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.
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.
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.
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.
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
1 shallot (finely chopped)
1 clove garlic (crushed)
1 tsp salted butter
50 ml sherry
1 in shells
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.
Often neglected in favour of its Suffolk cousins with better PR, Aldeburgh and Southwold, we think Felixstowe is a great place to spend time in, full of interesting family attractions and things to do. Good transport links with its location at the end of the A14, just past Ipswich makes it easy to get to and the safe, clean beaches, both in the town centre and at Old Felixstowe means that there is still fun to be had even if your budget is limited. Bring your bathing suit in the summer or wrap up warm for a colder weather bracing walk along the seafront with its broad buggy friendly promenade and warm your hands up with a tray of hot freshly fried fish and chips. Here’s our round up of the best things to do, some suggested by our followers on Twitter and others chosen by us. Do let us know if we have left your favourites out.
(1) Watching the Ships
The Port of Felixstowe Suffolk enjoys a unique position, perched on a peninsula between the rivers Orwell and Deben and is the United Kingdom’s busiest container port, dealing with over 40% of Britain’s containerised trade. The Port’s newer Trinity Terminal has 26 quayside cranes and spans over 2 km. along one of Europe’s longest continuous quays and is able to accommodate the latest generation of large container ships. The Port’s Landguard Terminal came into operation in July 1967 as the first deep-water facility for container ships serving the UK.
But enough of the stats- to a child (and many adults) this means really big ships, lots of clanking noises, wheeling seagulls and an amazing and dramatic floodlit night time light spectacle. The John Bradfield Viewing Area adjoining Landguard Terminal was provided by the Port in 1992 and has become one of the most popular places for local people and visitors alike along the Suffolk Coast. Whether you sit and eat in the View Point Cafe (inside the viewing area) which serves all day breakfasts, fresh fish and chips, cakes, ice creams, and a full selection of teas and coffees or outside, the fantastic close up views of one of the world’s busiest ports are a shipspotter’s heaven. From the John Bradfield Viewing Area you can enjoy mesmerising views across the estuary to the Shotley Peninsula and the towns of Harwich and Dovercourt (both in Essex). If the weather is really clear you can even see the off-shore wind turbines beyond The Naze in Walton. Back inside the viewing area, you will find interactive displays, lots of information, videos and exhibits. Decent bathrooms and babychange facilities are provided too.
That’s not all though! Languard Point forms one of Suffolk’s many unique habitats- the vegetated shingle habitat of the Landguard Nature Reserve, with its rare plants, migrating birds and military history. Go bird-watching, take a cycle ride or stroll along the beach and run along the boardwalk which is also suitable for wheelchair users and buggies.This offers easier access to the seashore and wildlife, as well as views of the ships at the nearby Port of Felixstowe. Overlooking the Nature Reserve is the Landguard Bird Observatory which rings and records migratory birds as they pass by on their way in and out of Britain. It also identifies and records moths. Many migrating birds are attracted to the area by the lights of the nearby Port of Felixstowe, so bring your binoculars and camera and check out the board outside the observatory for the latest sightings. Don’t forget to record any sightings of your own.
Afterwards, explore the rich military and maritime heritage of Landguard Fort, one of England’s best-preserved coastal defences, with a history spanning almost 450 years. At the neighbouring Felixstowe Museum, the fascinating artefacts and collections which bring alive the military and social history of this seaside town are displayed.
The Fludyers Hotel provides a cosy bar or an outdoor terrace from which to observe the comings and goings too. They serve Adnams and we can think of no better way to spend an afternoon dreaming of travel on the high seas, far removed from the unromantic forms of modern travel- Ryanair cattle trucks and atmosphere deficient modern cruise liners.
(2) From big ships to little boats
Want to go back in time to an Enid Byton-esque childhood of fishing boats, clanking moorings and puddles of rusting chains; the smell of fresh fish and cries of sea birds and sandy kneed children huddled around rock pools on deserted beaches? Or do you yearn for Arthur Ransome style meanderings in a small boat, puttering from jetty to jetty, commandered by men and women who make their livelihood from the grey North Sea waters? Felixstowe can provide all this and more and this is why we love it so.
To the north of the town is the tiny fishing village of Felixstowe Ferry with its few houses, fishing huts built out of salt scoured pitch black boards and ramshackle leaning holiday homes on stilts. The Ferry Inn, a church and the Ferry cafe,cluster together on the land which finally runs out at the jetty. Want to eat before you go to Bawdsey? Winkles at the Ferry is a gorgeously atmospheric eating place overlooking the River Deben offering an outdoor raised terrace directly over the waters as well as indoor seating too. Serving freshly cooked food all day, the ingredients are all sourced locally, then go for a stroll along the pebbled river banks. Have a walk along the sea front, lunch at the cafe or pub and marvel at the Martello Towers that line the sea front and guarded us against sea invasions. A tiny ferry boat will then take you to Bawdsey Island, the secret WWII facility and home to the inventor of the radar. Whilst you await the boat, while away the time crabbing off the jetty. All you need is a crabbing line (crabbing kits are sold in many of the local seafront stores), some pieces of bacon (as smelly as possible) and a bucket of salt water to keep the crabs in safely until it is time to return them to the sea. Walberswick is the place many visitors to Suffolk mention when talking about crabbing but Felixstowe is just as good- the crabs like bacon here too!
The ferry operates between Easter and October, running on demand and according to the weather. Call 01394 282173 or 07709 411511 for more information. Bawdsey Island Quay has a good stretch of sandy beach for children to play on, and a lovely Boathouse Cafe to enjoy freshly caught local fish in and you can visit the place where the ground breaking work in radar technology took place. RAF Bawdsey, operational in 1937, was the first of a chain of radar stations to be built around the coast of Britain. During the Battle of Britain with 2,600 Luftwaffe planes to the RAF’s 640, it was the use of radar for detecting aircraft en route to the UK so they could be intercepted that saved the day.
It is also possible to pay a visit to Essex via the Harwich Harbour Foot Ferry– the only foot ferry linking Harwich, Felixstowe and Shotley. This jolly little yellow boat runs from the Ha’penny Pier in Harwich to the John Bradfield Viewing Area at Felixstowe . It also offers trips along the River Stour which forms part of the geographical border between Essex and Suffolk and the river Orwell (from which the author Eric Blair took his pen name – George Orwell) offering stunning scenes of pastures, river banks, estuaries and woodlands- the likes of which have inspired artists and authors for centuries. Booking is not essential, but is advisable during busy periods. Call 07919 911440.
(3) Rainy day fun at Felixstowe Leisure Centre
We are in Britain and we need to be realistic that even at the height of Summer, there are going to be days when the sun doesn’t shine, leaving us with a restless armload of kids requiring entertainment. And not of the Minecraft kind either. When we asked folks on Twitter for their suggestions about what’s best in Felixstowe, the leisure centre (and specifically the pool) was mentioned over and over. From bowling, soft play and all manner of classes and special events to the fantastic swimming, this is THE place for indoor and healthy fun that admission fees aside, won’t cause more money to haemorrhage from your wallet. Right on the seafront, it is easy to find and conveniently located for those post swim hunger pangs that tend to require immediate attention unless you’ve bought a packed lunch or can swiftly get them home before they notice the doughnuts, candy floss, burgers and chips sold across the promenade at the pier.
(4) The Pier at Felixstowe
Completed in 1905, this was once one of the longest piers in the country with its own train running to the end but the vast majority of it was demolished after the second world war There are plans to re-develop it in 2015 yet part of its charm is that quintessential Englishness; slightly ramshackle, gaudy, all fur coat and no knickers. We have youthful memories of chasing boys, coyly hiding as we watched our chosen ones look our way then swagger off with their mates. Listening to ABBA, Baccara and Donna Summer fade in and out as the rides swirled round, staggering off them and trying to remain cool and upright- none of this has changed apart from the music which is now Robin Thicke, JayZ and Rihanna. But there are still billowing and giggling crowds of teenagers roaming back and forth, enjoying the slightly dangerous, reckless air of the fairground and often being far from home too.
The fast rides on the pier are gone now but the fast food and candy kiosks at the entrance are still lit up with illuminations that drawn you in and spit you out into a vivid world of primary coloured pinging brash arcade games, children’s rides and yet more food kiosks. Kids dart everywhere followed by parents trying to keep an eye on them, clutching bulging bags of neon bright candy floss. The relative calm of the fishing platforms and boardwalks at the end of the pier give fabulous views of the container ships and ferries en route to and from the port, calming the most raucous of kids. In Winter, the sunsets are beautiful offering us the best views of those famous, endless Suffolk skies.
(5) Hire out a beach hut
We were fortunate enough to have friends who had permanent use of one of these huts but it is possible to hire one by the day. A number of privately owned beach huts plus two Council owned huts are available for hire throughout the season (from Easter until the end of September) at various different locations. A list of these huts and booking forms are available from the Felixstowe Tourist Information Centre on 01394 276770 or by emailing email@example.com
During the winter months one of the Council owned beach huts is available for daily hire whilst in its winter location on the promenade at a charge of £20.00 per day. This can be booked by calling 01394 276770 or firstname.lastname@example.org
(6) The garden resort of East Anglia and walking the promenade
Walk south along the pram friendly wide, tarmac of the promenade, interspersed with benches for breastfeeding or other pit stops and notice how the maritime climate encourages the growth of palm trees and healthy, floriferous borders. These are beautifully maintained by the local councils horticultural teams alongside volunteers. The promenade is wide and flat enough for children to scoot along and get a little ahead of their parents whilst remaining within sight. The area between Manor End and Cobbold’s Point is Felixstowe’s main seafront and can be walked along a two mile long promenade. This will take you past a number of the towns most famous landmarks including Manning’s Amusements, originally opened in 1933 by Sir Billy Butlin, and run by the Manning family since 1946.
The Seafront Gardens sit on cliffs between the town centre and beach, rising up and following the curve of the road which takes you to the shops. These beautiful landscaped and sumptuously planted gardens were created a hundred years ago in the best Edwardian tradition and stretch for more than a mile alongside the promenade. Take time to wander through them and uncover the many historical features, structures and colourful and unusual planting that make this such a beautiful place to visit.
(7) Trimley Marshes Nature Reserve
Slightly out of town but well worth a visit, these wetland marshes have been created almost entirely from arable land situated within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are wonderful views of the Orwell estuary from here and a vast array of bird species and other creatures to look out for. The car park is nearly a mile away from the first bird hide though so younger children probably won’t manage to walk all the way and a sling or baby carrier might be advisable. There are picnic facilities and disabled access is provided too.
(8) The Palace Cinema
Newly restored and refurbished, this classic old school and independent cinema offers two air conditioned screens with luxurious seating with food served to you as you watch the film.Taking children here to get a taste of how cinema could be is top of our list.
(9) Pick your own fruit
Situated just off the A14 at Trimley St Martin (near the Trimley Marshes Nature Reserve), Goslings Farm Shop offers another classic British Summer and Autumn experience- picking your own fruit. Open daily, hungry children can eat in the on site Strawberry Cafe and then wander around the plant centre and nursery afterwards. In our experience, children absolutely love pick your own fruit, enjoy learning about how it is grown and on a sunny day, it is hard to beat for sheer fun.
(10) Eat out and shop
Recommended by a Mumsnetter, The Alex has an unrivalled location, sited right across from the seafront promenade. From the ground floor cafe bar serving breakfasts and drinks to the first floor brasserie (with lift access), serving seafood, grill and classic brasserie style food plus a set menu, people seeking good food in sophisticated yet relaxing surroundings will be made most welcome. Want somewhere that’ll occupy the kids while you relax with cake and a drink? Crafty Coffee is a bright, fresh arts and crafts cafe by the sea, offering space to unwind whilst the children get busy. Kids and adults can take part in ceramics painting, decoupage and knitting workshops whilst eating cakes too, all baked on the premises. Chilli & Chives is a little tearoom which also has branches in Lavenham and Hintlesham serving cakes, teas and light meals and overlooks the seafront gardens. Mooching west along Undercliff Road in search of more ice cream we came across The Little Ice Cream Company which serves fresh artisanal ice cream made from milk produced by the cows of Adams Farm. Soups, sandwiches and other light snacks are served too although to be honest, a steep walk up the cliff road should be rewarded by ice cream and nothing else in our opinion. Want a trad fish and chips eating experience? The Fish Dish restaurant is a huge place over two floors serving boat fresh fish, masses of mushy peas and platters full of properly thick seaside chips. Black leather banquettes, tiles, Spanish style white painted arches, waitress service and stripped wood staircases and floors make this place hard to define.
Seasides mean seaside rock and The Sweet Hut sells plenty of this in case you hit the town and missed the myriad sweet and candy huts lining the area near the amusements. Also located in the heart of the town centre is the Felixstowe Triangle Canopy, a public space with a varied events programme throughout the year from acoustic music to living statues, table top sales and more. On Sundays you’ll find the very popular market held in the grounds of Mannings Amusements. From classic bric a brac and pound an item to lovely plants, food stalls and more, there’s a lot to look at and see. We’re huge fans of the classic design of the amusement building with its twin towers, fountain, arcade and kiosks all in a sea salt faded pink. Had this building been located in Miami, it’d have a national preservation order placed upon it by now.