Our Travel blog
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.
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