Our Travel blog
Saturday 16 July
Saturday morning found us in Lavenham with Alison’s parents. Alison used to work there so is familiar with the town and all its charms. It’s an almost perfect picture postcard place, or would be if it wasn’t for all the cars cluttering up the streets. Mind you they do serve as a reminder that the town isn’t a purpose built tourist attraction but a functioning settlement where people work, rest and play. We had a wander, drank tea and ate scones and ambled back to our vehicles along streets lined with well-tended hanging baskets and houses fronted by impressive floral displays. Of particular note is the large town carpark, which I was gratified to find was free but ‘welcomed donations’, which I think is a nice touch.
Goodbyes said we went our separate ways and we took Mavis northwards to Hemsby in Norfolk. On the way we passed a burger van cheekily advertising itself as Carlsburger in the green script familiar to fans of a certain Danish larger. Approaching Hemsby from Norwich we started going through holiday towns that rely upon tourists. One such place was Filby which declared itself ‘A lovely place to be’ on its elaborate village sign. A lovely place to be what I wondered. A smurf? Dead? Despite the inanity of the strapline it did indeed seem most becoming. The townsfolk obviously know how grow flowers; every lamppost had hanging baskets suspended from them and most of the gardens and civic amenities were enlivened by elaborate arrangements of colourful flowers. I think they should seriously consider amending their strapline to ‘A lovely place to be, unless you have hay fever’ though. Everywhere was very neat and tidy, almost sinisterly so. Alison felt it was the sort of place you’d soon get a visit from ‘the committee’ if your lawn wasn’t trimmed to the requisite length. We wondered if at the end of the season the hanging baskets were replaced by the heads of villagers who failed to maintain their gardens to a suitable standard.
I passed the time by inventing suitable inane straplines for other villages we passed through:
And so we rolled into Hemsby. We chose Hemsby because its home to a good site, close to a couple of places we want to visit and has the added bonus of being gloriously tawdry. If Southwold is the Waitrose of holiday resorts then Hemsby is the Happy Shopper; bold, cheap and unpretentious. I’ve stayed here, or hereabouts, on a few occasions; with my parents on at least one of our out of season jaunts and a couple of times accompanying adults who have a learning disability.
The village is split in two by the Yarmouth road. To the west lays the village proper; clustered around a school, modest shops and a social club are houses and bungalows of no great distinction. East of the road lay a few cul-de-sacs of neat retirement properties, the sort where the gardens are so well tended they appear artificial, the lawn gets cut twice a week because there’s nothing else to do and a fat little dog waddles up and barks half-heartedly when you walk passed. The road then gently falls away towards the sea and is lined with holiday villages. The old Pontins is shut up and derelict behind security fencing but at least three more are still going, although they all look like they’ve seen better times with peeling paint, hastily mowed untidy lawns and weedy carparks of loose gravel. One of them seems to be making a good go of it though, with colourful flowers, tidy lawns and retro chalets that look well kept. It feels like you’re walking passed a bit of a time warp. The clubhouses to these camps boast of dubious delights, ‘Stan Sings the Hits’, ‘Gary Page – hits of the 50’s to 70’s’ and whom amongst us could resist ‘Rita’s Red Hot Karaoke’?
Further down, the road becomes a pulsating neon glare, vulgar, noisy and smelling of burnt sugar and fried food. Along this strip wander portly men squeezed into football jerseys designed for trim athletic bodies, lads in vests that fall tantalisingly short of their sagging cut-off jeans and women with weathered hard faces, sticky children in tow and overexcited toddlers fighting sleep so they can have one more go on the mini dodgems. Older women play joyless bingo while their husbands sit outside reading the tabloids, their concession to being on holiday a pair of cheeky sandals to show off their crisp white socks.
Shops sell the usual array of cheap beachwear, confectionary in worryingly luminous colours and a new addition to the seaside (to us anyway) vaping supplies. There is a bewildering selection of accompaniments to choose from, including filters, batteries, various flavours and coils. I’m supposing this last one is a necessary part of vaping paraphernalia rather than holiday contraceptives. One shop that caught our eye had “New York, London, Paris, Rome, Hemsby” painted under its name. Call me Mr Cynical if you will but I find it hard to imagine a supplier of beach toys and vulgar postcards to have branches in the major cultural capitals of the world. I imagine the main culture in Hemsby requires antibiotics and a stern lecture from the clinic rather than hosting internationally renowned arts and fashion. One of the amusement arcades was called The Las Vegas. I wonder if there’s a Hemsby Casino in Las Vegas?
What Hemsby doesn’t seem to do is decent food, particularly of the vegetarian kind. The Dolphin pub, based on the site we are staying on, has nothing, absolutely zero, on its evening menu that would pass as vegetarian unless you count a plain baked potato as a meal. The pub in town boasts a selection of Vegi options with a proud green V next to them. One such is the Carrot and Courgette Spaghetti, served with sundried tomatoes and chicken breast. Now, I’m prepared to accept that some foodstuff can confuse. Cheese for example may have animal rennet in it. But what sort of brain dead nincompoop believes chicken is a variety of vegetable?
Talking of nincompoops, the gents shower block here has skylights installed to provide natural light and save electricity. All quite laudable except that at least a third of each one is taken up with a bulbous plastic wallet containing the guarantee documents. These aren’t a new installation, judging by the cobwebs and how much they’ve faded. Which just goes to show that nincompoopery is not confined to culinary matters in these parts.
Most establishments, the pubs and shops for example, have racks of glossy leaflets whose sole aim seems to be to convince you that everywhere else is more exciting than Hemsby. Which may very well be the case but we resisted the lure of boat trips, wildlife parks and model villages. This last one has always puzzled me; I’ve never quite understood the allure of a model village. My ever resourceful father used to take us to a hill overlooking a real town for exactly the same effect and all for free. A win-win as far as we were concerned.
For all its brashness, and even though it may be fuelled by calories and vulgarity, Hemsby is fighting a rear-guard action against foreign all-inclusive holidays and boutique resorts with all the pretentions they have on offer. Down the coast Southwold and Aldeburgh may have fancy beach huts, expensive restaurants, craft beers and shingle but Hemsby has chips, lager, fun and miles of fine golden sand with sheltered dunes and a shallow inviting sea. Everyone seems to be making the most of their time here to relax and enjoy themselves. It’s all very working class England in a way that’s slowly vanishing, but while it remains it’s a source of cheap, cheerful pleasure and long may it continue.
Sunday 17 July
We dallied around a bit and did laundry. The man in the site office, from where one purchases laundry tokens, seemed genuinely stumped when his stock phrase “you’re on holiday love, you shouldn’t be doing laundry” was met by Alison’s deadpan “we’re not on holiday”. He stuttered, stumbled with the tokens and ummed and errred until we’d departed. I suspect we’re now on some site black list warning other parks of the odd couple who book into sites just to wash their undies. Karen and Barry, if you are reading this – beware!
All this laundry frivolity was only the pre-cursor to today’s main attraction though, for we had an evening appointment to watch the stock cars and banger racing at the nearby Great Yarmouth Stadium. We’ve both got histories of attending these events, Alison with her mother’s parents and me with my father. We used to go to a grass track in Suffolk, cheerfully devoid of all but the most basic safety precautions. Dodging a bouncing tyre was all part of the fun. Latterly I took my children to the small shingle circuit just outside Braintree in Essex until the A140 was built over it. Occasionally we’d really splash out and go to the proper concrete oval in Ipswich or at Lakeside. These were high octane affairs with plenty of spills, which, let’s face it is the main attraction of motorsport. It’s all very well watching a parade of F1 cars whizz round a track but the real excitement happens when a car gets airborne or catches fire, ideally both. If there’s an occasional limb spiralling past so much the better.
So we found ourselves a spot on the grass bank and watched cars crashing into each other. The banger racing seemed to be taken particularly seriously by the crowd, and attracted most of the pit crews alongside the spectators. Cars rolled, bounced off each other and the track sides in a cacophony of screeching tyres, crunching metal, roaring engines and noxious oily fumes. It was terrific fun and one of us squealed and leapt about at every minor prang or nifty bit of overtaking and expressed genuine sorrow for the people who had to retire mid race.
On the way home, in one of those moments that even with the benefit of hindsight I simply cannot explain, I fell off my bike. In fact, to be entirely accurate, I was walking it across a busy road. One minute I’m sauntering out into a gap in the traffic and the next I’m laying underneath my bicycle looking up at the car coming my way. I bounced up before my limbs had a chance to protest, behind me Alison waved the car down until I’d shuffled onto the pavement where she joined me. It was over in a flash and I was enjoying a jolly good swear when Alison, a look of affectionate pity on her face, took me gently in her arms, planted a kiss on my forehead and gently whispered in my ear “only you could fall off a bike you weren’t riding dear”. Presently, with little more than a bruised ego and sore knee to show for it we cycled back to Mavis.
Monday 18th July
We decided that after the excitement of yesterday a walk would do us good. Alison had fond memories of visiting nearby Winterton with former work colleagues so we set off along the beach in that direction. As we headed across the dunes we saw a bird of prey swoop down and settle in a clearing. As we’ve already established my ornithological skills are such that I just said, ‘look, a birdy’ while Alison identified it as a bird of prey. Anyhow there is photographic evidence so do let us know what it is. Anyone who says Robin is disqualified from further competitions.
After this flurry of activity we strolled along the beach and let the sea lap over our feet. In the heat of the day, this wasn’t going to be a quick walk anyway. It was around 23oC when we left and promised to rise as the day went on so cold toes and a gentle sea breeze was welcome.
Winterton itself is a pleasing little community, sedate and tidy. It had a variety of old cottages, many in the local flint, and a couple of shops, one of which seemed to have changed little since around 1950 except, maybe, some of the stock. It was in here we stood with ice creams gently melting while the proprietor served people ahead of us while keeping up meandering conversations and moving at the pace of a man who gets a few customers a day and is determined to eek out every single one.
Once free of this twilight zone of commerce we ate our dripping ice’s along an old track and stumbled upon the ghostly ruins of St Mary’s Church at East Somerton. St Mary’s survived the Reformation, but the parish was subsumed into that of neighbouring Winterton, and it operated as a chapel of ease to the Hall until the 17th century, before falling into disuse.
(Thanks to http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/somertoneast/somertoneast.htm for the info)
It’s an enchanting place, laying in what is now dense, wild woodland. The walls and tower of the church are covered in ivy and a tree grows in the centre of the nave. The sun sent fingers of light through the trees casting ghostly shadows on the ancient walls. In the still air with only the crunch of our footsteps for company it didn’t seem like a place to linger, magical though it was.
After a trek in the sun to skirt an old estate and along a narrow road we entered West Somerton and took refreshment in the pub. It looked as if it had been taken over recently and everything sparkled. There was an air of enthusiasm about the place with pleas to join snooker and darts leagues, to partake of karaoke and to sample the food. We did the latter and can report that the seafood is good.
Suitably sustained we took the long way around the village, or in more accurate parlance, the wrong way, and eventually found our route on the shady footpath passed the tranquil Martham Broad and onto the banks of the river Thurne to Martham itself.
The Broads are always fascinating and are mostly man made, being the flooded remnants of medieval peat digging. As a national park, the area is protected and some areas off limits to casual users as they are nature reserves. The area of around 117 sq. miles attracts around 8 million visitors a year, swamping the resident population which is only around 6, 300. Mind you they are estimated to contribute over £568 million so I don’t suppose most of the locals are that upset. Tourism flourishes with B&B’s, campsites and of course holiday chalets in nearby places like Hemsby. Many visitors hire leisure boats or make for the seaside, while a good many come to enjoy the sights. The weather helps as the Broads are one of the UK’s driest places in terms of rainfall, as well as one of the flattest. The highest point is the mighty Strumpshaw Hill at approximately 38m above sea level. It might be of interest to the residents of Stumpshaw that if they climb the hill 233 times they’ll have exceeded the height of Everest. I mention this for two reasons; firstly because I was curious so I looked it up and secondly because I thought it best to keep my head down and look busy because Alison has just found a tissue with the explosive properties of a grenade in the otherwise clean laundry and I fear that I am the culprit.*
After the shade around the Broad we took the overgrown path along the river bank in the full glare of the afternoon sun. The river was hidden behind an impenetrable boarder of reeds so afforded us no chance to cool off on its banks. Tantalising faint breezes rippled the reeds and silvery willows but faded as soon as they appeared. The grasses, reeds and thistles over the path scraped at our bare legs, which stung with sweat. The air shimmered over broad flat fields. A few cows lay around the water trough, tails lazily swooshing away the flies the only sign of life. Unseen insects buzzed and chirruped in the undergrowth and shimmering dragonflies zig zagged across our path.
We passed ruined wind pumps, windmill like buildings that are feature of the Broads. In the 1800’s there were around 240, today around 70 survive in various states of repair. Mostly these were used to pump water from the marshes into the rivers and dykes. There were a few that were more traditional windmills and ground corn. To help me write this I started to look them up and found myself falling ever deeper into the precise world of the enthusiast. I fear though, that in that direction lay only tedious men with fussy moustaches and ruler straight partings under which are tidy organised minds full of specifics about fantail designs and suchlike.
Gradually the path became more defined and we entered an area obviously used by anglers and dog walkers which brought us to some welcome shade and the drag up to the village along a narrow road. Martham is a pleasant village, set around two greens with a duck pond and a few traditional shops. One of these sold us some cold drinks which revived our spirits. It is also where Alison visited with her former work colleagues on a regular basis. Along with Winterton beach it holds many happy memories for her of times that have passed, and is also a reminder of the good friends from then that she still has and who enter our lives from time to time. It is these solid relationships, formed throughout our lives that withstand episodic contact and enrich us, marking out friends from casual acquaintances.
After a short stop we made our way back into Hemsby. It was 3 miles to our site, negotiating roads and harvested fields, or in one case through a crop of corn beside the road following in the tracks of some mammoth farm vehicle to avoid any damage and finally hopping on and off the steep grass verge. I’m not sure that anyone has been so pleased to see the pavements of Hemsby as we were on a sweltering Monday afternoon.
We took showers before our limbs had the chance to protest, drank tea and were thankful for the shade the tree lined site afforded us.
*After a stewards’ enquiry it was decided that I was indeed the culprit. However in an opportune turn of events a second load was also contaminated and on this occasion it was Alison’s blouse that contained the tissue. I refute allegations of having placed it there myself. For further enquiries please contact my lawyer.
Wednesday 13 July
After an eventually peaceful night we hit the A1 heading towards Thetford. We left in good time but soon encountered signs alerting us that it was closed further along our route. Thus we elected to swing left through Grantham, which I’m sure has nice areas but we didn’t see any. Our route took us in an arc from Grantham to Kings Lynn and then down to Thetford.
The Lincolnshire Fens really are rather special. Dull, monotonous, tedious, and endlessly flat in a strangely hypnotic way. Broad flat fields of pale greens and yellows sweep away from the road, with arrow straight dark green hedges little more than markers between the crops. Settlements of box like red brick houses sit alongside the roads at intervals, probably a legacy of manpower once required to manage the 4000 plus farms of the greater fenland area (Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and a tiny outcrop in Suffolk). 70% of this area is farmland, growing cereal crops, ornamental flowers and plants, vegetables and orchards, alongside some livestock. The area we passed through was almost entirely arable, with broad straight roads catering to articulated lorries constantly ferrying the yield and all manner of supplies back and forth.
The area was salt marsh until it was drained and managed by a clever use of drainage channels and sea defences. Driving across it you pass dead straight ditches that run uninterrupted for miles to a distant vanishing point. Occasional villages appeared on the horizon, a church tower poking through mature trees. The odd truck stop or roadside warehouse slid by as we trundled on until eventually Kings Lynn reared up, a welcome tangle of roundabouts, supermarkets and all the paraphernalia of an urban outpost, or what passes for urban out here. From there it was into more familiar Norfolk territory, flint cottages, meandering streams, irregular fields bordered by trees and colourful hedgerows.
Thetford Forest Centre is a tranquil place, secluded but benefiting from a café, bike and walking way-marked routes, ample picnicking areas and a Go-Ape high wire attraction. It was this that brought us here, not to take part but by kind invitation from friends to join them for a post adrenaline picnic. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon, played games, and ate well.
At one point I had to hum a tune as a forfeit in a game and even the most musically accomplished failed to spot The Beatles Yesterday! Then again it’s not that much of a surprise; at primary school I had a singing part in the nativity play until I opened my mouth. The Virgin Mary fainted, paint peeled, insects fell stunned from the rafters and there were suspicious puddles forming around plimsolls. I was gently moved from a solo part as a wise man to the choir of shepherds and then less gently to a non-singing part, a tree I think.
The only drawback of the Forest Centre is the outrageous cost of parking. Oddly Alison and I have often disagreed on what constitutes a reasonable parking fee. As a Cambridgeite Alison has been brought up to accept anything under 3 figures for a day reasonable whereas I was raised by a father who would park in the next county if their car parks were 10p cheaper. Today we agreed that the prices were extortionate. I know the money goes to a good cause, helping to maintain the forest, but £11.50 for 5 hours seems rather steep. But no matter, we had a great time and headed north towards Swaffham and The Swan public house at Hilborough, which has a small field for tents and vans with hook up and facilities for a very reasonable £12 a night. Of course it would have been rude not to try the restaurant and beer. So we did and can report it was good. Not exceptional but reasonably priced, well prepared and served with élan by a young lady who appeared to be the entire front of house staff; barmaid, waitress, hotel receptionist and campsite attendant all in one cheerful person. The Swan was a real gem and if we are this way again on our travels it’ll warrant another visit.
Thursday 14 July
Back today to our old stomping ground in Sudbury, Suffolk, a few miles from our former home in Colchester and scene of several successful Soul Nights, where I pretend to be a DJ along with Alison’s father and a good friend from way back. We’re playing tomorrow so we’re staying at the small but very nice Willow Mere campsite in Little Cornard, in the Stour valley just outside Sudbury. There is great entertainment provided for us in the shape of the ducks that run around in a pack towards anyone who may have food. They are ungainly creatures when they run; necks stretched forwards, waddling from foot to foot, tails wagging and accompanied by muted quacks.
Having pitched up we took to the camping chairs and spent the afternoon doing as little as possible in the hazy sunshine. Eventually we stirred ourselves enough to get the bikes unhitched and explored nearby Cornard Country Park. It’s quite pleasant in a fields and woods kind of way but what really drew our attention was an obstacle course. Stretched out along the side of a meadow it consisted of a dozen wooden obstacles of no great difficulty but sufficient challenge to keep us amused for a while. Alison’s performance on the monkey bars was only surpassed by her squeals of victory in having conquered them. We cycled back with bits of our bodies, that are untroubled by the exercise that comes from walking and cycling, aching considerably.
Friday 15 July
We cycled into nearby Sudbury and did some shopping. Try as I might I really cannot make that sound any more exciting. It was perfectly pleasant and Sudbury has always been a place we’ve liked. We have good friends who live here, we’ve been to gigs and the town is comely, just the right size to retain a cluster of useful and interesting shops around a central market square and church and, most importantly of all, it is the home of our quarterly Soul Nights.
These started when I realised Alison’s father has a collection of original soul records from the 60’s that rival any collection I have ever seen. Another good friend has a similar collection that includes a lot of northern soul and I was building a collection based around the STAX record label but adding Motown, Atlantic and some northern stuff too. We held the first one, with borrowed decks, in a pub near where Alison and I lived in Colchester and after one more there we moved it to Sudbury where we get a regular crowd. And paid, which is a bonus.
We had a great night. It’s always a tense time beforehand, worrying about your choices, the crowd and in my case, what I’ll do wrong. On one occasion one deck developed a technical fault during my set and went completely dead. We scrabbled around for a bit checking wires and suchlike while I switched tracks to the one working deck, until the guy who set up the system and knows what he is doing returned to help. He checked everything we had and more, stood back and scratched his chin, wiggled a finger in his ear, approached me with an air of exasperation mixed with pity, the sort of look you reserve for a disobedient puppy, lent over me and switched the offending turntable back on. I’d somehow managed to switch it off and that was the one thing we hadn’t tried.
Suitably chastened by this experience my only schoolboy error tonight was starting Turnin’ My Heartbeat up by the M.V.P’s, a stomper of a song, at 33 rpm because I’d forgotten to change the speed. Quickly sorted and only I, and everyone else present, noticed.
Anyway we returned to Mavis in the early hours in a taxi we appeared to have stolen from the nice couple we were waiting with.
Monday 11 July
Northumberland, at least the part we saw around the Tyne valley and Hadrian’s Wall, is simply stunning. We explored Corbridge a bit more, taking a stroll along the river and up to Corbridge Roman Town. This is an excavated street of a former Roman garrison town which offers a fascinating glimpse into military and domestic life. The street drains, grain store with its ventilated floor and various buildings are all in evidence. What sets it apart though was the finding of The Corbridge Hoard, a wooden trunk filled with armour, tools, weapons and personal items. Most appeared to need repair so one theory is that it was set aside for repair or recycling. Whatever the reason it has provided a fascinating insight into Roman life here at one of the Empire’s furthest outposts.
The other artefact of particular note is The Corbrige Lion, a stone effigy of a lion standing over its kill. It seems that experts cannot agree on whether the victim is a stag or goat. I’m not sure that I’d call myself an expert if I couldn’t tell a stag from a goat.
We wandered around transfixed by the fascinating little museum and were enchanted by the lady manning the gift shop, who insisted on giving us an itinerary of must see places to do in a day. She gave us maps, leaflets and seemed genuinely happy to be of assistance. She wasn’t alone in this, the Northumberland people we encountered were almost without exception pleasant, interesting and keen to show off their county in a modest kind of way. Almost as if it’s a surprise to them that people want to come here and visit. Even the lady selling coffee at a desolate and remote carpark high on the hills above Hexham, braced against gale force winds, told me about the area, the nearby Temple of Mithras and bade me return if I should require a refill, more hot water, any amount of milk, sugar or a second cup if this one gets too hot to hold.
Duly charmed and inspired to go further afield we took the rest of the day to drive along the B6318, a former military road that runs roughly parallel to the wall. We stopped in a series of car parks at strategic points. The scenery was a delight, innumerable shades of green on smooth rolling hills with tufts of trees, remote stone cottages and almost empty roads. We alighted at Housesteads Roman fort which lies on the wall, and enjoyed a good scramble through the ruins. The views were to die for now the rain had abated and the sun was peeking through the clouds. I can well imagine just how bleak it was to be stationed up here through a Northumberland winter with raiders from the north waiting to pounce any day. On the plus side though, they had rather splendid communal latrines that have been well preserved and appear to exert an endless fascination to all who see them, especially young children.
Further along the road we visited the crags near Steel Rigg. This is a natural geological fault that has created a cliff, or edge, facing towards the North. The wall runs along the top and you are rewarded for climbing to the summit with unparalleled views. The meadows along the way, through an old quarry were a delight. Pale pink Common Centaury and vibrant yellow Coltsfoot line the path and gentle willows reach down, providing shade on the steeper climb. It’s an enchanting place but we didn’t linger too long as we had yet to secure accommodation for the night.
Which will teach us a lesson. We called ahead to what, according to the guide given out at the tourist information office, was a promising site. Suspicions were raised when we had to pass under a railway, next to an industrial estate, but it was surprisingly quiet and pretty. The lady who greeted us was amiable; she runs the site with her sister while they share caring for their 80 something year old mother (I thought it impolite to take notes while she was talking).
The pitch, set among static holiday homes was fine but for over £20 a night we expected at least serviceable facilities. The toilet block had clearly seen better days, some of them probably during the Roman occupation. The gents had one shower, which you accessed through improvised saloon doors made from what looked suspiciously like a cheap kitchen worktop salvaged from a skip. The tray was dirty and cracked, the shower hose oddly lumpy and the shower head corroded. I’ve no idea how it functioned because to add insult they expected you to pay 40 pence for the privilege.
The toilets themselves were clean enough but over the whole building there hung a curious aroma; hints of damp and mould with an undercurrent of effluent and high notes of bleach. To help create the right atmosphere they’d thoughtfully put in brown tiles of a pattern that’s never been in fashion and whitewashed the walls directly over the peeling plaster before lighting it with a yellowing 40 watt bulkhead light. It was all rather grim.
Tuesday 12 July
We left the site after a peaceful night and having dodged whatever dire afflictions await anyone foolhardy enough to use the showers we decided upon a Caravan Club site in Cromwell, just north of Newark where we’d be sure of cleanliness and subtle mood lighting.
Which is exactly what we got. The site is set around lakes, just off the busy A1 but surprisingly quiet. We got lots of laundry done, which was probably a lot more exciting to us than it is for you to read about but these things are important when one is travelling. After a short stroll to look at the quaint local church we retired, ‘lulled’ to sleep by the man 3 vans away whom, one assumes, is as deaf as a post as he seemed to have no volume control. Accompanied by the occasional ‘ummm’ and ‘yes dear’ from his wife, he held court on all manner of things in staccato, loud outbursts; “My father would turn in his grave if he saw that…” “Want some bread with your butter?” “How does this work without a battery?” and so on.
Friday 8th July
Corbridge festival is a few years old now and is attracting some big names. Although it’s really a one day festival the campsite opens and a couple of bands play in the beer tent stage on the Friday evening. Set in the Rugby Club between the town itself and the station with the river Tyne sweeping around beside the camping area, it’s a lovely site and very professional for what is essentially a one day affair.
The site opened officially at noon today. After a morning helping set up around the site and a break to get provisions from the town we commenced car parking duties. We’ve done this at a couple of festivals and the majority of customers are lovely folk who just come to have a good time and appreciate your help. The odd ones however find something to grumble at you about. At Corbridge we had a few who objected to having to park their car and walk to the campsite. This wasn’t some Glastonbury style multi field event; they were parked in the same field as the campsite. Some asked for special dispensation on a variety of spurious grounds which translated meant they couldn’t be arsed to carry their boxes of beer 20 yards.
When you are in a windy field, being rained upon and you’ve been on your feet for 6 hours, being polite to Mr and Mrs Audi driver is sometimes hard. To tell them that “no, they can’t just park over there to set up the tent and return later and could they maybe hurry up and park because there is a queue of nice folk in sensible cars who’ve travelled miles with fractious children in the back and are now stuck behind you while you try and negotiate special treatment because you drive a fucking Audi and have a boot full of Waitrose organic craft beer in heavy recycled gluten free bottles and poor Gemma cannot possibly walk 20 yards as she might be allergic to ants” in a polite way is a skill.
But don’t get the wrong impression about Corbridge, you get these folk everywhere and mostly it’s just because they’ve had a long journey and don’t see the logistics from the point of view of the organisers, who have to jump through hoops to satisfy the local authority. Without doing so there would be no festival. In fact the folk who came to Corbridge were almost all unfailingly polite and understanding. What also helped was the attitude of the organisers who made sure we were alright, had water and sun cream when necessary, had breaks and generally made sure the whole experience went smoothly and appreciated our assistance.
By early evening we got away from car parking and wandered into the site for some food with Dave the lorry driver. He was staying on site for the whole weekend with his lorry after delivering the sound equipment, ready to take it back after the last act on Saturday, before heading off to Dusseldorf, and we’d made friends with him earlier in the day. We all enjoyed a rather good Mexican meal from one of the vendors.
Festival food has really improved in the last few years. Not that I worry too much as I was brought up on my mothers’ cooking so a greasy burger in a stale bun with limp chips was a feast when I started going to gigs. I’m not saying my mother couldn’t cook, but she really didn’t have the patience or inclination to do so. To her the cooker had two settings, 0 and 6. As far as she was concerned numbers 1-5 were just to fill up the space on the knobs. Vegetables were served as a soggy lump. Often, for reasons I’ve never understood, she’d just fry them. I may be one of the only people to have experienced peas and carrots fried in butter. There’s a good reason why this hasn’t caught on. For a start it was served as soon as the peas started to bubble, so they were at best lukewarm and the carrot was raw. Guests not experienced in the eccentricities of her culinary feats have bent the tines of their forks trying to stab a lump of carrot.
She also seemed to believe the oven was sentient and would know when she expected whatever she’d deposited in it to be ready. I was about 15 when I realised that potatoes didn’t have a stone in the middle like an avocado. We’d all cheerfully eat the thin layer of moist fluffy potato sandwiched between the charred crispy outside and the solid centre. It didn’t help that she was always busy and would forget that she had started to prepare dinner, blissfully unaware that she’d put something in the oven earlier. On more than one occasion she’d open the oven to put something in and to her surprise find a whole plated up meal she’d prepared the day before. She’d shrug and say “Oh Raymond, that’s handy, you can have this” handing me a red hot plate of shrivelled fish fingers and beans.
My father accepted all this with charm and grace, although I suspect the only reason he consented to us having a dog is that she acted as a repository for all the bits we couldn’t manage. In fact the dog enjoyed the best food. Being a few miles inland from the coast we had a fishmonger call twice a week with the morning catch still twitching in the back. She’d purchase the freshest, whitest cod fillets and cook them until tender and juicy with crispy skin and perfect fluffy succulent flesh. My father and I would sit down, gently salivating and find charred fish fingers and Smash mashed potato with fried carrots shoved in front of us while the bloody dog got perfectly cooked cod. Not only that, she sprinkled herbs on the dogs dinner!
There was however a rare moment of success for my mother’s culinary skills. For years she proudly displayed her third place certificate awarded by the Saxmundham Horticultural Show for her fruit cake. What she never mentioned was that there were only two entries!
So, festival food holds no fears for me, but if it did for Alison and Dave luckily the standards at Corbridge are very high.
There were a couple of bands on in the tented 2nd stage so we did some litter picking before retiring.
Saturday 9th July
Today was the main festival and we had a few duties lined up, mostly involving litter picking and ensuring any lost children were reunited with their owners. The day passed in a bit of a blur, with big wheelie bins being trundled about the site, errands and little jobs being carried out, checking up on the campers and, when ‘free’, litter picking.
The stages were busy with a fast changing line up and we only caught a few acts in more than passing so my round up is, as ever, brief and only mentions a tiny proportion of the acts that were on:
Bessie & The Zinc Buckets – Were on the main stage today and were one of the two bands on last night. Great fun versions of well-known tunes and they went down a storm.
Mark Morris – A bloke with a guitar and lots of charm.
Frankie and the Heartstrings – Seemed very good. When they did Frank Wilsons Northern Soul classic ‘Do I Love You…Indeed I do’ followed by The Four Seasons ‘The Night’ people were dancing around their camping chairs and I skipped around the site, litter picker in hand, singing along.
Too Many T’s – South London based rappers with an energetic old school rapid fire hip hop style. Worked the crowd well and were very entertaining. I’ll return to them presently. Meanwhile next up was:
The Neville Staple Band – A short set but well delivered. They did all the crowd-pleasing Specials stuff and were particularly popular with men of a certain age and girth.
Grandmaster Flash – A DJ set by the master. His energy and a well-chosen up tempo selection of crowd pleasers had the crowd eating from his hands. People were on the shoulders of their friends, hands aloft and all but the most curmudgeonly had a broad smile on their face and a swing in their gait.
The Coral – We took a break during their set but what we heard was very good. They certainly went down well and were a fitting end to the festival.
Finally a mention for The Mercs – who opened proceedings on Friday with an energetic covers set.
To return briefly to the Too Many T’s set. They are whippet thin young men with bags of energy and skill, and are also authentic South Londoners immersed in the scene. They’ve supported the likes of Snoop Dog and Public Enemy for example. None of which applies to the middle aged white men and women who think it is ‘cool’ to grin stupidly and throw shapes and gang culture hand signs. It’s the same people who think it is fun to head-bang for 30 seconds when a heavy metal band comes on or pogo if it’s a punk act. Maybe too much Pimms and Waitrose organic strawberries makes them lose the power of speech. Instead of leaning into their beloved and whispering – “I think these chaps maybe a Hip Hop outfit dear” they have to communicate by interpretive dance.
We litter picked after The Coral had finished and made a considerable dent in clearing the main field ready for tomorrows site clean-up.
Sunday 10 July
There’s not a lot to say about today. It was mostly litter picking and the myriad of other jobs that are needed to turn a festival and camping site back into a spotless rugby club. It was hard physical work but the team at the festival are great to work with. Everyone was friendly, helpful and worked hard. Any festival of any scale stands or falls on so many variables, the line-up, the crowd, the weather for example, but overall what makes them, what actually delivers the atmosphere and energy, what brings punters back year after year, retains volunteers and crew, is the people. Corbridge was no exception. The organisers and crew were without fail charming, helpful and appreciative. All the more impressive when you consider the stress they endure during the build-up and during the festival itself.
It is one of the main reasons we are working small to medium festivals, the ones that retain the personal touch and where we can make a difference in return for experiencing some delightful parts of the country and seeing some great acts.
Monday 4 July
The mundanities of packing up to travel and provisions taken on-board we called in to a relative of Alison’s who is an inspiration to everyone fortunate enough to meet her. At 92 years old she is still driving, entirely self-sufficient in a delightful flat and has the sort of twinkle in her eye that displays a wicked sense of humour. Her life story should be a book in its own right. Marrying an ex German prisoner of war just after the end of hostilities was the just the start of an engaging biography that has been marked by a stoic and cheerful outlook on life.
Duly invigorated by our visit we set off for our destination of Ferry Meadows Country Park on the outskirts of Peterborough. I’m always a little suspicious about big sites that claim to be intimate and close to nature but this was a splendid site, in part because we appeared to be by far the youngest people on it, and that includes some of the pet dogs being dragged around like dusty carpets.
In the evening we went for a stroll around the park. It was the tail end of a warm day and we were joined by dog walkers, joggers, cyclists and fellow walkers in the ample parkland and woods set around three lakes. The park boasts some splendid sculptures, including an elaborate 3D totem pole carved out of a tree and one of an owl carved ‘in situ’ inside a tree trunk. There should be pictures to accompany this but in the event of inadequate Wi-Fi to upload them just imagine an elaborate 3D totem pole carved out of a tree and one of an owl carved ‘in situ’ inside a tree trunk.
It took us a good hour to take an amiable walk around the lakes. Couples wandered aimlessly, fisherman sat staring intently at the waters willing the fish to bite, families trailed pushchairs loaded with the detritus of picnics with over-tired toddlers and older siblings on scooters wishing the slopes only went down; a couple of young boys played football and provided simultaneous commentary, hearing the roar of the stadium as they delivered the perfect arching shot passed the keeper and then were brought back to real life by having to retrieve the ball from the nettles; and a large group of mixed race, gender and age playing an energetic game of dodgeball, just for the fun of it. It was all quite becoming and we followed the meandering path to the lakeside centre café and stood on its terrace that juts out over the crescent Gunwade Lake. We watched the sun sink below the clouds and sparkle on the rippled silver surface of the lake and wandered back to Mavis in a quiet but contented mood.
Tuesday 5 July
We were really taken with the park and also wanted some time to visit Peterborough Cathedral so we decided to stay put for another night and took the 3 mile walk into the city centre. The walkway/cycleway that runs from the park is sandwiched between the Nene Valley Railway and the river Nene. It provided a pleasant, peaceful and mostly countryside walk right into the city centre. Only for the last half mile or so did it become more urbanised, as the path joined the Nene to pass under an assortment of iron railway bridges of various vintages. Crossing the river we came first to the rather dull and uninspiring Rivergate shopping centre. Based around an Asda store it’s one of those brick monuments to consumerism that seems to host all the slightly embarrassing shops that a town wants to hide away; Pound shops, gift shops selling the type of cards you’d get as a child from aged aunts showing racing cars or kittens playing with a ball of wool, and those huge badges that declare you are 21, or 40 or whatever and that you would be embarrassed to wear even in the most drunken of states. We wanted to find a café for a revitalising cuppa but the old boy sitting outside looked like he’d passed to a better life – presumably one that didn’t involve The Rivergate Centre, and his fellow customers weren’t much less cadaverous so we elected to try elsewhere; clearly the correct choice as once we’d crossed a busy road the rest of the town centre was a delight.
At street level you see the usual array of brash glass shop fronts you find in any town but look upwards and the upper stories around the wide central square have been carefully preserved. The gateway to the cathedral sits at one end of the square and the church at the other, between them fountains come directly out of the paving, hazardous to the unwary adult but a source of great delight to young children. The other end boasts the splendid market hall. Built of soft golden stone with the upper story resting on pillars it’s a fine centrepiece. Presently it is decked out in patriotic bunting and a big picture of the Queen to mark her 90th birthday which disguised its imposing stature somewhat.
After lunch in a surprisingly cheap French café, we went to the cathedral. It is, of course, a magnificent building. An imposing 13th Century Gothic style West Front with its 3 central arches sandwiched between two ornate towers. The architect clearly liked arches. There isn’t an inch of stonework that isn’t carved into an archway, whether it’s a window or for decoration. Only at the top of each of the three central archways have they placed a round window.
Greeted by an attendant outside to lessen the disturbance to the children’s service taking place we were sold a photo permit and guide book for a total of £6. There’s no admission fee, no hard sell and a pleasing lack of commercial space, just a modest gift shop tucked away in a corner.
Inside the building it continues it’s no frills attitude with a modest but interesting series of display boards explaining its history and tucked out of the way off the north transept, in plain wooden display cases, a small collection of the interesting and quirky, such as ornate gold chalices and the remains of an incendiary bomb dropped on the cathedral in WW2.
The choir stalls, where we sat later for Evensong, had the comfortable aroma of polish and candles and the shiny patina of regular use. To the front of the stalls, in the nave, a golden figure of Jesus hangs from a blood red ‘rood’ cross; sinister empty eye sockets look down over an emaciated body, across the spacious nave bathed in light and towards the 13th century marble font. It’s a potent symbol and is visible from almost the entire cathedral. It is also relatively contemporary, completed and hung in the 1970s. But for all its ornate carving it looked curiously out of place, dwarfed against the 4 story high walls.
The nave sits below a wonderful painted ceiling, which retains the original 1250 design but was repainted in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Rendered in velvety dark greens and reds, parts picked out in shimmering gold, its opulent appearance contrasts with the bare yellow stonework that supports it. In fact the ceilings throughout are impressive; a luscious blue with gold highlights above the Presbytery and behind the alter in ‘The New Building’ (new in this case being 1509) each of the carved pillars fans out onto the ceiling in a series of intricately carved, yes you guessed it, arches.
In the new building is The Hedda Stone, originally a grave marker in the first Abbey recorded on this site in 870. It’s an ancient piece of art that anywhere else would be the central piece of an exhibition; here it’s tucked away behind the altar. The custodians of the cathedral really are very good at understatement. Wandering around we discovered that the cathedral houses the tombs of 2 Queens. Katherine of Aragon is still buried here in the North Aisle and the South Aisle was the resting place of Mary, Queen of Scots, until her remains were moved to Westminster Abbey in 1612.
Anyway, if you want to find out more, like the story of St Oswald’s arm, the guard tower in a side chapel, the early Saxon church on the site and other interesting diversions I suggest a visit. I really appreciated that for all its obvious splendours Peterborough cathedral is still a church and place of peace and not a money hungry tourist trap.
After a brief respite for food and a quick waltz around the anonymous shopping hell that is The Queensgate Shopping Centre, a brash big brother to the Rivergate Centre, we returned for Evensong. The cathedral has its own music school for choristers and they were in fine voice. I tried to mumble along until somewhere into the second hymn Alison pointed out they were singing in Latin, which explained my worse than usual vocal performance. I let the crystal clear voices waft over me; strange harmonies in an alien language, beautiful and moving, drifting upwards in the vast space above and far better without my accompaniment.
After the service we walked back the way we’d come and settled in for the night, unaware of the drama that was about to befall us.
Wednesday 6 July
This morning the site was alive with rumour, gossip and chatter of the dramatic events of last night. Doubtless angry letters were being composed on carefully preserved Basildon Bond stationery and sent, post haste, to the editor of Caravanning Monthly. Grandchildren would soon be sitting in rapt awe as they were regaled with stories of ‘the night that Ferry Meadows Caravan Club site had a power cut’. I expect special commemorative tee shirts (I Survived the Ferry Meadows Power Cut) were being printed. In years to come we will be able to say to naive young caravaners barely out of their 50’s that “You weren’t there man…” when they scoff at us.
If I was the cynical type I’d suggest that for many people here this was the most exciting thing that had happened to them for some time. As it happens I am the cynical type and I’m fairly certain that for quite a lot this was the most exciting thing to happen to them in some time. Certainly after dark.
One chap approached me and asked if the power was out for us too. I affirmed that indeed this was the case and he informed me he thought he’d caused it operating his pump. I smiled and went about my business wondering why he’d need a pump in his caravan. Probably to inflate his girlfriend I concluded.
And so we left the site in the company of the repairman, who was being harangued at every opportunity by the powerless and therefore prevented from restoring the very power they craved. It was a long haul to Northumberland along the A1 but Mavis took it in her stride and we trundled up to our campsite in good time.
It was a peculiar site, on a farm set back from an arrow straight road leading to Hadrian’s Wall a mile to the north. The site had all the usual facilities and the owners were clearly trying hard to run a farm, which covers a large area of arable land, and running the caravan and camping site. Chickens, and what we think were turkeys, wandered about and approached us in case we had food. Many of the caravans appeared to be permanently stationed with elaborate picket fences, solar lights and awnings turning green from accumulated debris and damp. It was all a little forlorn.
The maintenance seems to be done by their elderly father, who potters around in a golf cart and clearly lacks company. Alison of course soon fell into conversation with him, so seizing my chance I swept by and into the shower while he was diverted. They were still chatting when I re-emerged smelling of manly shower gel, citrus and wasp or something. Whatever it was it kept the insects away and once we were both refreshed we went for a walk to the wall…which was missing. It runs for over 80 miles and we chose the one spot where some bugger has stolen it. We took a stroll along the long distance path where Alison somehow managed to find the only remnant of the wall left in these parts and promptly tripped over it. Back at the van we discovered that if we’d turned left instead of right for our walk we would have found it soon enough. Goodness knows what damage she’d have done if we had.
Thursday 7 July
The reason we are in Northumberland is The Corbridge Festival. When we started planning our summer in Mavis we put a note on Facebook asking if anyone wanted help at festivals over the summer. A friend of a friend suggested we might like to help at Corbridge and sold it to us on the strength of the line-up and beauty of the area.
Thursday was set up day and we arrived nice and early so we could spend a little time exploring the town. Set around the church and market square it’s a quaint and picturesque place in a stunning location. It boasts lots of independent shops including a butchers, greengrocers and bookshop. The children’s outfitters had a sale of organic clothes in the window which probably gives you a clue to the town’s inhabitants. If that doesn’t then the eye watering prices in the estate agents will. Nevertheless its charms are many, although its present status as a peaceful market town has been built upon centuries of turmoil. It’s been burnt down three times, the price of being in contested boarder country. There is still a fortified vicarage in the town centre.
It sits uphill from the broad rust coloured river Tyne, over which is the majestic span of the Corbridge Bridge, a single carriageway 17th century stone crossing that was the only one to survive the Tyne flood of 1771. The broad Tyne valley here is lined with meadows and fields studded with bright poppies, stretching upwards to wooded hills to the north, the occasional big house peeking out from among the trees. On the south side farms and cottages lay amongst green and gold fields and dark green woods on the steeper slopes. The valley still floods in spite of defensive levees, the last time being in December 2015 when Storm Desmond struck. The Rugby Club where the festival is held was under at least 6ft of water; as it happened work to repair the damage to the club house was due to begin on the Monday after the festival. All the houses nearby were being repaired as we drove in, although sensibly we noted the builders had made sure the pub and Indian restaurant were finished first.
On Thursday afternoon and evening we made ourselves vaguely useful around the festival site doing odd jobs. If you’ve ever tried pushing, pulling and generally persuading industrial size wheelie bins to accompany you over rough terrain the length of three rugby pitches you’ll understand why we skipped cooking dinner and took to the pub for fish, chips and beer.
Friday 24 June
Today we joined others for a friend’s annual camping trip. It was through our mutual friend that we met here 6 years ago. Truth be told we didn't really meet until 5 years ago as that first year I'd been off playing football and frisbee most of the time, and when I wasn't I was quaffing whisky. The following year though, a beautiful vision wafted towards me through the smoke of the BBQ as I was stabbing a sausage, and introduced herself as Alison. Following the weekend we exchanged many emails and arranged our first proper date to a Martyn Joseph concert in Cambridge. So we share a lot of affection for this annual trip.
Although some of the people we only see once a year it’s a reunion that has its own rituals and traditions. As soon as tents are pitched a communal area of gazebos is erected, with a kitchen at one end and a seating and socialising area at the other. A volley ball net is erected for our own version of the game - substituting a frisbee for the ball. It developed as a way to include all ages and abilities and is now a firm fixture, with cheerful arguments over rules that don't really exist and good humoured challenging of decisions to a non-existent referee policing these non-existent rules.
The campsite this year was a new one, with plenty of space and immaculately clean toilets and shower areas. Each cubicle had a little notice inside with various facts about the area, thus we learnt about 'Black Shuck' the demonic dog who left scorch marks on a door in nearby Blythburgh Church, that the site sits on an area where three parish boundaries meet and that in 1944 Joseph Kennedy, of the US Kennedy clan and older brother of JFK, died near here in a WW2 accident. He was piloting a BQ-8, a Liberator bomber packed with explosives, converted so it would crash by remote control into an enemy target, in this case the U-boat pens at Helioland in the North Sea. The intention was for Joseph and his co-pilot Lt Willy to parachute out of the plane after getting it airborne and 'pulling the pin' from the explosives on-board, from which point it would be flown by remote control from the escort plane. Two minutes after arming the explosives, well before Joseph and Willy were due to abandon it, the plane exploded over Blythburgh, causing damage and small fires around the area, some on the site we were now occupying.
Over the years we have stayed on many different campsites around the area. One year we tried a site where, on a rainy afternoon, one of our party discovered that the reason his electric hook up had shorted out was because it was delivered via two domestic extension cables, joined by plug and socket and wrapped in a Tesco carrier bag to keep the rain off. The 'pool' we'd been promised was essentially a covered paddling pool and the only place to avoid the particularly fierce insect life was in a radius of about 20 feet around the septic tank, where the smell made your earwax melt, wildlife died, dogs slunk about whimpering and naked flames flared uncontrollably. On the plus side we were pretty much left to our own devices and so we'd cook over an old cattle trough where the heat became so intense you could cook a burger by throwing it frisbee style to a companion on the other side of the flames. Anyone straying too close risked 3rd degree burns. Proper cooking over it was impossible. Meat would start to singe before you'd actually placed it on the grill, and once placed there you'd have a window of about 30 seconds before you’d stagger from the smoke, eyebrows missing, a soot stained face and streaming red raw eyes, holding a smouldering ember on a pair of metal tongs that were now so hot they were beginning to droop.
Evenings were spent passing round whisky and wine, often with a bottle of after sun or calamine lotion too for those suffering from the BBQ. More than once I've washed down a blackened sausage with a swig of calamine. Maybe it’s because of these experiences that tradition now dictates our Friday night communal meal is fish & chips. Sadly that’s where this year’s site cafe rather let us down, with lukewarm Pollock in dried out batter. But at least it was cheap and we made up for it by sitting around eating homemade cakes and drinking.
Saturday 25 June
Saturday morning found us up and about in various stages of alertness, from ridiculously perky to ‘sod off and leave me alone’. The morning was hot and sticky and after a communal breakfast we settled into daytime activities, walks to the local shop, dog walking, games and general lounging around in the sunshine. Typically the weather started to turn and the afternoon and evening grew steadily wetter, although we did manage to get the BBQ's going in a light drizzle in typically stoic English fashion. The evening was divided between card games in the caravan and football on the TV in Mavis with us all joining together in the caravan for a night cap. We felt quietly smug at this, as did the caravan owners as we had both been gently teased about being soft ‘glampers’ now.
Sunday 26 June
Sunday saw hurried packing of tents before the rain returned, a big communal breakfast, a last game of frisbee volleyball and many hugs and fond goodbyes. Left alone on the site for another night Alison and I walked to the local shop for provisions, did some laundry and rested with that strange feeling of empty joy one experiences after time with friends, a mixture of sadness at parting but happiness for having shared fun times with them.
Monday 27 June
We left the site nervously lest we were stuck in the mud after all the rain, but thankfully made it out and took advantage of their rather splendid motorhome service point. Its little touches like soap and a hand basin to clean up after emptying the toilet that makes a real difference.
Our next stop was to visit my mother in nearby Halesworth. She's in a care home that takes her dog too, a non-negotiable point for her. It’s rare to find such accommodation that will take dogs and today it was great to find her in good spirits after a few health setbacks of late.
We talked about family holidays and she reminded me of my father’s approach to holiday planning...get out all the maps, covering most of the British Isles and several places further afield, studying them on and off for a few days then triumphantly declaring that we were going to Norfolk again. Just like last year and the year before that. To be fair to him his map of Norfolk was probably the most recent in his collection. At least one, I think it was Winchester from memory, was pre-war. Some were probably older than he was. I still have in my possession his Suffolk 'road atlas' that shows elevations for cyclists or automobiles of limited power. As a consequence we'd sometimes find ourselves travelling on winding leafy roads with grass growing down the middle even though a duel carriageway had been built within sight sometime in the 30 years since his map had been published. More than once he had to reverse, grumbling, out of a farm track or exit a lay-by that had formally been the A11 and been bypassed aeons ago.
Whatever route we took it seemed to end up in Norfolk anyway. My mother’s theory of why we always went to Norfolk is that he had travelled far and wide in the Navy. The fact that he could get killed was a risk worth taking for seeing the world at someone else’s expense. Now he was on terra firma the accountant in him had clearly worked out that Norfolk was a) cheap and b) on one of the few maps in his possession without 'Here Be Dragons' in the legend. It came as a shock to me that place names West of Cambridge weren't in Latin.
Our destination after visiting was done was Forest Camping Site at Tangham in Rendlesham Forest, between Woodbridge and Orford. It’s a nice, basic, secluded site that I’ve visited many times in the past; with my children as they grew up and on other camping trips I organised, initially to mark my 40th birthday and then with roughly the same group of people until my 50th year. The forest was an ideal place for families to let children run free; indeed I’m not entirely sure we ever brought back the same number we started out with. Gradually the demands of growing families, precious time away from work, as well as dwindling numbers of children each year as we lost some to the feral tribes in the woods, took its toll on numbers so we called time on the organised trips.
Tangham and the surrounding Forest covers a large area of planted woodland around the former United States base USAF Woodbridge. It was planted by the Forestry Commission between 1922 and the late 1930's and the forestry industry continues to this day. It suffered a setback in 1987 when the great storm brought down over a million trees, two thirds of the forest. It has recovered with some TLC and is now recognised as a haven for birdlife, including the elusive kingfisher and is a special protection area for the nightjar and woodlark.
Sitting outside in the evening with the dying sun poking through the trees house-martens kept us amused, dive bombing insects and flitting over the open spaces, along with the ubiquitous crows and pigeons. A lone fieldfare stalked around under a tree, eyeing us watchfully, taking to the air with the slightest movement. There seems to be a plenitude of woodland creatures too, a gaunt fox, squirrels bounding skittishly around and rabbits, millions of them, from old grey ones to tiny babies; perfect replicas of their older kin. Alison squealed with delight when she first saw them and enquired, 'how can you squeeze so much cuteness into such a tiny bunny?'
Their gait appears awkward, half hop, half lunge forward. When they spy us approaching they sit up, ears turned towards us and inscrutable soft brown eyes, unmoving, but always watchful. If we come too near they casually hop away, white tails flicking defiantly, but when startled or if we get between them and the safety of the hedge they break into a run, sleek to the ground, darting and changing course by acute 45 degree angles in case we're a predator on the hunt. The baby ones seem tamer and nonchalantly hop off as we approach but seldom seem to startle. Occasionally they take flight, stop for a moment to graze then continue; a pit stop amidst their fleeing. Some graze laying down, stretched out, back legs splayed behind them, body to one side and belly part exposed to the sun; doleful eyes ever watchful and ears erect even in this apparently sanguine state.
Apart from seeming to house 50% of the world’s rabbit population Rendlesham forest is also well known as the site of supposed UFO sightings in 1980. There is even a UFO trail you can follow to see...well trees. It is not like they left anything behind except, allegedly, a few broken trees and a higher than expected radiation level. Maybe the credence given to the story, in some quarters at least, comes from the witnesses being serving USAF personnel who reported strange lights in the sky and took the radiation level readings. Whatever it was there does appear to have been something odd, but not necessarily extra-terrestrial; of course all this took place during the cold war, when service personnel were on high alert. Or high on something anyway.
Reports also talk of a downed Russian ‘Cosmos’ satellite, which was covered up for obvious reasons; and in 2003 an ex-security policeman alleged that he and a colleague made the whole thing up using car headlights and a loudspeaker. Whatever the truth the area still gets regular visits by UFO spotters and conspiracy theorists who publish outlandish claims, as they are wont to do. Books on the subject talk of 'cover ups', conspiracies and secrets. We noticed that at least one of the trail noticeboards has a graffiti addition stating that ‘The UFO trail is a lie – do your own research here…’ and directed people to a website. I didn’t write it down so I’ve no idea what’s on it but I suspect it isn’t an impartial evaluation of the known facts.
When you consider that whatever occurred did so during a time of tension between East and West, took place on the doorstep of a military base, was witnessed by serving military personnel operating under orders and there was no tangible evidence, it's hardly surprising that information wasn't forthcoming and rumours started.
Monday evening we spent readying ourselves for a return to bicycling the next day. Overnight there were low flights by aircraft and what sounded like engines running on the runway. Part of Woodbridge airfield is used for Army Air Corps training so I image it was linked to that - it went on well after midnight. Annoying though it was it reminded me of growing up around here and watching the American planes overhead. The loud Phantom with its oddly down turned rear wings, the mighty Hercules dragged up through the sky by four whining propeller engines, the stubby silver A-10 Tankbuster with its cannon poking through the nose, the Jolly Green Giant twin rotor helicopter and my favourite, the sleek F-16 Falcon. I loved planes of all sorts growing up so to catch a glimpse of them in flight, as well as some elusive spy planes carrying huge satellite dishes on their backs was a treat.
Tuesday 28 June
We had picked up the bikes from storage while we were in Colchester so today we saddled up and headed off to nearby Orford. We both love Orford and have made a few visits to it with friends, with a borrowed dog and I came here often as a child on school visits or just cycling over with friends because the castle was free then and there was a pub nearby with a particularly relaxed attitude to licensing laws, especially those relating to age.
It was hard going as we were both unfamiliar with the bikes but we can happily report we managed to cycle the whole way there, and only walked up the ironically named 'Short Walk' out of Butley on the way back, and that because we'd stopped for a drink at the foot of the hill.
Our first stop was Orford Quay, from where you can see, and nowadays visit, Orford Ness. The Ness is a spit of pebbly beach that separates the river from the sea until it finally reaches Shingle Street. I was going to say which river but this being Suffolk at some point The Alde become The Ore and it’s not worth upsetting people by getting the dividing point wrong. The spit of Orford Ness is created by longshaw drift (see, occasionally I did pay attention at school) and was a place of great mystery and intrigue when I was growing up as it was most definitely out of bounds to civilians. The most notable feature then was an enormous shell shaped array of radio masts and the oddly shaped bunkers on the island. The history of the island is fascinating but as we have a visit booked for Saturday I’ll pick up his history then.
Instead we went to Orford Castle. Today just the keep is still standing, prominent amongst earthworks marking former walls. It is though a fine example of a keep, with well-preserved rooms built into the walls where you can feel the history surround you. Alison opted for the recorded guide but I just wandered, partly in awe of the castle-makers skills and partly re-living past visits; the place where Simon G sprayed everyone with Coke because he'd just cycled 7 bone-shaking miles with it; the spot where Chris K used the 'pee hole' in the castle Chamberlain’s former quarters; the steps we'd sit on around the Great Hall making up stories about girls and discussing what we'd do if we’d lived in medieval times, which as far as we were concerned largely consisted of sex and torture; the balsa wood glider we tried to launch from the roof, which nose-dived into bushes, never to be seen again and from that same roof trying to see into the mysterious Orford Ness and wondering what went on behind its closed doors. Probably sex and torture we concluded.
The castle itself was built between 1165 and 1173 by Henry II for the sum of £1,413. The polygonal shaped keep is the only part left standing. It's a prominent landmark on the low lying Suffolk coast, looming over the town of Orford and its quay, whose pattern of streets are little changed since the castle was built. The castle is embedded in the local scenery in other ways too, as most of the outer walls have been spirited away to be reused in local buildings. The Keep sports some interesting graffiti, carvings of names and dates into the stone. The oldest I found dated from 1628 and included an intricate geometric carving.
The one big difference from my school day visits is that English Heritage have converted the area immediately inside the entrance, formally an oubliette I recall, into the ticket office and gift shop. I can understand selling postcards and toy swords but why does every heritage centre, stately home, castle and museum insist on becoming a delicatessen too? I've never wandered around a castle, peered closely at paintings, enjoyed the displays of torture implements, read the stories about castle life and thought, "I know, what I require to polish off this visit to the 12th Century is an overpriced jar of raspberry conserve and box of fudge with a faded postcard glued to it." Nevertheless we did purchase some rather splendid ginger curd, largely because it was less than half price, and left for a picnic in the grounds before heading back on a route that included a little off road jaunt, which we enjoyed from the waist up. Everything below, legs, buttocks etc. bumped along protesting with new and interesting types of pain and promised much sufferance later, and did not disappoint.
Wednesday 29 June
Although we weren't fully recovered from the cycling yesterday we decided to try again and visit Woodbridge. We gingerly set off; slowly lowering numb posteriors onto saddles made of solid concrete and trundled along roads that are familiar to me from living in the area for many years. Somehow since I left in 1982 Woodbridge has risen and is now perched on top of a mountain, or so it seemed to someone who tends to struggle to make it over a speed hump without pausing for breath halfway.
As we trudged ever on, our distinct cycling styles became apparent. Alison has something of the Victorian lady in her approach. She sits erect upon the saddle, elegantly deported and maintaining a steady pace. I attack hills, legs spinning like the roadrunner cartoon character while travelling at the speed of a caterpillar towing a steamroller, until I crest the hill and collapse wheezing onto the handlebars.
Meanwhile Alison will glide up at the same stately pace, summit, and gracefully slow to a halt. Time stands still until gravity takes back control and she gently topples sideways into a hedge. When she has recovered there will be a bout of prolonged swearing. Even then this takes on a lady like cadence. Rather than solid earthy swear words she'll string together lots of lesser curses, in the manner of a German compound verb.
My progress is also hampered by the bikes unfamiliar 18 speed gears. Most of these seem to be made for sweaty folk in Lycra shorts to cruise up and down the Pyrenees. To keep me on my toes the colour coding for up and down gear changes is reversed on each handlebar. Thus I'll often change from a steady cruising gear to a much harder one just as I reach the foot of a hill. Frantically pushing levers I hit every gear between 2nd and 17th in one angry grinding crunch and settle for midway again until finally something appropriate for the Alpine region of Suffolk clicks into place.
By this time I'll have careered off the road and over the pavement, scattering startled pedestrians, burst through a hedge and out the other side pursued by an angry squirrel, to re-join the road with a birds nest on the handlebars and corn poking from the wheels. At this point I search frantically for Alison lest I'd joined a different road altogether, and eventually find her chatting amiably to a stranger 2 miles further on, to whom she’ll patiently explain that "it's okay, my husband’s experimenting with bicycle camouflage" before promising to exchange Christmas cards, thanking them for the invite to their daughter’s wedding and with a cheerful "Hup" heads off leaving me bright red and slumped across the frame. I eventually emerge from a tangle of swearing, mangled gears and undergrowth to follow and thus we eventually made our way into Woodbridge.
Woodbridge is a charming town on the River Deben, boasting a High Street heavy on twee tea shops and designer outfitters, a working tide mill and a quaint cinema of the single screen type now to be found only in such places where they are lovingly preserved. We shopped a bit, had lunch and returned via a different route to take in some fun off road tracks, which were fine downhill but less fun heading upwards on sandy paths. Our bodies again promised retribution and thus our evening was spent creaking and groaning every time we moved.
Thursday 30 June
Southwold is a place of contrasts. It was a thriving fishing harbour and populated by salty seagoing types who worked ridiculously long and gruelling hours in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Nowadays most of the tiny terraced fishermen’s cottages are deluxe holiday homes for the type of people who buy 4X4’s to drop their children at school and whose closest affinity to the sea is to wear expensive nautical themed clothes and wellingtons with dolphin patterns on. It’s the east coast’s most middle class resort, famed for its pier, lighthouse and Adnams brewery. Speaking as one who remembers Adnams being delivered on horse drawn drays, their designer shop, full of cheese making kits, oils, unction’s and expensive knick-knacks is slightly depressing. That said they’re a successful company and if that means marketing your beer to people who think they need an Adnams drip mat and a copper fondue set then so be it.
The town itself has some wonderful nooks and crannies, stunning views and charming shops, and joy-upon-joy had a record fair where Alison deposited me in the company of the surly proprietor while she joined her friend for some serious shopping in Southwold’s array of shops.
Having spent my pocket money I wandered a bit and sat on the breezy sea front listening to a family on the adjacent bench munch and moan their way through fish and chips. The youngest girl, I’ll call her Chomper, would alternate between taking a bite and wiping the grease down her trousers. Father, let’s call him Mr. Slurpy, chastised her for this between every bite, with no apparent effect until Mrs. Slurpy intervened and handed her a moist towelette, prompting the other daughter, who I christened Fangs, to demand one too, spraying the pavement with half-digested fish in the process. Clearly Fangs thought this was favouritism towards Chomper and such behaviour must be challenged immediately without recourse to chewing and swallowing. I wanted to ask them if they always have to eat outside because they dine so noisily and behave in such an uncouth manner but I remembered Alison’s lecture on not upsetting people so I sauntered off.
After I’d found some grass to wipe the half-digested fish I’d stepped in off my shoe I found Alison with her friend, her friend’s mother and her beau in the Swan Hotel where we ate shortbread biscuits and drank tea. It was all very civilised and we masticated quietly and wiped the corners of our mouths with starched white napkins as one should in Southwold.
News and gossip exchanged we walked back to our parking spot in Walberswick, which sits on the other side of the river, across from Southwold harbour and until comparatively recently Southwold’s poorer cousin. It seems quite gentrified now and with easy access to Southwold via the ferry or old railway bridge it is well suited for a quiet holiday.
I stayed here once as a child with my family, joined by an aunt, uncle and cousin, but my only recollection is of sliding down the banister and hurting my knee. I was a bored near-teenager at the time and much as I try that’s all I can recall of the house. I know we walked over the railway bridge to Southwold, the smell of gorse still transports me back to those walks. I played on the cannons on Gun Hill and we took brisk walks along the front; brisk walks being a form of free family entertainment to my father, although his definition of entertainment was at the opposite end of the scale to mine. We’d wander onto the pier, my aunt wrapped up in about 17 layers against the chill easterly wind, so much colder here than her native Pinner. If the wind caught her right her ‘windcheater’ would inflate like a balloon and she’d squeal through polished ruby lips in mock horror, arms flapping down her sides as she sought to restrain it before she was borne aloft on the breeze and set down in the North Sea, or worse still, in Belgium.
In some ways it’s sad that I recall so little. For all I tease him now he’s gone my father worked hard to provide family holidays, and thanks to his careful budgeting and willingness to brave out of season east coast weather we got a couple of holidays in each year. I was fortunate in so many ways but, as is often the way of teenagers, monumentally ungrateful for what I now treasure.
Friday 1 July
We took advantage of being close to Ray’s mother to call in and see her again. Today marked the centenary of the start of the battle of the Somme and the commemoration service from the site was on TV when we called in. It sparked some conversation during which we discovered that my great grandfather was wounded at The Somme. Apparently he walked with a limp ever after. Evidently this wasn’t enough to stop him but he was eventually invalided out of the army after being gassed.
We listened to many stories from my mother about her relatives. We learnt that her maternal grandmother was ‘a bit of a girl’ who had seven children in total and many dalliances, allegedly including with her own step sons. She married the person my mother knew as her grandfather, replete with three children already in tow, including my own grandmother. Her new husband also happened to be the brother of her ex. My mother recalls going off to stay with ‘Uncle Harry’ then after a rueful silence added…’there were so many uncle Harry’s’.
Her paternal grandparents were from Old Harlow. She was a hardworking woman and he had the greatest job title ever; he was a Peacock Feather Curler. Apparently curling feathers for hats was an occupation that suited him as he was prone to epileptic seizures.
We heard about a female relative called ‘Old Dollops’ who had ‘great big hands, with knuckles like walnuts’ but was awfully kind. We heard tales of people with names that place them in history, of Albert, George, Hilda, Grace, Elsie and of Alice who took my mum out shopping, always calling afterwards into a Lyons corner house for tea and cake.
A morning of cheerful reminiscing done we left for a quick cup of tea with old friends in Saxmundham and wound our way back to Tangham in good time to greet friends from Colchester who, with their young daughters, were unwise enough to agree to camp next door to us for the weekend.
Saturday 2 July
So, after a thoroughly pleasant evening with our new neighbours we awoke to a cloudy but dry day and opted for a visit to Orford. They drove and we chose to cycle and rendezvous with them at the castle before a slightly hurried lunch to enable us to catch the ferry to Orford Ness Island.
Incidentally it’s not an island, it’s a spit of land but is known locally as The Island. The spit starts at Slaughden, which sits to the south of Aldeburgh. It’s not much more than home to a Martello Tower and the yacht club now but was once a thriving shipbuilding port before falling victim to the coastal erosion that the east coast is known for. To the North of Aldeburgh was the city of Dunwich, which was the size of medieval London and is now little more than a single street, testament to the power of the North Sea.
As I said before, the island was a place of great mystery to me growing up and although I have visited once before with my then young children and a friend, I was eager to see it again and armed myself with the excellent book Most Secret, The Hidden History of Orford Ness by Paddy Heazell. Our trip this time was extra special because we took an escorted trailer ride around the island on a tour that the driver/guide was at pains to point out absolutely was not a guided tour despite the fact that he provided us with an astonishing amount of fascinating information about the site.
Orford Ness has been variously a test centre for very early aircraft, home to a lighthouse, a weapons and armaments research and testing station, was instrumental in the development of radar, housed the experimental Cobra Mist radar station (a vast shell shaped array of aerials that bewitched us as children) and umpteen other functions, many clandestine and secretive. It now houses a radio transmitter for the BBC World Service and is a National Nature Reserve; home to rare plants and rarer still vegetated shingle ridges, migrating birds, saltmarsh’s and provides grazing land for rare breed sheep.
When the National Trust took over the running of the island they tested for radioactivity levels and in one particular location got some alarming readings and immediately sent for specialists. They arrived suitably suited up in full radiation proof protective clothing and, having placed a cordon around the area, got to work and found…discarded instruments from WW1 planes. Their dials were still faintly radioactive from the radium that made them luminous.
We had a jolly time exploring the area; our guide was informative and interesting, knew the site inside out and was keen to keep us all amused. The trailer ride was essential for us so that the young children were easily transported around the big site and kept entertained for what would otherwise have been a long walk for them.
The flat landscape provided the perfect big sky experience, with only the red and white candy striped lighthouse standing stark against a restless bronze sea and powder blue sky, with billowing foamy white clouds. Turning around to face inland, Orford castle and church flanked the town, mostly hidden by trees except along the quayside with the black fishermen’s huts on shallow stilts and small boats bobbing about at anchor on the river. Above, leaden clouds gradually moved in from left to right, rain like a fine net draped across the horizon as they made their way to Orford while we stood watching still in sunshine.
The wind was up and the scenes over the mainland weren’t encouraging but we made it across on the small ferry in comfort and so parted with our friends for our separate journeys back to the campsite. Cycling out of Orford the wind became fresher and buffeted us from all directions. Nevertheless we made good progress until around halfway back a few heavy spots of rain warned us of trouble to come. Within seconds of the first few spots the deluge started, small hailstones ricocheted off our helmets, rain fell so hard it bounced up to have a second go and the road became shiny and slick with running water. Alison was leading and forged ahead gallantly while I kept my eyes firmly fixed on her rear wheel. As swiftly as the rain started it stopped. The road steamed where the sun hit it, the water that coursed along the gutters slowed to a trickle and we saw a rainbow, a bright arc against the dull watery sky.
We wound up the hill out of Butley through puddles and patches where it seemed that no rain had fallen at all, and down to the site where the advance party had kindly prepared tea in anticipation of our soggy arrival. Cleaned up and dried off we had a BBQ and an evening of chatting and generally putting the world to rights. For all our travelling and meeting new and interesting people, for all the sights, sounds and smells of our adventures, for every new place visited, for every festival worked, sometimes the simplest pleasures are a pot of tea and good friends for company.
Sunday 3 July
We spent the morning in the company of our friends, the girls taking to the woods for a ramble and the men off to Woodbridge for provisions. After lunch and fond farewells we were left to our own devices and decided to try the 6 mile off road course through the woods on our bikes.
It was a glorious ride out. It took a while to acclimatise to bumpy tracks, Alison started singing…”you shake my nerves and you rattle my brain…” and I joined in with a heartfelt “Great balls of fire…”
Our confidence grew as the bikes were shaken up. Neither of them have suspension so when I started taking sections seriously and finding the small jumps and hillocks that make downhill on a mountain bike so much fun Alison reminded me that the bikes are not only borrowed, but in fact borrowed from a vicar so if damaged thunderbolts may be forthcoming and I should take care. Which I did. Honest!
We passed through shaded glades and woodlands of sweet smelling pine; through deep sand traps and boggy puddles, along hard packed mud tracks cut into the grass, down steep drops, up winding paths picking our way around tree roots and along pebbly tracks. We passed families with tiny children on tiny bikes, were overtaken by serious mountain bikers on a mission and slalomed around dogs off their lead. We were whipped by ferns, briars caught on our sleeves, low branches pinged off our helmets and mud splashed our legs. And we enjoyed every second.
We paused at 5 miles to check the route and my pedal slammed into my knee. Alison remarked that only I could ride furiously for 5 miles off road and injury myself reading a signpost.
We returned mostly intact and grinning to sit in the sunshine. The site that was heaving over the weekend was now reduced to a few lonely tents and a couple of caravans. We sat and read, drank tea and plotted the next chapter of our adventure. The evening took on a melancholy note as we learned that a good friend who has been ill for some time is having a tough time; a reminder of the world outside our bubble and the harsh realities of life. It made us pause for thought, thinking of him and his family and the fact that you never know what’s around the corner. It strengthened our resolve to forge our own path while we are able and we drank a toast to him before retiring to bed.
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