figwort’.
From dreaming about water to dreaminess once in the water, Deakin expounds upon an alien and magical environment within which we are all at sea despite having spent forty weeks gestating with no need of lungs or gills. As he says “No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born.” Then he contemplates the strangeness that can be found in the water as opposed to our strangeness within it- ‘In the night sea at Walberswick,’ Deakin observes, ‘I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through neon waves like dragons.’ This other worldliness and an existence of which we retain no conscious memory of is shot through with a more practical acceptance of these mysteries- “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,but there is also a third thing, that makes it water and nobody knows what that is.” He is content to not know.
Sadly not all have found the watery, flat and strikingly desolate scenery of the Fens inspiring or feel their peculiar beauty. Author Anthony Trollope painted a grim and unforgiving picture of them in his novel ‘Beltons Estate’ (1866). His heroine, Clara Amedroz, has to chose between a wealthy suitor and a distant cousin called Will Belton. Belton owns a farm near Downham Market but is keen to leave the Fens and take up his inheritance in the West Country. Trollope was familiar with the fens through his work as a surveyor for the Post Office but was not enamoured by the landscape. In the book, Belton walks to Denver Sluice and back and Trollope writes ‘a country walk less picturesque could hardly be found in England’.
Historically the Fens were regarded as a disease ridden place, haunted by witches and Will o’ the Wisps, rippled through with superstition that barely went challenged because of a largely intransigent and static population, hampered by the difficult undrained marshes, reeds and drains. Travel had to be by water or along roads that could be treachorous at night. Even today the Fens have retained a reputation for witchcraft. In his series of books, Phillip Pullman sets some of the action in the Fens (‘Northern Lights’) where at a great gathering of the Gyptians, they decide to mount an expedition to head to the Arctic where they have discovered the missing children are being taken. He clearly sees the potential for gatherings going unnoticed and undisturbed in such an isolated landscape; in addition it would be most easy to see threats appearing on the horizon from afar. The flat light and relatively few trees render movement difficult to hide.
In the prelude to ‘Hereward the Wake’,Charles Kingsley (author of ‘The Water Babies’) highlights the sky made larger and more dramatic because of the stubbornly flat topography- no hills or mountains interrupt the vast watery terrain and dark silty earth is punctuated by sere reeds and ink black slow moving waters:
‘Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the open sea; and that vastness gave, and still gives, such cloudlands, such sunrises, such sunsets, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles.’
The poet Edward Storey is equally appreciative, noting that;
“You walk the roof of the world here. Only the clouds are higher And they are not permanent. Trees are too distant for the wind to reach And mountains hide below the horizon. The wind labours through reed As though they were the final barrier. Houses and farms cling like crustations To the black hull of the earth. Here, you must walk with yourself, Or share the spirits of forgotten ages.”
His books include: Spirit of the Fens (1985) and In Fen Country Heaven(1996). In Fen Boy First (1994) he gives an account of his childhood growing up in Whittlesey (which is actually in Cambridgeshire). Fen Country Christmas (1995) is a collection of stories, legends and Fenland superstitions in which he takes a look at skating; a popular sport in the region and one which Roger Deakin mentions in ‘Waterlog’. The speed skating races held along the long and straight dykes and inlets of the region were hugely popular and the blade sharp winds fresh from the Russian Steppes and Siberia froze the water hard. Heads low and well muffled against the cold, skaters sped along, cheered by locals who gathered at accessible points along the way and warmed afterwards with mugs of spirit spiked tea. Graham Swift’s novel Waterland (1983) is also set in the Fens, influenced by George Elliot’s ‘Mill on the Floss’, with a narrator Tom Crick, who lives in a lock keeper’s cottage on the bank of the (fictional) River Leem flowing out of Norfolk. It may be that the river Leem is modelled on the Little Ouse which flows between Thetford and Brandon, discharging into the Fens and is possessed of some truly beautiful banks along which many locals picnic and paddle off in warmer months. The names of local villages, of the Fens themselves and rivers are curious, poetic and usually explanatory of their location and their people who lived among them: Prickwillow, The Hundred Foot Drain, March, Ely (‘Isle of Eels’), Crowland (One of the five Fen monasteries) and Black Sluice.
As a child of sixties and seventies Suffolk and Norfolk, I can attest to just how off the beaten track it was. Although a map from 1766 shows a route from London to Great Yarmouth which follows much of the current A12, there was a sparse transport network and communities therefore remained nuclear, remote from each other and the rest of the British landmass. Added to this the network of marshes, waterways and fens and you can see why travel was difficult and transport development expensive when you take into account the population- which remains small to this day. In her novel, ‘The Twins’, Saskia Sarginson talks of her decision to set the book in a Suffolk forest (Rendlesham or Minsmere are the most likely inspiration) and about her love of our county; ” In 1972 there was little TV and no computer games and at that time Suffolk was off the beaten track and unspoilt – the perfect place… for the girls to run wild” The dense pine forests, starkly shingled beaches that are difficult to traverse and the mythology and history all drew her towards Suffolk as a setting and into this pot, she set the story about another of life’s mysteries- twins.
Forests are a trope that gives on giving. Their psychogeography is magical, foreboding, filled with threat, promise, light filled glades and crepuscular mysteries. From fairy tale filled childhoods, we are conditioned into an overwhelmingly emotional relationship with these disappearing habitats: they are both familiar in the nightly telling of stories set in them and terrifyingly strange in their potential for causing us to become lost and disorientated. Rendlesham Forest compounds this with an additional history of strange nightly events when a group of American servicemen stationed at military bases in Suffolk went into the forest to investigate mysterious lights.
What occurred next has been the subject of debate, but some of the servicemen have since said they saw an alien spacecraft, with one of those involved later claiming to have touched it. Attempts have been made to explain the incident, with theories ranging from an elaborate hoax, to the men being confused by lights from a nearby lighthouse. The closure of the woods at the time of the incident only added to the conspiracy theories among locals who have the most familarity with the forest and are therefore well versed in detecting usual happenings from unusual ones. However, it remains a source of fascination for Ufologists and among the newly released National Archives files is a document – which the MoD says insists is a fraud, describing aliens encountered in the forest.
The document, on what appears to be official departmental paper, reports that the “entities” were “approximately one and a half meters tall, wearing what appeared to be nylon coated pressure suits, but no helmets”.They were apparently “hovering above ground level” and were recorded speaking in an “electronically synthesised version of English, with a strong American accent”. They were said to have had “claw-like hands and with three fingers and an opposable thumb.” Whatever happened (or not), the forest authorities have not been slow to capitalise on something that sets them apart from other British forests, setting up ‘UFO walking trails‘ and other seasonal attractions designed to appeal to the thousands of tourists to the region.
Benjamin Britten had a long and productive association with Aldeburgh, inspiring artist Maggie Hambling to design the Aldeburgh Scallop on the shoreline with an edge pierced with the words; “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, taken from Benjamin Britten‘s opera Peter Grimes. Not without some controversy (the Scallop has been defaced with paint thrown over it in the past) we nonetheless think it is moving and dramatic; we cannot imagine Aldeburgh beach without it. Christine Nash, wife of artist John Nash found Ronald Blythe a cottage near Aldeburgh and Blythe was introduced to Britten, becoming friends and editing festival programmes for Britten while trying to write his own first novel. Blythe recalls returning home one day to find a note pushed under his door inviting him for a drink at Britten’s house. It was from EM Forster.
Charles Dickens has stayed at the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds while giving readings in the nearby Athenaeum, inspiring a mention in ‘The Pickwick Papers ‘ (the hotel offered a resting place to main character, Samuel Pickwick) and the hotel retains the room with the original bed in which Dickens slept;
“The coach rattled through the well-paved streets of a handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance, and stopped before a large inn situated in a wide open street, nearly facing the old abbey.”
Around 1910, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, the Barrister-Playwright owner of nearby Sizewell Hall had a brainwave. He bought an area of coast and dunes and in 1910 set about establishing a purpose-built resort based on the fishing hamlet of Thorpe, changing the name to Thorpeness. The Meare, a man made lake covering 64 acres with scattered islands, is no deeper than one metre at any point and is a very popular place to sail boats upon whilst on the shore, black clapboard buildings cluster the edges of a village green. The islands feature playhouses and characters from children’s books, in particular ‘Peter Pan’ because Ogilvie was a friend of J M Barrie. The tiny islands contain locations found in J. M. Barrie’s novel such as the Pirates Lair, Wendy’s home and many others which children are encouraged to play on. Thorpeness, like Aldeburgh is described as having ‘it’s back to the sea’ and this is deliberate. Ogilvie deliberately used the Meare as an alternate focal point for his seaside town and rejected the Victorian/Edwardian fondness for promenades which he thought were vulgar.
Opened in 1913, many of the original boats are still in operation. The author made regular visits to the village and was pictured outside the country club in 1919, even helping to design parts of Thorpeness. His model resort might have been influenced by Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Utopian garden city movement, but it became an exclusive home away from the main home for the wealthy and artistic. The famous ‘House in the Clouds’ was one of Ogilvie’s creations; an attempt to disguise an utilitarian water tower as a house. It is now a private holiday rental although the child in me will always imagine Peter Pan swooping in through the front door at dusk. What better home for a flying boy than a house in the clouds?
Much speculation can be found as to the possible real life location of Hell Hall, home to Cruella De Vil and the place where the abducted puppies were taken in Dodie Smith’s book, ‘The One Hundred and one Dalmatians’. We know that Smith was a frequent visitor to Suffolk and Sudbury is mentioned in the book and Hell Hall is described as in the village of ‘Dympling’. No village of that name exists or ever existed although the hamlet of Shimpling can be found at a rough midpoint between Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, just off the A134.
“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.”
A memorial plaque on a water fountain by St Peter’s given by Alice Mary Brown features an excerpt from the book as above and the original Johnstone Twins illustrations from the book are owned by Ipswich Art School. Sudbury also has some charming Dalmatian topped posts marking the Old Marketplace behind St Peters as you face the end of North Street and has staged festivals celebrating the book.
We hold the animal characters in our favourite books from our youth close to our hearts- ask any adult what his favourite book was as a child and you will be able to pinpoint his decade of birth with relative ease. Some books transcend the generations though, either because they are continually reprinted and turned into films (Roald Dahls canon) or parents pass them onto their own children. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is a case in point in a country that is both horse and dog mad -this story of a horse and its child owners has timeless themes. Sewell was born in Great Yarmouth into a devoutly Quaker family and it is possible that her determination to feature an equine hero was born of her own accident in childhood that left her unable to stand without a crutch or to walk for any length of time. For greater mobility, she frequently used horse-drawn carriages.
Sewell’s only published work was Black Beauty, written during 1871 to 1877, after she had moved to Old Catton, a village outside the city of Norwich. During this time her health was declining and she was often so weak that she was confined to her bed, making writing a challenge. She dictated the text to her mother and from 1876 began to write on slips of paper which her mother transcribed. Sewell sold the novel to local publisher Jarrolds on 24 November 1877, when she was 58 years of age. Although it is now considered a children’s classic, she originally wrote it for those who worked with horses. She said “a special aim [was] to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”.
She died aged 57 and was buried on 30 April 1878 in the Quaker burial-ground at Lammas near Buxton, Norfolk, not far from Norwich, where a wall plaque now marks her resting place. Her birthplace in Church Plain, Great Yarmouth, has been the home to a museum and, as of 2014, a tea shop.
We will leave it to Norfolk writer Malcolm Bradbury to have the last word:
“A sense of place is fundamental to the writer. Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.”
Our current patron saint of England, St George, is a Roman soldier who slew a fierce dragon. Our former patron saint, St Edmund was a former East Anglian King (crowned aged just fifteen) whose decapitated head was reunited with its body with the help of a talking wolf. The wolf is now commemorated on Southgate Roundabout in Bury St Edmunds, complete with Bury Town Rugby Club scarf proudly tied around its furry (wooden) neck as it guards the crown of St Edmund. The wolf is the work of Halesworth-based wood sculptor Ben Loughrill.
Both have been patron saints, and both have supporters who passionately promote their chosen one to be awarded the title of patron saint of England. However the admirers of St Edmund have embarked upon a reinvigorated campaign to have him reclaim the title from good old St George. A previous attempt in 2006 was rejected by the then Labour government after a petition was raised in Parliament.
One of the prime reasons for the reinstatement of St Edmund is that for many, St George has been spreading himself a little too thinly being the patron saint of seventeen other countries. Whilst St George is not subject to the vagaries of a manager and agent having been dead for quite some time now and therefore not having to juggle a packed diary of public events and appearances, there does exist a feeling that we would like our saint to be a little more exclusive. On a more serious note, in these multicultural times, our celebrating a man who will be forever associated with Richard the Lionhearts successful and murderous campaign against Muslims during the Crusades could be seen as hostile to other faiths and especially the Muslim faith. Indeed Richard The Lionheart credited his battle success to his prayers to St George- not quite the peaceful and tolerant image of Christianity as espoused by Christ and one we need more than ever in these turbulent times.
In the meantime, the good town of Bury St Edmunds is a living testimony to St Edmund with the Abbey, which dates back to 633, renamed in his honour and a recently commissioned contemporary artwork designed by Emmanuel O’Brien and constructed by Nigel Kaines of Designs on Metal in 2011. This can be seen on the parkway Roundabout.
Bury St Edmunds is also famous for being the site where In 1214 Cardinal Langton and 25 Barons swore an oath which changed the history of England. Seven months later, they compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta. Not a bad legacy for such a small market town!
Bear is grieving for his little friend, Bird. He has gently laid him to rest in a box lined in the softest moss,leaves and feathers and has a desperate need to talk about Bird with his other friends but they all urge him to move on. Bear doesn’t want to and is not ready to move on either. He wants to both mourn and celebrate his friendship and feels isolated by his grief from his friends and from the World.
One day Bear meets a Wildcat sitting alone next to a violin shaped box and after asking about its contents, confides in Wildcat about Bird, “You must have loved Bird very much” is all Bear needs to hear to unlock the torrent of love, longing and memories inside him; memories illustrated beautifully by the vignettes of Bird’s life- a life well lived. The celebration and commemoration continues as Bear decorates Bird’s box with bright leaves as his new friendship grows and we see those vivid memories come to life. In this, children learn that eternal life can mean living on in the hearts and minds of those left behind, irrespective of religious belief.
The messages in this book are wonderfully pragmatic, healing and heartbreaking for both parent and child. We are slowly guided to the realisation that memories must be cherished, celebrated in an every day manner and friendship never dies. Grieving is honourable and a new friendship is not a betrayal- it is part of honouring those that have gone before. Indeed we realise that the best way to love again is to have loved before.
I would recommend this as a supervised read for a child (and adult) that has recently endured loss and it will help stimulate age appropriate chats about feelings and experiences at a difficult time. The book also serves as useful preparation for hamster owners, being creatures prone to short lives. Yes the topic is a painful one- it had me weeping in a hidden corner of the store, but it is a necessary one too.