A Day Out With Elspeth in Newcastle

Perhaps I was not alone in expecting long outskirts of industry and terraced houses, a towering football stadium, and boisterous hard drinkers frequenting the above.

Yes – these are all there, but I was surprised to see that there really is a castle, town walls and a large medieval parish church – one of 4. I could have also viewed the timbered buildings on the quay and the classical golden sweep of the city’s most famous street.

Not only is the city more ancient than I expected, but I discovered its wide arts – from stuccoed balconies to reclaimed biscuit factories to the triple cupped silver bra of the Sage music centre, to even poetry recitals in a bastion. (Cinemas are reviewed here).

And so I became intrigued – and then fell in love.

After living there, I reiterate that my first paragraph is not a misconception. Drinking’s well underway by the time the shops close, meaning that its rowdiness is several hours ahead of other cities. Newcastle divides between day cafes and rammed drinking venues, particularly so when black and white shirts descend on the city. I thought their roar was the Roman army come back to defend Hadrian’s Wall again – but no, just a home match.

But here, I’m going to reimagine Newcastle and suggest that its most famous aspects – the bridges and the classical town planning – are at the expense of others and are in some ways detrimental.

Newcastle is unlike the other industrial cities, in that it was big and busy long before cranes and mills. It’s more akin to Bristol – although with a different atmosphere.

Old pictures show how bumpy Newcastle is. Planners from the 19th C tried to flatten those bumps and to make straight and flat roads for cars and rail. That has been done with the loss of many of the timbered buildings, allowing transport to dominate the hills.

Newcastle’s 7 bridges are interesting because they come in a clump. But they are not all interesting individually. I like the two which are at river level.

But commerce requires that bridges are high to allow not only ships in but to carry mechanised transport. Even though the two bridges with moving parts are the best.

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The Tyne Bridge is distinctive and shapely, but when you walk under it or even over it, you’re overwhelmed by the size of the supports and the roar of vehicles. Great warehouses in its legs rise up, eerie and unused, whilst High Level Bridge (above) has huge struts like warring Transformers that cut through Newcastle’s oldest buildings. The tails of these bridges end at the brow of a gradual hill, meaning that their span is much wider than the 500 feet of river, and that each bank has a looming overhead metal monster with twisting complicated roads.

Especially in Gateshead, these spoil the town and so there’s little there other than the Sage and Baltic, and then hotchpotch hotels and slip roads. St Mary’s church yard – Gateshead’s only old building – is clipped by the Tyne Bridge.

And Newcastle castle garth is hewn in two by the railway, one of two buildings I would have avoided running the tracks The Victorians instead managed to sever the Keep from its gatehouse, and the peg timbered tenement communities of Dog Leap Stairs.

The more recent motorways mean that you can’t go north or west of the centre without encountering a large fast concrete snake.


My other issue is the planning of the 1830s. Grainger is so celebrated that a whole section of the centre is named after him. He has his own street and market.

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But I’m not sure that this man is as worthy as Newcastle makes him. It’s unusual that a builder is famous, rather than who designed what he made. Apart from Dobson, we might not know the names of Grainger’s architects – the Green brothers, Walker, Wardle, and Oliver. We do know Grainger’s chum Clayton, town clerk and advisor, who also gets his own street, and is probably the reason that Grainger was able to do what he did to Newcastle and have his plan chosen, even over the architect he worked with.

Even the English Heritage book about his titular town concedes that Grainger was ruthless and not philanthropic; he courted the rich and those who became so; he was also reckless, in his speculative and radical scheme which threatened his financial stability.

I squirmed that a builder’s death meant tolling bells and shut shops, but it is incongruous that such a local hero should have his debts carried posthumously for 40 years. His wholesale buying and destroying – he knocked down the first theatre royal in 3 hours of acquiring it and the mansion Anderson Place – would not be possible under current new ownerships which made restoration of the area so difficult.

Let me be clear that I am glad of the 1990s restoration of the Granger Town project. Let me also say that despite not being bothered by repetitive and rule based classical architecture – I prefer Edinburgh’s Old Town to new and York to Bath – that I do really like Grainger’s streets. One especially which I’m going to suggest is in the wrong place. But the warm stone and the scale is irresistible. Especially the curve of the best street whose breadth anticipates the motor car that Grainger cannot have foreseen.

But he could have foreseen the railway. Central Station, also with great pleasing curvature, was built by one of his colleagues. By the time Grey Street was being planned, the railway era was dawning.

The Lort Burn had been in the way for some time, but that no-one had filled it in yet was fortuitous. Grainger, coming into the age of rail, could have used that ravine as an open train tunnel, naturally cutting through into the city, as at Brighton. If he had money and inclination to fill and flatten the Lort, could he not have widened and used what was there instead?

My way would mean that the railway cuts the city longitudinally rather than vertically. Although it’s nice for rail passengers to see Newcastle from the train up high, it’s not nice for people in Newcastle to have to look at all those viaducts which carve up both sides of the river like Scalextric loops and continue into Ouseburn and Byker.

It would mean that you cross the river at a lower level than the King Edward and High Level bridges. Although less dramatic, it is more aesthetic for the banks.

The bridges which work are those which aren’t that much higher than the water – eg Corbridge; Durham – or they spring from a sheer gorge, such as Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. These also don’t have houses underneath and don’t require an elevated lead up road on the land.

I wonder why no real road was made – and hasn’t been yet – down to the place that the Tyne has been forded since Roman times. Why didn’t Grainger – who cast off so much of his predecessor Stephenson’s work, who might have been just as famous – widen Dean St and the Side?

It took another century for a real river crossing from a road which also didn’t terminate properly. How did the pilgrims get up Pilgrim Street til the 1920s? The Great North Road (today’s A1) is ancient and so it’s all the more surprising that this had not been done earlier.

Why not a wider dual use bridge, such as at Sunderland, or a double decker but with more space (more like Tower Bridge) – rather than the crammed together decks of the High Level which make the bottom bunk cramped and something you’re only too glad to get over.

When I see older pictures of Newcastle – such as a c1600 vista – I sigh. I also wonder how Grainger’s town looked before it was sliced by trains, and if Grainger had lived a little later, if he could have protected his work from ravages as great as those a century later under T Dan Smith.

Note that both these men had equally radical visions for the city.

Newcastle wasn’t bombed, and yet it’s suffered at the hands of its own developers.

I’d keep Grey Street of course – I’d have made that where Pilgrim Street is, leading to the Tyne Bridge, but the road needs lowering to make the arch aesthetic and to match the sloping roads through it.

Tall ships didn’t need to come through for long – no bridge was enough for the Mauretania!

Most cargo stopped at Newcastle, not passed though, and then building moved towards the sea where there are no bridges – I wish the cantilever at Shields had been built.

So the higher level is unnecessary.

The Gateshead side needs to looks as good – for it’s one thing to view from it (such as inside the Sage) but another to be on the Newcastle side and see scruffy disjointedness. What Grainger did right was to make the centre of Newcastle joined up. I like that he made his plan a triangle – like Bristol’s Park St – but not at the expense of the interesting topography that had been preserved for so long.

I’d have less but better bridges and less rail track so that useless brownfield sites are not created, and the slicing of the city is minimised, and I’d have kept more timbered buildings and Anderson Place and its gardens.

Elspeth Town – the other Newcastle! If only I’d been born a century or two earlier…


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.



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 Southwell (and Newark again)

I’m doing the cathedrals of England, and I’m nearly done. The big ones, that is. I’m less bothered by parish church cathedrals, and even less so by most of the catholic ones. It’s not the title, it’s the church itself; so I’m more keen to see Beverley Minster and Sherborne Abbey as I am those churches with a place for a bishop’s bum who are upgrades of quite ordinary ecclesiastical edifices.

The ones left now are mostly in places that I’ve not been able to get to yet, but I made a special effort to go to Nottinghamshire, rising at dawn and being in transit for 5 hours to get there, and quite a complicated journey.

Southwell had seemed a little bottom of the pack. My first cathedral book, which I was given on my 21st birthday, doesn’t even have a picture of it. Other books put it in the minor, back of the book category, with small pictures which mostly focus on those leaves.

That seems to be Southwell’s main glory – freestanding foliage made of thin stone. It’s almost as if the rest of the minster isn’t needed – just that little polygonal chapter house. And even then, only the bit round the door and the seat decorations.

Well, the leaves weren’t the bit that I went for, nor what I took away.

I’ve decided that I rather like Nottinghamshire. I don’t think I’ve seen its countryside before. There’s a swathe of midlands-ish particular shade of red brick that goes right across England; and against the verdant green that’s close to the shade of a certain legend’s clothing, it was a pleasing experience to view.

I got back to Newark too – I’ll tell you about that later – but both towns enhanced my view of the county, and both had similar qualities.

I arrived in Southwell, which can pronounced both ways, locals tell me, via a bus which can arrive anytime in 15 minutes of the advertised time. So beware Stagecoach’s 28s and 29s from Newark to Mansfield.

I first saw Easthorpe — a kind of village tacked on to Southwell, where the Bramley apple comes from. It melds into one of the few main streets of Southwell, and the minster popped out as a kind of surprise. I like to savour that first moment of a first meeting, but here it was, unprepared.

This is a seriously good church. It’s quite big too, and not at all minor.

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My first view of Southwell Minster

The friendliness I experienced at the minster desk (though one guide couldn’t see the rudeness of asking her colleague for a permit in the midst of her talking to me), and at the Tourist Information Centre was excellent. The TIC had been so helpful prior to my visit. It’s little but well stuffed with all about Nottinghamshire, and is far better than the new one at Newark which tries to look flash and feels clinically white and trying too hard. It didn’t even have the excellent town trails about itself that its sister at Southwell did.

There was one thing that spoiled the day, and I know I can’t write more without telling you what it was. The minster was having a concert that night. It was strewn with mounted lights, wires, and the loud mouths of those setting up who had no respect for the building that they were in or that visitors might want a different atmosphere. No it’s not just another concert hall, another job – it’s a sanctuary and I mean in the sense of being peaceful and set apart, whether or not yours is the Christian God or particularly the church of England. I bet other faiths don’t let this go on, I thought. I thought it even more later, but I will save expanding on that for a post on the city concerned.

Suffice to say that my journey that day included 3 towns but I am only doing the two in Notts here.

Southwell Minster is free to enter – hurrah – but its photo permits are quite a lot at £5 and I’m not sure what I feel about charging for the right to take pictures. There’s a berth between the 300 photo snapper and those who take “just one of the nave”. I’d have resented paying for a pass that day when the minster was not looking its best inside.

Oh, but what a church! If you like Norman architecture, GET HERE! I recently did a ‘facetious, wicked and opinionated’ talk on the best place in England to see the Normans, and I didn’t get time to come here. I should have – for there are several things which make Southwell stand out. It’s the only church left to have a pair of complete Norman western towers. This once common arrangement is well exemplified here, and helps us imagine the many lost or altered abbeys with such a frontage. It also has a third Norman tower at the crossing. And it has lead clad pyramid spires, the sort that we think the Normans actually built. This is at least the 3rd lot, and annoyingly, the grain goes in the wrong direction – it should be herringbone, pointing like the spire, not straight down, Mr Gilbert Scott!

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Sorry, I no longer have a wide angled camera

It has Norman detail everywhere, looking mostly recently restored, but without the heavy hand of the emu (my name for Victorian restorers, because they peck at things and spoil them). Its favourite motif is the cable mould, so there are rope patterns round arches, along sides of walls (‘string courses’), and at least 3 good Norman doorways and an interesting porch.

Southwell may be smaller than the other great Eastern Cathedrals, but it’s no less lovely or impressive.

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Southwell Minster’s crossing

It’s a bit dark inside though – this is one of the few churches with still Norman shaped windows, and it has only 2 rows of them instead of the usual 3, so that the galleries (‘triforium’) are unlit. I’m not sure what I think of the roof: being round like the general spirit and rhythm is right – but it both feels a further darkener and isn’t quite right. The aisles are satisfyingly and contemporarily vaulted.

And what of the non Norman bit? I’m usually not bothered by early English and feel annoyed when it has taken over from the Romanesque I so enjoy. But I like the choir here. It is lighter, and a place to linger.

Digital CameraAnd as for the leaves? I had to look hard to imagine why these were singled out as the great medieval carvings. I recall the Saxon tympanum stone more, and the cables that I’ve already mentioned. The chapter house is as usual a pleasing and quieter space, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others.

Southwell’s got a ruined medieval palace which you can visit a small but grand roofed part of for free, with an overdone soundscape and video. There are gardens but much is roped off and marked, incendiarily, as private. I was more cross when I worked out that the Bishop probably lives here.

I didn’t got to the out of town workhouse, which makes me so angry. “Imagine the Victorian Poor” says the National Trust leaflet. I think many of us fear for the late Elizabethan poor, which we might be ourselves, and how the founder’s ethos of “an empty workhouse is a successful one” might reflect welfare policy today. I’d rather put my efforts into changing that ethos. I don’t think a visitor attraction with an entry fee is what Oxfam means by “Make Poverty History”.

The town is little, and doesn’t take long to walk round, but there are many shops and cafes and it’s upmarket. There are country-feeling walks in easy reach, but I ended up getting cross with all those big prebend’s houses.

I found three hours here was suffice, and also I didn’t trust that bus.

So I’ve given myself little time and space again for Newark, but I liked the York-like feel of it, and I did three things which I couldn’t last time.

I got in the church – not as special quite as I’d hoped, again, quite dark, with the organ console positioned for maximum attention. Who are we worshipping, I wondered?

St Mary M’s is huge and I liked the coloured ceiling.

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I also entered the hard to find little local museum and gallery, which involves a lift, inside the town hall and buttermarket – the beige stone building in the large market place. One member of staff was sensitive to my interest and schedule – unlike a colleague – but I was able to view a very splendid Georgian ball room.

The TIC — which was small but well formed, by Castle Station – has moved, next to the Palace theatre on Appleton Gate, and in with the new Civil War museum.

I sensed the Richard III experience at Leicester in all ways of this £8 new attraction, and left well alone. (You’ll see what I mean in my next post).

The stations are apparently not as far apart as I estimated – but I think that the online distances are wrong. At full speed, which is quite rapid, it took 20 mins to walk from Newark Northgate to the bus station. I meandered (and got stuck in a housing and industrial development) between the Castle and Northgate stations, but I made a discovery – there’s a river path, much nicer than either Appleton or Northgate streets, which passes barges and warehouses as well as greenery. It’s unlit and it’s quite weird in one place, being forced off the river path, then invited back on it by ALDI supermarket, down a rough path, where a new bridge reassuringly appears. On the Castle station side, the walk becomes pastures, but you need to be on the bank with Zizzi and Pizza Express to access Northgate station as there’s not a bridge again till beyond the point you need to cross. They could make that a proper, nice walk, and I do wish that NNG station (that’s it’s code name) had something round it to do or eat/shop – not just a tiny cafe within the gated station.

I am mentally spending more time in the Midlands and may soon return with further adventures – cinematic, literary, mental and actual.




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.



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.


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.

Elspeth’s Quest For Britain’s Best Stately Home

I really ought to say England’s Best Stately Home for I don’t know of any I like yet in Scotland and Wales, but left the title should I discover some and want to add them in.

Reader’s recommendations are welcome – please comment if you think you know somewhere I’d like.

But I have very specific criteria – pre 1700, avoidance of chintz, Victorians, and I also care about the morals of the owners.  I’m also uncomfortable about displays of wealth for their own sake – slightly ironic, I know.

Basically, this is about Medieval, Renaissance and earlier Stuart homes – timber roofed great halls, carved panelling, plastered ceilings, ornate chimney pieces, high kitchens and open fireplaces, big (especially bay) windows.

I shall go around England in groups.

Old Rufford

Old Rufford, Lancs

My first is the STRIPY BLACK AND WHITE TIMBERED houses that grace the west of England, especially the north west, in Cheshire and Lancashire. I immediately come across my first gripe –

Most stately homes are one room wonders.

Out of the 6 – 26 rooms you might see – even 66 in a big palace – I find myself lingering and wanting postcards of no more than 2. Old Rufford’s got my favourite great hall, but it’s a little too carved – I’m not sure I’d want to do much in it, because it’s quite overwhelmingly rich. Little Moreton has a justly famous long gallery. The others are on my wish list, including Ordsall in Salford. Others – like Speke – are places I’m glad to have been, but have no special favourite rooms.


Another group is a county, and it’s all wish list. An extra reason, beyond the buildings themselves, is their familiarity as filming locations. Haddon Hall in DERBYSHIRE has been in 4 of the most recent Jane Eyre adaptations, three of them as Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, although the real inspiration is meant to be close to Bronte’s native Haworth in Yorkshire. Haddon’s a fortified medieval manor with a great hall and a splendid long gallery. (See where I set my Jane Eyre). Another stately home shown in those Jane Eyres is Bolsover, a castle, but being mostly 17th C and not fortressy, I felt it belonged here. I dislike ruined castles but I find the roofless block here appealing. The stables even are impressive and there’s an amazingly detailed Star Chamber. Lyme House stood in for Pemberley in the BBC 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, but it’s the unseen interiors of the Elizabethan house encased in the classical one which make me include it. The elephant I’m not saying ties into another home by the same family – Ms Shrewsbury of “I think I’m Queen Elizabeth” fame. (I sort of sympathise!) There’s another  pleasant ruin by Bess of Hardwick’s glassy mansion whose grandest room is practically a Presence Chamber with a heraldic canopy over a conspicuous chair. She’s got a long gallery, rich tapestries and room height marbled chimneys – but what’s happened to her ceilings? (I’m suspicious some later owners zapped the plasterwork I’m expecting).


Burghley near Stamford on the East Anglia/Midlands border

Hardwick Hall leads me to my next group – the PRODIGY HOUSES, spread about England, which are late 16th C and supposed to be for impressing the above Queen, should she visit. They are near palaces in themselves, full of renaissance details with stone facades. The largest of all – Holdenby Hall – is now dead, except for a small wing which in no way hints at what once stood there. Its builder, Christopher Hatton (Elizabethan Wayne Sleep?), didn’t even get to welcome his beloved Queen. All these homes – Nottingham’s Wollaton Hall, Stamford’s Burghley, Longleat in Wiltshire – look fantastic outside. But inside, there’s little Elizabethan going on. At least Burghley has a strong theme from another era – the late 17th C, with its cascading wall and ceiling paintings. But only the kitchen is Tudor. Kirby in Northants (another Hatton job) is a favourite, although it is ruined, but in a good way – it’s got all the details, just no windows and roofs, except the stately bit. It too is special due to featuring in a familiar film – the 2000 version of Mansfield Park, my favourite Jane Austen adaption for being a naughty one. When I visited, the great hall was part restored, now yellow with a gold and blue ceiling; both it and the state rooms where pleasantly simple and empty. Now I hear they’ve brought these back with full furnishings – to Georgian times, though it’s a 16-17th building?! I’d rather they got that long gallery going again or left it as it is. Mind the peacocks! [Insert sound here!]


Kirby, Northants

I also single Longleat out chiefly because of its owner. Alexander Thynn is not your average marquess. His father put zoo animals in the park and opened it to the public. Alexander did more outrageous things. When I first glimpsed Lord Bath, it was on a leaflet for Longleat: on seeing a man in multicoloured clothes gesturing like a jester, I thought – that’s a magician. Then I saw the signature – in a hand quite unlike usual noble borns’ – and realised this was the owner, welcoming us in his normal garb. Brilliant! Alexander defected from the traditional Tory family seat in the House of Lords to the Liberals. He writes poetry and went to art college. He made bright murals depicting his struggle as [what colour sheep? -a bright one] of his family. His Karma Sutra murals wrestle with his former sexual hangups – which he overcame quite dramatically, judging by his wifelets.

Somewhere else privately owned with cool contemporary paintings is Athelhampton in Dorset. Not sure what the pyramid trees mean (I’m suspicious about secret messages in parterres, even the guidebook hints at it) but this lovely manor house has a great Great Hall and several other good (ie contemporary) rooms – and best of all, it felt welcoming and lived in. In the attic is two of my favourite things – a cinema, and modern paintings. The former even showed a film of itself, From Time to Time, a gentle ghost story with Maggie Smith that didn’t get anything like a suitable theatrical airing; the latter is from Russian cubist Marevna who visited in the 1950s.

 Christchurch Ipswich, SuffolkChristchurch Ipswich

I shouldn’t have taken this, but I am naughty!

I also commend Ipswich’s Christchurch Mansion for being free, unstuffy and community friendly. I remember the day Asian music was drifting through the servant’s hall for school event. It also has modern paintings in it – in a changing gallery off the fake marble entrance hall, and an upstairs area which includes impressionist Philip Wilson Steer’s work. My favourite rooms are all pinched from elsewhere, such as the 16th C bedchamber (above), the hall below it and the Wingfield panelling you almost miss on the way to the Wolsey gallery. Christchurch leads me into my penultimate group – the RED BRICK ones – which occur on the east side of England from the south coast as far up as Yorkshire. Like the stripy ones, they look fabulous outside, but often disappoint within. At least the stripy ones usually retain great hall and chamber or long gallery of the period. But many of the red ones don’t even have that. I can only think of one which looks how I’d hope on the inside – Hatfield, in Hertfordshire.

Hatfield oldHatfield New

Hatfield Herts: Old and New

Hatfield is exciting to me because the old part is where Queen Elizabeth I grew up. The newer part is connected with her advisor, the Cecils (also at Stamford, above mentioned). The only remaining part of Elizabeth’s time is one side of a quadrangle containing a great hall, built on the cusp of her family’s era. It’s long and open timbered at the roof, of especially mellow brick with just enough furnishing to make it homely. The main house was wrongly used in Sally Potter’s Orlando, for it wasn’t built til after Quentin Crisp’s ‘Eliza our fairest queen’ (as sung by Jimmy Somerville) had passed on. But it’s a splendid Jacobean house, though you see little of it on visiting. There’s a post medieval style great hall, slightly heavy in décor, and a wonderful staircase with the Rainbow portrait of ER I, and one of the best long galleries where you see Lizzie’s little gloves, as well as letters from her and her contemporaries. The other rooms are later, except ceilings and chimneys and also a little overdone – which is also true of fellow Jacobean and once vast Audley End, not far off in Essex.

Stately Homes4 - Copy.jpg description

Audley End and Layer Marney, both in Essex

Layer Marney is a tower without a house. I believe it’s the earliest surviving renaissance architecture in England. I think its 80ft high dolphin decorated gate would go well with Hampton Court, also of the 1520s. This is going to lead to my final Quest in this group, as I’m running out of space here – PALACES – because my favourite houses are in fact, royal residences and they deserve a full post to themselves.

I finish with a wish list: Montacute Somerset, perhaps Chastleton, Oxfordshire… Gainsborough Lincs for being a perfect medieval hall, Penshurt in Kent, and Knole – courtyards, gates, ballrooms and a bisexual Bloomsbury bohemian – what’s not to like!?

Feel free to tell me more places to put on it. Her Ladyship is always looking for new homes!

The Elspeth Quest for Britain’s best Palaces will appear in the future, when this Faraway Tree land comes round again

A Day Out With Elspeth in Canterbury

I’m not one to often speak of road numbers – I’m very conscious of Bill Bryson’s observation about that as a British past time – but my thoughts of Canterbury begin at the A2, the London to Dover road. You have the same view from the Eurostar – it’s the sight of the hunched up shoulders of Canterbury cathedral that warns you’re about to go into European turbo mode. The tower seems tall from some angles and not tall enough from others, for the cathedral that seems scrunched from the front is huge length ways, I believe within 10 feet of Europe’s longest medieval cathedral (which is Winchester, should you care, 556 ft). Canterbury’s like an over stretched slug with too small a steering wheel from the south/north.

Yes, like the Volkswagen indie cinema adverts, I see things differently.

It is pleasant to be in a walled city, and one with little traffic within them. I’m not a huge car-banner but it was so much more tranquil and safe. It’s even nicer to have a major medieval gate to welcome you – something that only a handful of British towns have. I consider Westgate as a burley but friendly door keeper.

Unlike Winchester, there’s a bit more to Canterbury than the obvious main street that presents itself both for shopping and exploring (of course Winchester has other streets but perhaps few with attractions and cafes?). Canterbury is good for cafes. The high street changes its name a few times and extends beyond the Westgate to St Dunstan’s street, which is also pretty and full of inns of pilgrims who missed the curfew.

The city side of the gate, it’s St Peter’s Street and this is the more attractive end with independents and eating options, becoming High Street briefly around the Eastbridge where there’s a medieval hospital you can visit (with a volunteer in the mould of the man in Duckula who recited the digits of pi) and the much pictured weaver’s tearooms (where you pick up a punt tour). Boho cafe here lives up to its name – there is a quite a streak of this in Canterbury, as was evidenced by a literary and music festival which was on when I visited.


As you head down (south east) the high street, towards where Westgate’s twin gate once was, you get to the post war high street shopping. This used to feel ugly and incongruent, but since the mid 1990s, it was mostly rebuilt in that short window when planning was sensitive. Gone is the multistorey car park that dominated the city as much as the amphitheatre on its site must have. Whitefriars shopping is a warm red brick; what was Gap clothes shop is in the traditional local pantiled c1600 style, and New Look nearby has a modern twist on a Dutch gable. This was all gratifying to someone who knew Canterbury during the modernist era and saw that most blights have gone.

New ones have arrived. The yellow 1930s cinema made a nice theatre, but now the Marlowe is all glass and shines blue at night, vying in attention with the cathedral from Tyler’s Hill at the university. Canterbury still has little by way of the arts, and save the Gulbenkian at UKC (read my visit here) which isn’t easy to access for non drivers all year round, there’s the two screen Odeon or this receiving Theatre Royal-like all rounder named, as many things are, after the locally connected playwriting Christopher. Yes Canterbury’s only about 40,000 people, no it’s not Kent’s county or largest town (that’s Maidstone), but being a famous cathedral and university city, one would hope for a little more perhaps, especially as it does serve much of east Kent as a retail/entertainment destination.

The other new cultural bit which was an unwelcome change was the Beaney extension. The heavily Victorian museum, gallery and library has a modern wing onto Best Lane, and has NO tourist information centre worth speaking of – for one of Britain’s most visited cities?! Thinking of getting guides, leaflets, things to do, places to eat ideas or souvenirs? Wrong. Thinking of planning a trip in the area or getting a holiday brochure for the rest of the country? Forget it. I really don’t know where this scaled down TIC trend is coming from, but it’s stupid. Where do the tourists go? The TIC used to be huge and multilingual, and its former site by the Canterbury Tales is now a tearoom with prices higher than the 17th C newelled staircase but fare that is less fancy.

Canterbury’s been good at tidying in my absence elsewhere, including scruffy Stour Street, or has my taste just changed? I quite liked wandering the back streets which seemed a little more industrial than twee (I found a bonded warehouse or two). The only bit that seriously needs doing, and I understand is earmarked, is opposite the modern Sainsbury’s and Kingsmead leisure centre, which feels more of a dump than ever since so little of Canterbury is now.


Go down the side streets. All of them, and keep wandering. There’s quite a network. If you hit the city walls but see old beyond them, keep walking. You find interesting Northgate, St Augustine’s abbey ruins to the east, and even Wincheap’s worth a little wander, or the area just off New Dover Road. One of my favourite streets is Palace Street, which leads to Northgate and runs to short but sweet Sun Street (now with a shite marketing name I won’t repeat). Timbered fronted Conquest House and no 8 appear in guidebooks (if you can find one, mine are old) but there’s more to view, such as the Palace gate that’s had a staircase put where the entrance arch is. Like much round here, it’s part of the King’s (cathedral private) school, and there’s an Oxbridge/Eton parallel, not wholly welcome. Peek round the corner past the wonky house to St Radegund’s hall, a cool pub currently known as the Parrot with a lovely open timbered dining room upstairs.

Canterbury3 Canterbury9

Want to see these? Pay up or lose out forever

Now I must start my cathedral whinge. £10.50, not just to go in the church, but to ENTER THE PRECINCT. It means if you don’t pay, the nearest you’ll get to seeing the Anglican mother church is through the back windows of the cathedral café (by the main gate, in a building more interesting than the food) or by the new cathedral shop’s back door. Even locals who qualify for a pass can’t wander through the other entrances as they once could. I was shocked by the amount of prohibitive signs and directivity. I wanted to reply that for £10 (only London’s great churches charge more in the UK), I should be able to wander where I wish in what order I want. I contrast with Norwich, where you’re thanked for not parking here and people sit and even kick balls on the grass and wander the labyrinth in the cloister. And then when I asked for a annual pass (not offered) I am required to fill in my details and have them verified and retained and to prove myself. I realised I may have walked into the gates of that once favourite cathedral for the last time. (Read my thoughts on Keep Cathedrals Free and on the 2016 gun guards)

Canterbury would feel weird without going in the cathedral, as the precincts (as the Close is called here) takes up almost a quarter of the walled city and is by far the tallest and most noticeable building. There is much to linger and enjoy in this city, though for holiday purposes, I’d say you’d need only a couple of days to get round the museums (it’s better value to buy a joint ticket for the Heritage and Roman ones) and try some cafes or do the river walk, for there’s not much far beyond the walls to explore. It is one of the most medieval feeling and atmospheric towns of Britain if not the continent, it’s charming, safe feeling but lively, and no French school parties squirting Kentish people this time. But for that £10.50 do I retain a sourness…