Season of the witch in East Anglia

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.

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A drawing of Hopkins from his book The Discovery Of Witches

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.

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Moyses Hall cats

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.

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Mummified cat at Elizabethan House by kind permission

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.

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Witches bottle at Gressenhall

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’

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Tollhouse Museum

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.

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Fye Bridge

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.

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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.

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Moot Hall

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 confessed and were all hanged in February 1646.

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Framlingham Castle

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.

 

Taking the Waters- Norfolk & Suffolk

Some well known, others not so, here are some of the loveliest places to visit either en famille or for some much needed down time alone by the water, in it, above it or doing things on it.

(1) Blakeney Point in Norfolk 

Tourists viewing seals from boat, Blakeney Point, Norfolk.
Tourists viewing seals from boat, Blakeney Point. Photograph: Alamy

The best way to arrive at Blakeney Point, a sand and shingle spit stretching out into the sea from the heart of Blakeney national reserve, is on a boat trip from Morston Quay. You not only get a chance to see grey seals basking on the sandbanks, but you leave the boat at the blue Old Lifeboat House, home to National Trust rangers and now a visitors centre packed with information. From there, you can explore the rare habitat and its inhabitants, which range from sandwich terns to otters and yellow-horned poppies. The more energetic might opt to walk back to Morston , a worthwhile though demanding tramp across four miles of shingle back.
 Nearest train station: Sheringham, then get the CH3 bus to Morston. There is restricted access to the western end of Blakeney Point from April to mid-August, to protect birds nesting on the shingle, and from November to mid-January during the seal pupping season.

(2) Lackford Lakes, Nr Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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A man made landscape of reclaimed gravel pits in the valley of the river Lark, Lackford Lakes is owned and managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and boasts a year round programme of family events. Walk around this ever changing landscape of reed beds, meadows, pastures, woodlands and wetlands and watch Kingfishers, bitterns, otters, cormorants and many other creatures as they go about their business from one of the bird hides cleverly positioned to give access to different habitats. The sailing club SESCA is based here too should you wish to learn in one of the UK’s most beautiful environments. We often come here at dawn or dusk, a time of great animal activity and sit quietly watching bats pour in and out of their converted pill box home overlooking meadows full of grazing cattle and Jacob’s sheep. A well equipped visitors centre offers drinks, cakes and ice creams plus a bird viewing window and also sells bird food and other equipment.

(3) The Little Ouse at Thetford & Santon Downham, Norfolk and Suffolk borders. 

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The River Little Ouse, a tributary of the Great Ouse, once had more than one natural course and runs alongside a popular walking trail that runs between Thetford and Brandon and traverses Thetford Forest via Santon Downham. To the North is Grimes Graves, the amazing Neolithic flint mining site which is  reachable via forest tracks or from Santon Downham Village.  These same forest tracks lead to High Lodge and Go Ape!, both popular places for activities, picnics and family fun.

The Little Ouse runs through the Brecks, one of the most fascinating and unique habitats in the country- tranquil forests, open sandy heaths ablaze with sulphur yellow Gorse in the summer and a patchwork of agricultural land. The Brecks cover 370 square miles, has the rare nightjar and stone curlew as residents and bears the marks of the Ice Age that created this landscape of Pingoes and scrubby low growing plants, ancestors of those which were once all that could  grow in the Permafrost that characterised the Ice Age.

Alternatively, stay in Thetford and sit or walk by the river from St Mary’s Priory to the fishing lakes (photographed above), watching skeins of electric blue dragonflies dart above the riverbank. Occasional kayaks and row boats pass by too, trailing ducks in their wake. A beautiful place to take a picnic, a sandwich and a book, we often come here just to relax and get away. Ten minutes is all it takes to recharge.

(4) The Lido at Beccles, Suffolk 

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Sadly becoming an endangered species, outdoor pools are something to treasure and we encourage not only their patronage, but donating whatever spare change you have to their funds for upkeep. We have such warm memories of the sadly defunct Sudbury swimming pool with its competition height diving boards, pool side tiers of concrete sun decks and hut selling post swim cups of hot cocoa.

Beccles Lido is run by a community run charity who bought the Lido from Waveney District Council and re-opened it in 2010, restoring the 1m springboard, installing a slide, all-weather awning and a fun giant inflatable aquarun. Canoe hire is also available and there are separate toddler and paddling pools, also heated. With paved and grassy areas for sunbathing, as well as picnic tables, chairs, sunloungers and a covered outdoor eating area, families are well catered for and a well stocked Splash Pool Bar sells hot and cold meals and snacks, cold drinks, icecreams, delicious Fairtrade teas, coffees and hot chocolate.  

(5) The Kings Lynn Ferry Ride, Norfolk

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Photo by visitnorfolk.com

Got a boat mad child or fancy a trip across river yourself? A trip on the Kings Lynn Ferry after exploring the towns maritime trade, its fishing communities and its famous navigators via the Maritime Trail, will give you a different take of the architecture of the town from the west bank of the Lynn. This town with its royal links was originally known as Lin and in 1101, Bishop Herbert Losinga (the same Bishop that established Norwich Cathedral) founded St Margaret’s Church and the town became known as Bishops Lin.

Trade built up quickly around the waterways and a few years later a second settlement was established to the North, each with its own church and marketplace. In 1537 King Henry VIII decided he would take control of the town from the Bishop of Norwich and it became known as King’s Lynn; the town growing rich from trade within Britain and abroad. By the middle ages, the town ranked as the 3rd port of England and was considered as important as Liverpool. Although the town’s importance then declined, King’s Lynn today is a still an important regional centre for a largely sparsely populated part of England.

Fishing has always been a strong part of Lynn’s history. Queen Elizabeth I granted Lynn fishermen the right to “free and uninterrupted use of the Fisher Fleet for ever and ever.” Lynn’s whaling ships would sail to Greenland every March and return back here in July with their catch. On their return this quay would be full of excitement; today it is an attractive place to sit and watch boats sail by from wharfs converted into bars or restaurants and a visitor centre. Mid-way along King Street you will find Ferry Lane leading to the  ferry service.

(6) Sea views from the summit of Muckleburgh Hill, Norfolk

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Got children who enjoy a physical challenge? The hill may only be a few hundred feet high, but it is a spectacular view from the summit of the coast and glorious Norfolk countryside in all directions, making it a great adventure to climb for people of all ages. Dense woodland, at the base of the hill makes finding the path to the top a bit of a puzzle, but when you do find one of the network of woodland paths and climb it, you are rewarded with views over Weybourne andSheringham  to the east and Salthouse and Cley next the Sea to the west. Immediately below Muckleburgh Hill is the Muckleburgh Collection, a museum of military hardware.

Nearby Weybourne, a pretty village, is home to the North Norfolk Railway station and goods yard. The station has a workshop and is home to various railway vehicles that adults and children will enjoy looking at. Steam trains regularly pull into the station and you can ride the “poppy line” to Holt in one direction and Sheringham in the other. It is easy to stop off at the villages and towns along the route, catching a later train back. This means adults can leave the car behind and enjoy some libations at some of the excellent village pubs, many spectacularly beautiful with corresponding views.

(7) The Rodbridge Picnic Grounds, Nr Long Melford, Suffolk

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A proper river side tramp where kids can run amok over the scrubby grassy paths and fields, splash through the muddy woodland tracks and paddle, it is best to put the littlest one in the back carrier or fit mudguards to the all terrain buggy when you come here. Walking boots or wellies are also advisable. Rodbridge Corner is a place we adored as kids where we’d hurtle up and down the  hummocks dotted with rabbit warrens (a kind of mini race track), eat our fish and chips in the car park then walk the river path, stopping to smell the scent of the river as it bumps over the weirs. A wonderful place and free to use. Might be an idea to avoid the car park from dusk where local people have reported a problem with it being used for more nefarious purposes (dogging) although we haven’t had any problems yet, have seen nothing and wouldn’t advise walking along an unlit river path at night anyway.

The nearby towns of Sudbury and village of Long Melford will provide those fish and chips should you not have brought a fancier meal!

(8) The Croft in Sudbury, Suffolk

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An embarrassment of riches awaits the river lover in Sudbury, embraced in a loop by the famous river Stour.  Captured so often by famous artists and possessed of many bucolic stopping off points for paddling, boat sailing, water sports or simply musing or walking along the path, the railway walk (the railway line follows the river for many miles) or water meadows also offer hours of outdoor exercise and beauty. Just keep an eye on the cows that graze the common lands and don’t let your dog worry them.

The Croft offers an old boating lake, the ‘washing machine water’ aka Weir, a cow pond around which you will find groups of picnickers and the old bridge populated by generations of ducks kept fat by generations of locals. Park quality grass for sunbathing (although keep an eye out for duck poop before you sit down), stands of trees and bench dotted tarmac paths make this popular because it is less then 400 yards from the town centre. A short walk down the riverpath leads you to The Mill, now turned into a hotel and complete with walled up cat (an ancient practice), or you can walk along the Railway walk in the other direction to Brundon Mill where the swan feed, resplendent with a hundred or more swans, awaits. The meadows around Sudbury are the oldest continuously grazed land in England and are crossed by many footpaths, making them excellent for walking.

The Croft is just off the Sudbury one way system, past the fire station and St Gregory’s church and can also be reached from North Street. Turn left at Argos, pass the short stay car park and turn right by the entrance of the Waggon and Horses pub. The Croft is across the main road. As you cross the bridge at the Croft, keep an eye out for the poignant memorial to the left, set with flowering plants. A tribute to a family from nearby Great Cornard who died in the Yugoslav air disaster in May 1971, we always stopped here to lay flowers because our grandmother taught the children at playschool. Roger and Margaret Green and their sons, Simon and Ian, were on board the Tupolev-134 which crashed at Rijeka airport when attempting to land in a heavy rainstorm; 78 of the 83 people on board were killed. Simon was a member of the Round Table and his fellow Round Tablers cleared the land of bushes and scrub.

(9) Sea Views at Wiveton Hall Cafe in Norfolk

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Slip off your shoes, sit yourself down on one of the candy coloured outdoor seats, exhale and look out to sea from this playful cafe which is nonetheless deadly serious about the quality of food it serves. The views out over the marshes to the sea are superb and, under the pine trees; sand and pebbles underfoot, you will think you are in the Med. Take a walk along the beautiful Norfolk coastline before or after your meal, pick fruit on the estates fruit farms or wander around flint faced, Dutch gabled Wiveton Hall, built in the 17th century on what had been monastic land where the sea once came almost to the door. Should you decide never to go away again, the hall offers accommodation in either its spacious wing or self catering farm cottages.

(10) Wild Swimming in the river Waveney, Suffolk

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The Waveney was much beloved of the nature writer Roger Deakin who used to live in Mellis and who was one of the ‘pioneers’ of the new Wild Swimming movement. A two mile loop around Outney Common starts and returns from Bungay, one of Suffolk’s tiny towns where you will still find independent stores and good places to eat.  With its own river meadows at the bottom of Bridge Street that are ideal for a swim and a riverbank picnic, there is also canoe hire at the Meadow Caravan park, next to the river itself. Should you swim at dawn or dusk, keep an eye out for the otters- they live happily here. Grid reference: 52.4572, 1.4413

(11) Peer at the view from a Pier

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Fly over the coastline of East Anglia and you will see venerable examples of the quaint Victorian habit of building out to sea; a perfect example of follies on a grand scale for what else would you call a pier- those curious testimonies to holiday frivolity on stilts? From Cromer and Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk to Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Aldeburgh and Southwold in Suffolk, our counties have worked hard to maintain and develop their piers resulting in yet another generation of coastal visitors who enjoy their very British charms.

Southwold Pier boasts the  the famous ‘Under the Pier Show’, an assortment of bonkers Tim Hunkins creations- Steampunk crossed with Victoriana; a penny arcade, the Clockhouse cafe and pizza place plus those wide planked boardwalks to walk along and sit on, looking out onto those stupendous Suffolk sunsets and sunrises. Tasteful to attract the Notting Hillers, this pier doesn’t have that brash gaudy seaside appeal of other resorts (which we also love) – think Enid Blyton as opposed to the local fair.

Gt Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier carries on another great British seaside tradition- that of the live show, amusements and carney style food- candy floss, doughnuts, rock and hot dogs and is none the less enjoyable for it. Attracting hordes of visitors all year round, the piers original wooden structure was designed by A.W. Morant, opening  in July 1858. A wooden construction leaves piers at risk of fire and Britannia Pier has certainly had a fair share of these- the first in 1907 and the second in 1914, badly damaging the newly built pavilion. Ironically, both the ballroom and pavillion survived the war, only to be both destroyed by yet another blaze in 1954 and subsequently rebuilt where they thrive to this day. Felixstowe Pier is very similar with amusement arcades, a lovely boardwalk, plenty of food and proximity to safe clean beaches.

Cromer Pier boasts and end of the pier show and claims this to be the last remaining true show of its kind. Opened in 1902, Cromer Pier was damaged by the 2013 storm surge and is newly repaired in time for summer where the famous Cromer crabs can be caught from the sides. The decks are lined with buckets and lines and on fine days, fringed with children and adults all hoping to net the big one!

Lowestofts Claremont Pier can be found between Lowestofts Award winning beaches to the south of the town and has an award winning restaurant, a family-orientated amusement arcade and luxurious casino area. The latest additions include a large wooden floored roller skating rink and a contemporary multi-purpose venue. Like all piers, it was seen as a possible security threat during the Second World War and  in 1940, with the Axis Forces sweeping across the Continent, the Royal Engineers blasted a hole in the pier to stop the Luftwaffe using it as a possible landing place. Visitors will be relieved to know that this hole is now repaired!

(12) Or look out from high from a Lighthouse

imagesDue to its long coastline, East Anglia has always had a strong connection with the sea, and this has led to the building of some fine lighthouse. Many of these have been adapted over the years and not all have survived. Some lighthouses have been converted to private homes and are no longer available for public viewing from inside. However, some classic examples of these famous seaside icons still exist and they are well worth seeking out.

Although Happisburgh Lighthouses (there are a pair of them) are privately owned, they do open on particular weekends to the public – Easter and Bank Holidays. Built in 1791, the pair formed leading lights marking safe passage around the southern end of the treacherous Happisburgh Sands but it was not always effective, as the graves in the churchyard show. Inside, the 96 stone steps wind their way up the inside to the light at the top (134 feet above sea level) and when you reach the top, you can see the working lamp, some 500 watts of light, and visible for about 18 miles. The views of the coast and village are spectacular – on a clear day you can see for about 13 miles.

Other great lighthouses to visit are Southwold Trinity Lighthouse which can be explored and one in Hunstanton which is now a private holiday home and sits near to the ruins of St Edmunds Chapel on the cliffs.

(13) A steam launch ride through the Broads

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The lovely Museum of the Broads offers rides in their own steam launch down to Barton Broad, giving visitors a taste of Arthur Ransome style nostalgia. The only museum to be actually located on the waters of the Broads, the museum can be found at Stalham Staithe. Find out about the boats of the Broads and see how peoples working lives shaped the landscape with activites for all the family and a cafe to keep them well fed too. ‘Falcon’, their Victorian steam launch runs hourly from 1030 – 1430, conditions permitting and because she is an open boat, you will need to dress warmly in waterproof clothing. Booking ahead is advisable and to avoid disappointment, please telephone 01692 581681 to book seats. The photo is courtesy of the Museum.

(14) Or be ferried across a Suffolk river

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The Walberswick to Southwold Ferry is a much loved Suffolk institution, carrying locals and visitors across the mouth of the River Blyth for decades. The route is understandably a seasonal one and the timetable is available on the link- dogs go free of charge too and adults only pay a pound. The seaside here is backed by a thousand acres of heath and marshland and is protected as an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB). The seaside town of Southwold is a short stroll away with its quirky cinema, ice cream and cake hut by the dunes and a plethora of independent shops. Walberswick is famous for its crabbing and used to hold a well attended festival. Both will provide you and the kids with an unforgettable day out.

Suffolk & Norfolk by authors and artists

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The dramatic East Anglian scenery inspires.

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 his most accomplished gardens. A number of artists stayed there, including Francis Hodgkins, Barbara Hepworth and 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.

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Bottengoms Farm in ‘At the Yeomans House’ by Ronald Blythe

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’.

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Horning Ferry Mill

“‘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.

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Peter Duck

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.

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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.

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The mask of 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.

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Orlando on his boat, located in Aldeburgh (Owlbarrow)

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.

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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. .

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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.

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The untamed and shifting coast of Norfolk and Suffolk inspires stories of mystery and ghostliness

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.

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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.download (34)

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.”

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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.

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Creeks and marshes surround the landscape around Orford

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’.

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The late, great Roger Deakin

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’.

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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’sMill 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.

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Photo by Rex Sly of the Fens

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.

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Rendlesham Forest

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.”

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Maggie Hambling’s ‘Scallop’ sculpture on Aldeburgh Beach

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.

house-in-cloudsOpened 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.

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“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.

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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”. 

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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go Crabbing!

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Crabbing in Walberswick

Adaptable, succulent and THE taste of an East Anglian Summer, the crab is one of our great local delicacies and also provides children with hours of entertainment along the beaches and jetties of the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. Although the famous Walberwick Crabbing Festival had to be shelved because it grew too popular, it is still an easy and inexpensive way to get close to nature as long as you remember to put the crabs back.

The old Suffolk name for it is babbing, derived from the bab, a weight tied to the end of a line. As dialect expert Charlie Haylock writes in his book, Sloightly On The Huh, “He caught hell ‘n’ all th’uther day when he went a’babbin” and the whole practice has its roots in practicality and the provision of  free food for the family.

The edible crab, or brown crab, (latin name Cancer pagurus), is the most abundant and largest crab you’ll encounter along the Suffolk coastline and they are commonly founf near to our piers, jetties and wharves, hiding under rocky outcrops on beaches and clustered around harbour walls. Crabs need shelter in bad weather and somewhere to escape predators and our seaweed-strewn coastlines is home to plenty of crabs, hastily scurrying away when they are disturbed. The flinty, chalky seabeds of the Norfolk coastline makes for excellent ‘gillying’ (crabbing in the local dialect) because the softness of the seabed literally gives crabs something to get their claws into as they haul themselves along, fighting the strong currents of the North Sea. This Cretaceous chalk underlies the whole Norfolk coast and is permanently visible at West Runton at low tide and it forms the largest chalk reef in European waters, some 25 miles in length. This underwater seascape called the Cromer Shoal Chalk Reef has arches of chalk 3 metres high and gives life and shelter to an amazing array of marine life now has protection after being designated a Marine Conservation Zone. It is here that those famous Cromer Crabs are found.

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Ramsholt

The old jetties of Felixstowe Ferry and Walberswick and the quay next to the Ramsholt Arms Pub are some of the best crabbing spots in Suffolk and Cromer, Wells Next the Sea, Old Hunstanton, the east promenade in Sheringham, and Blakeney Quay are their equivalent in Norfolk. We have heard good reports about the Bridge off Stiffkey Marshes where the shallow brackish tidal water both attracts crabs and is easy to dangle your line into and crabbing under the road bridge at Oulton Broad on the eastward side is productive because it also has salt-water tidal surges. If you want to visit Walberswick to crab, then all you need do is drive along the road past the small triangular village green and the villages oldest pub, the Bell Inn, and you’ll soon arrive at the wooden bridges where generations of us have perched, lines baited with rancid bacon, and then hopped onto the ferry over the River Blyth to Southwold and its pier for more seaside fun.

The best time to crab is on an incoming tide because this is when they naturally come in to feed. At high tide the water can be fairly deep and wharves quite high up – using safety aids such as arm bands or a life jacket might reassure you a little when you see your young children sitting at the edge of a drop into deep water. I have (less than fond) memories of taking twelve adolescent boys from an approved school alongside twelve service users from a rehab facility to crab at Walberswick on the hottest day of the year- a busy afternoon spent constantly head-counting amid the nagging fear that we had lost several off the quay- in fact some of them seemed engaged in a permanent attempt to push each other off when they weren’t smacking their fellow crabbers over the head with stinking, out of date streaky bacon. The return journey home in a mini-bus full of hot, festering teenagers, the air redolent with the smell of crab, bacon, seawater and strawberry ice creams will never leave the memory.

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Crabs aren’t the only marine life you can catch in Norfolk and Suffolk .

Use a crabbing line sold from most seaside shops which is weighted and has the bait tied on at its end- if you are in Blakeney you can buy them at at Stratton Long Marine or at the Blakeney Spar. Don’t use hooks as these are seriously harmful to marine life including birds should you drop them into the sea by accident.You’ll see some crabbers using a fishing net to land their crabs but serious crabbers do frown on this as it gives an unfair advantage and doesn’t reward the dexterous and the patient. The crabs will cling onto the string and bait so be careful pulling the line out of the water when you retrieve them and get them into your bucket (which should be filled with seawater and be spacious- crabs don’t like to be too close to each other). Using smelly bacon rind, squid or sand eels, available from seaside shops and bait shops tends to work the best in our experience. Other devoted crabbers get fish heads from the local fishmongers or swear by frozen sand eels, described as caviar for crabs. When you have finished, carefully release the crabs back into the sea. Don’t keep them for too long and keep the bucket covered too and out of direct sunlight.

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Photo by Alex Mustard 2020 vision

Should you prefer to go rock-pooling instead, the two counties have a plethora of places to choose from and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust runs rock pool rummaging events on West Runton beach (5 miles wets of Cromer) throughout the summer. Shore crabs, beadlet anemones, starfish and squat lobsters are the most commonly encountered species although there are many more. The rock pools at West Runton are on top of an extensive flat platform of chalk which is slippery because of its seaweed covering- the non-agile of foot will usually find themselves slipping and ending up flat on their butt at some point so wear decent footwear. Children who take part in rock pooling can also get involved in fossil finding, and these sessions not only help children to understand the natural world around them, but also how their actions affect wildlife and habitats. The striated cliffs of Old Hunstanton where multiple layers of sandstone and carr-stone have formed a wonderful habitat studded with fossils and rock pools are another prime location for exploring the hidden world of rock pools. The pools  that form between the groynes on the beach by the Lifeboat House in Wells allows you to catch a good size crab or two, even at high tide, and solves the problem of toddlers teetering on the edge of a high jetty.

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We couldn’t end this feature without adding one of our favourite recipes featuring crab- Grilled Crabs from Cromer with Parmesan and Heat. Cromer crabs can be brought from fishmongers all over the region plus Bury St Edmunds market and Mummeries fish stall on Diss market too.

Grilled Cromer Crabs with Parmesan and Heat

  • shallot (finely chopped)
  • 1 clove garlic (crushed)
  • 1 tsp salted butter
  • browning
  • 50 ml sherry
  • 1 in shells
  • 1 Cromer crab
  • 1 handful chopped parsley (finely)
  • 1 handful breadcrumbs (fresh)
  • pinch of chile powder or cayenne
  • 1 handful parmesan cheese

1. Gently fry the shallot and garlic in butter until softened. Pour in the sherry and bring to a simmer.

2. Add the crab meat, reserving the shell. Stir in the chile/cayenne then warm through for 4-5 minutes then stir in the parsley.

3. Spoon the mixture back into the crab shell. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and grate over a little parmesan and add a grind of black pepper. Place a few dots of butter on top.

4. Put under a hot grill for 1-2 minutes to crisp the bread and melt the cheese. Serve with hot toast.


 

 

 

 

Ten Reasons to Visit the Caister Region of Norfolk

In association with Haven Caister

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

1. Best thing about the coast

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

2. Best beach

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

Winterton on Sea

3. Best child-friendly café

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

4. Best pub

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

The Gunton Arms
The Gunton Arms

5. Best child-free night out

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

6. Best outside space

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

Hippodrome7. Best hidden gem

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

8. Best free visitor attraction

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

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Bewilderwood

9. Best days out 

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

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

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Norwich Lanes

10. Best places to shop

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

 

 

The Second Air Division Memorial Library – a Norfolk Treasure

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During the Second World War the United States Eighth Air Force despatched 3,000 bombers and fighters on a day’s operations involving more than 20,000 airmen, flying from airfields in East Anglia; the largest air strike force ever committed to battle. At full strength the Second Air Division, one of the Eighth’s three divisions, controlled fourteen heavy bomber airfields in Norfolk and northeast Suffolk, and five fighter airfields. Ketteringham Hall served as the Division’s headquarters. Nearly 7,000 young Americans, in the Second Air Division lost their lives in the line of duty.

With the end of the war and the coming of peace, the Second Air Division honours its casualties through this unique library in Norwich, a ‘living memorial’, not only a tribute to those Americans ‘who flying from bases in these parts gave their lives defending freedom’, but also an educational and friendship bridge between two nations

 Located in the landmark Forum building in the centre of Norwich, we have a lending collection of over 4,000 books covering all aspects of American life and culture, and a specialist collection devoted to the history of the 2nd Air Division.

The Memorial Library remains an enduring and developing connection to the United States with a lending collection of over 4,000 books covering all aspects of American life and culture, and a specialist collection devoted to the history of the 2nd Air Division. 

In our Books and reading section we highlight some of the books we have in our collection, with suggestions and recommendations for reading from our UEA American Scholars. You can also find out about our “Reading Across the Pond” book group, and check out some of the titles they’ve been reading.

Anyone who has a Norfolk Library and Information Service membership card may borrow Memorial Library books. These can be requested and sent to any library in Norfolk. Search for Memorial Library books by accessing  our website

In addition to the book stock we have collections of material in other formats, including periodicals and newsletters, films, audio recordings, photographs, microforms, airfield maps, and a memorabilia collection.

We also hold the 2nd Air Division’s Roll of Honor, and a copy of this is available to browse online. 

The Memorial Library’s film collection is almost entirely about the 2nd Air Division or the Second World War. Our film catalogue lists the videos and DVDs held in the collection.

The films are not available for loan.

Patrons may watch films from the collection in Memorial Library Meeting Room during library opening hours (9am – 5pm, Mon- Sat). Because this room can be booked for meetings, school visits, and for the use of the flight simulator, it is recommended that patrons wishing to view films reserve the room in advance.

 

 

We meet Emma Healey – author of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’

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In her debut novel ‘Elizabeth is missing’, author Emma Healey subverts the commonly held tenet of writing – ‘Write about what you know’ because the central theme of her book, Dementia, is unknowable to all except the person living with it. The condition all too often renders a person unable to adequately express their lived experiences and the essential mystery that lies within the heart of every human becomes ever more so.

Beautiful, painful and rich, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ defies easy categorisation based as it is on Maud, an older woman with a fading memory who is convinced that her friend has gone missing and whose concerns are not taken seriously. Echoes of the long unsolved disappearance of Maud’s sister seventy years ago soon merge with the present as Maud refuses to be thwarted in her search for answers and we move back and forth in time alongside her.

At just twenty nine years of age, Emma’s ability to capture the essence of dementia is haunting and masterful, even more so for this reader, having had experience of working with people affected by the disease and its patterns of thought and behaviour; the restless searching, dislocution and their polar opposites- a determined fixation upon things or places or events that are all vividly captured along with the awful awareness that something is wrong but the person knows not what.

“I loved writing from the point of view of an older person” says Emma. “I have been writing since I was young but I never finished any of it and it felt boring – writing about my age and experiences. Writing about Maud was freeing because it isn’t about my life or my experiences but I am exploring and seeing her life from my point of view alongside the reader” The original idea of the book grew from a car journey on an ordinary sort of day when Emma ‘s own grandmother expressed a fear that her friend had gone missing. Emma’s gran has Multi Infarct Dementia and at that point was able to be mollified by the reassurances of her granddaughter and retain the information that her friend was only staying with her daughter- “I thought about this over the next year as Gran deteriorated- what would happen if and when a person couldn’t retain an explanation and I looked for ways to explain this condition; it was an excuse to explore it and then my other Grandmother died. She had been the family story teller and before she died I wrote down all the stories of her life. And they went into Maud’s story.”

Initially the idea of writing about something as intimate and painful as this might appear to be a form of catharsis but the end results proved to be more complex than that- “I thought it would be cathartic, there is a lot of Dementia in my family but I have found it quite frightening;  ‘It will be my fate’ and it can be quite terrifying. The misconceptions about the illness upset me more than anything, the idea that you can be less than pleasant to somebody with Dementia ‘because they won’t remember’ whereas in fact the feelings evoked are residual. They know something is wrong, that something bad has happened and they don’t always forget that”

For Emma, part of the process of trying to understand her Grandmothers condition involved learning about it, reading textbooks, dry journals, going to visit her gran and the relative of another friend  in hospital and it was then that the dearth of variety in writing about it became obvious- “A lot of the textbooks were quite boring and didn’t really give any feeling for what it might be like to live with the condition. What it is like for family and for everyone around and this is where fiction is important. Giving the feeling that people with dementia, the elderly, are part of the community and books can reflect that”

The otherness of getting old, of confronting the changes and failings of the body, of having dementia is beautifully depicted. We see a variety of reactions to Maud from the cruel, dismissive mickey taking of the police officer who deals with Maud every time she comes to the station to try to report the disappearance of her friend (and forgets she has been there already) to the kindness of the receptionist at the local paper who tries to help Maud fill out a missing person notice, mistakenly believes a cat is missing, releases she has misunderstood and shows humanity in her attempts to normalise Maud’s forgetfulness and her own attempts to decipher what Maud wants. The scene is amusing at times through Mauds own bewilderment at the receptionists apparent confusion -“She asks if Elizabeth has a collar and it seems like an odd question” but they get there in the end.  The over riding impression is that we all need to be more patient, to be familiar with the small acts of kindness that help make the world less confusing and stressful for many of us, let alone a person with cognitive problems. “People blame the person for not being able to remember” Emma says ” although there is humour in life and I wanted to reflect that people with Dementia use that humour too. It mustn’t be left out but I didn’t want the humour to be related to Maud’s distress, about that distress. I didn’t want people laughing at her and i didn’t want it to be cruel.”

Much is left for the reader to surmise, often in retrospect too. Maud forgot that she had made multiple trips to the police station in her attempts to discover Elizabeth’s whereabouts, making this far more effective a surprise to us because the reader isn’t aware of these visits as they happen. We think ‘oh’ when the officer cruelly points out the truth and we see where his frustration comes from and then recoil from his scathing humour. It is NOT funny. We never lose our place on Maud’s side but we can also empathise with Maud’s daughter, Helen as she tries so hard to retain her patience as she retrieves her mother from yet another wandering off or muddled and failed mission to find Elizabeth. Rich with the imagery of ageing- events and things obscured, buried and obfuscated, becoming faded and dulled but then what was lost returning slowly to the surface.

From the discovery of her sisters buried compact to the memories in her own mind, Maud nonetheless lives a rich sensory life with senses still sharp and the ability to feel emotions connected to smell, feel and sounds. From the vividly tactile description of Maud trailing her fingers along a moss covered wall. peeling away clots of moss to the collections of objects Maud accumulates- seeds, discarded fingernail clippings, stones and feathers and the way the smell of nylon evokes memories of her younger days, we are given a real insight into the world of Maud and a great way in; a way of relating.

Responding to the underlying feelings as opposed to what is being said or done can help relatives and carers to cope with some of the more challenging aspects of the persons behaviour. Maud gets ‘grumpy’ as Emma describes it but we never lose sympathy for her. We see what has gone into building Maud throughout her life and as Maud loses the ability to explain herself and as her personality starts to shatter, we see Maud distilled through her senses. “I am a sensory person, I have always kept a diary of the senses, I suppose you could call it, rather than a day to day diary of what has happened in my life” said Emma. “You can add more meaning to a scene if you add sensory detail, the motives and character can be explained in this way. It is so easy to be pulled out of a book as a reader when much is going on around us. Adding this detail, these little descriptions helps to pull people back in again” Maud is anchored in the natural world and we are anchored too, especially when the reader feels distress and adrift in empathy with Maud. Emma herself is a bit of a gatherer too, describing her collection of ‘bits and bobs’ from her grandmothers’- seeds that are too old to germinate but she is loathe to throw away, bits of costume jewellery, pebbles from beaches and little photos slotted away of nothing in particular.

Realising how Emma shares some of these traits and her previous studies in book art (Emma read for a degree in book arts) we wondered how hard it was for her to hand over creative control to her publishers with regards to the books design and the editing process overall- ” I didn’t have a lot of input with the cover and design. Because of my book binding studies, I knew that a book has to be filled with good content and it is not enough to just produce something that looks beautiful. I couldn’t just adopt a ‘let’s get the plot done’ attitude, it had to be vivid and rich and I had that to get on with”

Publishers were justified in their attempts to win Emma’s heart (and signature on a book contract). From the would be publisher who filled a room with Forget- me -Nots, played Maud’s music and posted ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ posters all over their building to the eventual victor, Penguin who gave her hand-written notes from staff members who had read and loved her book, a fierce bidding war led to a good contract and a very bemused and modestly appreciative Emma who hadn’t quite factored in this level of interest.

What made her choose Penguin? “Karolina Sutton (my editor) had a vision of the book that lay closest to mine. I needed someone who would be strict with me especially during the final draft when I couldn’t see the book anymore. Karolina’s feelings about the book mirror my own” The television rights have already been sold and we predict no end of interest should it get made- Maud is a dream of a role for any actor and the other characters are as finely drawn as she is. As women and men choose to have their own families later in life, we will see more and more parents having to simultaneously cope with children still at home and the needs of ageing and maybe infirm parents. A book and programme that reflects this is of immense value.

What would be Emma’s dream cast and how does she think she will react to a dramatisation of her book? “That is SO difficult to answer when you have lived with the characters for so long. It is hard to imagine your characters embodied in another persons ideas about how they might look or be and even harder to imagine Maud on screen. So much of her is within her own head, showing her from the inside, whereas television is much more about the external, not the inner life and it shows that from the outside in”

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Emma Healey -Photo by Tristan Conor Holden

Emma will be appearing at Jarrold’s book department in Norwich on Tuesday, June 17 at 6pm. Tickets are £3, including a glass of wine, with £3 redeemable off purchases of her book and at the Festival read at Literary Ipswich on Monday 30th June between 7-9 pm at Waterstones in Ipswich. Lesley Dolphin, the BBC Radio Suffolk presenter will be joining in the discussion and featuring ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ in her afternoon book club, BBC Radio Suffolk, 30 June  Thank you so much to Emma Healey for this interview and to Lija Kresowaty at Penguin for arranging it.  Find Emma’s Website here

#NSFTCrisis- The start of the campaign for a Healthy Mental Health Service in Norfolk and Suffolk

This is the open letter to the Trust board of the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust that kicked off the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in our two counties.

This open letter is being presented to the directors of Norfolk & Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) by members of the campaign at the NSFT Board Meeting in Bury St Edmunds today.  We are doing what we agreed at our first meeting and challenging the Board to change or be removed. The Board has lost the confidence of service users, staff and the public.  Our opinion poll shows that 96% visitors to the campaign website believe that the NSFT Board is incompetent.

Print this letter, give it to friends and colleagues, put it up on noticeboards, in cafés and on the back of the bathroom doors.  Forward a link to this page to everyone who will be concerned about the crisis at Norfolk & Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT).  Contribute in our forums and help us expose the crisis in mental health services in Norfolk and Suffolk.

OPEN LETTER TO NSFT BOARD OF DIRECTORS

There is a serious crisis in the delivery of mental health services in Norfolk and Suffolk. Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) has challenged the use of the word ‘crisis’ but in so doing has shown how far out of touch it is with the views of its own service-users, carers and front-line staff. The recent extensive media coverage, both local and national, dating back to at least last August, also gives the lie to the Trust’s official statements. The warnings from the emergency services and professional bodies such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists should be heeded. Over 300 people attended our launch meeting on 25th November (many more could not get in) and a resolution of no confidence in the management of the Trust was passed unanimously. Given this, the NSFT Board of Directors should either take urgent action to rectify a situation which is in danger of spiraling downwards, or resign.

In order to restore some degree of confidence, the Trust needs to act quickly in six key areas:

  1. Call a halt to the policy of bed closures and reopen wards wherever possible, until community services can actually show in practice that a number of inpatient beds are not needed.
  2. Withdraw the proposal to reduce the number of qualified Band 6 staff in the Crisis Resolution and Home Treatment (CRHT) teams. Continue with the proposed policy of boosting the home treatment capacity by employing more support workers.  Give priority to providing a sufficient level of medical input to CRHTs so that access to a psychiatrist is readily available in a crisis.
  3. Restore link workers and carry out an urgent review of the role of Access and Assessment teams, especially in relation to CRHTs.
  4. Restore Early Intervention In Psychosis (EI) teams in Suffolk, in line with the Department of Health and Schizophrenia Commission recommendations.
  5. Establish a caseload management system so that care coordinators and lead professionals in community teams do not carry individual responsibility for excessive workloads.
  6. Carry out an urgent review of the prevention of suicide strategy, which should include a major rethink around the abolition of specialist assertive outreach and homeless persons’ teams.

The Trust board members need to ask themselves why there is such a gulf between their perception of the state of affairs and that of front-line staff and service users. Denying that a problem exists will not bring about a solution. The Trust, the CCGs, Health Minister Norman Lamb, have all been in denial for some time. It’s no longer good enough to blame one another. We need decisive action from all. If you cannot provide it, you should go!

On behalf of the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk on 19/12/2013

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Browns Cafe – Restaurant in Mundford- Review

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An absolutely fabulous cafe-restaurant discovered quite by chance en route to North Norfolk and completely family friendly.

The proprietor has made the decision to maintain an airy, spacious interior with plenty of space to move around in and decent sized family tables placed in a sunny room. There are squishy leather Chesterfield sofas underneath the front windows with well stocked bookshelves nearby and free Wifi. Conveniently, the WiFi code has been displayed on a chalkboard saving customers the bother of having to ask for it. 

We sat outside on wooden benches it being a sunny warm day but there is also a large covered outside area too. The parking area surrounds the restaurant but is sufficiently separate so children (under supervision of course) will not be near reversing vehicles. 

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The test of a home cooked menu is its length- the longer the menu, the less likely it is to be freshly prepared. Browns clearly home cooks fresh food to order with its well chosen A4 side of options. Breakfast includes a full English with eggs from local producers John Allen (two days old!) and bacon and sausage from Scotts Field rare breed large black pigs. We ordered scrambled eggs on toast(photographed below) and a bacon roll with the aforementioned bacon (which was eaten too fast to be photographed!). 

They were superb- bacon that actually tasted of pig, with perfectly rendered crispy fat in a fresh and home baked bread roll- three large rashers too. The eggs were creamy, just set on excellent quality hand sliced bread. Prices are very good for such high quality food – just £3-95 for the roll. 

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Service was swift, friendly and discreet. Bathrooms are very clean, spacious and there are baby changing and disabled facilities easily found too. 

We will be back to try out the Mature Norfolk cheddar, broccoli and red onion tart with caramelized onion chutney and beetroot salad and the glazed Norfolk blueberry and almond tart with homemade (HOMEMADE!) vanilla ice cream. Or the fresh whitebait from Kings Lynn spiced Spanish style with home made bread and the Fresh fish cooked in Peroni beer batter and thrice cooked chips from Adrian Garrett potatoes.

The proprietor Mark Clayton deserves thunderous praise for his lovely restaurant and amazing food. Check out their coming website- browns-kitchen.com and follow them on twitter @brownskitchen.

Browns restaurant did not solicit this review and we paid for our own food.

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