Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

48 hours in Harwich and Wrabness

Harwich Lighthouse ?exhibited 1820 by John Constable 1776-1837
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]

t Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. beach hut and low lighthouse
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.”

Copyright nick macneill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licenc
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).

 

 

 

A local appetite for sops and dripping

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A visit to a local graveyard led us to a man who loved his sops and dripping so much, he had his dripping-cup affixed to his tombstone.


Travel south of Newmarket and the land swells gently towards the rolling hills of west Suffolk and the fields are dotted with copses and dark-green thickets. The landscape around Newmarket is rather manicured, a result of its racing industry which has brought great wealth to parts of the town although back in February 1605, when James I made his first visit to the town, he described it as a “poor little village.”

 This part of East Anglia was once politically significant, close to the ancient Icknield Way which runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards, up into Thetford Chase. These tracks were in use from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, forming a network of paths which helped people move between the south-west of England and East Anglia. The former Kings of East Anglia built defensive earthworks to gird the loins of what was a naturally  defensive topography: the marshy, dark-watered fens further to the north, creek-riven coastal margins to the east and the sprawling broad-leaf forests of Essex to the south all made invasion and subsequent navigation tricky.
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The small village of Wood Ditton lies just south of Newmarket and was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in an instrument of King Canute: the monarch went on to give Ditton Camoys, one of the Wood Ditton manors, to Ely Abbey in 1022 in exchange for Cheveley, a nearby village. Part of Wood Ditton’s southern boundary is formed by the Anglo-Saxon earthworks, Devil’s Dyke, which is also crossed by the Roman Icknield Way.

St Mary’s church was built on the periphery of the village, down a short track edged by hedgerows and the garden walls of its neighbouring cottages. Early records date the original wooden church buildings (now gone) back to the twelfth-century although it was once home to a monastery of an even greater age. Parts of the church were vandalised by Cromwell’s men but the fourteenth century north aisle remains.

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Enter the yard via a low gate and directly in front of you lies the church and the older part of its graveyard where tombstones patched with ochre-yellow lichens and moss lean at crazy angles. Walk down a gentle slope covered in cow parsley, primroses and the dying leaves of snowdrops and you’ll arrive at two more, partially enclosed, graveyards.

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We came here in search of one particular grave after an internet search for Newmarket Pudding led me to the tombstone epitaph of a local man who has been described as a ‘gourmand’. On the first of March 1753, William Symonds was interred in front of the church, close to the gate and, at his own request, his gravestone has a small iron dripping-dish affixed to its front, protected by a rusting iron grille. A former turnspit to the late Duke of Rutland at Cheveley in Cambridgeshire (although some records state he was a gamekeeper too) Mr Symonds reached a great age of eighty and as he lay dying of an undetermined affliction, his last wishes were that the tale of his demise should be told thus. They are believed to be his own words:

Here lies my corpse, I was the man,

That loved a sop in the dripping pan;

But now, believe me, I am dead:

See here the pan stands at my head.

Still for sops till the last I cried

But could not eat, and so I died.

My neighbours, they perhaps will laugh,

When they do read my epitaph.”

(Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary for the year 1876)

Poor Mr Symonds had endured that most terrible of afflictions for a man who loved his grub; an inability to eat coupled with a raging appetite for something comforting and indulgent as he approached his death. His dripping pan has turned to rust and the remains are barely visible behind the protective iron grille, but a faint ghost of his epitaph is visible, engraved on the thick stone slab. The words took some time to decipher in the cold bright light of a March afternoon, although the word ‘dripping’ retained the most clarity. I like to imagine that William Symonds would have been pleased by that.

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How on earth did a man of his modest means manage to eat his way to a dripping-related death though? His access to meat-dripping (or sops as they were commonly referred to) belied his fiscal and social class because dripping was generally not freely available for poorer working people. However, his love of it can be explained by his occupation as turnspit to the Duke of Rutland which seemed to have provided him with a steady supply. There isn’t a huge amount of information about him (as you might expect) but a life spent proximate to landed gentry and the dukedom means that there is some documentary evidence of his life in relation to them. In records from Cheveley Park dated 1896, he was described as “an eccentric lad” who for many years had filled an important office, helping to roast the game and meat from livestock provided by the ducal estate.

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For William, it must have been extremely arduous work in unpleasantly hot conditions. Indeed, records of the Tudor turnspit boys who worked at Hampton Court give some idea of the travails turnspits endured because when they divested themselves of their upper clothing to cool down, they were commanded to ‘no longer to go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now.’ William would have required every drop of that meaty sop in order to build the upper-body strength and musculature required to keep the spit turning for hours on end. It is not a surprise to learn that a small dog was especially bred to turn these spits too. First mentioned in documents from 1576, these dogs were trained to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit and to make them run faster, a coal might be tossed into their metal cage. By 1850 they had fallen out of popularity because of the creation of  inexpensive, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks, and towards the turn of the century, both human and canine turnspits had become obsolete.

Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
 Sops were commonly known as pieces of bread which would be dipped into the drippings from the spit-roasted meat. These juices were collected in a pan placed underneath the spit. Another type of sop came from bowls of pottage or gruel. When the bread had ‘sopped up’ and was soaked in liquid, meat juices or fat, the trick was to convey the sop as swiftly as possible to the mouth before it disintegrated in the hand. The word ‘soup’ derives from sop or sup (meaning the slices of bread onto which broth or cooking juices was poured) although Joan of Arc liked to sop her bread with wine instead of cooking juices. Wealthier people in the Middle Ages threw their trencher bread (so called because it functioned as an early plate for meat and sauce) out to the dogs, despite it being sopped in a good sauce. Sometimes the trencher bread would be cast out to the waiting poor too.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (in the book ‘A History of Food’) tells of St Patroclus, a third-century saint from Troyes, who managed to survive on barley bread dipped into water and sprinkled with coarse salt. In this practice, he was anticipating the early days of soup when a crust or piece of bread would be placed at the bottom of a low bowl and the gruel or other liquid then poured over it. We can see the origins of the Tuscan bread-thickened soups, the French garbures and onion soups and the Spanish gazpacho. There’s echoes of sop what we call French toast (pan perdu) in a fifteenth-century Italian recipe for suppa dorata, where pieces of bread are dipped in beaten-egg, sugar and rosewater, then fried in butter and served encrusted with more sugar. Think of zuppa Inglese too, where the bread is replaced by sweet cake which is then soaked in wine or rum and blanketed in thick custard. Still in Italy, food historian Ken Albala tells of a sturgeon-based dinner in his book, The Banquet that took place in 1584. Wealthy guests feasted upon sturgeon eggs and beaten flesh of the fish, the latter in a thick soup and served with sops, followed by sturgeon meatballs in a spicy sauce. There were sixteen sturgeon-based platters of food to get through in total, a mighty feast where some of the courses possessed a more humble culinary etymology.

At the humbler end of the scale, there’s dripping cake- or bread- which was once eaten in many British regions, although it is rarely heard of now. The Gloucestershire version of this bread, baked in the oven from  dripping, flour, brown sugar, spices, currants and raisins, had a toffee-like layer at the base of the cake which formed as it baked. Dripping cake gets a mention in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

Tom, by a sort of instinct, knew the right cupboards in the kitchen and pantry, and soon managed to place on the snuggery table better materials for a meal than had appeared there probably during the reign of his tutor, who was then and there initiated, amongst other things, into the excellence of that mysterious condiment, a dripping-cake. The cake was newly baked, and all rich and flaky; Tom had found it reposing in the cook’s private cupboard, awaiting her return; and as a warning to her they finished it to the last crumb.

Sop-style platefuls are found wherever meat forms part of the diet. Go to Hungary and you’ll find that they have their own version of mucky bread which is known locally as fatty bread: goose fat from the well-known Hungarian goose is spread on bread, sprinkled with paprika and eaten with finely chopped peppers and onions. And there’s variations on a theme too such as Smokeworks in Cambridge, who have taken this straightforward ingredient and stirred it into mashed potatoes to make their legendary beef-dripping mash.

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‘Mucky Fat’

In Yorkshire the same dripping is spread onto good bread and goes by the name of ‘mucky sandwich’ although this habit is not unique to this fine region. My grandparents who both hailed from the Midlands kept a large china jug in the fridge, full to the brim with beef dripping from the Sunday roast, the fat solidifying into a creamy layer over a good two inches of rich beef jelly. Over the week it would be used to enrich gravies and pastry or was spread onto hot toast and allowed to melt. On an especially good day, I would be given a plate of fried bread, golden and caught around the crust and heavy with melted dripping and jelly. My grandfather would reminisce about after-school football as a lad where, at half-time, he would wolf down a ‘bread and fat’sopped sandwich with a spreading of his mother’s home-made piccalilli to cut the grease. That Sunday joint kept the family in clover for most of the week.

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Library of Congress: The Prince of Wales (George IV) asks “Dear Mother, pray let me have a sop in the pan.”

In classical literature, a sop was clearly so prized that it was deemed to be a suitable bribe for Cereberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto which guarded the gates of the infernal regions in Virgil’s Aeneid. When a person died, the Greeks and Romans would put a cake in their hands as a sop to this fearsome creature, who might therefore allow them to pass without molestation in exchange. Here we see the sop gains a secondary meaning as a bribe or salve. There exists the possibility that Mr Symons recognises that his much-prized sops might ease his suffering and might also provide him with a swifter, and easier, passage to eternal life. Or might he have been trying to bribe death to not come for him? We cannot be sure about that, but I was told that my own grandfathers sop sandwiches were so coveted by his footballing friends that he could probably have arranged to have the match thrown in exchange for a few bites- the equivalent of having Cereberus in goal.

I feel warmly towards Mr Symonds. Whilst Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary takes a dim view of ones vices being ‘considered a fitting subject for perpetuating in stone’ when it published his epitaph, and indeed Mr Symonds acknowledges his own excess of appetite, I am inclined to approve of a man who wanted to cheer-up his own neighbours whenever they visited the graveyard and church. Clearly the locals of Wood Ditton appreciate his little joke too, because when the original stone was accidentally broken during wedding party festivities at St Mary’s Church around 1871, it was removed and repaired. The stone was re-erected with the original dripping-pan in place.

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Walking the Deben estuary: Bawdsey Island, Felixstowe Ferry and Ramsholt

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Boats on the Deben at Ramsholt

I am shivering, not so much because of the cool air which is pushing up from the sea, ahead of the sunset but more from my realisation that seventy five years ago other people probably sat right where I am now and listened to what I am listening to. It’s 10pm on the Fourth of July and I’m on a pebbled beach at Bawdsey Island looking out across the waters of the River Deben which separate me from the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry across the mouth of the estuary. There’s an American tribute band playing ‘In the Mood’ inside the boat club and the voices, laughter and pops of champagne corks are carried across on the breeze. Time has telescoped in the most peculiar and unexpected way and I don’t quite know what to make of this.

The Deben at Ramsholt
The Deben at Ramsholt

Felixstowe Ferry was vulnerable to German Luftwaffe pilots seeking to unload a cargo of undropped bombs before their flight back across the North Sea and the blackouts imposed on this hamlet, huddled at the edge of East Anglia, probably ruled out too much partying. However I like to imagine the locals and temporary residents dancing to music and enjoying the relief from war, responsibility and the heavy burden of hyper vigilance. In the near darkness, I see memory ghosts of laughing girls stumbling along the pebbles, bending down to remove strappy sandals and precious rationed stockings which they ball up and carry. They dance and chatter amidst the smell of American tobacco and caulked boats with fishy cargoes on the ebb of the English landmass as it merges with estuarine waters, the North Sea and a blacked out horizon.

The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry
The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry

To my right, the skies are brindled with pinks and violets, the undersides of the lambs tails clouds tinged with amber. On the left where the River Deben splays into the sea, we watch as a tidal bore of darkness approaches, barrelling down the estuary and pushing at the still light over the beach which has now developed a silvery caul. In front of me, the light begins to peter out and the shoreline to my right becomes banded by grey- the sea, the shingle and the sky-as the Deben estuarine tide continues its exhaustive task of transporting the heft of stones, polished to a dull shine, dumping them onto an ever growing offshore shingle bank.

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Looking out from the jetty at Ramsholt

The sky seems to bulge inland and towards us. Out to sea, it is all blue: French navy and saxe, indigo, midnight and then, a nothingness settles lit up only by the perimeter lights of a cargo ship bound for the international port.. I feel like I am suspended in space: the lights of the boat club across the river and a chink of light from the porthole of a cruiser are the only things anchoring us as we sit on the pebbles and even they shift beneath us. Watching the night rush in left us a little breathless. Neither of us had seen a night seemingly as tardy and pressured for time and had the breeze aped Alice’s white rabbit and whispered “I’m late, I’m late” we would have accepted this with equanimity.

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Noght pushes towards Bawdsey from the North Sea which lies beyond the mouth of the Deben estuary

Our trip here was spontaneous, we’d forgotten that the Fourth of July is a date of some significance, especially here in East Anglia where American GI’s came in and our women married out. We were driven out of our Bury St Edmunds home by the torpid heat, a whole weeks worth of it, which had evicted the residual coolness from the stolid rows of Victorian brick. Our  house was gasping for breath and the whole town was so still in that strange yellow, layered heat that we could stand it no more. We grabbed our bags and made a dash for the edge of East Anglia.

Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Ransholt are surprisingly easy and quick to drive to from Bury, straight down the A14 and a turn off to drive through the undulating roads around Woodbridge,  Coddenham, and Alderton. The air remained close and still but the patchworked greens, acid jazz yellows and buffs of the fields flash by and a stray breeze lifts the hair from the back of my neck when we stop to buy some eggs. There are lanes marking the edges of pre-enclosure strips, ancient bridlepaths and sand clotted foorpaths hinting at a sea hiding over the next hill. I want to play the game we played as children- who can see the sea first- although in this case, we approach an estuary. The underlying Red Crag rock gives the earth a brick dusty hue, not dissimilar to the red of the Georgian deep south as we climbed the hilled sharp turn off towards Ramsholt. The Ramsholt Arms and a drink was our destination before a late afternoon walk along the shore of the River Deben,  a route hugging the pines and saltmarshes of the coastal walk that passes in front of the pub.

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Approaching the Ramsholt Arms and River Deben

The view from the inn’s carpark which crests the slope down to the waters and beer garden is a shock if you get the timing and the light right. Go there late afternoon on a hazy summer day and the water appears, blindingly metallic, shimmering like the steel of a razor blade through the ink dark woods. The anchored boats appear black against the water and the only relief from this binary watercolour is the neon orange of the buoys and flags woven through the halyards. The Strand borders a sandy, pebbly beach and beyond, a muddy strip beside the lazy waters where children happily mudlarked in the sun. There’s old sharks teeth to be found in the Red Crag, wizened corals and echinoids and shells a plenty from the exposed London clay which lines the shallow basin of the estuary.

The old sea defences
The old sea defences

As the tide turns, it gives up a hundred yards of glistening mudflats, pockmarked by the beak marks of oyster catchers and redshank and patterned with dragons teeth arrangements of old wooden sea defences: the groynes have rotted away to piles of semi carbonised sticks, slimy with seaweed and encrusted with barnacles, their rough triangle shapes a grim nod to the Anglo Saxon past. There’s sea lavender and purslane along the edges along with the saltmarsh and squeaky jelly like samphire – the Deben estuary possesses a beautiful and luminous bleakness from its quirky plants to the blank yawn of the estuary at dusk.

The Ramsholt Arms
The Ramsholt Arms

The Ramsholt Arms was once called the Ferry House because of the eponymous ferry which used to run to Kirton Creek and is now no more. The village was also the first landing on the north side of the River Deben after Bawdsey, making it strategically and economically important to the region. It waved off heavy cargoes of local brick from the many yards which lay along the rivers Deben, Stour and Orwell and it shipped coprolite (fossilised dinosaur dung, used for fertiliser). Barge quays once lined the banks which seem stunningly empty and haunted by comparitive inactivity now, apart from the flipped collar jollity of the weekending boat people. The village is more boat than house now.

The harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty
The harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty

The parish church of All Saints, one of 38 Suffolk round tower churches presides over a startling view which stretches from the Martlesham Research Tower at one end to the Martello Towers of Felixstowe Ferry out towards the North Sea and the sodium lights of the cargo port emerge in the distance as the sun sets. The round tower was built of flint, brick and the septaria from the river bed, notably from  an area known locally as ‘the Rocks’, a place where anchors would foul regularly. The round tower appears as square from a distance but as you get closer, its oval shape appears, a seemingly magical feat which is also achieved by Beyton’s church, another round and buttressed tower.

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Footpaths take you up to the church which perches high above the estuary

The church may well have had an important function as a look out with its all seeing position over a part of the UK which was deemed to be both vulnerable and strategically important with its multiplicity of river conduits and dank, hidden creeks: a highly permeable coastline. Watery landscapes have always attracted plotters and maleficence although the unfamiliar invader might well meet their match at the hands of the sunken, hidden rills and deep channels which snake through the gorse and reeds that edge the coastal pathway and Strand. There’s a sunken lane which also snakes its way to the church, hidden deep between tall banks which burst forth in poppies, grasses, cow parsley and nettles in the spring: a precious reminder of a time when these lanes were more common: sadly most of them have been allowed to sink back into the landscape or have been turned into roads, proper.

All Saints Church at Ramsholt
All Saints Church at Ramsholt

The church stands eight feet or so above you as you climb and steps cut into the banks of the lane provide access to the beautiful churchyard. The whole place is ethereal, other wordly yet strangely pragmatic, and inside the church, a chart dating back to 1287 seems to indicate its function as a useful seamark, helping to keep watch against Viking invaders during the time of the Saxons. The burial site of a rather important Saxon, replete with golden wordly goods and precious stones, is, after all, only a few miles inland at Sutton Hoo and although the Ramsholt parishioners weren’t buried with such riches, they chose to be buried facing that glorious view which is the greatest jewel of all- the north of the church which looks away from the river has hardly any graves.

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Bawdsey Ferry by Martin Hardie from the V&A Collection

Moving on to Bawdsey, a place which we’d never visited but gazed upon on many an occasion from the opposite shores, the light was fast fading. The Bawdsey Peninsula is home to Bawdsey Manor, a top secret RAF research establishment  purchased by the RAF in 1936 where the Chain Home (CH) RDF (radar) system was developed during the fraught war time years. From Bawdsey, a chain of radar stations ran around the south coast to defend Britain during World War II and the Transmitter Block Museum tells the story of radar, and how Bawdsey helped win the Battle of Britain (For opening call 07821 162 879) . This part of the Suffolk coastline came under special measures during the war and only ‘essential personnel’ were afforded access-even the ferry was closed to the public during WW2 after managing to survive from the 12th century, although it is open now and a very popular and atmospheric way of travelling between Felixstowe and the Bawdsey Peninsula.

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The vulnerability of the region to attack and spies is underscored by the 1943 bombing of the church which saw it totally destroyed.  St. Nicholas’s Church was built in 1954 on the site. When war was declared against Germany in September 1939, fears of a possible commando raid on the group led to the development activities being relocated and, in 1940, the British Army staged a training landing against Bawdsey, having warned the station’s officers that the attack would be taking place. However, an administrative oversight meant that the sentries were not warned and when they spotted rubber dinghies approaching the beach area, they released gas-filled barrels and set them alight with tracer fire from the cliff-top machine-gun posts. As the sun rose over Bawdsey Beach the next morning, the sentries “found the beach covered with dozens of charred bodies” that they at first thought were Germans dressed as Army soldiers. The story was declared secret until 2014, but was leaked in 1992.

The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bawdsey Beach has a seasonal cafe, raised above the beach and beach front road which peters out in front of three 30’s arts and crafts style houses (one of which can be rented for holidays). The pebbled shore extends out to sea, divided by groynes until you reach the North Sea where super tankers and cargo ships are escorted into Felixstowe, one of the largest cargo ports in Europe. Lining the road in front of the sand were VW campers and children warmed themselves by barbecues, scrooched down below the groynes as they ate and watched the sun set. You travel back in time here, in part because for so long Bawdsey was closed off, protected from people and civilian development and in part because there simply is nowhere else to go. This is the end point, a still point and it orders you to stop and retrace mentally as well as literally. Bawdsey is Enid Blyton. It is Arthur Ransome and Glenn Miller and Shine on Harvey Moon. You expect the locals to wear thick khaki cotton, to have their hair set in pin curls and wear tea dresses, hair in a victory roll. When a sleek and modern BMW purrs along the sea front, it jars.

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Looking out to Felixstowe Ferry

Felixstowe Ferry is gruffer, from its black pitch fishermens huts to the tangle of utilitarian fishing nets and buoys which lace the gangways and cement walkways bordering the quay. MR James set Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad on the nearby golf course, there’s the stately warning of the martello towers ( this bastion of defence is one of five built on the coast between Felixstowe and Aldeburgh designed to protect us from the wrath of Napoleon) and the embarkation point of the ferry taking you over to Bawdsey. If the ferryman isn’t within sight, locals will advise you to raise the bat and wave it to alert him. There’s fish to be hauled in and sold from boats, huts and ad hoc shops and several places to eat from the  Boathouse cafe  to the Ferryboat Inn originally built in the 15th century as a home for the harbourmaster, facing the heath. The boatyard itself started up in the late twenties and made its own wartime contributions too- it used to build quite a lot of boats for the Royal Navy, including motor boats that were useful modes of getting about during those war years where Glenn Miller and his band provided respite from the business of trying to survive.

Great Livermere- a walk through its ghostly past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Talbot Trail of Sudbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by himselfe to satisfie his friends.”

William Kemp / Amaranth Press
William Kemp / Amaranth Press

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

Sudburys Talbot Trail pdf can be downloaded from here.

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

 

 

St Edmund- One cool dude.

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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.

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Photo by Bury Free Press

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.

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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!

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