A Day Out With Elspeth at Sutton Hoo

 

 

or A Hoo Ha

or Horton hears a Hoo

or Dr/Sutton Who-oo, the Tardis. Does anyone remember that song?

 

I refer of course to the humps across the river Deben from Woodbridge in Suffolk that you have to go 4 miles round to get to and pay nearly £9 to visit, courtesy of the National Thrust – who were not at all thrusting this time, of their gift voluntary extra admission or their membership.

 

Sadly, the staff were better than the attraction itself. The guidebook begins evocatively in word and picture – and I commend that, instead of the stuffy academic approach. In the long visitor survey, you are asked reasons for coming; one option was ‘food for the soul’. Yes there is certainly some of that here – or so I hoped.

 

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But let me first go back to getting here. It is very difficult to do without driving. By train, you come nearest at Melton, just north of Woodbridge. But you’ve still a mile and a half of walking along a boring but busy and lonely, ill signed road – the station doesn’t mention a certain Hoo. There’s a brown sign, I thought, that’ll reassure I’m on the right track – but, no – it’s for a caravan park. Slippery leaves covered much of the tiny pavement and ominous shacks peered down from above. And then you’ve a long farm drive to negotiate when you finally do turn off to Sutton Hoo.

 

There’s no facilities at the unstaffed little station. You may want to note the pub on Wilford Bridge – it’s the only chance for refreshment you see til you reach Sutton Hoo itself.

 

Near this pub, I noticed a very definite sign saying “private, access only, no walkers or cyclists.” I should’ve been suspicious. What was down that tarmac path, by a little house, that would interest walkers and cyclists?

 

I saw a lot of ‘private’ signs on my walk back to Woodbridge along the muddy scruffy Deben. How shameful it is to be so obsessed with property. Especially when that property is a national treasure. Literally. A Saxon one, gifted to the people and the National Trust.

 

Yes, the tarmac with the prohibitive sign did turn out to be a considerable short cut to Sutton Hoo, through the public grounds and marked paths. Yes my return trip was very much faster and the secret private part only a short way. There was nothing to reasonably protect there. I was directed to use the path and I would like to say that if the property owners read this and object, that they ought to be ashamed of barring access to something rightly gifted to the public. I am pushing for the private signs to come down and this to be the official non vehicular access to the park. If that upsets whoever is trying to horde that little path, then I suggest that this isn’t the right home for them. They are – or should be – stewards to this treasure; day time visitors – mostly in summer – are hardly going to make a big difference to their lives. I can’t see that Sutton Hoo visitors are rowdy and dangerous. Many of the rest of us have people tramping past our doors and gates, often with sirens and fumes too. I really don’t see why that cottage thinks that it has that power, being actually part of the site – the main farm shares its drive with Hoo-ers, so why not this little path?

 

The long way round puts many non drivers off – I would not suggest walking here to anyone and I would only commend it to hardy cyclists. The National Trust are losing out on visitors and visitors are losing out on Sutton Hoo – or are they?

 

The evocative pictures and words didn’t match what I saw. I could make Stowmarket Rec look like that if I took my photo right.

I’ve been back – this really is as as good as it gets

I still don’t really understand what’s in the screened off bumps, that sheep can go on, but I can’t. There is no mock up open mound, nor even a diagram. The famous helmet was not demonstrated in the main hall – only in the short video. So what does the garb look like when it’s on? And what does it mean? And why have I paid over £8 to see this?

 

I wanted to see the ship and felt sure that the size of the shed built for the exhibition was to house a life size replica. I mean of the 90ft ship that mystery man, probably King of the Wuffings, was buried in, the one that left marks in the mud that Basil Brush Brown found in 1939. No. There was a temporary exhibition of a scale model, but I’d missed that; the only ship I saw was in the kid’s playground, 1/10 size.

I’d have liked a mock up trench of Basil’s work. Nope to that, just his man shed. Burial chamber? Yes, but I didn’t realise it at the time – what looked like a cabin and overturned boat surely wasn’t what had been compared to the Pyramids?

 

And from this exhibition, I don’t really know who this Raedwald was and why they think (but can’t say for certain) that it’s him. And is there any connection between his royal home and those aliens at nearby Rendlesham? I think that is actually a serious point. The esoteric floats wispishly around those bumps but is never given much space – not by the Trust or any archaeologist.

 

The exhibition felt a bit kiddie and patronising, and was quite noisy – staff greet you right next to the video and then there was a live talk too, all of which could hear each other, and you’re trying to listen to one of them or do your own reading.

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Yes there’s a better priced cafe here than other NT captive audience sites, and pleasant walks – and a view of Woodbridge that made me furious. Look how near Woodbridge is – and yet how much extra have I had to come? Why not a boat from the Tide Mill? Why not that boat?

 

Getting here wasted so much of my day that I felt resentful and I didn’t stay long. And to those money obsessed counters, you lost out because I was walking and not buying.

 

I feel these bumps – and their finders – Edith Pretty, her 20 year courtship, and her spiritualist healer friends, and remarkable Basil boom boom with his rather skilled brush, all have a story which isn’t really told here. I once saw a play in a nearby garden centre called The Wuffings, by the Eastern Angles theatre group. It brought that ship alive more than the Trust does so far. I wish this site made me feel as I wished to. I hope that the new funding awarded will assist in making this place more comprehensive and exciting. And will overturn those stupid signs!

 

Woodbridge has its own day out on here.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Stowmarket

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Oh little town of Slowmarket

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The rest of the world goes by

And in thy dark streets shineth

And gathered all above

While locals sleep

the angels keep

Their watch of wondering love

 

What, a day in this little mid Suffolk market town?! Half a day. Or an hour.

Well, we’ll start mid morning and see if we make it through to lunch.

 

The station’s the best thing about Stow. Because you can leave quickly – it’s on the Norwich to London mainline, and also from Harwich (East Anglia’s passenger port, even greater escape) to Cambridge, and also to Peterborough (inland railway escape, being the interchange for the Midlands and North). But it’s quite a pretty little station, red brick and kind of Tudorbethan looking. And the staff are really nice. It’s got a wee cafe and a shop.

 

As you leave on the ticket office side, you’ll see the glory of the poodle parlour which was featured on 1980s TV show Lovejoy, who came antique hunting and mystery finding. I don’t expect he found much of either.

 

Crossing the little Gipping by the new oversized houses, you’ll note the Maltings, which have entertained late nighters in Stow for some decades. It changes its name often. It has one competitor. Note too a couple of restaurants tucked behind it. We many need these later.

 

Walk up into town towards the church – which looks good lit up, not that we’ll stay long enough to see it – and either street you take (Stowupland or Station), you see several old buildings. We could pop into the church – we have time here – and see the nice large churchyard that once had a sister church. And note that the library’s quite large (keep us warm later) and that there’s the John Peel Arts Centre in the former corn exchange. Pick up a leaflet – the programming sounds quite good. Hm, I’d forgotten John lived round here (Great Finborough, as does cook Delia Smith). We’ll cut through the little alley, Prentice Walk, and stand in the market place. The middle of the row of banks was the entrance to the corn exchange – the one with the copula, said to have a sealed an untouched ball room up there.

 

We’ve now the four streets of the crossroads to explore. We saw Station Road on the way up, so let’s do the steep one – that’s Bury Street. Note the timbered old house down an alley soon on your left. Some quite cute little shops – no longer Simpson’s toys, or a book shop. But you can knit and get your haircut here. And there’s a cafe. And a bus stop.

Stowmarket Bury St

Back to the crossroads, let’s go left into the little nub that becomes Meadow Walk. There is another turn into Tavern Street, but there’s only a couple of shops, the town hall, a dept store and a Georgian house down there. And the way to the Rec. What’s a rec? Recreation ground, of course, aren’t you from the 1950s? Public park to the rest of the world.

 

So to this little open air mall thing, all owned by ASDA (one of many supermarkets here), even the only public loos in Stow. Oh, what’s that green glass barn thing? Best go and see. Tourist information. Well we’ve got time, haven’t we? Not a bad one either. And it’s also the shop of the Museum of East Anglian Life. In the winter, just the grounds are open, but in the summer, there are barns and things to go in. Want to? Mayaswell. Price reflects how much there is to see. Mind the gift aid prices that all museums seem to want you to accidently pay.

 

Well, there’s actually quite alot here. Beautifully painted gypsy caravans (I saw a kid try to take the handbreak off!) in a large historic barn. They’ve moved here tin hut tabernacles, a farm house with a crown post roof, tractors (say with Suffolk accent and not a rubbish generic rural England attempt) and a mill. And there’s a nice walk by rush fringed water meadows, and animals to meet. And Abbott’s Hall, with costumes and the like. Let’s confess – we are enjoying ourselves. Whether you are from this world (can you spot your own village?) or if rural English life is an anathema, come and amuse yourselves here. Gosh, a couple of hours have gone by.

 

We should have lunch now. Bistro in the museum or venture into the World of Stow?

We only have one street left to see so pick from what you’ve already seen.

 

With drink in our hand and cake in our belly (that’s a quote from Margery of King’s Lynn) we face Ipswich Street, which for many IS Stowmarket. It’s been hit by a bomb and the 1950s improvement squad, with some more recent disturbing attempts – look at M&CO. It’s full of cheapy chains and a few independents, by which we do not mean posh, save perhaps Shoephoria. It used to be called Dudley Mason and have a pile of hippos in ascending size, for the kids. Find the many charity shops, peek in Fox’s Yard, once a coaching inn. I was told by an international visitor that it’s quite interesting to potter if you’ve not seen an English small market town before. You can also get quite a few things here, if you have to. Listen to the local accent and make sure you get it right next time you try to do an impersonation. Hard to take off, isn’t it.

 

Well, we’re at the top of the street now, by the Catholic church that an aforenamed person alleged worships at (don’t crowd her on the way to mass). I know a child who saw the church sign and thought that Our Lady was Stowmarket, personified as a woman. I know another whose first confession was here: ‘Father, I stole a weeble”. I don’t know if that’s funny, cute or sad.

 

There’s a couple of pubs (avoid Wetherspoon’s – their ethics are the sort that aid workers fight against) and note, by the former pub, now Prezzo’s (does that Italian chain know something we don’t about the rise of Stowmarket) that there’s a cinema. It’s independent and has neon letters. It is called the Regal.

 

Looks kind of boxy but it’s better inside. No cafe for non patrons but – behold, it’s matinee time and they have cups of tea as part of the programme. Shall we?

 

All that independent cinema, we need a stroll and then some nutritional fortification. Gosh, it’s late afternoon and we’re still here. Good thing we didn’t pay a pre estimated car park charge. Beyond the Regal is Stow’s second nightclub, Jokers, and a couple of nice houses such as the Veranda, with shutters, and something modern and odd, purpose as yet unknown. The Oddfellows have taken over Red Gables (not green, Anne) which was once a library. It’s a bit leafier though we can see and hear the relief road parallel, which might tempt us to cross it and find the new paths along the river. Gosh, we can walk all the way to Ipswich. No thanks, we’re having too much fun here. Whoops. I’m being sarky, obviously.

 

Well, over the brow of the hill is an open area – locals tell me there was once an open air swimming pool here – and a little island of chippies, petrol and a pub, which I’m told is one of the better ones. Apart from Stow’s only exposed timber building, there’s not anything more to do, so let’s leave Combs Ford and go and find some dinner. Not at Wetherspoon’s.

 

Or we can go and sunbathe on the Rec if we want a snake-like lie down afterwards.

 

Well, we’ve supped; we mayaswell go home now. But as we cut through the little alley by the church – we will see it lit up after all – we remember we quite liked the sound of tonight’s gig at the John Peel Centre. Box office open? Tickets available – we hope so, it’s quite a big building. Can we get back late enough? Trains towards Norwich till 1am – ooh we could go to Jokers or the Maltings after all – and quite late to other local towns (to Ipswich till almost midnight, toward Bury 2235). Good thing it’s not Sunday today when there are big gaps.

 

Ha ha! I’ve tricked you. You’ve spent not only a day with me in Stow, but the night as well!

 

And you liked it, didn’t you. Didn’t you?

 

Don’t mock Slowmarket again!

 

A Day Out With Elspeth in Lincoln and Newark

Lincoln1I’d not been to Lincoln for a dozen years and wondered how the exciting things that the marketing teams told me about had developed.

Well, access by rail hasn’t improved – you can only really get to Newark or Nottingham and I wasn’t coming from either, but I did visit the former since I was going to get stuck there anyway. Fares to Lincoln are pricey and there’s no prebooking, even from a nearby and kindred region. I travelled longer than I was in Lincoln, even though I’d not come from far.

Everything else planned for Lincoln has come to fruition. Across the street from the station, you’re now met by a considerable, very new campus of Lincoln university – AS Byatt’s 1990 novel about academia was set here because it didn’t have a university then. I wonder if it’s the only uni in the world whose library is housed in an industrial building. Next door, the Engine Shed is so clad in modernity that it’s unrecognisable. It is a gigs venue. Behind is LPAC – the performing arts centre. Both felt dead when I sought out a coffee, but they were things I felt lacking in the city which it now has. There’s not exactly an arts cinema as promised, though you can see artier films at Bishop Grosseteste campus – anyone else grossed out by that name? You do pronounce it how it sounds. It’s out of town, and no leaflet or map explained where or how far. Otherwise, you’ve a multiplex.

Lincoln sometimes looks and feels like York, and around the station with the timbered building over the old High Bridge, the guildhall come gatehouse ahead, and the small beige stone pre-Norman churches, you might feel you were somewhere akin. But Lincoln has less of that feel as you walk up into town. If you wondered what happens if you turn your back on the cathedral and wander away from the river: you see another 11th C diminutive church, a sneaky timbered building down an alley, a rare Norman guildhall, and eventually, you come to a common that gives a view of the city. Otherwise, it’s retail park. Interest is generally found by going up – and I do mean, up. North and well above the water level, sharply.

Beyond the Stonebow gate, it feels small town and a bit grimy and chainy shopping wise – there’s hardly anywhere to eat round here. (All the chain restaurants are by Brayford Pool, in not very sympathetic surrounds, ruining the water feature). It’s only as you start to puff up the hill that you see the bits the photos are of, and interesting shops and cafes appear next to and within ancient buildings. You may well need that rail as you go up Steep Hill.

Finding out what else has changed since 2003 showed me that deviating off this street reveals that Lincoln is a bit of a one street city. It feels like a mid sized midlands county town – which it is – but neither grand nor quaint; it’s what keeps it out of York’s league, because York does variety over a larger area, though it does do a little scruffy too. Lincoln’s major public works haven’t improved any of those side streets, and that includes the one linking the Drill Hall with the new museum, the appealing sounding Flaxengate.

Drill Hall was what is sounds – a military training centre, made of red brick and suitably battlemented. It is now a live arts centre. But you enter not though the castellated main gates on Broadgate, whose closedness suggests that the building is still dead, but through a door meant for performers and deliveries on Free School Lane, and it’s not well signed. Its cafe is lively inside, but shuts at 4 – something I was to come up against regularly today and on other sojourns.

The Usher Gallery’s extension will date, I predict. It may be of golden hue now, because it’s new, but its blockiness will be quickly regretted and that paving area will look as good as a “public realm works” as its 1960s counterparts. There didn’t seem to be much inside the new museum for Lincolnshire, called The Collection. Collection of what, I wondered, stepping over mosaic insets into the floor. There’s some displays cases of maps and bits from digs, but no story of the county. It felt like a boutique trying to hide its lack of wares by setting things out nicely and spaciously. The Usher gallery was more old fashioned art; a big room was between exhibitions. I didn’t linger long.

Returning to the main street, now called The Strait and Steep Hill, you see what puts Lincoln on the tourist trail. Here are those photos in brochures – the two Norman stone houses (two thirds of Britain’s collection), the red brick against black and white timbering, the protruding old shop fronts – now more colourful – and their independent wares. You have to stop to shop just to ease your ascent. Useful for business?

Lincoln4 Lincoln3

And then you come out onto the prize view – Castle Hill, the old market (still functioning as such on some days), with the castle gate at one end, the cathedral’s at the other. The building which houses the TIC draws the eye – an overhanging timbered building on a stone base – but most centuries are represented in this square. There’s another cute church, a classical building… and the striking triple towered facade of England’s most admired cathedral.

The Castle has also had a makeover, which was just complete the weekend I went. Yet it was hard to see where the millions – and my £12 – were or would be spent. There already was a Victorian chapel, and most of the castle is about the walled walk and its view of its neighbour, rather than having much to go in and see. A big focus of the castle – and the reason for the works now – is the Magna Carta document, whose birthday it is. All I learned about the Magna Carta is that there is no The. The queues were offputtingly long and the entrance to the ticket office is shared with the shop, meaning I couldn’t even browse. I decided my life and day were too short to join the queue, and you have to enter the bailey anyway and thus you see much of what is on offer – mostly an enclosed lawn.

Going under the vast gate to the Cathedral, whose front never looks quite as satisfying as it might, I was faced with another queue and fee. It’s £8 (you can make it £16 if you buy a joint ticket with the castle), and again, you have to enter to buy and ticket, and get to view much of what’s on offer for free. Being more of a Norman and perpendicular person, Lincoln cathedral’s mainly 13-14th C offerings don’t really tempt me, and I passed on that too.

Lincoln5So instead, I wandered the Cathedral Close, which is the most interesting part. I picked up an excellent Toucan city guide for £5. Behind the cathedral is the Potter’s gate and  a big stretch of green. There’s a tithe barn, wonky lamp post and buildings in blue and early brick.

Many people stop their journey at Castle Hill, but it’s worth taking the other road out of it and continuing north to Bailgate. It may not have such historic buildings, but it does have atmosphere and more interesting shops – as well as Lincoln’s best Georgian building: the Assembly House. Go as far as the Roman Newport Arch, and then retrace. There are other things to see, slightly further away. The Lawn asylum is no longer a museum, but the Museum of Lincolnshire Life and Ellis mill are still open to visit.

That in essence is Lincoln: deviations will bring forth carparks, offices, ring roads and soulless chains.

 

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There’s a little along the river path worth meandering by, such as the two old pubs – the Green Dragon and the Witch and the Wardrobe (almost Narnian) – and Greyfriars which you now can’t get in; and the English Heritage owned ruins of one of the greats bishops’ palaces – you can also stay in part of it as a hotel. But then, you (or I) really have done with Lindum Colona.

Hence, back to the uninviting station and on a train towards

Newark-on-Trent.

I was forced to change at Newark – and by change, I meant, stations, not just trains. There’s no shuttle bus or linking line – you have to walk. And your route is not on a map. Castle Station is near that landmark, and as you walk over the bridge towards it, you feel you’ve landed somewhere interesting. It’s also opposite the tiny, 4pm closing TIC. Newark Northgate station is not on maps, nor near the centre of town (I estimate it’s a mile, going by my 20 min walk there), and it’s not even on that street – it should be Newark Appletongate station. Despite being the mainline station, there’s nothing main about it or to do around it.

If you should need to walk between stations, from Castle Stn: Go over the bridge keeping the castle on your right. You could turn left, follow Northgate to the end and bear right, but it’s more fun to cut through the town, up Boar and Chain lanes, through the market and to Bridge Street. Appletongate has the theatre on it and you should emerge near to it. Turn left out of the narrow passageway, turn left and keep going for over a mile.

Newark Castle is free as it is all ruins, but substantial, commanding and picturesque, in a park, with a free leaflet if you can catch the TIC open, and I think, occasional tours to the bits deemed too unsafe for us to wander in alone.

From there, I didn’t know what to do, as signs weren’t helpful, so I headed towards the tall tower of St Mary Magdalene. Intrigued by this big late Gothic church and its designation to one of my favourite people, I eagerly followed the spire, to find it too was a 4pm closer – and I’d just missed it. So what is within, I still do not know. At 252 ft, it is not, as rumoured, the 5th highest spire in England, it’s the 9th, though it scrapes in as 5th if you miss out the cathedrals. (Yes I have the heights of all of them and checked.) It may be in the top 5 best parish churches of Britain. Which I didn’t get to go inside!

And that was to be the highlight; for Newark only seems to have a small gallery and museum in the Town Hall, also shut… and the despite being a bank holiday Saturday, it was preparing to sleep at least an hour before most shops would normally close.

Lincs Newark market and churchLincs Newark Olde White Hart

The big market place suggests a town of importance, and the wide array of old street names – often ending in ‘gate’ – suggest a large town of antiquity. The town centre may still spread over some area, but its photographic depictions are misleading. Despite the leaflet on timbered buildings, including the coloured medieval Old White Hart (not even public! a building society just uses the bottom of it), Newark is mostly Georgian and red brick. Its Town Hall is golden and classical, but little else really stands out. Its arts offerings are an Odeon cinema and the old (1920) but mainstream Palace theatre, and its shops and cafes less varied than I had first thought too.

Hence my stay in Newark was not a long one, and that time should’ve been enough to catch the things I wanted – but they were CLOSED! I spent a disproportionate time getting to the diminutive station and generally hovering by tracks and going through hated ticket barriers.

But I’ve been back – see my post on Southwell and Newark.

See what else I’ve been up to: