A Day Out With Elspeth in Indestructible International Saffron Walden

Has anyone else realised that Saffron Walden fits the Captain Scarlet theme tune?

Those timbered plaster houses managed to survive all those centuries and the official website says that visitors come from Harwich on the ferry. I especially sought the latter, wondering if this town really is such a draw to the Dutch for a day trip.

I can see why people flying into nearby Stansted might call in to have a glimpse of real England – the East Anglian version of the quintessential olde market town.

I spent the first half of my day comparing it to another East of England town beginning with S – Stamford. Stamford is Saffron in stone: both around 15,000 people but large medieval towns which haven’t grown much; hence a wide spread of lovely old buildings.

This idea was born because I began my day in the part of Saffron Walden which is most photographed – walking from High street into Bridge street, and then turning off into Castle street. It’s the equivalent of Lavenham’s Water street – the coloured timbered houses which have become the pubic image of the town. But I decided that this wasn’t quite Lavenham’s big sister.

Yes it is the equivalent of Stamford – the big house in walking distance of the town, a stone near palace built by a family of courtiers 30 years apart; both have nothing particular to visit in the town itself, save its atmosphere and shops. At least Saffron Walden has retained its museum, but neither have much of their castles left. Both have old almshouses, and both coaching inn towns missed out on mainline railways.

Stamford is a town of churches; Saffron Walden has just one. Each town has prominent spires, but Saffron’s is grander than all Stamford’s six inside. I’d said Saffron Walden’s was a favourite of the region and of national importance if you like the big and late gothic style. But its spire is not as powerful as it might be, it’s the arcades (inner walls of pillars) which are the impressive part. I note it is built by the man behind Lavenham’s, as well as Cambridge’s best known churches; interestingly, that is all Walden has in common with its nearest city, except willing travellers between the two.

It may have no equivalent to Lavenham or Coggleshall’s National Trust properties in the centre, but Saffron has mazes – I only saw the turf ancient one. I hoped as a labyrinth that it would be a spiritual experience but I felt only nausea at its tight coils and wondered at the mud and nearby football game as being conducive to contemplation.

Perhaps Saffron is a town of the garden; Bridge End’s is the home to the other maze, and its name and its wealth come from flowers. But it’s mostly a town to browse and eat in; and even wandering is more restricted than I first thought.

The town is a darling of the glossy magazines, and that put me off. ‘Walden’s lovely’ squealed a posh shop owner in another town who indicated her desire to have a branch there, as well as her insider’s intimacy with it. I’ve not know what to call the town. I’m not surprised at its being abbreviated. King’s Lynn becoming Lynn seems OK but Walden felt an in crowd name. Why not use the first part – although like Lynn it had a different first name, the west country sounding Chipping, before the crocus industry set in.

I didn’t find Saffron (we’ll settle for Ab Fab character’s name) that posh. I thought it would be the sort of place that her mother would go for a day trip. I’d judged by the regional chains of boutiques which chose Saffron alongside Burnham Market and Bury St Edmunds. But I heard a variety of voices (no Dutch ones) including cockney market cries, and met several friendly people, including a very loquacious Irish lady in one of the ‘lovely’ shops.

Outstanding among these were at the tourist information centre. Suffolk – take note – these work! Bring them back! They were helpful in replying to a pre visit email query, and chatty in person. A regular came in to book tickets and volunteered how helpful they are and that they give newcomers a stash of leaflets to learn what there is to do here. TIC staff not only displayed a poster about my locally based novel and an event I’m doing, but offered to take some for Saffron Screen, the community cinema at the high school.

I was chuffed by that.

The said Screen (see it’s not Walden Widescreen) had already sold out for that night, so I was unable to try that independent cinema. I’m not sure what I feel about both Saffron’s cultural offering being in the grounds of a school. There appears to be no theatre.

Worse is if you don’t drive and want to go somewhere which does. Buses like in Lavenham, stop about 7pm, and thus you can neither escape or come home after that time. And not at all on Sundays. I wonder if the churches, including that of the prominent Quakers, are well attended, and if the not being able to leave town has anything to do with that.

Saffron Walden, as rail ticket staff sarcastically reminded me, now has no station of its own. The station you want is Audley End. And it’s not a badly served station, being the only part of Essex to have trains leaving the region (Birmingham to Stansted Airport) and also having trains from Cambridge to London. It’s not dead and lonely as I feared – it’s a baby grand station, and has a shop. But it’s two miles away by a country road in a hamlet called Wendens Ambo, off most town maps. And hence it’s not easy to work out how to walk into town. The way the bus went, there is a path along the road, but it’s not lit. The buses go a longer lorry friendly way round – the most direct road is more rural, and I wasn’t recommended to walk it. Buses are infrequent and the two companies don’t accept the tickets of the other. They are about £3 return each, but there’s a 15% difference in singles. Hence taxis must have a field day.

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Church St and the famous old Sun Inn

 

Saffron has a tighter shopping centre than I’d expected: its ‘rows’ are not like Chester’s and perhaps only King’s Street – home of traceried Cross Keys inn and Hart’s Books – is the olde thoroughfare which I had expected. Unlike Lavenham, its timbered buildings don’t continue much off the over-chosen photographic scenes. Towards the market – another iconic image – are Victorian taller buildings, and much of the town is brick. It began to feel more like Sudbury around Hill Street with the toilets by Waitrose which count down the seconds until the door opens – unisex cubicles right opposite the entrance. For all its salubrious reputation, it seems that the council don’t trust the people of Walden (said it now) with sinks and mirrors.

I’d gladly spend another day there – and go to the other maze and evening culture, and to see more of the villages of this under celebrated county.

 

 

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A Day Out With Elspeth in Lowestoft

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It strikes me how Lowestoft, long familiar and accessible to me, has never been anywhere I’ve gone on my own accord – until yesterday. I knew of course of the sandy safe beach, the nearby town facilities which manage to avoid raucous excess of Great Yarmouth, and that it sort of has two piers – and lots of concentre to fight off the sea. I might add the Neptune statues, the loos that forbade changing in them (what is the issue with that!), the moving bridge.

There is little of Lowestoft which is instantly recognisable as such; no iconic buildings – the nearest to that is its most recent, the East Point Pavilion.

Perhaps lacking the tacky excess of Yarmouth has not benefitted Lowestoft, for the rambunctiousness of its neighbour is a draw. They have many points in common, but yet Yarmouth’s attributes seem better known – to me at least – and that is because of finding a leaflet. Suffolk’s tourist information reduction does nothing to assist visitors or locals finding the best of their towns. Lowestoft feels inbetween Yarmouth and Southwold in more than geography – having neither the outrageousness of one, nor the genteelness of the other.

It took until my last visit to discover that the Historic High street was not a farce but Georgian, flint and timbered houses with little alleys called scores between them; that it has an Edwardian theatre which also does films, and that there are 2 museums, both in parks, but neither right in the centre, and a lighthouse over sharply descending gardens (but no longer the Sparrow’s Nest theatre within them).

It took me some years after acquiring that knowledge to return to Lowestoft, and to make further discoveries: Lowestoft has a large parish church, but I’d not know that as it is nowhere near the old or new town; it is open only on Friday lunchtimes. Lowestoft’s 19th century architecture was planned by a very rich Christian to rival Brighton, they say, but that little of that ambition is evident today. It is that modern pavilion which has any hint to Brighton – and on a far smaller scale. In spirit, there is almost nothing akin between Sussex and its similar sounding easterly counterpart.

Lowestoft High Street

Yet the old High Street isn’t all it could be – it’s like Norwich, but St Augustine’s St, not Elm Hill. The town hall is boarded up, and there’s only a few shops or restaurants here. The one I recalled most is the long standing Sgt. Peppers 60s themed diner with Lucy in the Sky with Bacon and Octopus’ Garden dishes. There are a few international ones here and along the seafront in smart pavilions, but the middle of Lowestoft is quite drab and although compact it is focusless and not postcard worthy.

I wonder if Britten would be glad that the shopping arcade which leads to the wonderful bus station and library, now closing early due to anti social behaviour, is named for him?

I walked a lot – my back bears testament to that – and found Kirkley, with a different set of shops, near to Claremont Pier (ie the only proper pleasure pier, which you can’t even promenade on) and had a cheap meal in the gallery and former baths at The Coconut Lounge. I carried to Pakefield, a village about 2 miles south of the station, with a twin barrelled church on the beach, a rarely open arts centre, and the volunteer run Seagull Theatre – with some quite diverse, challenging programming.

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Here the gently shelving beach becomes all duney, but the promenade (or lack of) and the iron fences spoiled the view.

Mariner's ScoreLowestoft has several views spoiled – such as down all those Scores. They look romantic in the now defunct hand drawn leaflet. I show a picture of the supposedly most picturesque, Mariner’s Score, to show the reality of them. The steep slopes and stairs give way to spectacular views… of the Bird’s Eye factory and the railings around the large harbour and the big Telly Tubby turbine, Gulliver.

The concrete is also pretty harsh here – South Pier being an example. It is a pier in that it is an arm round the harbour, like someone covering their work on their desk; there is a viewing point, but you wonder if you’ll be told off for being there (you shouldn’t be) and that you’ve intruded into the fishing quarter. The newer blocks of rock are more aesthetic sea defences.

But as I stood on that concrete in almost magical light, with the quiet of waves and seagulls, I felt a real sense of pleasure and peace.

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A Day Out With Elspeth in Southwold and Walberswick

Before I introduce you to these Suffolk seaside places, I would like to speak of the kindness I found in nearby Halesworth. Not only the friendliness at the event I attended, but when something went wrong, and from strangers in the street.

 

Southwold’s inhabitants were nice too; I didn’t encounter a soul in the other half of Sole bay. But before I praise, I must critique getting there – heavily.

 

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Southwold by public transport is pretty difficult. You can bus from Beccles, Lowestoft or Norwich, and if with the right network, this may coast as little as £7 for your return journey. But you need a strong stomach for 2 hours of bussing, only hourly, and which ends with the afternoon. So I opted for the train, with a 3 in 7 rover ticket which aren’t well advertised and nor as they quite as good value as they were. You need to choose your journey well and probably cross a county border and not get off and on too much to make it worthwhile. I couldn’t add Halesworth (the nearest station) to Southwold by bus onto my ticket, meaning that in one sense, I’d save only £3 with my ranger ticket. But not only did I save my stomach but it was possible to stay out late for another activity, which you learn about on my cinema blog.

 

Halesworth station is on the East Suffolk line between Ipswich and Lowestoft. It has information about ongoing journeys, but not in a place you’d easily see. It’s out of date – the 520 bus has become the family of 88s, which is what you need for Southwold. Getting the add on with your train ticket is no advantage – it costs that much anyway. And they don’t tell you where to stand for the bus – which is on the non station building side, the platform that you’d board towards Ipswich. Locals calls it “uphill”. It’s right by the platform exit, but there’s no real time info boards. And when the yellow and blue Anglian bus arrives, it goes right past and you think you’re abandoned – but no, it’s turning round. It does that too at the Southwold end, so don’t panic. Yes, I did a bit. No, the buses do not liaise well with the train times. They will – I’m working on it!

 

Nearly 400 words and we’re not even there yet. The bus flies (I do mean FLY) through narrow lanes of countryside, but the one thing to pick out is Blythburgh with its exaggerated church hovering over (not dominating) the marshes and wide water. It’s the only thing you’ll see on the way back if you travel after dark; there’s no landmarks, no announcements or information, and I only found Halesworth with the help of a passenger who told me to look for a white sign with a wheatsheaf to ring the bell and be dropped back on a residential road by Halesworth station.

 

Southwold no longer has a station; again I curse Beeching, even though it was shut in the 1920s (but they’re trying to bring it back – hurrah!). The track is now a path for walkers but its narrow gauge I don’t think is very suitable for cyclists as well. Its bridge is the only way across the river Blyth. Cars have about 8 miles to get from Southwold to the village of Walberswick, which you can easily see. But even walkers have about 3 miles of MUD (do hear that) and again, not often suitable for cycles. The ferry site has one of the signs that I also noted in Woodbridge and despise, the many “private” “authorised” “prohibited” signs that are favourites of riversides. It looked pretty scruffy and muddy here too, and I couldn’t believe that there were threats about using the ferry’s jetty out of season, but it’s obligatory to stand on it if you want to use that little boat when the unspecified season is here as the only direct way across to Southwold.

 

Since we’ve crossed the river and are talking about it and almost in it, let me do Walberswick first. Let me explain why I wanted to encounter all that mud and waste the best light of the day and most of the shop opening hours in a vast common.

 

Because of the Bridge. What bridge? The tourist info (very helpful), didn’t know about it. Not a bridge you’d photograph for its own right, although it has been painted. By Philip Wilson Steer, an impressionist, who like his chum Charles Rennie Mackintosh, came to stay and paint at Walberswick. And Maggie Hemingway imagined the story behind his painting, and it was made into a film starring Saskia Reeves, about an affair with the lady of the manor. Remember it now? It’s flawed but both book and film haunt me, even after 20 years. I couldn’t find a plaque but I thought I found the bridge – there are two, dull they might seem, unless you imagine the story. And you walk the dunes where Philip becomes infatuated and the beach huts where….

 

Again, all this is accessible on foot only. I’m not sure where you’d put a bike and certainly not a car as there’s lots of polite “residents* parking only” signs, but where do you put your jalopy in Walberswick? Many *residents are temporary, so why do they get parking rights before other visitors? The village seems to spread towards the church, which is a half a ruin. but as it took longer than I was estimated to get here AND the tea rooms were both shut (for sale and out of season), I was too hungry to find out more; I had those posh shops to judge on the other side of the Blyth.

 

So I will have to leave a full Steer and Mackintosh trail for another time. I will say that there are at least toilets here, out of season too, and better than a lot of seaside ones, but no mirrors. And Walberswick does have a something – not pretty in a Lavenham way, but I am gleaning that a local builder created the look of an old and varied village. If you know more about Walberswick than I, please tell me. I am frustrated in my attempts to learn much so far.

 

So, we’re nearing the landmark that tells you you’re nearly in Southwold. Not the 100ft high church tower – a favourite of mine; not the Lighthouse, and not yet the pier. No, Southwold is first announced by a water tower. When you’re on that bus, or back from 2 hours in the mud, you’re glad to see it. It’s surrounded by bracken and golf course. But soon, you’re near the bus stop (no station here – just two shelters for all routes and directions). They call it the Kings’ Head stop, but I think it should be called Fat Face, since that clothes shop is more obvious.

 

And you’re near Adnams, which for those of you not local, is the beer maker and wine importer who has a large shop and a cafe, as well as a brewery to tour. The church isn’t far, but the gabled local museum by the edge of its yard has short seasonal opening hours.

 

The church will be talked of more on my churches quest, but it is one of my favourites in the region, but not quite right…. I felt affection more than admiration after I’d looked round. I so wish I’d had a camera as the light was perfect (I’m without one at present but I will put pictures of some kind up). There’s a an unstaffed shop inside, and a nice atmosphere, and several things are coloured in – the pulpit, screen, font, and the roof of the choir. At 160ft long, it is quite large, but not enormous.

 

My thought was – where is the Southwold that built this church? For I didn’t see any timbered frontages and much seems Georgian or Victorian. But peeking inside, you can seek that some shops have beams. And that there was a 17th C town fire which required major rebuilding. The fishing lanes have become greens for the gentry. There was little individually that stood out for me building-wise.

 

My other test was the pier, where I got off the bus. I thought that Southwold was Suffolk’s Fritton on Sea – ie a cheapy and rowdy free seaside, all very upmarket. But I’m greeted by something like Felixstowe c1950 – a pink lumpy building filled with rowdy slot machines. Was this really Southwold I’d got off in, or Yarmouth’s little sister? But I soon escaped the amusement arcade and walked out onto the pier itself, rebuilt c2001. I do like a stroll on a pier. But this one isn’t architecturally outstanding, now that I’ve walked on a few – no pavilion to give it a focus, and it seems (a bit like Brighton) to be of a different world to the rest of the town. But you can shop and get tea here (hints of Southwold’s persona were coming out) and there was a hilarious slot machine heralding: “Businessmen pay for awards, now so can you” and it squashed a ten pence piece into a pseudo medal. I thought that the idea was funnier than the outcome.

 

Turning round from the pier is telling, and often enthralling. It changed my view of Worthing, it’s a delight to do in Cromer. Southwold felt like there was something missing. Yes, I can see the coloured beach huts (which loads of places have) and the lighthouse; but the north (right) side felt it needed a feature. All I could see was the dun coloured eroding cliffs. There felt a ghost of something missing, and not just the sort distilled by Adnams.

 

I felt that Southwold was giving up its secrets all to quickly, and that there wasn’t much of reveal. I’d found the little cinema, down a backstreet (not the one on the 3D map, it’s a mistake, it’s on Black Mill Road, near Adnams and the buses). But it’s out of season so no leaflets even, and buying a ticket sounds a complicated affair, where there are 15 members’ bums per seat and Ecclesiastical times to book and not to book, depending on the moon… I felt it would craze me, not being able to just visit. So my cinema blog does not yet feature the Electric Picture Palace, hewn from a garage and a cartshed.

 

But finding the high street, I did start to enjoy myself. Sadly, Mr Steer had taken up much of my time and some shops by 4pm were already closed, and all felt like they were about to get their hoovers out any minute, so I didn’t get much browsing time. As dark drew on, Southwold felt dead, and that anywhere open for evening meals was not yet receiving visitors for an hour or two.

 

Hence my return to the joggedly bus in the dark and part 3 of my day…

 

But I later felt anger at the way Southwold has evolved and who has evolved it and why. It links in with my Counting Thief thoughts from a recent sermon – about money and value and snobbery. But I will say that the Southwold I met today was not that of London weekenders, but of pleasant people who seemed to belong here. So perhaps it’s what other people say as much as what I actually found. Is posh bad? Is migration wrong? Is having money or a plummy accent or a holiday wrong? No. And certainly not classy shops and cafes. But is outpricing locals and taking over wrong, of spreading the insidious City into the provinces… YES. Another pillar I’ll be talking about on my other blog is that of property. I’ll cease here, but will say that I will try not to judge without meeting people and that I am aware of my prejudices as much as my principles.

 

 

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 Pocahontas and my Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village posts (see left side bar). 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).

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.

Elspeth’s Quest for East Anglia’s prettiest village

This is a new strand, a quest which will go round the country – seasides, cities, spa towns….

This first post is about villages.

As I’ve been writing about it most, I start with East Anglia.

As I was denigrating Burnham Market (below), who claims to be Norfolk’s prettiest, I began thinking – where is the prettiest village?

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I think I was a little harsher on BM in my Norfolk/Pocahontas post than I really meant to be. As with all those gentrifying places, I am ambivalent, and sometimes intrigued. But I do share the resentment of locals who see their communities being taken over by those capital dwellers with Jezebel eyes…

Politics aside, I find that Burnham Market is not overly pretty in its own right; it appears appealing because there’s an unusual amount of shops and a trend to visit. I’m still intrigued to know why the London influx was on this village, and not others. The coloured rendering and the red brick – common in Norwich but not this part of Norfolk – helps its perception of prettiness; but I still think: there is nothing to visit other than those puffed up shops and a certain inn. Even on its own website, the things to do in Burnham involve facials, or links to further afield.

And Burnham’s hardly fodder for the National Trust, is it?

Unlike Suffolk’s Lavenham, which is where I’ll champion, though there’s some wonderful Essex villages I’m getting to know. I’m not alone in thinking there’s not much of note in Cambridgeshire other than its cities, and even the brochures and glossies don’t offer any dissent from that. I would defy anywhere in the country to do better than Lavenham, though I am aware of several very lovely villages in those famous counties such as Gloucestershire, but whom get more attention – but not necessarily deservingly.

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The whole of Lavenham really does look like this

Lavenham is part of a swathe of lovely Wool Towns who I’m sure I’ll write about as a Day Out, and who ignore the county border and run from south Suffolk into north Essex. Coggeshall might well compete – alas I’ve not visited yet – and Thaxted is a serious contender and contester for prettiest village, though like many others listed here, it was once a town because of having a mayor and market. It has a guildhall, large church, important timbered and brick buildings, a windmill and the homes of a famous composer and infamous highwayman. But I think Thaxted isn’t the best because you can see all these in one well framed view, and it has few places to eat and shop (photo below).

Lavenham et al would be impressive even if they were purely residential. I expected a single old street, cunningly photographed to appear as many, but it is as well preserved as it appears – and better. It does have several shops and one could meet many needs without ever leaving the village – alpaca products, theatre set curios for three thousand pounds, artwork, chemists, and places to eat and drink. It’s also got a publisher, two museums (none in Burnham Market) and several societies – is this something that Burnham has? – they aren’t on the BM website, which was more welcoming and inclusive sounding than I’d expected. There are individual buildings worth seeing at Lavenham, and not just that church and Guildhall. You need to walk around, not just pass through a single spot. Lavenham’s not revealed all in one postcard, unlike popularly photographed nearby villages such as Kersey or Cavendish.

I also think its undulations help Lavenham’s picturesque quality. Fun to descend on a bike too.

Long Melford2

Long Melford (above) has something Lavenham doesn’t – the green and the two mansions – but I think I still prefer Lavenham for a more compact feel (ie herring shaped town grid round a market rather than one long street). Perhaps I need to do a post on not well known but pleasant villages of the region, for I can think of many who again would be famous by other counties’ standards. Why is Burnham prettier than Hingham, or Woolpit, or Bildeston? Why does Finchingfield get on postcards, but Haughley and Gt Bardfield don’t? (Why does my spell checker not know their names but it does Burnham’s?) Clare is very special, but it kind of a town. It has a castle and a priory which Lavenham doesn’t, but the church is less interesting and its museum in Ancient House is small. It is pretty and has good facilities – or am I just getting inured?

Finchingfield Thaxsted

Finchingfield and Thaxted, both in Essex

I still rate Little Walsingham (see previous article) because it’s unusual to have an abbey in the heart of a village built for pilgrims. I like that today (though not medievally), Walsingham’s focus is not on commerce, but on genuine spiritual seeking; and that it’s still a real village. I love its antiquity, and the many timbering and flint facades.

My ideal village has history – that’s pre 1700, timbered buildings, maybe some warm stone and brick; authentic (not manufactured) charm; local but not yokel; something to visit other than just shops, although I like several of those; an outstanding medieval church, something else heritage to visit, and something to do by night. A monthly film club/dramatics club/some quality concerts would be suffice for a village (but not for me, I do need my city). Colour is also important, and a little variety. Lavenham, you’re still winning.

Suggestions for contesters welcome. Or people who want to stick up for Burnham Market – I would gladly be proved wrong.

(More on Burnham in ‘A Day Out With Elspeth on a Bus named Lady Fermoy’)

A Day Out With Elspeth on A Bus Named Pochahontas

-Which is a Coasthopper Bus, which are all named after Norfolk locals (the Native American visited). And therefore, this post is about North Norfolk, and Norfolk in general.

Coasthopper named Pocahontas

Norfolk in particular – Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Norwich and Thetford – all have or will have their own entries.

Norfolk is wetlands and desolation, and that’s not necessarily a derogatory remark. Many places’ character and pleasure is the isolation and quiet they offer. Despite being one of Britain’s most populous counties in medieval times, Norfolk has the impression of spacious, uncluttered, unpeopledness. It’s also quite wild, even eerie.

Windmill Without Sails

Windmill Without Sails by me

Apart from the above listed towns, there’s not many places to especially pick out about Norfolk; what’s considered special here would be mediocre by other counties’ standards. The postcode changes from NR for Norwich to PEterborough in the west and IPswich in the south reflect a character change too – PE is like the Wash: fenland flat with a sort of dirty dark honey stone, a little more Midlands; and IP has prettier, older towns and exposed timbers, and is more like Suffolk.

I like a capital to resemble its provinces, but it seems one has to choose between charming county or city. Suffolk and Essex are prettier than Norfolk, but have no outstanding city (the same is true of Gloucestershire and Somerset); Norwich is one of Britain and Ireland’s most special historic cities (certain locals say it features on a European level), but, sorry Nelson County, this top slice of the Pig’s Bum of England (I think a map of Britain looks like a chicken riding a pig) is not one of our nation’s strongest.

Norwich’s looks are seen more in north Suffolk; there’s flashes of it in North Walsham, perhaps even certain angles of Holt. But there’s only one village that looks how I’d hoped Norfolk might, having known its county town – and that’s

Me at Walsingham

Little Walsingham. Pilgrims come, but it seems, tourists do not so much, and there’s little to do if you’re not in one of the three Christian shrines or the snowdrop ridden original abbey and holy site – the Catholic one being a LONG walk out of the village. Architecturally, it’s a very interesting village (and former small town), one of the few with a museum. I had expected a kind of Lavenham, plenty of shops and places to eat; though I was really hopeful for an eastern Glastonbury, and wondered if alternative spirituality was also present here (no hippies but occasional Hindus). But there’s only two each of local shop, tearoom, pub, shrine shop. If you’re on the steam train, beware there’s not much of a station of around it (the original’s now an Orthodox shrine). And if you go by bus, you have a long wait till the next one – and risk being stranded, for you’re many miles from alternative transport, so plan carefully if you’re using it, for the service ends late afternoon.

Perhaps I should state here, for anyone unfamiliar – RURAL BRITAIN STOPS EARLY. Shops are shut by 530pm – perhaps even 4, they are closed often on Sundays and Bank Holidays, and transport is reduced. More anon on this re the Coasthopper.

These comments can sum up much of the county: infrequent, early stopping buses and closing shops (sometimes seasonal too); in the North, some perhaps incongruous posh shops and eateries among little to do, espicially by night (a film society if you’re lucky, but little arts outside the larger towns).

Holt is over-egged and is not the Londoner’s bijou that brochures make out; it’s very country Norfolk, but there’s no activity here except the little old fashioned shops – colourful and quaint, but no buildings of individual interest, and nothing to visit or do by night – and the steam train station is A LONG way out of the centre.

I am not sure of the attraction of Burnham Market, whose billing as the land of the second homes squad of a certain kind of affluent is mostly a repellent to me (‘Chelsea on sea’ is overused and I quite like Chelsea). Burnham’s got some much needed colour (amidst the swathes of grey flint round there) and a village green, but the houses which would have been artisan are now expensive… why? And you can get everything Burnham offers in Norwich, plus all the things it hasn’t got. Burnham calls itself Norfolk’s prettiest village, but if it’s true, it says something about Norfolk – I refer you to my para under my painting above.

I shall post separately about best villages.

There’s the slice of Norfolk’s pie that seems to get less attention, in terms of transport and tourism – the Mundesley (Munds-ly)/Happisburgh (Hays- bra) chunk. Lighthouse, woods, beach hut, quiet.

The rest of this is more about North Norfolk, between Cromer and Hunstanton.

Cromer pier

Cromer pier by me

People have a preference over Sheringham or Cromer – both fishing villages turned seaside resort, but Sheringham feels closer to fishing village still. It begins as a Holt-like local high street (from the stations – the Poppyline heritage one is Sheringham’s best bit) and becomes tourist seaside with a bit of tack, but if you turn towards the church, you find books, gallery and two smart restaurants. The concrete sea fighting wall is now adorned with pictures, which takes off some of the grey. It does have a Little Theatre and this includes a behind release but interesting and quite arty film programme.

You could walk to Cromer over the Bump! but the official (acorn signed) path takes you inland further than you might expect and it also takes longer – with erosion and snotty caravan parks, the direct coastal route isn’t possible; if you go along the beach, beware: tides come in quickly and right up the shore.

Beeston Bump

Cromer’s tall church tower is easily seen from Beeston Bump, and it’s evidence that this was a place of importance before railways and daytrippers. Its central streets are still tight and evoke a medievally feel – Jetty Street and Hans Place, looking from the old style cinema to the great church tower, are a couple of my favourites. Neither town is large, but both have sufficient amenities, and Cromer is one of the seasides few to still have an end of pier show. That pier and the only remaining grand hotel give it more presence than Sheringham. Both have easily accessible clifftop walks and other nature, and two museums each.

There’s no other real resorts until the very western edge of the county at Hunstanton. I’d hoped to visit to report here, but couldn’t stand the two hours of Coasthopper bus – one of the few ways to reach Hunstanton without a car. There was a problem and the popular little coach was filled at capacity from its first stop. Many of us got off at the first viable place, which changed my day plan from riding the whole of the coast to exploring a small section. I think I’ve learned that despite a very good value ranger ticket (which also allows you on some of the trains – called a Bittern line ranger), that you can’t be too ambitious. Many of the walks or attractions (eg Blakeney Point, seal trips) take a couple of hours and the early stopping of the buses again makes stranding a real possibility. Coasthopper also say sometimes they can’t guarantee everyone getting on – not funny if you’ve an hour’s wait, let alone if it’s the last bus of the day.

Cley (Cly – below) and Stiffkey (Stoo-ky?) can be summarised by my above comments – with the addition of how shocked I was by the busyness of the coast road, a tiny single lane going through the heart of the villages with NO PAVEMENT. Many drivers in over large vehicles were selfish ones and it didn’t make for pleasant wandering.

Cley windmill from marshes

However, I did something not in the tourist maps – I walked to Binham, which must be about 3 miles as it took an hour along the road. Mostly you can do so safely and get on a verge, but there were a few trickier points nearer Stiffkey. Binham’s as pretty (or not) as any of the other villages that way, it has a pub (not cheap or over friendly) and a wonderful priory.

Binham priory across fields

The priory is across fields, and is under half the length of what it was with no towers, but there are several reconstruction drawings to help you imagine it. Frustratingly, the different ownerships of the ruins and church mean that guides do not refer to the whole. Beware, there’s a sort of maze/dead end among the ruins where you have to take a little jump. I thought Binham’s interior looked poky in photos, but there is a strikingly… I have tried several times to put the atmosphere into words… spiritual, peaceful, a place to linger and pleasant to be… lighter inside than I’d expected for a place with most of its windows sealed up. It had more of an effect than Cley church which I also visited – though I’d like to commend both churches for allowing visitors to enter each day and trusting us to do so without a warden to harass us (take note, Wymondham Abbey!) And Binham has nice new loos.

Binham Priory inside

You probably can’t see, but there are pleasing mouldings on the furthest bottom arches.

I’ve been to all the towns in Norfolk bar 3, but the only other place I’d like to single out today is Holkham. The hall is too plain and Palladian for my liking, but the beach is special. However, I’m not going to join the boast that it’s the country’s best, though it is one of the best in the county – but then, most of Norfolk’s beaches are loved because of that natural, grassy duny untouched feel. You walk to Holkham’s down boardwalks and there’s no facilities after the hall. I personally prefer some cliffs too, but this has the backdrop of pines. I will close with an old picture of me impersonating Ms Paltrow at the end of Shakespeare in Love, filmed here. I like the symbolism of walking to fresh new worlds.

Me on Holkham beach being Gwyneth

A day out with Elspeth in Woodbridge

Woodbridge1

This is a lovely little East Anglian town but not as lovely as its regular feature in regional magazines wants me to believe. Woodbridge is an example of what this part of England does best: that slow, untouched feel, in the nicest way. The low rise streets are of red brick, often Georgian houses, and plastered colourful earlier ones. Although the 18th C weatherboarded white tide mill is what Woodbridge claims is its most famous sight (and I had a charming visit there), I always think of the Shire Hall. This two storeyed redbrick former town hall has been added to significantly since its Elizabethan origins. The overhanging hipped roof, windows and double staircase at either end are of two centuries later; but this makes for a distinctive slightly Dutch looking building, and a justly focal point for the little square in which it stands.

Articles celebrate the town’s independent shops, such as its two small bookshops and independent shoe shops of expensive brand names and old fashioned service (alas the granny chic slippers of Moshulu are no more). Yet sandwiched between these are the usual lower end high street chains that are the bane of every British small town; and the Thoroughfare itself is only of the scale of an interesting street: its buildings are largely quite drab architecturally. The Turban Centre sounded exotic but is a little shopping enclave of even duller quality.

I was disappointed in the food and drink too, although its facilities are good for a town of only c7,000. Woodbridge seems to have several traditional pubs and smart restaurants, such the Galley on Market Hill – an offshoot of the well established Ipswich Turkish restaurant, or at the arsey Tide Mill (not to be confused with the heritage attraction). But it has little inbetween. Its rather ordinary cafes did not entice me, and I saw no wine or café bars for relaxing in the evening. Some may rejoice that the only restaurant chain is Prezzo – in which I had an awful experience. I am sorry that the wonderful Moorish café – inclusive North African dining – is shut. That was worth a visit on its own, and the best service I had in a town that can be quite uppish. I loved the staff’s view of ringing telephones in the Strawberry Café – “It’s an invitation, not a demand”. She served me first. With such an attitude, I went back.

There’s several streets to wander, some just residential – but this must be a great attraction to those living in Woodbridge – to live in a street which is central and characterful but not full of other people’s evenings or early morning deliveries.

There’s the Tide Mill, Burkitt’s Windmill, Town Museum, and the Shire Horse museum to visit – all quite modest and often seasonally open, but the real tourist pull is Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon treasure. According to the ubiquitous 3D hand drawn map, this appears just over the river from the railway station. I should pause to say how much the river is part of Woodbridge and what a pleasant walk this makes. I wished for a ferry crossing from the town station to the other bank where the National Trust Visitor Centre and burial mounds lie. Alas, one has to walk 3 miles through the adjoining village of Melton (train users are advised to stay on one more stop to this station) and still need to walk over a mile. It’s further though than the 3D map suggests from the Tide Mill. Sutton Hoo is featured on the seasonal Tour Buses which also stops by all the above. With irregular trains, I wasn’t able to arrive in time to factor in a 2 hour round trip walk to this quite pricey  attraction, which sounds very exciting – but the Tourist Information Centre couldn’t even give me a proper leaflet on this vast ship burial of kings of the Wuffinga dynasty.

(Update, I’ve now been – click on my tag cloud and read about it).

The Riverside (review coming on sister blog) was a nice way to round off the day. This is an old fashioned popular community cinema which also offers live shows. It’s one of several independents in the area, always charming service, reasonable prices, and a mix of blockbuster a bit more thoughtful films. The auditorium looks Edwardian, with an apparently unused balcony, and two seaters on the back row. An adjoining restaurant has a small bar area serving coffees and during the day, outdoor coffees and ice creams, and tapas by night. Its proximity to the station is useful if like me you have to make a dash for one of the infrequent trains – but beware: the bridge is in two parts. In your hurry, don’t do what I nearly did and ascend the steps outside of the station, as this only leads across the river and there is no access onto the opposite platform. If you’re heading towards Ipswich and London, go into the station and take the stairs from there.

I find Woodbridge charming, but note I’ve only ever spent more than 2 hours here if I’m in a film. The glossy magazine push and hearsay about its bijou qualities only raise expectations and put me off. Someone commented that Woodbridge is my kind of town – in miniature, but I’d like my kind of town, full seized to really dwell there.