48 hours in Harwich and Wrabness

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

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

W03563

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

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

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

Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?

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


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

t Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. beach hut and low lighthouse
View towards Harwich’s lighthouse by Chris Allen // CC 2.0

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

Harwich_Harbour_1804.png
An 1804 seafarers chart of Harwich by Graeme Spence

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

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

549234_13446606
Anchor in front of the Maritime Museum

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

Copyright nick macneill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licenc
Image of Half’penny pier by Nick MacNeill via CC 2-0

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

17315033826_35c521f3b2_o.jpg
Ariel shot of Redoubt Fort by John Fielding //Flickr CC 2.0

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

6016899521_a0a7edd35c_b
The Harwich floods of 1953/ imaga via Ruth Wright on Flickr/ CC 2.0

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

sliderloader_004
The Electric Palace Cinema: photo with kind permission of the cinema

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

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

Alma-Inn-pub-sign-385x375
Photo: courtesy of The Alma Inn

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

12918401_1610471775938166_1446028003_n

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

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

12530962_1750508368501581_1557514990_n

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

12531067_175106316216304_143783999_n

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

13043562_247542972264227_8199179930756034539_n

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

13051545_247543105597547_33800672067049434_n

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

13055542_1745920918978878_7449774545274229292_n

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

13043807_247543075597550_2086290167990397240_n

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

wrabness 2

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

Across_Wrabness_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1364429.jpg
The Stour estuary from Wrabness, the Royal Hospital School in the distance

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

2935070_09b9cb3f
Wrabness foreshore by Roger Jones// CC2.0

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

12985340_1745906908980279_3847879303381197032_n

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

3436920_ec0d5531.jpg
Stour Wood at Wrabness by Peter Pearson// cc 2.0

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

 

 

 

Exploring East Anglia by Train

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

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

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

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

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

11234868_1646363718934599_7937436071443522823_n
The eel sculpture in Ely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

220px-Ely_Cathedral_lantern

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

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

10153101_1646363778934593_8937728222450722599_n
The walls next to Ely cathedral are a beautiful mosaic of colour and texture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stowmarket's Gipping Valley
Stowmarket’s Gipping Valley

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

Ipsiwch marina and harbourfront
Ipsiwch marina and harbourfront

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

                     ****************************************************************************************

 The Mayflower Line– Manningtree-Mistley-Wrabness-Harwich

Ha'Penny Pier in Harwich by Robert Edwards/CC
Ha’Penny Pier in Harwich by Robert Edwards/CC
The owner of the gift shop in Clare, The  (@bluedog on twitter) recommends travelling between Manningtree to Harwich via train, describing it as “a great one for a scenic ride.” Known as the Mayflower Line after the famous boat carrying the settlers to the colonies in New England which itself set off from Harwich, this route offers the chance to travel to Harwich in Essex then get the foot-ferry to Felixstowe and Shotley Gate; a crossing of about a mile as the seagull flies which links the three peninsulas together. The only way a traveller can get to visit all three towns in one day is in this manner, if you are hiking or cycling, and fares are dependant upon the length of journey- whether you choose a full crossing or stop off at the midpoint, Ha’Penny Pier in Harwich.
The ferry runs between May to September with 6 daily departures; other times vary. Three stations serve Harwich:  the main Harwich Town which is on the edge of the old town; Dovercourt, which is more central for the new town’s main built up area, whilst Harwich International serves the port for ferry and cruise-line passengers. The end point of the trip, Manningtree station, has the reputation as being one of the windiest railway stations in the whole of Britain.
River Stour at Mistley Quay One branch of the River Stour sweeps past the quayside at Mistley, where swans are gathering for feeding. By Bob Jones/CC license
River Stour at Mistley Quay
One branch of the River Stour sweeps past the quayside at Mistley, where swans are gathering for feeding. By Bob Jones/CC license
 Running along the south-bank of the River Stour, the Mayflower Line runs almost parallel to the river and stays close by as you approach Harwich. Parts of the route are thickly planted with naturalised primroses, giving it another name locally- The Primrose Line. Many of the stopping off points are very pretty including Mistley, a small river-front town with a large colony of swans and other water fowl on the south-banks and a long, wide river-path popular with walkers and runners. Mistley is home to one of only two churches designed by Robert Adam and has two symmetrical towers, all that remains of the original building. With their Portland stone and Tuscan style porticos, they’re worth a visit despite their ruined state.
CT4FzWiXAAApp5D
Mistley river banks, in autumn
For children, Mistley Place Park offers the chance to get close and personal with over 200 rescue animals including goats, sheep, ducks, guinea pigs, dogs, chickens, cats, horses, rabbits, alpacas and the occasional peacock. There’s a tea-room serving roast dinners and fish and chip Fridays. The Mistley Anchor offers refurbished and traditional pub accommodation plus the usual pub facilities. You cannot access the nearby estuarial coastline from Mistley town because of the commercial port, walkers will need to stroll a mile down a road to reach it but the rewards are great; desolate wide skies, a multitude of birds ( Brent Geese, Shelduck and Avocets), the skeletons of wrecked boats partially interred in the mud and a shoreline that gradually becomes sandy as you approach Wrabness.
Strandlands Bridge carries the Manningtree to Harwich railway line across a track that runs through the Stour Woods by Geoff Shephard/CC
Strandlands Bridge carries the Manningtree to Harwich railway line across a track that runs through the Stour Woods by Geoff Shephard/CC
 Conveniently, Wrabness is a stop on the rail route too and should you prefer to stop off here instead, there is a community cafe in the heart of the village serving food, drink and alcoholic drinks and a nearby beach front lined with plotholder-type wooden houses on stilts, some of them refurbished beyond newness and some as derelict and skeletal as those submerged boats. Bands of gravel, sand and seaweed edge the shore, gradually decreasing in randomness as the coastline becomes 60 acres of managed wildlife reserve with requests to keep off parts of it (mudflats mostly) and continues on past Harwich to the Naze at Walton.
Oaks along the Wrabness nature rserve path by Roger Jones/CC
Oaks along the Wrabness nature rserve path by Roger Jones/CC
 Manningtree itself is a small port on the Stour Estuary barely inside the Suffolk border: a cluster of Georgian buildings make up what it Englands smallest town less than a mile from the station. The Crown Inn is a characterful small hotel and formerly a coaching inn on the route between Colchester and Harwich. The beer gardens overlook the river and if you want to take your drink down to the tiny town beach, they’ll decant it into a plastic glass for you.
River Stour at Manningtree and the Dedham Vale/Wikipedia
River Stour at Manningtree and the Dedham Vale/Wikipedia
 The walking here is evocative and as familiar as your own mother as it takes you through the beautiful countryside of Dedham Vale which inspired many of John Constable’s iconic paintings including the Hay Wain or Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill. The National Trust run Flatford Bridge Cottage less than two miles away in the quiet hamlet of Flatford by the River Stour. Bridge Cottage contains an exhibition about Constable and his work and also has tearooms for the hungry. An area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), the lowland landscape is criss-crossed with many trails and bridle-paths across the floodplains, arable, grass and wood lands with views of the Stour Valley as the river slackens and broadens approaching the North Sea.
Stour estuary at Manningtree by Colin Babb/CC
Stour estuary at Manningtree by Colin Babb/CC

******************************************************************************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mid Suffolk Light Railway-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aylsham water pump
Aylsham water pump

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

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

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

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