A Day Out With Elspeth On A Bus Named Lady Fermoy

I reprised my trip aboard Norfolk Green and Coasthopper buses, and this time was on one named after Ruth COMMA Lady Fermoy, friend of Queen mum who made her grandchild Princess Diana cry.

I did the bit I couldn’t do with Pocahontas and kept to the north west corner of Norfolk. Shame as she lived in this corner, around Heacham, which I went through, but alas, no sign of the lavender fields I chose a more laborious bus to view, and only the gates of Sandringham and a mere sign to Snettisham park. (If you want these, catch a bus 11 and not a Coasthopper).

Rural buses are funny: a day trip in itself. People don’t sit with their companions; they shout and reach across with sweets and other goodies. Strangers can talk at you, not interested in engaging. An older man with crutches took the seat of another older lady and showed no gratitude that he was let on the bus first: it may be expected, but his lack of manners galled me. Another wheelchair user parked his chair and sat elsewhere; the driver moaned it would fall when the she drove off and made a young woman stand so it could be put away, empty. Thus the wheelchair user took up two spaces whilst depriving someone else of their seat. Neither of those are my definition of being disability positive. And at the speed those buses fly round wyndy country roads, it’s not safe or pleasant to stand and I passionately believe you pay for a seat.

I was equally cross that Norfolk Green do not use big enough buses for times when they know it’ll be busy – early buses on a summer Saturday ought to be full bus sized (not mini coach) and better still, double deckers. As many users are disabled or older people, the need to sit is all the more important. There’s also the fear of not being able to get on – or being so crowded and uncomfy standing that you have to get off, which happened last time. Only by receiving a comp to compensate did I consider using Coasthoppers again.

The bus ride was mostly enjoyable for eavesdropping on other passengers and pleasant rural and sea views. Good, because to reach my main destination, I had to spend most of the day on the bus and had too little time to do what else I’d have chosen. For instance, I drove through the harbour of Wells next the sea, but couldn’t check out whether its shops have gone the way of Cley and Burnham because I’d never have got to Hunstanton and back before the buses stop and I’d get stranded.

I’d like to mention Walsingham, who seems to have accrued more shops since I last saw it, and I still rate it as my favourite Norfolk village, for reasons I share in the Bus Named Pocahontas and my Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village posts. I also thought East Rudham between Fakenham and King’s Lynn had potential as a specially pretty for Norfolk village, if it only had as many shops as you know where.

North Norfolk2 I went to Burnham Market, which I argued against being the prettiest, because I just had to check and to make sure those shops are as awful as I thought and that its people are as I judge them to be. I didn’t need long in Burnham. It is pretty, and I do secretly like the shops – but its Chelsea on Sea moniker feels less and less apt – is it because London on Sea’s taken? And it’s hardly the King’s Road or especially SW3’s resident’s day out. I tested friendliness of its shops: I found them to be average. One replied graciously to my toy sheep mascot comment. As for capital snootiness: I heard one posh voice talking about champagne for her film crew into her phone, but I heard some Norfolk too, and no City money making boasters, as I had been led to expect.

Some Coasthopper bus timetables miss off several places they do in fact call at. Burnham Deepdale is such a place – with shop chains that have no business in such a setting, and a backpackers’ hostel but barely a village.

Hunstanton was my main destiny. On suddenly realising where I was, I rang the bell, got off, and found myself standing in the old town, beyond my map, with nothing about me to tell me where I was. (There’s no announcement or display telling you where you are on rural buses).

North Norfolk3

I used my nouse to walk beside the golfcourse carpark towards the beach. There is only one chance to descend onto it and to those famous striped cliffs before they run out about a mile later. I was stuck on the barbed wire top of cliff walk, hearing the sea and people enjoying it, but not being able to glimpse the cliffs. Instead, I read Samaritan signs every few yards which made me sad but also strangely generated ideas that I had no thought of. The wire also meant a kite or lost scarf can’t be retrieved and is very nanny state – and doesn’t deal with the reasons someone might wish to jump.

Warning – the tide comes up far and there’s no prom underneath, just sheer cliffs and rocks. Could I have got stranded on the beach?

Hunstanton’s an odd resort, unlike any other – developed wholesale but without the seaside architecture one would expect – there’s no pier, or old theatre/cinema. It’s more villagey but with soulless modern flats and big developments like the Oasis leisure centre on the seafront, and a tiny bus station. It’s the honeyish carr stone of the area that is most distinct and that makes this corner of Norfolk feel part of the Wash and Fenlands, apart from the rest of the region and even its own county.

The chief final place to comment on is Castle Rising, for Fakenham has little – big church tower, local cinema chain in the old corn exchange, but the town seems evacuated as the shops shut around 530. Happily I needed little time there (unlike my first trip to Walsingham) as the bus changes were tight but I’m told that Norfolk Green (now disappointingly part of the Stagecoach empire) will wait for its own buses. North Norfolk1 North Norfolk North Norfolk - Copy

You can see the fortification at Castle Rising – or rather, the earthworks and a flag, as you drive in. It’s hardly Windsor, think more like Norwich – another square Norman lone keep, but with its baileys in tact. How to get into the earthworks was not obvious as a driver or on foot. When I pointed this out to (otherwise very kind) staff, they seemed unimpressed, saying you can see the castle from the bus stop so you don’t need a sign, and didn’t take in the fact that for security reasons, castles only have one entrance and I could have wasted my precious hour wandering the village trying to guess where the visitor entrance actually was. There’s little else in Castle Rising except a pub and joint shop and tearooms called Unique, the former being in a barn and stuffed with hats and fascinators, so I didn’t want to get stuck there; and if I’d missed my bus, it would have meant I’d miss my ongoing connections and have an expensive cross county taxi fare. The castle has reverted to its erstwhile aristocratic owner and fallen out of English Heritage’s portfolio. A semi ruined but gimmick free monument has something – you just enjoy the remains for what they are, and there’s still enough to climb about and imagine what it was like to live in, and no gore tours. Audio guides are another pound, but there’s little in way of display and the ones that are, are half erased.

After a dizzying amount of time aboard buses – Lady Fermoy and all her ancestors – I was glad to come to land as it were.


A Day Out With Elspeth in Rouen


The world’s best timbered city?

This time I go international, and to the capital of Normandy.

I’d long seen pictures of this city and wondered if it would be a cunning 1 street (like Worcester’s Friar’s St) made to look like many. Someone from there told me unenthusiastically that it was industrial, and I wondered how much after the big clock and the cathedral I’d find to enjoy.

Answer – more than any city I’ve visited, and easily beats anything in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Rouen’s quite large by today’s standards – the area or departement it is capital of is at least half a million. It feels like a regional capital too, with its metro system and serious feeling arts theatre, the regional leader’s palatial home (the Prefecture); its overpriced Beaux Arts museum aiming at being a national one, its Art Nouveau Rive-Droite station.

It was also large in pre-industrial times. Nearly every street within the city walls – covering well over a mile – is an ancient, attractive, postcard worthy view. Some of it’s like mini Paris, the typical stone buildings of post renaissance grander France; and much of it is the timbered look, often with colour on the wooden parts. The buildings are high – showing it was always grand, even in the middle ages – having several more storeys than the average Norwich building, with whom it is aptly twinned. But the strength of historic atmosphere here is more like York or Chester, as is a greater presence of tourists.

You won’t be here long and not know Joan of Arc (or Jeanne D’Arc) ended her life here; she may be the Maid of Orleans, but her incarceration and execution at Rouen are reflected not only in the controversial modern church on the site of her death in the market, or the now defunct J of A museum, or that the helter skelter like remains of the castle are named after her. There’s various other perhaps more random and profane things – for example, a tour company bearing her name; or the light show on the front of the cathedral.

I was first drawn to Rouen because of its churches, of which there are three outstanding ones, but also many interesting bombed ones and a couple of classical ones, such as the monument to Jeanne on the hill overlooking the city. St Maclou is surprisingly short, and sadly shut when I was there, but pictures reveal a stunning, light interior – perhaps the best in the city. And the stonework on the outside is incredibly detailed. St Ouen’s abbey is a large church whose interior is reminiscent of York minster, wide and light. It’s no longer used for worship but its uncluttered seat free interior is pleasant to wander, especially if there’s a rehearsal for a concert. You will start to note that, perhaps to Rouen’s resentment, its English influence is apparent, especially in its older buildings during the time of English occupation. Perhaps it’s why I like this city particularly and felt a draw here. The cathedral, which I thought to be a favourite, was less so once inside the doors and I preferred the inside of the other churches mentioned. The huge wide frontage is of as many stone kinds as it is architectural styles, but the 19th C iron spire doesn’t add or fit entirely. War damage (again English influence on the cityscape) made the interior a little forlorn and some of the glass was as dirty as a shed – but restoration is planned.

The Gros Horloge is a wonderful viewing point of the cathedral and on top, of the entire city. There’s nothing really spoiling the vista, nothing high rise, as far as the eye can see. It’s an interesting museum, where you’re escorted audially around by the ghost of the old clockmaker. And the elaborate clock itself is worthy of all the photographic attention lavished on it.

The early stone buildings here are centuries in front of what Britain was building at that time – the 16th C Finance Office that houses the tourist information centre, the Palace of Justice/parliament, and the Bourgtheroulde mansion (now luxury hotel) are three of the biggest examples.

The area that is disappointing is the river, which could be a real asset, but British bombers took much of this area, including the transporter bridge. Some warehouses are being converted into restaurants; the industrial use remains – this is still one of France’s biggest ports.

Happily this is almost a mall free city, though it did have several British chains that I was annoyed to see. Instead, one wanders the streets finding all sorts to browse at, eat in – there are so many buildings of interest I could mention – though it’s not so great if you’re vegetarian, and I could easily lampoon the upmarket restaurant whose idea of a veggie dish was broccoli spring rolls with a dash of broccoli.

One of its cinemas is reviewed here http://cinemawithelspeth.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/rouen-le-melville/

A Day Out With Elspeth in Tewkesbury

My favourite small town so far

Tewkesbury sketch

Tewkesbury’s status as such comes from having an abbey in cathedral league, for alleys and attractive main streets – one which looks like a village, the other a small town. There’s a mill and meadows, a brilliant arts centre – the Roses, and a large for a town of its size library. The bookshop is also big for an independent, two storeys and with a good range. Tewkesbury’s got cheapies and chains next to Marks and Spencer’s (not a favour easily bestowed, and after their workfare use, not one I reciprocate with my custom) and small shops and cafes: some feel upmarket, some long term local.

The image many of us may still have is of when this little town was waterlogged. I have an aerial postcard of that. So I did some Christmas shopping here that year to help with their economy. I wish I’d had a camera to capture that gorgeous lazy sunset that day – and the morning I awoke in the Hop Pole hotel to hear and see the Abbey, again in a haze. The Hop has a corridor made out of a medieval hall house, an era well represented in Tewkesbury.

Although in Gloucestershire, Tewkesbury looks more like Worcestershire than the Cotswolds, being of the red brick and black and white timbered school rather than golden stone. Some of those timbers house museums, and for a little town, Tewkesbury again is excellent. It has a local free one, one about wildlife conservation (though the touching table was rather small, I was looking forward to that part especially), and Out of the Hat, which is the expensive and modern one. And there’s a disguised old Baptist Chapel to visit too. So along with the abbey and the arts centre, and those little shops and alleys to browse, there’s quite a bit to see here.

The issue though is if you don’t drive. I’d recommend buses as they go from the centre of town and drop you off likewise in Cheltenham or Gloucester. The station was right near the Roses, but now it’s at a church with an industrial estate called Ashchurch. One can be alone a long time here, especially at night, and there is NOTHING here – only a vending machine for company and even taxis are of the prebooked variety. During the day, there’s a bus service. It’s not a road you’d really want to walk as it’s a main one without a proper pavement. So one can feel stranded and island like even without floods at Tewkesbury. So it’s a good thing it’s so attractive and with so much to do, because you will need it.



A Day Out With Elspeth in Stamford

The Easterner’s Cotswold fix

I think this was my first stone town – that of warm, golden beige, unmarred by the grey of age or industry, and I was enchanted; I still am. I like that even the modern housing enclave by the station is made of that light Jurassic park limestone that runs like a seatbelt from Yorkshire to the West country. The station is also made of it, but its cuteness was reversed by the following: it is unstaffed after midday; and trains run once an hour in each direction, in a clump, so much of the hour, there’s no action and no-one around. Not fun at night and it’s not that easy to find your way out of – one of the first signs you see is “No entry – your council at your service.”


Having escaped the housing enclave, you are greeted with meadows and the many towers of a gorgeous little town that looks like mini Oxford. And if that city had not suppressed Stamford’s medieval college, perhaps it might have become one. And as you walk, you keep finding little streets all in that limestone, with the odd timbered or whitewashed house. You have to walk quite a way till that ceases. Stamford’s not a big town – c20,000 – but it was, which means it hasn’t expanded much but it does have quite a big historic core, where many residents live. Going beyond that core reveals that though you may be on the Cambridgeshire border (Burghley House is in Cambs) you are definitely in the Midlands; the accent also underscores what the style of Victorian houses tell you.

I was charmed, wandering as I felt led, sometimes in residential streets, sometimes with shops. I love that Stamford has no shopping mall or anything high rise, although I did discover some uglier bits (eg Waitrose, whom I’d suspected for the town, but in a horrible, non stone building on West Street). I love that posh independents and higher end chains sit by the kind of shops in Thetford – Poundland’s two doors down from a French named nice things shop. There’s lots of smart ladies’ shoes (and a man shoe shop), and a bookshop in a former timber framed post office which is above Thornton’s chocolates and newsagents – go up stairs to the padded carpet and enjoy a sofa. I saw nowhere save another dark long WHSmith’s that sold any other kind of media.

Stamford5StamfordMy elephant grey moan (see my other blog “Keep Elephant grey for elephant’s bottoms“) is particularly pertinent here, as it doesn’t go with the stone. The old colours brought its beigy gold out; this one makes it drab. I can’t wait for that fad to end.

Save the House I’ll get to in a minute, there’s not any individual outstanding buildings, nothing you come to see in Stamford. It’s the whole, not parts. The museum has closed and heritage is now a room in the library, sans the models of extremes Tiny Tom Thumb and big Daniel Lambert. The leaflets – full of people pointing (another potential post and point of irritation) – make out that there’s more here than the single room with a tapestry, pictures of the town you can see anyway, and a touch screen.

There’s medieval Browne’s Hospital, but I’ve never been able to as its opening hours are few and seasonal. I thought this visit had coincided with them, but you now have to be part of a large group.

The churches make a great skyline; guides speak of five medieval ones, but there are seven with a churchyard of another. Most guides omit that the church tower (St Michael’s) which frames views down the High and Ironmonger streets was chopped into shops in the 1980s, and the top half – which could have been a hall – seems dead. There’s seats in the graveyard and one of those horrible private land parking company signs I will moan about on my other blog. Again, the churches make a joined whole, but inside especially, I found them not places to linger or recall separately .

The Arts Centre is now featured on my sister blog. This Georgian theatre is also the tourist information centre, who were very warm and helpful, and assisted me to locate the stump of Norman St Leonard’s priory, sitting alone in a field, and inaccessible.

To reach High Street St Martin you have to dice with death; it has several busy roads and no crossings. This attractive street, with the not so attractive George inn sign when you know what it is across it, is close to the station and the route to Burghley House. Beware: maps suggest that the park entrance is nigh. It is, but the Barnack Road way isn’t nice as it’s a busy road, a high tree lined wall and industrial sheds; Water Street is better and takes you to the pedestrian entrance. Cars have to carry on further, but they go in nearer the house which is a good half hour’s walk or more from the pedestrian gate. You can see it quite early on in the free to enter park that’s open to dusk each day, but then it disappears behind a mound, and you’ve got a way to walk until you reach it.

Burghley is not what I’d imagined when I first saw the outside. Most of the Elizabethan prodigy has gone internally. Save the kitchen with the horrible turtle skulls and sheep diagram, it’s late 17th C plaster and terrifying frescoes.


me and an obliging deer from a previous visit

I also found out that the Burghleys (descended from Richard Attenborough’s part in the 1998 film Elizabeth) are the reason that Stamford looks how the Georgians left it: fearing the 1832 Reform Bill’s effect on landowners, they repressed the town’s expansion and industrialism. Nice for us today, but I’m angry at upper class monopoly.

I had another delightful time in Stamford, finding lovely scenes and shops, meadows and parkland (no deer, what is it with creatures and me at the moment, I didn’t find an adder in Thetford either). I think it’s truly beautiful and I’d love to come back – I did and shall again. On my first visit, I found food finding missions far harder than anticipated, and that restaurant chains are quite dominant for a small town proud of its independents. On my second, I reversed that opinion, and noted the classy characterful pubs especially.

It is rather ill-lit at night and only two of the churches are illuminated and felt very quiet.

I’ve often thought that Stamford and Peterborough should lend to one another: Peterborough’s got the cathedral, Stamford’s got the town that ought to go round it. Peterborough is Stamford’s antithesis, as I will share in another post.