EAST ANGLIA, MAY 2007
Come to East Anglia; there’s no need to book, just turn up anywhere, find a Bed and Breakfast you like the look of (and price of) and snuggle in. So it was that we decided on a B&B holiday along England’s easterly edge, growing in confidence as we went from place to place until on our last night we saw a B&B we thought fitted the bill, and went off for tea while we waited for the owners to come back – nowhere was booked up solid in late spring.
Acton Lodge in Southwold won the award for the most overblown opulence in decoration, but also got top score for breakfast – smoked haddock with a poached egg and tomato. Otherwise Full English was the standing order – fine for a spot of motorway building but a little heavy for a day of casual sightseeing.
That Southwold breakfast was memorable for another reason. Three couples gathered round the table to eat. The young lady opposite me tucked into her fish cakes by eating them off her knife – which was a bit unusual for someone apparently in her late twenties. However, she then licked off her knife and proceeded to dip it into the communal jar of tartare sauce! I resisted any thought of scooping a bit of her DNA, oral bacteria and goodness knows what else on to my plate.
An early port of call was Frinton, which was a place that has long fascinated me because of its reputation as the last bastion of the true England. As we drove across the level crossing that was Check Point Frinton between the slovenly hordes of Essex and the polite refinement of the town I had high hopes
I expected a place where every house sported the ‘Radio Times’ and a Rover saloon, and the only wireless devices were made by Roberts and tuned into the Light Programme. I imagined a smart esplanade of neat white houses looking out to sea. No yoofs and lots of colonels. Nothing of the sort – instead a rather dreary high street of dated shops. Legend has it there are no fish and chip shops in Frinton – untrue; and worse, there was a planning application in for a Betfred betting shop
I wanted steak and kidney pudding for tea, followed by apple pie and a decent cup of tea. Instead the choice was curry or Chinese. I opted for a curry, but the curry house was full, and so I made the ghastly mistake of ordering a prawn curry at the Chinese. Now the oriental starters were excellent, but what followed was Prawns a la Bisto – unquestionably one of the worst dishes I have ever had. But a fitting memory of Frinton.
On the whole though the food was good. We picked the casings, legs, heads, eggs and yellow pusy bits off brown shrimps freshly caught and boiled at Southwold. The meat was tiny but tasty. And we had dressed Cromer crab, which I am told is among the most flavoursome of crabs, and certainly was excellent with boiled new potatoes and a salad.
As for towns, Aldburgh had narrow streets that ran parallel to the pebbly beach, and attracted an arty London crowd. Southwold was laid out in a more random way and boasted an excellent pier and agreeable Adnams ale – brewed right in the middle of town.
Cromer had its illuminations on. These consisted of coloured light bulbs creating small outlines of crabs, fishes, etc. atop perhaps thirty poles along the front. A truly meagre display, especially at night in the rain. As an economy the good burghers of Cromer had even adorned these lights with tinsel so that they could double as Christmas decorations
Sheringham was much jollier, although there was concern in the little town over the potential arrival of Tesco. Signs in the shop windows say it would be bad for the town and threaten local businesses. I didn’t see any signs in the windows of people’s houses though.
Wells-next-the-Sea should be taken to Trading Standards, as it’s nowhere near the sea, which picked up its stuff and left centuries ago. Even so there was a lively harbour with a channel to the main, and a sense of money around. One of few places I’ve been where the dock road sports a deli.
The sea’s retreat round here was not just about nature. A botched bit of civil engineering 200 years ago left Cley-next-the-Sea completely high and dry, whilst the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons managed to mess things up so badly at Dunwich that all but a couple of its streets are under water.
Heading inland we had a day walking round Norwich, which has loads and loads to see. The cathedral was big and impressive. All the stone was brought over from Caen in Normandy – probably 100,000 tons of it. This took place in the twelfth century, and puts the logistical problems of getting peas picked, frozen and into Sainsbury’s within days into some kind of perspective
Funnily enough, on the outskirts of Norwich is the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. Sir Normal Foster designed this huge and audacious building to house just three hundred works of art bequeathed by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury. Mind you, the collection was probably worth over £100 million so it’s sensible to have a nice place to put it.
For me a holiday is not complete without a train ride and a boat ride. For the train we took the narrow gauge line from Wells to Walsingham. It boasts of being the longest ten and a quarter inch gauge line in the world – it was also probably the most boring. Virtually straight track, plodding for four miles over a succession of large East Anglian fields.
On the return trip we met a couple (in one of the tiny claustrophobic carriages) who were obvious veterans of this kind of thing. Hubby had already got through three rolls of film and was keen to explain that he had foregone digital and returned to an old SLR and black and white to get more intense light and dark in his photos. The Henri Cartier-Bresson of narrow gauge railway operation.
Walsingham was the site of a shrine, which is something that feels a little out of place in sceptical, secular Britain. The history is complicated but the current buildings were built from about 1920. The main church (which was quite small) contains a replica of the House of Mary. Since the shrine was Anglican I would had expected the atmosphere in the church to be light, quiet and reflective. Instead it had an intense feeling, with heavy dark wood timbers and lots of symbolism. The cafeteria did excellent cake.
As National Trust members we have a bounden duty to get round as many as possible every year. I don’t know what the record is for one afternoon, but we managed four between two o’clock and five one Sunday.
First was Grange Barn near Ipswich. This massive, unique and astounding structure had been allowed to practically fall down by some wooden headed son of the soil before it was finally purchased compulsorily – I hope for a derisory amount, frustrating the old codger’s dream of building a clutch of exclusive executive homes where it stood.
Then came Paycocke’s at Coggeshall, home of a medieval wool magnate; Melford Hall, an Elizabethan mansion; and finally the Guildhall at Lavenham. This last was reached by a mad dash along Suffolk lanes, taking a racing line and really putting my Seat Alhambra 1.9 Tdi people carrier through its paces. Imagine the thrill, folks.
I had a 1962 film of John Betjemin taking a train from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton. The track has gone but I wanted to see what had happened to the stations and the places. He talked about ‘Hunston’, not Hunstanton, but when I asked for directions to ‘Hunston’ locals just said, “you mean Hunstanton”. He called one place on the line ‘Snet-sham’ instead of Snettisham, and again locals gave a similar story. It occurred to me that this truncating of names was a bit of an affectation of our late poet laureate, and that if you telephoned him he would probably have picked up the phone and said, “Betjum here”.
Hunstanton is known as Sunny Hunny and was notable because it’s in the east yet faces west, so you can watch the sun go down over the sea. Alas it was Runny Hunny when we got there, and you couldn’t see the sun let alone watch it set. The old station was gone and had been replaced by a stunningly awful parade of 1970s shops and arcades. The 800 foot pier blew down thirty years ago
There was practically nothing of Snettisham station, but Wolferton was a different story. It was about three miles from Sandringham and so served as the royal station for almost a century. It was beautifully restored and opened as a museum, but the Sandringham estate refused to let a brown tourist sign be put up on the main road to direct people to visit it. So it was sold off and was now divided into several homes – thankfully retaining the station features.
Thence to Sandringham – a place that has all the grace and charm of an isolation hospital. The grounds are lovely – a municipal park on a grand scale – but the house was depressing. I couldn’t imagine a worse place to spend Christmas, let alone make a broadcast to the peoples of the Commonwealth.
The whole royal thing intrigues me. On the one hand you had extraordinary craftsmanship and artistry in the finest china dinner services and silver candelabra; then you had comforting reminders that the royal family are just like us. They may sup off Meissen, but the Meissen sits on the same kind of cork backed place mats we all buy from M&S – except that the queen’s had pictures of her race horses on them.
We had heard that King’s Lynn was a dump and so decided to investigate for ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may be surrounded by Campbell’s tinned food factories and the like but it had a very historic and well restored centre that reflected its long history as an important port. It was closely connected with the Hanseatic league in the middle ages, hosted a whaling fleet, and was the home of a Mr Vancouver, who went off and founded somewhere in Canada
And it gave me my boat ride – a 60 pence two minute journey across the Ouse to West Lynn. The current owners of the ferry – a jolly couple who plied the river over fifty times a day – were the latest in a line of ferrymen and women that dated back to the 1300s.
We called in at Ely on the way home to see the lantern. Ely has a gigantic cathedral, and in 1322 the tower at the junction of the nave and the transept fell down. In an inspired move the bishop persuaded the king’s carpenter to come up and see what he could do
Rather than replace the stone tower he devised an octagonal lantern that, from the floor of the cathedral, appears to shoot up almost from nothing. Curved wooden ribbed vaulting links the ceilings of the nave, choir and transepts to an eight sided lantern of windows over a hundred feet above your head. Outside the trick becomes clear, as a massive stone barrel surrounds the lantern and holds it up.
The lantern was awesome to behold and for effect, if not for size, rivals Brunelleschi’s dome of Florence cathedral. Something that might have challenged even Norman Foster.
So East Anglia was well worth a trip, but take my advice – avoid Frinton, take a fresh look at King’s Lynn, and be sure to have Cromer crab.
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