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 the Suffolk Wool Towns

Part 1 – Lavenham

Note the updated comments in A Day Out With Elspeth in Lavenham

You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? If you’ve read my Coasthopper Bus or Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village pieces, you’ll know that I like Lavenham. I said it is my favourite village/small town in Suffolk, and perhaps wider. In my forthcoming Suffolk Churches piece, I reluctantly agree it is justly considered among the best churches of the county, though I do criticise it a bit.

In that latter piece, I show you my cunning angle to make that church look its best. Here’s a great picture courtesy of my Dad (as are all in this piece), which shows the mixed quality of Lavenham’s interior:

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It’s too wide and the chancel’s wrong, don’t you agree? It’s too dark and the window’s poky. But the light on the tracery is glorious!

I learned that the tower’s designer is John Wastell of Bury St Edmunds, whose portfolio includes Canterbury Cathedral and King College Chapel.

I was cross to learn that Cambridge colleges pick the vicars round here. And that once again, certain families dominate – like the one who built the house which was chosen for Harry Potter’s birthplace in the film – the De Veres. Anyone else think of To The Manor Born? For any youths reading this (ie, under 35s), this was a 1980s sitcom about Penelope Keith trying to get her shiny shoes under the table of the local gentry, who lived in the house that she thought she deserved. De Vere, the name of her love/hate neighbour, is also that of the Earls of Oxford, whose red and gold shield you no double have seen if you like nearby castles, alternative Shakespeare theories, or are interested in old and prestigious families. We met another of those later in the day, but I’m not saying which – it would tell you what the R stood for!

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I have sort of started this on the hoof, and I meant to more use the best of my word power to describe this village that was called “Suffolk’s Man-Made Wonder” in the subtitle of a 2008 book. But I’ve changed my view a bit since my last visit. Would I call it a wonder now? I remember one thing especially this visit:

Lavenham has a very practical problem. It’s not near anything much – even the next small town is about 8 miles away. And you can’t get out of it after 7pm without a car, or the help of the Lavenham Lambs prebook taxi service. So you’d hope that a village of nearly 2000, with many visitors, would have a cash point, yes? No – you can only get cash back when you have a minimum spend at Co-op. They must do well out of that arrangement! And do the shops and cafes take cards? Not the one we went to.

So that has coloured my view of Lavenham more than the varying interpretations of Suffolk pink.

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Reading guidebooks, I find some of my high opinion fading as I learn, once again, who has steered the town. My sister asked, astutely, why was Lavenham so rich in the cloth trade? I couldn’t think what in terms of natural position had made it so. I hate that often a town’s site is chosen for its defence or trading possibilities. But Lavenham’s not got much of a river; it’s hilly, but has never had a castle to my knowledge; and it’s miles from the sea. So why out of all the towns trying to be wealthy due to wool did this one do so well?

It seems that Lavenham’s wealth was due to the business attitudes of the local gentry, and that people came where work and money were, but that Lavenham fell as quickly as it rose. And that people abandoned it when its fortunes were not so good.

I am not going to repeat the claim of the guidebooks; I’ve not got England’s tax records to hand, and even if it were among the richest towns of medieval England, is that particularly impressive? It is odd that a place without a castle or cathedral or town walls, never in the running for county town, was supposedly richer than the capital of several shires.

We may be tempted to think of Lavenham as a wealthy place today – though I don’t have the income of its inhabitants to hand either, so I can only go by perception, as most of us can. But Lavenham has been poor as long as it has been rich. Those stripy buildings of the 15-16th centuries are only there because it was too poor to rebuild, I’m told; if it were fashionable in the 18th century, they’d have been pulled down and replaced. But Lavenham does have two prominent classical houses, so someone was wealthy or contemporary then.

I’m also told that Lavenham lived in squalor. Today, we might consider this the place that the wealthy live and shop. But it was the reverse in under a century. The “Man-made Wonder in the 21st Century” book proves the opposite of what some believe – that most people in Lavenham are tourists and holiday home owners, because many locals have a feature about them and my own perceptions were gladly confounded. The one I recall was a Canadian magician.

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Many of us would be grateful that the decline of the wool trade meant the preservation of Lavenham and other such towns today, but I was struck by the swift abandonment of the town and how it used to look quite different. When did it start to change and why?

I found one of those before and after books of old pictures, and I struggled to recognise Lavenham in some. It didn’t help that they’ve got the captions and photographs of Prentice and Shilling street confused. But it was clear that plaster covered the famous timber frames in living memory and that many of the seemingly authentic fittings are more recent replacements.

As I paste these photos – and I’ve not shown you every street or timbered building yet – I feel my draw to Lavenham return. I love the colours and the surprising mix of building materials. It also has examples of pargetting – ie plaster decoration. Do I care if the buildings’ appearance is due to renewal? Am I upset that the shop selling the £3000 Holly Hobby theatre up your skirt is gone? Am I glad that Elizabeth Gash has a branch here? Do I hanker after a meal at the Swan? And will I return to Sweetmeats cafe again after the tiny cake slices?

What’s coming back is why I twice cycled 40 miles to be here – ten times what I’d ever done to date; how the sight of those herringbone shaped streets of timber and plaster renewed my energy, how a smile of pleasure played on my hot cheeks. And how much I want that Portrait of Lavenham book – a slice of local history and the only existing in depth guide to the buildings. Can someone please reprint the late Tony Hepworth’s book! And why hasn’t his village got a bookshop any more? Or even a post office?

Manmade as much by near generations as medieval forebears, Lavenham is a wonder – but with too much making names and money. And what’s the story behind the De Vere star?

Mysteries to follow up. Meanwhile, go to the excellent Little Hall which is my favourite place in Lavenham and find out about locals who again will confound your idea of what Lavenhamites are – soldiers, artists and Egyptologists. See, you can’t judge a former town by its mullion and transomed lattice windows (circa 1930)!

There’ll be more Wool Towns anon.

 

 

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 at Sutton Hoo

 

 

or A Hoo Ha

or Horton hears a Hoo

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Woodbridge has its own day out on here.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Stowmarket

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Oh little town of Slowmarket

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The rest of the world goes by

And in thy dark streets shineth

And gathered all above

While locals sleep

the angels keep

Their watch of wondering love

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Don’t mock Slowmarket again!

 

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?

North Norfolk2 - Copy - Copy

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.

Lavenham1

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 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.