Our Travel blog
Sunday 23 October
I wrote about this area when we stayed very near Blythburgh back around 24 June, when we learnt about the untimely death of Joseph Kennedy in 1944 and about 'Black Shuck' the demonic dog. Pretty much everything else you could wish to know about the village is available on their website so I won’t trouble you with it here.
Nearby Bulcamp is best known now as the former site of the House of Industry (workhouse) that had two documented rebellions, first in 1765 with people trying to prevent its construction and then again in 1835 when the forced separation of husbands and wives and mothers from their children led to insurrection. Sadly, with the short sighted and inhuman way of pragmatic local authorities it became a residential care home where a generation who’d known and feared the building as a place of shame were to spend their remaining days ‘in the workhouse’. Much further back, around 653, Bulcamp was the site of a vicious battle where Anna, king of East Anglia was slain. East Anglia was then a small independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom roughly equivalent to today’s Norfolk and Suffolk area. Anna, a Christian, and his son Jurmin were killed by the army of the pagan king Penda of Mercia at the battle of Bulcamp.
There are lots of educated guesses, approximate dates and supposition in the retelling of Anglo Saxon tales because there are precious few written accounts that survived Saxon raiders and the dissolution of the monasteries. The present village of Blythburgh is rather reduced from the Domesday Book entry that showed that the place was taxed 3000 herring each year. Over the years it’s been home to a 12th Century Augustine priory and to a narrow gauge railway that joined Halesworth to Southwold. Operating between 1879 and 1929 this nearly 9 mile stretch of track reached its peak in 1900, carrying 10,000 passengers, 90,000 tons of minerals and 600 tons of general merchandise, according to the very active Southwold Railway Trust’s website. Back in Blythburgh the only remaining signs of the railway, apart from the course of the line, is the old coal shed near the 16th Century White Hart pub, which is a thriving Adnams pub and will no doubt enjoy our patronage soon.
What Blythburgh has oodles of is community spirit. From film nights, quiz nights and community markets to dog sitting and neighbourly errand running it abounds with the sort of gentle busyness that keeps communities like this alive. Once it was confirmed we’d be dog sitting offers came in for a place to park Mavis, relief dog sitting if we need time away and plenty of genial welcomes. I met two jovial ladies while out walking Whispa today. They were armed with a hefty pair of secateurs which they were using to keep the path clear. Or so they told me, but I’m watching the local news bulletins in case there’s been a daring jewel heist in the vicinity or someone discovers a dismembered body half buried in the marshes.
Monday 24 October
Our time here has so far been spent pottering about and catching up on chores. Today Alison’s son joined us for a few days and we spent a genial evening around the kitchen table, eating, drinking and generally making merry.
Tuesday 25 October
I was up bright and early. Well, early. Okay, not early. I got up around 8am and took Whispa out. Unlike me the morning was sharp and bright; the sun was burning off a gentle mist and flaring low through golden trees. Whispa dawdled and I tried calling her but somehow standing around on a cold morning in a field shouting out “Whispa!” at the top of my voice felt foolish so I lingered a while and drunk in the glorious daybreak. We wandered out to a public bird hide in the marshes and watched the treeline turn from yellow to gold to green as the watery horizon slowly appeared. Dragged back to reality by sirens on the A12 we tottered back to the welcoming aroma of fresh coffee.
The day went by with a visit to my mother, baking cheese straws, writing and general household chores. Alison and Dom took Whispa out in the evening for a wander around the marshes and out to the hide to watch the evening gather over the calm silvery waters. They returned thoughtful and chilly, shaking limbs and breathing into cupped hands to get blood flowing while the kettle boiled. Whispa settled on the sofa while we chomped away on a reviving chilli.
Wednesday 26 October Friday 28 October
The next morning’s constitutional took me and Whispa along a narrow bridleway and around the old village and church. Of particular note, to me if not Whispa, was the Priory. From the lane servicing it the property is divided into two parts, the main 17th-century building and the adjoining red brick Little Priory which sits on 14th Century foundations. Hidden from public view in the gardens are the remains of a 12th-century Augustinian Priory. It’s a fascinating place, with links to Anna and the battle of Bulcamp (see, you knew there was a reason I mentioned it earlier). Added interest in the Priory comes from it being the subject of a BBC Time Team investigation titled Skeletons in the Shed, broadcast in 2009, which you can view here: Time Team.
We left Blythburgh behind for the day as we had cause to travel to Colchester and load up with the furniture and fittings we are taking to Shallowford. With Dom’s help we emptied half of the storage unit, hauling out the shelving, sofa and various bits and bobs we wanted. We soon swung Mavis onto the A12 where I sat in a tiny space amongst the furniture and narrowly avoided decapitation from the shelving every time we went around a roundabout or tight right turn. The plan for tomorrow is to leave Whispa in Dom’s company and scoot off to Shallowford, unload the furniture and scoot back in a day, a round trip of 400 miles.
Which is exactly what we did, swapping driving duties half way there and back and spending far too long on the A14 than is good for the human soul - which is precisely any time over 20 seconds. It really is an interminably dull drive. It runs for 127 mind numbing miles from the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, passed Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket, Cambridge, Huntington then a bleak wilderness marked ‘here be dragons’ on the map before skirting Kettering, passing the site of The Battle of Nasby and finally, if you’re still conscious, you’ll end up at the Catthorpe Interchange junction of the M1 and M6 motorways close to Rugby where a world of delights awaits you. The route is synonymous with traffic congestion, thundering lorries and accidents. Travelling on it today some of the tedium was relieved by the vibrant autumnal colours of the trees along the roadside, although on the A14 that’s like saying watching magnolia paint dry is slightly better than watching white paint dry. It was a reminder though that we can at least now take notice of the splendour of the trees and the colours of nature. I passed this way, and on many other roads more gifted in scenery while commuting or driving for work and although I noticed the backdrop in a casual way my head was always busy with other matters. Now though free from any stresses that we aren’t imposing upon ourselves, and selling and buying property does involve a smidgen of tension, we are free to appreciate the views and absorb the magnificence of Mother Nature in her full splendour.
Talking of splendour the jewel in the dismal crown of the A14 is The Orwell Bridge, although even then it shares it with its close friend the A12 which joins it for the crossing. And what a bridge it is; 1,287 metres of graceful sweeping concrete ferrying up to 60,000 vehicles over the wide River Orwell. Built near the remains of a Roman causeway, where the wide stretch of the tidal Orwell carries river traffic to the Port of Ipswich, the central span of the bridge is high enough to let ships pass underneath but retains its elegant flowing profile as it rises and curves across the river, a deliberate effect to give the most sympathetic relationship to the surrounding terrain. In fact, it is so at home in the natural world that in 2012 a pair of peregrine falcons took up residence and became the first peregrines to breed in the wild in Suffolk for about 200 years.
The bridge cost in the region of £24million to build; work started in the autumn of 1979 and it opened for traffic in December 1982, just in time for my father to ferry me home from college for the Christmas holiday. We were bitterly disappointed that the barriers wisely prevent motorists in ordinary cars, and you couldn’t get more ordinary than my father’s Mazda, from seeing the views. Fortunately in Mavis we can take in the vistas from our elevated position; the broad Orwell estuary to the East, speckled with tiny sailing boats laying between graceful wooded banks with the cranes of Felixstowe port poking out from the trees on the horizon, and to the west the shimmering glass and steel of Ipswich dockside developments and the busy port, grubby, chaotic and rust coloured like ports everywhere.
We returned to Blythburgh and crossed the bridge in darkness, making Ipswich on our left sparkle and appear vibrant and alive in a way it really doesn’t in the grim reality of daylight. Dom and Whispa had enjoyed a relaxing day without us and explored a bit of the old railway line on a longer than planned walk. The only blot on the day was Alison twisting her back while lifting, causing her much discomfort.
Alison’s back injury is responding to rest and medication but is still sore so on Friday Dom and I locked her up with her mother in the family kitchen in Cambridge while we helped her father move furniture out of their lounge and study ready for the carpet fitters. Dom and I are getting quite good at this moving malarkey now and had everything done in time to release our captives who we discovered had spent their incarceration productively by baking potatoes for lunch. Fed and watered we dropped Dom in Cambridge to meet up with friends before heading back to college, hurriedly exchanging fond farewell’s while I pretended not to be parked on double yellow lines. We drove back down the horrendous A14 which was as bleak and boring as ever. I once mentioned it to a friend who reminded me that the sugar refinery at Bury St Edmunds relieves the tedium. This is kind of true, although it does give you a sense of how tedious the route is when a lump of industrial steel belching out the steamy aroma of burnt confectionery becomes a significant landmark.
Incidentally in the spirit of research I looked up the sugar refinery and need to correct an earlier entry I made in Rattlesden where I mentioned it was operated by Tate & Lyle. I was wrong, which frankly I am rather disappointed no one spotted. It is, as of course you all know my dear and well informed readers, operated by British Sugar. I’ll finish here with a wonderful nugget from their visitors guide to the Bury St Edmunds refinery where amongst the usual advice to wear safety clothing and keep to the visitors areas it states “Red Button – don’t push”. If anything reads like an invitation to push a button to see what will happen that does. It’s probably as well I haven’t applied to go on a visit. I would but of course I’d have to use the A14 to get there.
Thursday 20 October – Friday 21 October
We spent Thursday with Alison parents and cleared the final bits and bobs from the flat. On Friday we had a visit from a friend then we were on the road to Blythburgh in Suffolk. This charming spot on the River Blyth is inside an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and will be our home for 10 days while we house and dog sit for a friend. We didn’t get much opportunity to explore on Friday afternoon as once we had unpacked we scooted off to nearby Leiston to catch up with my eldest and friends for a lovely Indian meal and to chat late into the night.
Saturday 22 October*
After a terrible night’s sleep, in part from my stomach wrestling a vegetable thali into submission and partly from one too many late night cups of tea, I got up ridiculously early to take Whispa, the chocolate Labrador we are looking after, out for an early morning walk. This really is a most bewitching area of the country and particularly so when the air is crisp, fresh and untainted by the nearby A12.
The Blyth flows into a large tidal creek which dominates the area. Across the shimmering waters sit the white specks of Southwold. Walking east cumulonimbus clouds were stacked up from the treeline and glowing orange from the rising sun. Half a moon still hung high in the sky behind us and the trees rustled in a light breeze. Pheasants squawked wildly and thundered aloft as we approached, songbirds trilled in the hedgerows as the short lane we followed fell away into Walberswick Nature Reserve. Here reeds rose from the marshy shores and the canopy of trees sparkled with silver dew and cast shadows across the sandy path. The track from here follows the old railway line towards Walberswick where it joins the Suffolk Coastal Path to cross the river via the old railway bridge and into Southwold. Today though, Whispa and I contented ourselves with a short circular wander around the fringes of the mud flats and back to the house to greet a barely awake Alison.
I always took the large creek to be a natural feature but apparently it is the result of deliberate flooding in 1940 as a precaution against invasion at the start of WWII, a story that my father relayed to me on one of our many excursions this way but that did not really sink in at the time. We lived nearby in Saxmundham, a market town that had known glory as a transport hub, with its coaching inn, railway line, bus station, A12 trunk road and bustling livestock market. During our time the town grew in population but sank in importance and went through something of a slump as the livestock market finally closed, the bakery and greengrocer warehouse closed, garages uprooted and the town centre market faded from a cheerful parade of colourful stalls to a few sad displays of out of date provisions, fabric remnants and never in fashion clothes. Not that I cared. As a bored teenager adrift in what I considered the arse end of nowhere the only pastimes of any interest to me were cycling, a pursuit that had the benefit of being entirely solitary, and making model aeroplanes, an interest that mostly ended up with hideous sticky mutated aircraft with wings at jauntily irregular angles, a pilot glued to the tail and a clump of dog hair stuck to the nose. My only other interest was music. I was glued to the radio, literally if I’d recently been allowed back near the Airfix adhesive. I turned 14 and spent my birthday money on a budget Bill Haley record. Halfway through side one I started a lifelong addiction. Bill Haley gradually became Jerry Lee Lewis who morphed into Quo and Sabbath. I then discovered pirate radio and worked at the local chip shop to fund my growing music habit. I had Bowie, T Rex and Pink Floyd scrawled on my pencil case. My best friend had the Confederate flag and Showaddywaddy on his. I like to think I won.
Living in Suffolk we were surrounded by American airbases, which delighted the inner nerd in me. “So that’s what an A-10 Tankbuster is supposed to look like” I’d sigh, stamping another failed Airfix kit into the bin…” It exposed my youthful self to American service families with exotic record collections. Lou Reed, The Stooges, MC5 and Funkadelic were swapped for Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Hawkwind. I tried to emulate my musical heroes, the drawback being every instrument I tried I failed to wrestle into submission. I could read music but hammered at keyboards like my fingers were made of lead shovels and plucked at guitars like Robin Hood loading an arrow. I tried the drums at school and found that although I could move each limb independently when walking, I couldn’t do so with sticks in my hand or pedals under my feet.
After a few years of on and off frustration and having to content myself by taping Radio Caroline and making my own shows, something reached our sleepy backwater that was to permanently change my outlook on music and, more importantly, on life. Suddenly, thanks to a few scruffy oiks swearing on The Bill Grundy Show, punk burst in a maelstrom of tabloid hysteria. In the space of a year my world exploded into a thousand musical fragments, every one more exciting than the last. Now it was permissible not to be a classically trained prog rocker or to understand chord progressions and such niceties; attitude became more important than ability. A grey generation who grew up under the shadow of the cold war and nuclear annihilation became a multi-coloured, switched on vibrant mess of furious spitting music, imperfectly played, with snarling words railing against every injustice we could imagine. It was often an inaudible squall, challenging and wilfully obtuse... but brilliant.
From then on, my musical interests ranged from punk to heavy rock and in particular the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a sub-genre that fused punk attitude and simplicity with a heavier sound and generally less politicised lyrics. I discovered the music press, especially Sounds and NME and devoured them from cover to cover every week. I embraced anything that would transport me out of this shabby little town. I joined a band in a desperate attempt to join in ‘on the front line’ and over the period of two shambolic rehearsals went from guitar to bass on the grounds that I could do less damage with four strings than six. After one gig I admitted that perhaps 4 strings was pushing it a bit, by a factor of about 4, and tried the drums again; this time on a bass drum we ‘appropriated’ from school and painted yellow, and a single snare. It was maybe my finest 10 minutes on stage; a five minute tune up while the singer grappled with the audience for the microphone, a 30 second burst of feedback, approximately 1 minute of heart pounding bewildering noise and a further 30 seconds while we all finished the song in our own good time. Imagine a guitar, a bass, drums and a singer who between them had attended two music lessons, were drunk and had only rehearsed twice, and at one of those the guitarist forgot to bring his instrument, and you have only just begun to know how awful we were. We were followed by two bands who knew what they were doing, one of whom were the nucleus of soon to be local legends The S Men, fronted by a singer who went on to become half of 1980’s outfits Duck you Sucker and Blue Mercedes.
Meanwhile I wallowed in the music press, occasionally wrote lyrics for bands, bought singles on excursions to Ipswich and wrote fanzines with friends whose musical appreciation also outshone their ability. Saxmundham survived the arrival of punk rock and went through something of a resurgence, gradually becoming quietly gentrified, with a busy high street and growing economy. We drove passed my old family house last night. It’s undergoing some internal modification after the new owners eventually wore down the planners over its listed status restrictions, a hazard my cautious father felt keenly and my pragmatic mother largely ignored. For all my misery in the early 1970’s at finding myself transported from central heating to coal fires, from a modern semi to a cold, creaky house overlooking a grave yard, in time it grew on me. This is what I wrote in June 2014 when the house was finally sold.
“The glow from the open fire, the slope on the kitchen floor, the smell of Christmas, using the front room for visitors, my father always getting home at 5.45 on the dot and tea being ready, the night the greenhouse blew down, mowing the grass for 50p, the bonfire going all weekend, laundry day on Saturday morning, my first record player, trying to drown out my mums dance class with Top of the Pops LP’s, playing in the garden all summer (how come it never rained?), climbing up to gather apples, storing them in the cellar, my nan coming to stay and our secret code of knocks on the wall, moving out and weekends back home, dad's funeral, playing with the dogs, visiting mum, sorting through years of artefacts, and finally walking around a house full of nothing but memories.”
One of the last items I carried out of the house was that Bill Haley record. Nothing could make me part with it and, If you look closely you can still see a finger mark that looks suspiciously like it’s made by Airfix glue.
* Readers with too much time on their hands may just realise that the piece in this entry concerning Bill Hayley has been published before on the Fruits de Mer records website, albeit in a different format. I figured if I was going to plagiarise anyone it might as well be me.
Tuesday 18 October
Our plan for today was to have a leisurely morning pottering around Henley before boarding a train and heading into London to watch a band. The plans however were scuppered by me waking up with a migraine of epic proportions. After getting up to bemoan my fragile state Nurse Alison sent me back to bed where I dozed off to the sound of her crochet hook stabbing away accompanied by the occasional profanity as the odd stitch escaped her clutches.
Late in the afternoon I was sufficiently recovered to take a slightly fragile wander into town where we ambled along the pleasant riverside admiring the variety of boats bobbing about on the Thames; to our absolute delight we watched Red Kites soaring overhead and swooping across the river and wooded bank opposite. Every so often we’d spy one of these elegant birds of prey gliding above the town’s chimneys and spires, oblivious to the townsfolk scurrying home from work and the ceaseless parade of high end cars squeezing through the bunting lined streets.
Henley has a lot to offer the casual visitor if prim shops, cosy eateries and olde world pubs are your kind of thing. I was quite interested in visiting the rowing museum until Alison explained away that it wasn’t, as I’d hoped, a monument to squabbles and quarrelling but all about paddling little boats so I happily allowed myself to be steered away to a tea shop instead. While enjoying a refreshing cuppa I took a call from the people who interviewed me for a job a few days ago. (See Tuesday 11 October – Thursday 13 October). To cut a long story short they offered me the position, thanks to their first choice candidate turning them down. It’s an unusual position to be put in, not quite good enough but good enough to still be considered. Anyway I politely declined as we’ve accepted other work in the meantime but it was nice to have had the opportunity to fall back on.
Henley is of course synonymous with the famous Regatta, which was first held in 1839 and has been held annually ever since, except during the two World Wars. It attracts huge crowds to the town every July; although I suspect few of those are rowing enthusiasts and fewer still actually bother to watch the racing. The event doesn’t have any commercial sponsorship; about 85% of the £3million it costs to stage comes from subscriptions paid by members of the 6,500 strong Stewards’ Enclosure. For which, incidentally there is a waiting list of 1000 at time of writing. It isn’t a poor parish. In fact one thing Henley has in abundance is money. It’s one of the most expensive places in the country to live and goodness knows where the many people who work in its shops, clean its streets and mow its lawns live.
Interestingly though one of the places it’s twinned with is Borama in Somaliland, a self-declared republic internationally recognized as an autonomous region of poverty-stricken Somalia. Which I think is most laudable and from a little light research Borama seems to be rebuilding itself positively in the aftermath of the awful civil war in the region. I hope that a fraction of Henley’s spare change has helped them in their attempts to rebuild the town. It certainly seems more laudable than some twinning associations that appear to be little more than opportunities for local bigwigs to enjoy subsidised holidays.
After our little wander we made our way through the crisp autumn air back to Mavis where I collapsed in a pathetic heap while Alison fussed around, juggling pots and pans, cutlery and crockery to make dinner. Exhausted from the effort of eating I again collapsed into a pitiable wreck just long enough for the washing up to be completed by Alison. If I was a doubting man I’d swear my adorable and patient private nurse/cook/housekeeper was beginning to harbour misgivings about my incapacity and so in a gesture of tremendous generosity and risking my fragile health I dried up 2 spoons and a cup before retiring shattered into bed.
Wednesday 19 October
This morning I was up and about in good health and we made an early start as we had a rummage through our storage unit to look forward to and an evening rendezvous in Cambridge. Driving away the area surrounding Henley looked most inviting, from the broad Thames plain and Chiltern Hills to the cosy villages and enchanting towns. As we rounded a corner a Kite took off from disembowelling some poor critter and swooped aloft to watch us pass as it rode on the eddies preparing to resume its banquet once we’d passed. We decided then and there that the Thames valley is somewhere we’d like to explore more of when time allows. For now though we ploughed on and joined the featureless motorway system which whisked us with minimal delays to our first destination.
I lived in Colchester for 30 odd years, some of them very odd indeed, and have many friends I am fond of there. The town though seems featureless and slightly moribund when approaching it as a visitor. What I miss, apart from friends, is the thriving DIY music and arts scene, the bustling little side streets and the odd little glimpses of its history that poke out from its years of thoughtless town planning. There are fragments of the Roman town walls embedded in the basement of a new shopping precinct, the Siege House with its bullet holes from the Civil War, the fine Norman Castle keep that appears from around an unpromising corner at the ragged end of the high street and the hidden ruins of St Botoph’s priory that conceals its grandeur behind a busy street of kebab shops and cheap supermarkets. Our furniture and other precious belongings still live in Colchester though so we stopped at the faceless warehouse which they call home to measure up sofas and shelving, ever hopeful that they will fit into our temporary accommodation via transportation in Mavis.
After some climbing, a modest ascent with a cheeky arête at mid point and a gentle traverse across the wardrobes I managed to get the measurements of the sofa and shelving unit to shout back to Alison, who stood poised with pen and note book.
“Sofa is 17.5” I called.
“Thingies…you know, little ones, err…Fahrenheits?
After an exaggerated sigh I heard “Right, just call out the measurements and we’ll work it out.” The whole process would have been easier if I wasn’t using my late father’s old 3ft ruler. Fortunately this gave sufficient information to get robust measurements and once satisfied we set about loading stuff back in using the time honoured method employed by people in these circumstances. Which is to start packing carefully and as you work grow steadily less precise until you end up with one of you throwing the last items in while the other slams the door quickly after it and you both make a mental note to ensure you let the other one open it first next time.
We drove on to Cambridge where I satisfied a hankering for a toasted baked bean sandwich for dinner. After such a culinary delight we settled into our established roles, me writing and Alison crocheting. I’m secretly hoping that she is crocheting me a pair of swimming trunks for Christmas.
And finally…Alison and I had a debate regarding a slightly risqué aside I was going to use in today’s blog. Despite completely impartial advice from a friend of ours (hello Belinda), I agreed not to use the following couplet:“I was excited today when I found my first grey pubic hair; but not nearly as excited as the rest of the people in the shop...”
So that’s why you won’t read it here, and also why Alison is unlikely to ever trust me again to post the blog without her having final approval.
Tuesday 11 October – Thursday 13 October
Okay, let us get this entry over with in a hurry. It hasn’t been our finest few days. Alison had a relapse of the virus that’s been haunting her for a while. It hit her hard and she spent much of Tuesday in bed. We went to Shallowford on Wednesday but although the change of air and company helped it’s been a difficult few days for her. Nevertheless we joined in with the garden working party and generally pottered about. I even got to drive the tractor.
On Thursday I had an interview in Leek, for a job I’d applied for before being offered work at Shallowford. Thus early in the morning I was trying to remember how to do up a tie and generally attempting to look respectable. I emerged from the interview after an hour and a half mentally exhausted but pleased enough with my performance to warrant treating Alison to a baked potato lunch in Leek. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to treat a lady. The illusion of a cool, calm and debonair man-about-town crumbled when it came time to pay and I realised the café didn’t accept cards and I was ‘light’ of cash. I left Alison as security while I popped next door to the cash machine and returned to find her swapping life stories with our host. I eventually hauled her away and back to our borrowed car and to Shallowford where Alison took a nap to try and shake off the symptoms of her virus. I donned my work clothes and made a token effort to join in the gardening, casually appearing just as they wandered in for tea and cake, for which I enthusiastically joined them.
Later I took a call to let me know I wasn’t successful, although the feedback was generous and kind. I’d missed out to the person who was offered the position by 2 points. Which on reflection may be good or not. If it was 2 points out of a possible 100 then I don’t feel too bad. If I was 2 behind out of 3 then maybe I wasn’t so proficient after all. Anyway, it has all worked out for the best. It means Alison and I can work together in one place, I won’t need to commute and the tie can be consigned to the back of my underwear drawer again.
I’ve never really understood the purpose of a tie. It can certainly look smart, affording decorum to a gentleman’s attire for formal occasions. But as everyday wear it seems odd. Like a fabric arrow pointing to one’s willy or often in my case a kind of formal bib. In the days when I wore one regularly I seriously considered getting my ties laminated so that they’d last longer than a week without the pattern being obscured by food debris or serrated by the shredder. And of course in an office environment the wearing of ties opens a window to the soul of your colleagues. You get the plain, sombre tie wearers, the fashionistas with their huge or skinny knots as fashion dictates, the work experience lad with his nylon school shirt and a tie he’s borrowed from his dad; it’s probably brown with a pattern like 1970’s wallpaper. Then there’s the old boy in accounts who’s worn the same suit for 20 years and who dusts off his racy Christmas tie with the sad little faded reindeer on that is wearing 20 years’ worth of mince pie crumbs and smelling of moth balls and spilt mulled wine. And then, worst of all is the office worker who wears silly ties with adolescent comic book motifs, little cars or Disney characters on to show he’s a bit of a laugh and not the sad sack of disenchanted frustration with an unrequited crush on Sally in Administration that he really is. Ties, pah says I.
Meanwhile Alison continues to make a slow recovery and tomorrow we leave for our last adventure on the road for this year when we head to Wool in Dorset to see my sister and brother-in-law. From there we plan to mooch around in Mavis wherever the mood takes us, with a final stint of house sitting in Suffolk and then up to Shallowford to start work. I’ll continue with the blog until we get there.
Friday 14 October
We rose early in order to get away and off to Dorset in good time. The biggest distraction on our long and largely featureless journey was the colours. The A40 was particularly blessed by autumn, with large strands of trees, their foliage shaded in rich auburns and russets, golden green and pale lemon, studded with the occasional deep green conifer. Larger woods on the hillsides were spectacular, reflecting the colours of the surrounding ploughed fields with dark browns and yellows at their edges and deeper greens within the dense woodland yet to feel the full chill of the autumn air.
Our site in Wool is very nice; clean and with pleasant views over open meadows to the north. The occasional parp of a train’s horn is the only distraction to an otherwise tranquil little spot on the outskirts of the village. Wool sits inland from popular Lulworth Cove and just south of the River Frome, which flows under a lovely 16th Century 5-arch stone bridge and passed the slightly newer Woolbridge Manor. The Manor was the fictional setting for the honeymoon of Angel Clare and Tess in Thomas Hardy’s book Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I don’t wish to spoil the plot but their nuptials were ill-fated; suffice to say Angel really was an ass.
We took a walk around the village and it’s an interesting mix. The west is mostly newer buildings, faceless offices and the old Ship Inn. Between them we walked along a road of anonymous bungalows and tidy houses, passed the library and sports field and into the older part of the village with its pretty thatched cottages, squat Holy Rood Church and imposing Black Bear pub. Spring Street, so named I assume because the name Wool derives from the Saxon for Well, has a bubbling little brook running beside it, the cottage gardens accessed over miniature bridges. Further up, the road divides and Church Lane leads gently up to the church, passed plenty of examples of the thatcher’s art as the lane twists and narrows to a farm track on the edge of the village. Along here it is easy to imagine the world of Thomas Hardy, who lived and wrote extensively about Dorset. Well, easy if you remember you are not up to your knees in mud and horse manure, the cottages now have running water and inside plumbing and you’ve a good chance of surviving childhood but, you know, all that aside its very ‘Hardyesque.’
I’m no Hardy scholar; I think I might have owned a copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge once in a vain attempt to look serious. It probably sat on the bookshelf beside a load of other ‘classics’ I had no intention of reading. Alison though is more familiar with his works and tells me he was something of a serious social commentator, raising issues and injustices of the day through his writing in a way that didn’t win him many friends at the time, at least not from among the class of people he was criticising. Good for him I say. And on that note it’s time to retire for tomorrow we have a long awaited reunion.
Saturday 15 October
We got up late. The rain last night kept us awake so we felt justified. Rain usually isn’t a problem in Mavis but here we are partly under trees so the usual gentle rhythm of the rain was punctuated by irregular staccato bursts of drops falling from the branches. Still, after the rain had cleared a gentle watery sunshine melted away the gloom and we took a walk around the older part of Wool and up to the abandoned farm of Wood Street, weaving in and out of the rather becoming Cole Wood along the way. The paths here are worn smooth as they rise and fall through the tangle of the trees. The woods are at once tamed by the path and wild and unspoilt away from it. Thickets of briars nestle in glades and occasional small Fir trees sprout like dark green interlopers amongst the mulch and wilting autumnal leaves. We emerged from the dark woods into brilliant sunlight from where we traced a B road along a marshy lowland and then back up along a forestry road in the woods to emerge, completely by chance, back on the outskirts of Wool in time to stroll back and ensure that we were safely snuggled up in Mavis before the rains started again.
Okay, this next passage may not be for the squeamish. Access to the shower block here is controlled by an entry code, which for convenience I keep in my phone case. After a shave this evening I went for, let’s call it a ‘sit down’ followed by a shower. Unrobing in the shower cubicle I couldn’t locate my phone so put my trousers back on and retraced my steps, with increasing urgency as it wasn’t anywhere to be found. I appeared to be the only person in the shower block and had clearly had it with me to gain access. On my fourth retracing of my visits I became aware of a curious weight in the pants department as I bent down to look behind the toilet bowl, just in case it had fallen there. I had a flashback to being 3 years old at nursery and having one of ‘those’ accidents. I was just investigating this curious phenomenon when someone else came in; someone who may be traumatised by the sight of a topless middle aged man scurrying into a shower cubicle with one hand down his trousers retrieving his phone from his underpants. Truth be told I was slightly disappointed no one chose that moment to call me as I had it on vibrate.
Still, a minor compensation was exiting the shower block to see a perfect vivid rainbow arched right over the site, one end illuminating the ancient stone walls of Woolbridge Manor, the other rather less poetically the railway bridge. Shortly afterwards we were picked up by my brother-in-law and sister and whisked away to an evening of fine food, good beer and convivial chat. I mentioned earlier in this blog that my sister and I had been separated by distance and to some extent misunderstanding for many years so after our emotional reunion in April this was an opportunity to reignite our friendship and start to re-build confidence in our relationship.
Sunday 16 October
After a great evening yesterday we’ve been invited to Sunday dinner at my sister’s. Clearly we didn’t embarrass ourselves, which is unusual when food and I get together, especially if food’s cousin alcohol joins us at the table. Still, after another slightly disturbed night thanks again to the rain we had a late breakfast in Mavis and pondered the state of the world, as one does.
Part of our motivation was a couple of appalling comments some mindless numbskulls made on social media. Exhibit A concerns comments under a heart rending piece on the deteriorating situation in Aleppo and the awful casualties children are suffering there. The comments in question were along the ‘what about the children in America, shouldn’t we direct our resources to help them first?’ lines. To which the obvious answer is no. You live in the richest nation on earth, a country that has over 200 brands of breakfast cereal on the supermarket shelves and you think you cannot afford to help people in Syria? By help I don’t mean buy them a colouring book or give them a better choice of candy bars. I mean save their lives. Let’s spell that out. Stop them from dying in appalling pain in the streets, writhing in agony because the grown-ups are bombing the fuck out of the country.
We concluded that actually we haven’t done anything practical to help either. No amount of shares and likes on social media will help anyone directly, no earnest discussions over the toast and coffee will right any wrongs. We have donated a sum to Doctors without Borders, because they are there on the ground, doing what they can in incredibly difficult circumstances. It’s a paltry amount in the grand scheme of things, but when we can choose between jam and marmite for our toast then we have to consider ourselves well off in comparison with people living in a war zone and every little helps.
Of course where one chooses to donate their loose change is entirely a free and personal choice. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of worthy causes on our doorstep. My issue is not with the individual choice but with the thoughtless assertion that somehow the life of a Syrian child is worth less than whatever unspecified cause at home that they think more important, and probably don’t bother donating to anyway. And talk of thoughtless comments brings me to exhibit B. Recently an Eritrean man was run over and killed by a British holiday maker in Calais. Apparently the man was erecting a road block, and I have no idea of his status, whether he was a refugee, economic migrant, fleeing persecution or whatever. He may have been up to no good, he may have been desperate; the point is whatever way you look at it, it’s a tragedy. Through a desperate or foolish act a mother has lost a son, a man has been killed. At that point surely a civilised response, the response of a mature first world nation, is to stop name calling and persecution, to pause, reflect and to mourn the loss of a life. Instead the baying mob of Daily Mail on-line commenters went into full-on gloating mode, celebrating the death of a human being with a tirade of gleeful posts. “Good, pity it’s only one”, “wife’s alive? Good, make her pay for a new bumper” and “run them all over….” It’s this mob mentality that so divides the world. One doesn’t have to condone irresponsible behaviour to be moved by its consequences. The irony is that a lot of these keyboard warriors consider themselves Christians. The line of The Mail is that this is a Christian country and our Christian values need protecting and preserving. It’s a perverted self-serving version of scripture that is not even remotely based on love and compassion. Baying for the blood of perceived ‘enemies’ is not the mark of a civilised faith or patriotic country, it’s the rhetoric of a de-humanising fascist ‘Might, White and Right’ ideology.
When we start thinking of some people as being less worthy of our help, love and respect and we start treating them as 2nd class citizens then we’re heading towards an abyss, a cliff edge where the disabled and infirm are considered a hindrance; where the mechanics of organised opposition are outlawed and where it becomes acceptable to divide people into the worthy and unworthy; where the ugly philosophy of eugenics starts to gain traction and where we start dividing people by nationality, race, creed, sexual preferences and ability; who knows, maybe we could oblige them to wear a neat little triangle or star for easy identification?
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
 Pastor Martin Niemöller
In an odd case of serendipity one of the photos we took to show my sister showed my parents and me visiting my gran, aunts and cousin. I was wearing a ‘Rock Against It’ badge – a homemade rip off of the Rock Against Racism (RAR) badge I was prevented from wearing for school at the time. According to the school authorities, rocking against ‘It’, whatever ‘It’ was, was acceptable but specifying racism wasn’t okay, because, as I was told at the time “one has to consider both sides Raymond. If we allow the wearing of RAR merchandise we have to allow racist badges, and you wouldn’t want that now would you?”
I was a meek child and allowed this to go unchallenged, my passive resistance being the fashioning of my ‘It’ badge. Inside though I screamed at him…”Allow it, why? We have to have some lines in the sand to preserve our democracy you pointless wet middle class excuse for a teacher. Surely we need some positions where we draw the line. If I wore a Rock against Rape badge would you ask me to remove it lest someone wore a Rape is Fun one? Rape is wrong, there’s no counter argument, no justification, its rape. Likewise racism is wrong. There is no defence. Our fathers fought for a democracy that has rights and freedoms; with them comes the burden of responsibility. Sometimes that responsibility needs to be reinforced. I shouldn’t need to make my anti-racism position clear but sadly the fascists are gaining traction again. It is time to stand up and be counted.”
Of course I wasn’t anything like as eloquent as that at the time (if indeed that was eloquent, which I doubt), but that was the gist of my argument, filtered through the intervening 48 years. The world is still chaotic and troublesome, we have many issues to grapple with that require intervention, many injustices that we must face, and we should face them with heart, compassion and reasoned debate. Let’s not revisit the dark days of Mosley’s blackshirts (incidentally lauded at the time by none other than The Daily Mail) or the National Front that prompted the formation of RAR, nor should we tolerate todays quasi-fascist parties or indeed the revolting keyboard warriors who fuel the click-baiting Mail on-line. When we devalue a human life to the point of ridicule the only people who benefit are the fascist enemies of democracy.
Goodness that was a bit of a tirade. Now that’s out of my system lets return to what passes for normality around here. To lighten the mood I can report that we went off to meet my family, including a niece I haven’t seen for years, we were made very welcome and had a super time. And Alison fell over a dog. I only mention it because it the sort of thing that usually happens to me.
Monday 17 October
We were up and away this morning to make the most of a sunny gap between showers to meander our way along the highways and byways to the rather plush Henley-on-Thames. On the way I pondered upon some of those odd sayings that pass between us that, taken out of context, sound decidedly odd. This morning’s crop included these bon-mots; “have you never tickled an elf?” and “that’s a REALLY attractive field.” I’m wondering if the first one would be a good title for the book.
It so happens that Henley is where my sister and brother-in-law spent a lot of time in their courting days so it’s a nice link to our stay with them, although we chose it for the more pragmatic reasons of having a voucher for a free night and for its proximity to London where we are off to for a gig and bit of a wander tomorrow. The Catherine Wheel public house where they passed more than a few evenings is still busy. Now a Wetherspoons, it was a handy refuge for us when we’d walked in from the nearby Henley Caravan Club site. Once stuffed full of cheap and cheerful fare we wandered around the town centre. It’s very comely in a twee well-to-do kind of way. The prices in the estate agents windows made our eyes water but the views along the Thames were splendid and the sight of a vivid rainbow sinking into the autumnal trees on the opposite bank was truly breath-taking.
Monday 3 October – Monday 10 October
So, here we are cuddled up in an old cottage in Rattlesden, Suffolk where we are house and cat sitting for family. Owing to the building’s low ceiling, small doorways and squat stairs I’ve spent quite a bit of our stay concussed; you could read the top of my head using Braille if you were so minded. It is rather an idyllic spot though; a country cottage on a hill with two cats who allow us to feed them and share their bed, plenty of time and no agenda besides a couple of visits to local friends. Over the course of the week the cold that had been teasing me by popping in for an occasional sneeze then slinking off to lurk somewhere until it could ambush me with a dribbly nose finally went away, only to take root in poor Alison for a full on muscle aching assault. Thus we’ve taken full advantage of our position to do as little as possible for as long as we can while we convalesce. It’s been a quiet time of writing and reading, watching films and making plans. Nevertheless we’ve ventured out from our snug domicile for enough time to justify updating the blog.
Rattlesden is close enough to hear the distant rumble of the A14 from the surrounding hills but is far enough away from it to be a place of timeless, quiet narrow lanes in a village that nestles in a valley carved out by the Rattlesden River, which flows into the River Gipping at Stowmarket, 4 miles away to the East, and then the River Orwell. In fact a spring in the village was once acknowledged as being the source of the River Orwell. Until improvements to the River Gipping in 1789, known as the Stowmarket Navigation, the River Rat, as it is often known locally, was navigated by boats and barges. It was here that the Caen stone used for building the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds in The Middle Ages was unloaded after its journey from North West France.
Once those pesky Stowmarketans completed their Navigation, Rattlesden settled back into agriculture as its chief source of income and employment while Stowmarket prospered, attracting the building of several maltings, gun cotton and fertiliser manufacturers. Back in Rattlesden the river has a pair of replica whalebones spanning it at the north end of the settlement, replicas of the Victorian real bones that eventually decayed and were replaced in 2000. I’ve no idea why they were ever put there; I guess someone thought it a good idea at the time.
The name of the village occurs in the Domesday Book as: Ratlesdena, Rachestdena and Rastedena. This of course was a time before typesetting and the relatively modern concept of consistent spelling. Not that I’ve ever mastered it. In the 16th and 17th centuries the village and the surrounding area was a focus of Puritan sentiment. Not able to get their own way and cleanse the country of merriment many of the Puritans emigrated to what is now the USA, setting up the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628. They were followed by a much larger group in 1630, when a flotilla of 15 ships carrying 1,000 people arrived there, then in 1634 local wheelwright Richard Kimball led a relatively large company from Rattlesden to join them, depriving the village of easy access to wheels but they were at least now able to go to the pub for a good old knees up.
Nowadays the village is dominated by the 13th century St Nicholas Church. It’s an impressive structure that looks curiously oversized for the small community, but that’s partly an illusion caused by all the greenery around the village screening the surrounding houses. Although the centre of the village has been a conservation area since 1975 there are some relatively new bungalows and other housing just outside its core. To the south there is a comparatively modern estate at the top of the splendidly named Rising Sun Hill, from where a turn right takes you into the less imaginatively monikered Top Road with its motley collection of new and old dwellings spread along its length. At one end sits some relatively new flats and houses clustered together as one building, looking like they’ve been assembled out of Lego. What’s most striking to me though is that nobody thought to provide a pavement for pedestrians, including children going to Rattlesden’s primary school, who are forced to walk along the unlit bus route. Tsk.
The sky above Rattlesden would once have turned dark as the thunderous roar of the massive silver B-17 Flying Fortresses stationed there took flight on bombing sorties into Germany and occupied Europe. The sight would have been even more impressive when planes from the other rapidly built runways in the area appeared above the fields of East Anglia. Rattlesden hosts a memorial to the US 447th Bomber Flying Group who were stationed here between 1942 and 1945. One of Rattlesden’s three runways is still in use by the local gliding club. The other two were decommissioned after the Bloodhound missile system deployed from here was withdrawn from active service in 1966.
Back in 2016 and Tuesday was taken up with a visit to London, where we found time to wander around the excellent Museum of London at The Barbican Centre before meeting up with two of our sons for a catch up and meal. We really must applaud the museum for its fascinating collection of artefacts and displays spanning the entire history of this once boggy area of The Thames, from a time before any human settlement right up to the present day, or at least to 2012 and its room dedicated to the London Olympic Flame. Of particular interest to me was the post 1950 section which I was delighted to see included 7” singles by Crass and The Sex Pistols, (ask your parents… or maybe your children) and a recreation of an entire street in Hackney that was home to squatters in the 1970’s. The only disappointment was the gift shop. Along with the usual array of overpriced tat one comes to expect in such places was a silk scarf priced at £115. As if this wasn’t insult enough the design was of Charles Booth’s iconic 1889 Descriptive Map of London Poverty. Booth, a wealthy ship owner, was trying to refute what he believed were exaggerated claims that a quarter of London’s population lived in poverty. His research though ran to 17 volumes and demonstrated that the real figure was actually much higher, at around at one third. He still had no qualms about arbitrary labelling of the poorer districts. On his maps Black indicated 'Lowest class. Vicious, semi criminal', while better off areas he overlooked the live-in servants and maids who were mostly living hand to mouth. Nevertheless his maps made the extent of poverty plain to see in a simple format that pages of dense research wouldn’t have and reinforced a growing movement calling for social responsibility and fairer distribution of wealth. Clearly irony is lost on the museum, giving a gloomy end to an otherwise informative and bewitching visit.
Back in Suffolk and the following day we wandered to the local village shop, a splendid affair, with a post office and well stocked store run largely by volunteers. We presented ourselves mid-afternoon expecting the post office to be open but we were kindly informed that it closed at 1pm. But as we were about to pay for our other goods the post mistress, who happened to be in the shop, interrupted and offered to send our recorded delivery anyway and assured us it really was no bother. This was simply marvellous service and slightly better than I received when I made a lone sortie later in the week and the volunteer assistant got terribly confuddled using the till and wasn’t sure of the difference between the price and sell by date. “Why yes, of course I want to buy a small cheese and onion flan for 07/10/2016 pence” I longed to say, but stopped myself; this wasn’t the time for sarcasm I decided as we gently added up my bill together. The final tally came to an eye watering figure completely unrelated to my meagre shopping which caused much checking of the till roll and inspecting of labels until we settled on a figure in the right ball park and he gave me a fist full of random change, wiped the sweat from his brow and settled back to his book, exhausted from scaling the giddy heights of commerce.
Thursday was a day of abstinence from anything more strenuous than pressing play on the DVD controller but on Friday, with our colds abated we decided on a short walk to Woolpit, a town approximately 3 miles away via footpaths across open countryside. Leaving Rattlesden we climbed a small hill and took off in a straight line between fields of sugar beet, a crop widely grown in these parts for the huge Tate and Lyle sugar refinery at nearby Bury St Edmunds. As were we just getting into our stride a cheery bespectacled face popped out from a strand of trees, checked we didn’t have a fierce dog in tow and duly satisfied, encouraged her tubby Terrier to follow her. We (by which I mean Alison) engaged our new friend in conversation. She was a sprightly older lady, born and bred in Drinkstone, a village smeared along the road from Rattlesden to Woolpit that ran parallel to our walk. Still living locally she was most welcoming and very impressed that we were walking all the way to Woolpit, where she assured us “you’ll find everything you could need.”
With the lure of the Pandora’s Box of earthly delights awaiting us in Woolpit we strode on with renewed vigour. The air was fresh; the early rain had heightened the scents and colours and the sun occasionally peaked out from the cloud. After the early sugar beet the fields were large, freshly ploughed and bordered with neat hedges. Towards Woolpit we followed a track that became the ominous Deadmans Lane before we branched off to follow a well-used footpath into the town.
Sadly but somewhat unsurprisingly we didn’t discover “everything we could need” awaiting us. We did however find a couple of empty pubs, a bakery, fish and chip shop, a Tardis like Co-Op and a gift shop full of what Alison refers to as fripperies; nick-knacks, ornaments, mugs and all manner of expensive trinkets. Happily they also served tea and cake, so we made ourselves welcome among the wooden ducks and in-sympathy cards and chatted away to our charming host, who again seemed most impressed that we’d “…walked all the way from Rattlesden.” So much so that when her replacement came in she told her all about her adventurous customers and they gathered behind the counter to congratulate us. We left the shop like superstars. I expect we’ll feature in the next Parish Magazine and eventually become local legends. Talking about local legends the village sign features two children known as the Green Children of Woolpit. (Gosh, that link was rather shoehorned in there, but don’t expect too much, I’ve banged my head twice today and it’s only 11 am.)
The story goes that in the 12th century locals found 2 children in a hole in the ground. They appeared to be green, or at least had a green tinge to their skin, and spoke in a language no one recognised. The boy was taken ill and died soon after they were discovered but the girl grew into a healthy, and if some versions of the tale are to be believed, a somewhat wanton woman, who went on to get married and live a regular life. That’s it really. Over the centuries the story has been embellished in the re-telling with various adaptations surfacing along with attempts at explanations, none of which I’ll bother you with here because frankly we’ll never know if they even existed in the first place. There’s even a copy of the legend in the Church written by a medieval commentator.
We could see the steeple of St Mary's church on our way here. It proved a handy navigation point on our walk, especially when the sun bathed it and it appeared to be glowing white like soft marble rising out of the surrounding trees. Inside it sports a “magnificent double hammer beam roof, angel carvings, fourteenth century porch and carved pew-ends, which make it one of the finest village churches in East Anglia” according to the village website. We were entranced by the pew end carvings; mostly it seemed of dogs and dragons. These were smooth and shiny from the hands of countless worshipers. They’ve witnessed christenings, marriages, funerals, lively sermons, dull homilies, packed congregations, empty pews and who knows what manner of unusual and bizarre occurrences; maybe even two green children.
The walk back was slightly longer as we tried to avoid retracing our steps and skirted around Drinkstone and some impressive residences squirreled away along quiet cul de sacs, before descending into Rattlesden by the path we’d started out on, passed the faux whalebones and up the deceptively steep Rising Sun Hill to Top Road and tea.
On Saturday we had an appointment to meet a friend in Bury St Edmunds for lunch and so at 10am we stood outside the Brewers Arms pub watching the local dogs go through agility training on the recreation ground while we waited for the bus. From our brief wait I’d say that the pooches of Rattlesden have quite some way to go before they reach Crufts standards. The spectacle of watching a poodle ignore the increasingly frantic pleas of its owner to totter over a see-saw faded as we swung up the lanes we’d just hurried down and picked someone up right outside the cottage we’re staying in. Bugger.
The bus route, like many in rural parts, is subsidised by the local authority. The subsidies they can afford are constantly under pressure and many former routes in these parts have been cut. It’s a dilemma of course. How much public money do you plough into poorly used services? And the answer is that there is no correct answer. If by poorly used you just count passenger numbers it may be easy to target a route that carries only a handful of people. If however you bother to look deeper or God forbid actually use a bus once in a while as we now do, you’ll see young people going to minimum wage jobs, pensioners with no other lifeline from their shop-less hamlet and adults with a learning disability given a slither of independence by using the bus into town.
The ‘Buses in Crisis’ report issued by The Campaign for Better Transport in 2015 shows that “since 2010 £78 million has been axed from local authority bus funding in England and Wales resulting in over 2,400 bus services being reduced, altered or withdrawn from service. 63 per cent of local authorities in England and Wales have cut funding for bus services in 2015/16 with 44 per cent reducing or withdrawing services entirely.”
The report went on to point out that “Local bus fares in England increased by 61 per cent on average between March 2005 and March 2015…The Retail Prices Index has risen by 35 per cent over the same period, which means that bus fares have risen significantly in real terms.”
In a rural county like Suffolk the bus service really is a life line, although the way we rocketed along the narrow lanes and braked from 40 – 0 as cars appeared from around blind bends I did begin to worry if we’d actually survive long enough to find out for ourselves how useful the service really is. Along the winding route we flew into obscure villages, some appeared to be little more than a farm masquerading as a hamlet because cartographers get embarrassed by too much blank space on a map. Nevertheless we picked up a collection of passengers en-route to our destination; a young woman proudly sporting her Sports Direct uniform, an ample chap who skipped empty seats in favour of squeezing in beside a demure lady, who clutched her handbag tighter to her chest and refused to engage in his attempts at conversation. There were young friends with learning disabilities who got on at different villages a couple of miles apart, but without the bus they might as well have lived a million miles apart. Nearing Bury a gentleman sporting a fine pair of lime green corduroy trousers, sports top and cowboy hat climbed aboard, helloed the entire bus to a muted response and kindly sat at front so that his BO would waft back to us, where it mingled with the fruity scent of the young lady in front of us. (I’d wager it was something from Lush but I’m not ruling out Bodyshop’s Dewbury range).
Along the way we passed the impressive red brick pile that is Gedding Hall, where local legend has it that Ronnie and Reggie Kray fled after killing Jack 'the Hat' McVitie in 1967. Apparently the Krays knew Geoffrey ‘The Godfather ‘Allen who owned it at the time. The Hall changed hands in 1968 when it was purchased by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones and metal detecting fame, and who still calls it home.
Back on the bus, we alighted on the outskirts of Bury to a ripple of glances, glimpses and peeks from our travelling companions wondering why we were getting off so far from the city centre. I imagine we became the topic of conversation as soon as the bus pulled away but if we were we didn’t care as we wandered into a garden centre to kill time with a coffee. Beverage consumed, I went off to answer the call of nature and noted that I was about to use a “waterless urinal”, so I took a dump in it instead... only joking, it’s good for morale, in the same way I guess a waterless urinal is good for the environment. Lunch was fun, a trip round Matalan afterwards yielded a shirt and tie for an upcoming interview and the bus home dropped us at our front door courtesy of a friendly driver.
Sunday meant another lunch with friends; this time we took Mavis over to Bramfield in Suffolk where we met at the impressive Queens Head pub. Afterwards we were to be found in Mavis, playing dominoes outside the house of one of our dinner companions while waiting for their partner to return with the house keys. I promised Ro I wouldn’t embarrass her by mentioning her by name but she did beat me 3 – 0 at dominoes.
And Monday we packed up amidst a cacophony of head banging and muffled curses. Hopefully we left the cottage relatively unscathed from our temporary habitation apart from the dents in the doorways shaped uncannily like my forehead. We are off to Cambridge for the night and then back up to Staffordshire to continue making arrangements for our move and to help out around the gardens of Shallowford.
Saturday 1 October
Reading back it occurred to me that while writing about the journey here I made a lazy quip about there being “suspiciously few surnames” in parts of Lincolnshire. Intrigued to see if any statistics supported this stereotype I lost myself in research of a most disturbing kind. In summary police statistics published in February 2016 show 94 offences of incest in West Yorkshire, followed by Kent with 58; Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, three areas that attract ‘jokes’ of the 6 finger, webbed feet variety barely register. Of course these statistics only record crimes reported to the police but that’s the same for all counties. Research into incest is a bit of a minefield. It’s all quite upsetting and makes for grim reading, a sobering reminder that beyond our little bubble in Mavis the real world and its innumerable problems continues. It puts our moans about over engineered domestic appliances into perspective.
So with apologies to Lincolnshireites for my idle stereotype its back to Sutton-on-Sea where we decided to be up bright and early to make the most of the sunshine, before the torrential rain that was promised late afternoon arrived. That’s why at the crack of 12.24 pm we shuffled sheepishly out of the site just as most of the caravaners were returning from their morning constitutionals. Just in time for afternoon tea and a gossip about the lazy sods in the motorhome. The printed leaflet about the walk we were on promised an educational saunter around the Lincolnshire countryside where we’d get to see all manner of delights. Now, I hate to take issue with it but once we left the cover of the tree lined old railway, which as Alison pointed out had the duel benefit of shade and screened us from the rest of Lincolnshire, we entered a featureless desert where the most interesting features were roadkill.
The old railway line we started out on was closed in 1970 because the drivers regularly fell asleep and woke up in Belgium with a trainload of angry wet passengers. Actually I made that up but it’s more interesting than the truth that the line died out because people didn’t use it. The walk took us up a B-road, passed some young inquisitive foals in a field and eventually a left turn along the bank of a drainage ditch, freshly dredged and stagnant. After a while we turned left again and down a track that took us passed farms that look like farms everywhere else; a tumbling outbuilding, defunct apparatus rusting in a corner, barns with miscellaneous machinery under dusty tarpaulins and a tidy farmhouse with children’s toys scattered about the garden and washing fluttering on a sagging line.
We crossed between fields, freshly ploughed and smelling of parched earth. We could feel the crushing weight of the vast open sky and featureless landscape, stretching away to an indistinct horizon in every direction. Breaking up the monotony were two tall radio masts and to the north elegant wind turbines rotating gently in the breeze. Incidentally, nearby Mablethorpe was home to two of the first commercially operating wind turbines in the country way back in 2001, located at a water treatment works. Today there are vast arrays of turbines off these shores in the choppy North Sea. As they do everywhere else, the locals objected. Well, writing angry missives to the local rag is something you can do and is easier than actually researching renewable energy and thinking for yourself I suppose. Aside from the usual parade of climate change deniers, head buriers, not entirely unreasonable concerns for bird and marine life and some downright lies about subsidies and carbon footprints, people were objecting to the view. “Object to the view…” I wanted to scream “this is Lincolnshire, they ARE the view you dim-witted numptie!”
But I didn’t because they were built ages ago and my intervention was entirely imaginary and served only to relieve the tedium of this countryside. A countryside which was enlivened no end when we skirted around a roadside bungalow to be confronted by a gentleman trying to repair a puncture on his penny farthing bicycle. We should have been more surprised but this is Lincolnshire so we took it in our stride, watched as he gave up and with a shrug tottered off forlornly pushing his machine beside him. The last leg of the walk was along the sea front where we braved the sand for a while then walked along the seemingly endless promenade, passed beach huts of a bygone era and into Sandilands and refreshment at The Fat Seagull café. While partaking of fine coffee I remembered that near to the furthest point of our walk at Anderby there is one of the UK’s premier tourist attractions - the Anderby Drainage Museum. Located in a 1945 pumping station built to drain 9,200 acres of land it is open for 2 Sundays a year so that visitors (I’m probably being generous using the plural, but who knows) can admire it’s…”two Ruston 10HRC twin cylinder oil engines. These engines then drive Allen Gwynnes 42” centrifugal pumps which are capable of pumping 4,500 litres of water per second.” Alison was particularly relieved to know that tomorrow would not be one of the Sundays it opened.
I don’t wish to seem ungrateful to the engineers and farmers of the fens. Ever since the Earl of Bedford and his ‘Gentleman Adventurers’ set about draining the fens in 1630 these dry flatlands have become valuable arable land and the source of much needed staple crops for the UK. It’s a magnificent feat of engineering and not one we should take for granted. It’s just that in the same way that carnivores don’t want to take the grandchildren for a day out at the abattoir I don’t feel I need to understand the workings of the farms or visit drainage museums. Nevertheless if you’re the sort of person who likes looking at 10HRC twin cylinder oil engines, be they built by Ruston or not, then it’s probably a treasure trove of oily delights. I fear though that the casual visitor may be accosted by earnest men in greasy overalls harbouring an unhealthy passion for 42” pumps and have to feign a heart attack to get away. Maybe that’s why so many places around here have collection boxes for the air ambulance, to whom I contributed our change, before heading off to arrive at Mavis by 5pm, just as the caravaners were slipping into something acrylic and settling down for an evening of TV game shows and cocoa.
 The gift shop would be amazing though, little Johnny and Jessica could take home souvenir pencil erasers in the shape of their favourite offal, Dad could pick up a replica stun gun for the mantelpiece while mum mulls over the wonderful choice of sinew and blood soaps available.
Sunday 2nd October
The threatened rain fell last night as darkness descended and we fell into a gentle sleep, lulled by the pitter-patter rhythm on the roof. We really made an effort to be up early today but failed. I eventually climbed down the ladder from our bedroom around 9am, creaking and groaning away like a Ruston 10HRC twin cylinder oil engine in need of a good service. After the usual packing up routine we set sail for the return journey to Cambridge via a diversion to Grantham and a stopover in the pretty town of Stamford.
Stamford, just on the borders of Lincolnshire and is the perfect antidote for the waste lands we found to the east of the county. It’s a charming and pretty place, and on a sunny Sunday the soft limestone buildings, multitude of churches and ornate civic buildings were a delight to wander lazily around. Thanks to becoming the first town in the country to create a conservation area, back in 1967, it is largely unspoilt and has even been a bit of a TV star of late, with Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice filmed here among others. It lies just off the A1, once the Great North Road, approximately half way between London and York, where it served as a mail coach interchange and was a prosperous wool town. Today its prosperity seems to be from tourists who come to wander its streets, poke about in expensive shops, slurp coffee and eat in one of its many pubs and restaurants, which may we say appear to be reasonably priced and, if the slightly odd old coaching inn we had lunch in was anything to go by, the food is good.
It appeared that Stamford had much more to offer than we had time to appreciate. According to the town’s website we’d bypassed most of its “11 churches, 30 pubs, 20 restaurants…” not to mention the elegant greenery of The Meadows and the Tudor pile of nearby Burghley House. This vast mansion was built by William Cecil, secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I, for his mother; a slightly more impressive gift than a mug with World’s Greatest Mum etched on I suppose. As we were wandering back towards Mavis the now familiar cry of “Alison…Co-eee” went up and a lady who had once worked with Alison came bobbing out of a coffee shop. I settled in to my familiar role of nodding sagely and desperately trying to remember who it is, in what context they are known, whether I’ve met them before and if so to speculate about whether I did anything embarrassing or awkward that I should be suitably contrite for.
Once away we sailed into Cambridge where, among the solicitor’s letters and other house buying and selling paraphernalia we were treated to the latest issue of the Caravan Club magazine, strapline “A dull read for dull people.” Actually that’s a lie, its fine, just a bit, well, caravanny. What particularly drew my attention though was the A5 magazine enclosed with it that sold all manner of attire for the debonair caravaner. I mulled over a fiesta of man-made fabrics, cardigans whose main attraction was diamond shaped detailing on the nipple area, tartan pyjamas, jeans with elasticated waists, faux fur lined slippers and cargo trousers that went up to a 56”waist. Frankly if you have a 56” waist you don’t need cargo pants, you are cargo.
From Monday we will be house and cat sitting in Rattlesden, a village in Suffolk that just about makes it onto the map. We will be holed up there for a week so we’ll post an update soon. Meanwhile there is work to be done on the book, forms to fill in for the solicitor, countryside to be explored, low ceilings to be avoided and civilisation to be searched for. Stay tuned.
Tuesday 27 – Wednesday 28 September
We returned to Cambridge to finish packing up the flat that Alison’s son has been living in. We are currently going through the sale process to enable us to buy our house in Leek and so we had two days of furniture removal, cleaning, sawing a sofa into three and various little errands like taking the remains of the sofa to the dump. And may we say how courteous, helpful and friendly the staff at the Milton Recycling Centre were. It’s important to mention that because their website has some negative feedback, some of which I’d hazard a guess is unwarranted. For example one chap complained that they objected to him dumping his waste outside the gates because the centre was closed. I sometimes think it’s a shame that public sites don’t respond to some of the outrageous comments, but I suppose that would just encourage the moaners.
Thursday 29 September
We woke up to the realisation that we really don’t have any plans until next week when we are due to house sit for family. We settled on Lincoln, being somewhere we both would like to visit and within a reasonable distance for a 3 night stay. The local sites were booked up so through some process I don’t rightly recall we found a site at Sutton-on-Sea. I’m writing this ahead of visiting the town and nearby Mablethorpe so we could be in for a treat…or not.
The journey here though was through the wastelands of the Lincolnshire Fens. Last time we passed through they were golden with corn or green with, I don’t know, barley or strawberries or something. Anyway they were at least colourful. Now, after the harvest they are dull; a flat monotonous sea of brown punctuated by scrawny trees and uninviting settlements; the sort of places with suspiciously few surnames, where you’d spend lonely evenings looking up at the vast sky and worrying about why you’re beginning to feel attracted to your sister. We passed lots of brown signs imploring us to visit ‘Historic Market Towns’ and other nebulous lures. At least the bypasses saved us from the tedium of attractions like folk museums with their displays of knotted corn, badly dressed mannequins and obscure exhibitions, like a collection of bus tickets I once saw, ‘kindly donated by Mrs Vera Penthouse in memory of her late husband Burt’. I think we all suspect Vera murdered Burt because he was the sort of tedious tit who collected bus tickets.
I’ve always thought that the A14 is one of the world’s most boring routes but the A16 gives it a good run for its money. Its only saving grace is the chance to see a spectacular traffic accident. The road is heaving with lorries ferrying the produce from the surrounding farms, which gives the locals an opportunity to play leap frog with them. We followed a horsebox for a while, doing a sedate 50 MPH and were over taken regularly, nearly always both of us together and mostly on bends. At one point a Smart Car whipped past and just managed to squeeze itself in front of the horsebox as 30 tonnes of articulated death thundered towards it. Presumably the ‘Smart’ in Smart Car referred to the inanimate cocoon of underpowered plastic and metal and not the sack of barely sentient damp meat behind the wheel. The biggest hazard we encountered was rounding bends and coming face to face with grimacing twonks piloting their family saloons around some poor wretch and swerving in just in time. The last part of their manoeuvre was usually accompanied by our flashing headlights and language of indescribably poetic beauty from Alison that I’d helpfully translate into a rather severe version of sign language for the hard of thinking.
Beyond Spalding, whose main attraction appeared to be the Springfields Shopping Village that also caters for weddings, the landscape became more interesting, although the bar wasn’t set very high. We drove passed lightly rippled fields looking like they’d heard about hills but didn’t really understand the concept of height, over the River Welland and into countryside of brassica rich greenery. It’s a sign of how boring the rest of the journey was when a field of cabbages becomes interesting. From time to time the 272ft high ornate pale spire of Boston Church, known locally as Boston Stump, would peep out from the trees until we skirted by it as we wove round roads busy with school traffic, passed the still turning Maud Foster Windmill, and out the other side of Boston.
Boston itself has much history, not least the Pilgrim Fathers, but we didn’t stop, preferring to head on and into the Lincolnshire Wolds, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty we were completely unfamiliar with but from what we saw is worth a proper exploration; rolling farmland with proper hills and views that don’t involve flat horizons or cabbages. The road was shaded by trees and even the traffic seemed more serene, happy to trundle along. We rolled up at the Sutton site in time to sit out in the sunshine and watched it sink behind the trees. It’s good to be back on the road, settling into our routines, cooking familiar staples in Mavis and generally pottering about. We’ve planned some walks to help us explore the area and have some paperwork to catch up on for our jobs and house purchase. It’s an odd feeling, a mixture of anticipation for what the future holds, sadness that our carefree days in Mavis are drawing to a close for this year and excitement at settling in a new town and making Livingstone Street our home.
Meanwhile while we are here Alison has to learn some new profanities in time for the return journey as she’s used up all the ones she knows, and let the record show it was an impressive collection. I have a few for her to try but we welcome your contributions so feel free to suggest your favourites in the comments section, we promise to use them all at least once :)
Friday 30 September
We decided to get some exercise and walk from Sandilands, just south of Sutton-on-Sea, to Mablethorpe, a walk of around 3.5 miles each way along one continuous promenade. Sandilands, in common with most of the coastal communities around here, seems to be composed mainly of bungalows. Perhaps if you’ve been born and raised in Lincolnshire life over one story high brings on altitude sickness.
We wandered through streets of modern brick bungalows with ugly faux leaded windows and prim striped lawns and into a street lined with older 50’s style chalets, a patchwork of the well-kept and the ramshackle. At the edge of town we climbed onto the sea wall promenade to an expanse of featureless sand gently lapped by a grey sea. If the landscape of Lincolnshire is flat and featureless then the seascape matches it perfectly, mile upon mile of sand and sea with occasional scrubby sea grasses poking out from windswept dunes. Apparently at very low tides the remains of an ancient forest can be seen in the sands, but not today. Lining the land side of the prom was an almost unbroken line of beach huts. These were mostly boarded up for the winter, bleak and unloved in the autumn sunshine. Some had names, 40 Winks was quaint, and being as it was between huts 39 and 41 it made sense. Others though just showed the owners lack of imagination or sense of humour; Sea Breeze, Dun-Workin’ or Shiver-me-Timbers. That last one made me want to scream…”You’re not a fucking pirate, you’re a retired accountant from Louth. The closest you’ve come to skulduggery is once short changing the coffee fund by 5p because you didn’t have any change.”
And on we trudged all the way to Mablethorpe. At the beach café a party of pensioners in several polyester rich layers were taking tea and moaning about the wind, which wasn’t too encouraging but the formal park with its pedalo swans tied up in the middle of the lake and flock of geese guarding the west bank was more promising. The walk to inland however revealed a drab façade of a town centre, a high street of fast food and poverty. Apart from a bright Co-Op every shop was closed or clinging on, selling cheap holiday clothes unlikely to survive a single wash, a couple of ‘indoor markets’ selling shoddy rip off designer wear, food past its sell by date and unsightly ornaments. The people looked hard and bitter, grim faced and in no particular hurry, except for the preponderance of mobility scooters weaving in and out of the pedestrians. Mablethorpe may come alive in the summer but it was wretched out of season and the neglect didn’t set in the minute the last charabanc left after the summer holidays. This is serious, endemic despair, generations deep and it’s hard to see it turning around any time soon.
If it has a saving grace it is at least cheap, under £2.50 for a pint of Doom Bar beer and £6.50 for a generous Haddock and chips. But I formed the impression that any more would be prohibitive for the locals. I’d like to be more generous and see the up side. For all its brash and bawdy atmosphere, when we visited Hemsby it at least had spirit and was trying to re-invent itself as a traditional resort. Mablethorpe really needs a purpose, a reason to bring visitors in and a few local community champions to restore some pride and boost the economy. It was once much loved. Alfred, Lord Tennyson visited regularly and D.H. Lawrence set the Morel family's first holiday here in his 1913 novel Sons and Lovers.
It was busy during WW2, with the Lincolnshire airfields close by and the miles of sand considered inviting for a German invasion. It was bombed a few times, possibly on purpose but probably mistakenly for Grimsby. In November 1941 a German Junkers 88A-4 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and managed to land pretty much intact on Golf Road, Mablethorpe. The coast along here also suffered in the North Sea flood of 1953. Flooding occurred from Mablethorpe to Skegness, reaching up to 2 miles inland. Local rumour has it that the repairs to the sea wall, hurriedly conducted by the RAF, contain defunct WW2 vehicles and other surplus hardware that would be worth a fortune to collectors and enthusiasts today.
After our lunch we walked back through the outskirts of the town, through endless incongruent bungalows. There were examples of unbearable twee-ness, little wooden wishing wells, neat shingle, concrete signs with ‘Nanna’s Garden’ on, others with a nautical theme featuring ropes and lifebuoys; others were overrun, neglected, with just a sad overgrown path leading to a peeling front door. This is a suburb of contrasts, wise investors and those who’ve scrimped and saved among those with dwindling state pension’s eeked out from one week to another on cheap food and a drink in the legion on a Friday night if it stretches that far. It’s a place where The Union Jack flutters in the constant breeze, where Brexit won with an overwhelming majority (nearby Boston recorded the highest pro-Brexit vote in the country). A place where every face we saw was white and every accent British. Yet as much as many people may like to lay the blame for the town’s decline on immigration, the town is, frankly, dying on its fat white arse, unlike more diverse and vibrant communities elsewhere. I don’t know the answers, I’m not even sure I know what the questions are, but it’ll take more than a little love and attention to turn Mablethorpe around. Strangely if I saw a beacon of hope it’s the previously mentioned Co-Op. They’ve taken the decision to build a shiny large store in a depressed town. Maybe people will travel in to it rather than away to the bigger towns. Maybe young people can get jobs, other shops will follow its lead, smarten up and people will invest in the place. I hope so.
Back onto the promenade and to Sutton. There’s a cute well-kept ornamental fountain and paddling pool between the town and sea and clearly the civic authorities of Sutton regard themselves as a cut above their neighbours. In a thinly veiled reference to Mablethorpe the town’s website makes it clear it’s a resort free of amusement arcades. The sea seems to be Sutton’s biggest foe and the reason it hides behind a high sea wall. According to the towns website “Early accounts tell us of floods which washed away parts of the village in 1248, 1250 and 1251. Also in 1253 the sea flowed as far as Alvingham. 1571 saw great disaster for the village when, on October 5th, the high tide accompanied by a fierce wind and rain, took the church and a great part of the village. On the night of January 31st, 1953, came a grim reminder of what it must have been like in 1571 when the sea overran Old Sutton” Oddly although it mentions fatalities it doesn’t say how many lost their lives in 1953, but the toil was high right along the east coast of Britain as well as in Belgium and the Netherlands, which was hit particularly hard, losing over 1,830 souls. In all, over 307 lives were lost on mainland Britain and a further 224 at sea. The physical scars heal but the emotional legacy lives on and in places like Felixstowe, Canvey Island and around this part of Lincolns hire the spectre of the storm and the ruthless power of the sea is never taken for granted.
We examined the High Street, one general store displayed their opening times as 9-00 - 4 ish which was refreshingly honest. Apart from that the only thing of note was the preponderance of large hardware stores, three in a town with few other amenities or shops. Presumably they are fond of a spot of DIY around here. We got back to Mavis in time to complete some outstanding paperwork for our jobs and reflect on Mablethorpe and hope that we’re wrong about it and caught it on a bad day.
Here often when a child I lay reclined:
I took delight in this fair strand & free:
Here stood the infant Ilion of my mind,
And here the Grecian ships did seem to be
And here again I come & only find
The drain-cut levels of the marshy lea,
Gray sandbanks & pale sunsets, dreary wind,
Dim shores, dense rains & heavy-clouded sea
Alfred Lord Tennyson – 1837
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