Our Travel blog
Saturday 16 July
Saturday morning found us in Lavenham with Alison’s parents. Alison used to work there so is familiar with the town and all its charms. It’s an almost perfect picture postcard place, or would be if it wasn’t for all the cars cluttering up the streets. Mind you they do serve as a reminder that the town isn’t a purpose built tourist attraction but a functioning settlement where people work, rest and play. We had a wander, drank tea and ate scones and ambled back to our vehicles along streets lined with well-tended hanging baskets and houses fronted by impressive floral displays. Of particular note is the large town carpark, which I was gratified to find was free but ‘welcomed donations’, which I think is a nice touch.
Goodbyes said we went our separate ways and we took Mavis northwards to Hemsby in Norfolk. On the way we passed a burger van cheekily advertising itself as Carlsburger in the green script familiar to fans of a certain Danish larger. Approaching Hemsby from Norwich we started going through holiday towns that rely upon tourists. One such place was Filby which declared itself ‘A lovely place to be’ on its elaborate village sign. A lovely place to be what I wondered. A smurf? Dead? Despite the inanity of the strapline it did indeed seem most becoming. The townsfolk obviously know how grow flowers; every lamppost had hanging baskets suspended from them and most of the gardens and civic amenities were enlivened by elaborate arrangements of colourful flowers. I think they should seriously consider amending their strapline to ‘A lovely place to be, unless you have hay fever’ though. Everywhere was very neat and tidy, almost sinisterly so. Alison felt it was the sort of place you’d soon get a visit from ‘the committee’ if your lawn wasn’t trimmed to the requisite length. We wondered if at the end of the season the hanging baskets were replaced by the heads of villagers who failed to maintain their gardens to a suitable standard.
I passed the time by inventing suitable inane straplines for other villages we passed through:
And so we rolled into Hemsby. We chose Hemsby because its home to a good site, close to a couple of places we want to visit and has the added bonus of being gloriously tawdry. If Southwold is the Waitrose of holiday resorts then Hemsby is the Happy Shopper; bold, cheap and unpretentious. I’ve stayed here, or hereabouts, on a few occasions; with my parents on at least one of our out of season jaunts and a couple of times accompanying adults who have a learning disability.
The village is split in two by the Yarmouth road. To the west lays the village proper; clustered around a school, modest shops and a social club are houses and bungalows of no great distinction. East of the road lay a few cul-de-sacs of neat retirement properties, the sort where the gardens are so well tended they appear artificial, the lawn gets cut twice a week because there’s nothing else to do and a fat little dog waddles up and barks half-heartedly when you walk passed. The road then gently falls away towards the sea and is lined with holiday villages. The old Pontins is shut up and derelict behind security fencing but at least three more are still going, although they all look like they’ve seen better times with peeling paint, hastily mowed untidy lawns and weedy carparks of loose gravel. One of them seems to be making a good go of it though, with colourful flowers, tidy lawns and retro chalets that look well kept. It feels like you’re walking passed a bit of a time warp. The clubhouses to these camps boast of dubious delights, ‘Stan Sings the Hits’, ‘Gary Page – hits of the 50’s to 70’s’ and whom amongst us could resist ‘Rita’s Red Hot Karaoke’?
Further down, the road becomes a pulsating neon glare, vulgar, noisy and smelling of burnt sugar and fried food. Along this strip wander portly men squeezed into football jerseys designed for trim athletic bodies, lads in vests that fall tantalisingly short of their sagging cut-off jeans and women with weathered hard faces, sticky children in tow and overexcited toddlers fighting sleep so they can have one more go on the mini dodgems. Older women play joyless bingo while their husbands sit outside reading the tabloids, their concession to being on holiday a pair of cheeky sandals to show off their crisp white socks.
Shops sell the usual array of cheap beachwear, confectionary in worryingly luminous colours and a new addition to the seaside (to us anyway) vaping supplies. There is a bewildering selection of accompaniments to choose from, including filters, batteries, various flavours and coils. I’m supposing this last one is a necessary part of vaping paraphernalia rather than holiday contraceptives. One shop that caught our eye had “New York, London, Paris, Rome, Hemsby” painted under its name. Call me Mr Cynical if you will but I find it hard to imagine a supplier of beach toys and vulgar postcards to have branches in the major cultural capitals of the world. I imagine the main culture in Hemsby requires antibiotics and a stern lecture from the clinic rather than hosting internationally renowned arts and fashion. One of the amusement arcades was called The Las Vegas. I wonder if there’s a Hemsby Casino in Las Vegas?
What Hemsby doesn’t seem to do is decent food, particularly of the vegetarian kind. The Dolphin pub, based on the site we are staying on, has nothing, absolutely zero, on its evening menu that would pass as vegetarian unless you count a plain baked potato as a meal. The pub in town boasts a selection of Vegi options with a proud green V next to them. One such is the Carrot and Courgette Spaghetti, served with sundried tomatoes and chicken breast. Now, I’m prepared to accept that some foodstuff can confuse. Cheese for example may have animal rennet in it. But what sort of brain dead nincompoop believes chicken is a variety of vegetable?
Talking of nincompoops, the gents shower block here has skylights installed to provide natural light and save electricity. All quite laudable except that at least a third of each one is taken up with a bulbous plastic wallet containing the guarantee documents. These aren’t a new installation, judging by the cobwebs and how much they’ve faded. Which just goes to show that nincompoopery is not confined to culinary matters in these parts.
Most establishments, the pubs and shops for example, have racks of glossy leaflets whose sole aim seems to be to convince you that everywhere else is more exciting than Hemsby. Which may very well be the case but we resisted the lure of boat trips, wildlife parks and model villages. This last one has always puzzled me; I’ve never quite understood the allure of a model village. My ever resourceful father used to take us to a hill overlooking a real town for exactly the same effect and all for free. A win-win as far as we were concerned.
For all its brashness, and even though it may be fuelled by calories and vulgarity, Hemsby is fighting a rear-guard action against foreign all-inclusive holidays and boutique resorts with all the pretentions they have on offer. Down the coast Southwold and Aldeburgh may have fancy beach huts, expensive restaurants, craft beers and shingle but Hemsby has chips, lager, fun and miles of fine golden sand with sheltered dunes and a shallow inviting sea. Everyone seems to be making the most of their time here to relax and enjoy themselves. It’s all very working class England in a way that’s slowly vanishing, but while it remains it’s a source of cheap, cheerful pleasure and long may it continue.
Sunday 17 July
We dallied around a bit and did laundry. The man in the site office, from where one purchases laundry tokens, seemed genuinely stumped when his stock phrase “you’re on holiday love, you shouldn’t be doing laundry” was met by Alison’s deadpan “we’re not on holiday”. He stuttered, stumbled with the tokens and ummed and errred until we’d departed. I suspect we’re now on some site black list warning other parks of the odd couple who book into sites just to wash their undies. Karen and Barry, if you are reading this – beware!
All this laundry frivolity was only the pre-cursor to today’s main attraction though, for we had an evening appointment to watch the stock cars and banger racing at the nearby Great Yarmouth Stadium. We’ve both got histories of attending these events, Alison with her mother’s parents and me with my father. We used to go to a grass track in Suffolk, cheerfully devoid of all but the most basic safety precautions. Dodging a bouncing tyre was all part of the fun. Latterly I took my children to the small shingle circuit just outside Braintree in Essex until the A140 was built over it. Occasionally we’d really splash out and go to the proper concrete oval in Ipswich or at Lakeside. These were high octane affairs with plenty of spills, which, let’s face it is the main attraction of motorsport. It’s all very well watching a parade of F1 cars whizz round a track but the real excitement happens when a car gets airborne or catches fire, ideally both. If there’s an occasional limb spiralling past so much the better.
So we found ourselves a spot on the grass bank and watched cars crashing into each other. The banger racing seemed to be taken particularly seriously by the crowd, and attracted most of the pit crews alongside the spectators. Cars rolled, bounced off each other and the track sides in a cacophony of screeching tyres, crunching metal, roaring engines and noxious oily fumes. It was terrific fun and one of us squealed and leapt about at every minor prang or nifty bit of overtaking and expressed genuine sorrow for the people who had to retire mid race.
On the way home, in one of those moments that even with the benefit of hindsight I simply cannot explain, I fell off my bike. In fact, to be entirely accurate, I was walking it across a busy road. One minute I’m sauntering out into a gap in the traffic and the next I’m laying underneath my bicycle looking up at the car coming my way. I bounced up before my limbs had a chance to protest, behind me Alison waved the car down until I’d shuffled onto the pavement where she joined me. It was over in a flash and I was enjoying a jolly good swear when Alison, a look of affectionate pity on her face, took me gently in her arms, planted a kiss on my forehead and gently whispered in my ear “only you could fall off a bike you weren’t riding dear”. Presently, with little more than a bruised ego and sore knee to show for it we cycled back to Mavis.
Monday 18th July
We decided that after the excitement of yesterday a walk would do us good. Alison had fond memories of visiting nearby Winterton with former work colleagues so we set off along the beach in that direction. As we headed across the dunes we saw a bird of prey swoop down and settle in a clearing. As we’ve already established my ornithological skills are such that I just said, ‘look, a birdy’ while Alison identified it as a bird of prey. Anyhow there is photographic evidence so do let us know what it is. Anyone who says Robin is disqualified from further competitions.
After this flurry of activity we strolled along the beach and let the sea lap over our feet. In the heat of the day, this wasn’t going to be a quick walk anyway. It was around 23oC when we left and promised to rise as the day went on so cold toes and a gentle sea breeze was welcome.
Winterton itself is a pleasing little community, sedate and tidy. It had a variety of old cottages, many in the local flint, and a couple of shops, one of which seemed to have changed little since around 1950 except, maybe, some of the stock. It was in here we stood with ice creams gently melting while the proprietor served people ahead of us while keeping up meandering conversations and moving at the pace of a man who gets a few customers a day and is determined to eek out every single one.
Once free of this twilight zone of commerce we ate our dripping ice’s along an old track and stumbled upon the ghostly ruins of St Mary’s Church at East Somerton. St Mary’s survived the Reformation, but the parish was subsumed into that of neighbouring Winterton, and it operated as a chapel of ease to the Hall until the 17th century, before falling into disuse.
(Thanks to http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/somertoneast/somertoneast.htm for the info)
It’s an enchanting place, laying in what is now dense, wild woodland. The walls and tower of the church are covered in ivy and a tree grows in the centre of the nave. The sun sent fingers of light through the trees casting ghostly shadows on the ancient walls. In the still air with only the crunch of our footsteps for company it didn’t seem like a place to linger, magical though it was.
After a trek in the sun to skirt an old estate and along a narrow road we entered West Somerton and took refreshment in the pub. It looked as if it had been taken over recently and everything sparkled. There was an air of enthusiasm about the place with pleas to join snooker and darts leagues, to partake of karaoke and to sample the food. We did the latter and can report that the seafood is good.
Suitably sustained we took the long way around the village, or in more accurate parlance, the wrong way, and eventually found our route on the shady footpath passed the tranquil Martham Broad and onto the banks of the river Thurne to Martham itself.
The Broads are always fascinating and are mostly man made, being the flooded remnants of medieval peat digging. As a national park, the area is protected and some areas off limits to casual users as they are nature reserves. The area of around 117 sq. miles attracts around 8 million visitors a year, swamping the resident population which is only around 6, 300. Mind you they are estimated to contribute over £568 million so I don’t suppose most of the locals are that upset. Tourism flourishes with B&B’s, campsites and of course holiday chalets in nearby places like Hemsby. Many visitors hire leisure boats or make for the seaside, while a good many come to enjoy the sights. The weather helps as the Broads are one of the UK’s driest places in terms of rainfall, as well as one of the flattest. The highest point is the mighty Strumpshaw Hill at approximately 38m above sea level. It might be of interest to the residents of Stumpshaw that if they climb the hill 233 times they’ll have exceeded the height of Everest. I mention this for two reasons; firstly because I was curious so I looked it up and secondly because I thought it best to keep my head down and look busy because Alison has just found a tissue with the explosive properties of a grenade in the otherwise clean laundry and I fear that I am the culprit.*
After the shade around the Broad we took the overgrown path along the river bank in the full glare of the afternoon sun. The river was hidden behind an impenetrable boarder of reeds so afforded us no chance to cool off on its banks. Tantalising faint breezes rippled the reeds and silvery willows but faded as soon as they appeared. The grasses, reeds and thistles over the path scraped at our bare legs, which stung with sweat. The air shimmered over broad flat fields. A few cows lay around the water trough, tails lazily swooshing away the flies the only sign of life. Unseen insects buzzed and chirruped in the undergrowth and shimmering dragonflies zig zagged across our path.
We passed ruined wind pumps, windmill like buildings that are feature of the Broads. In the 1800’s there were around 240, today around 70 survive in various states of repair. Mostly these were used to pump water from the marshes into the rivers and dykes. There were a few that were more traditional windmills and ground corn. To help me write this I started to look them up and found myself falling ever deeper into the precise world of the enthusiast. I fear though, that in that direction lay only tedious men with fussy moustaches and ruler straight partings under which are tidy organised minds full of specifics about fantail designs and suchlike.
Gradually the path became more defined and we entered an area obviously used by anglers and dog walkers which brought us to some welcome shade and the drag up to the village along a narrow road. Martham is a pleasant village, set around two greens with a duck pond and a few traditional shops. One of these sold us some cold drinks which revived our spirits. It is also where Alison visited with her former work colleagues on a regular basis. Along with Winterton beach it holds many happy memories for her of times that have passed, and is also a reminder of the good friends from then that she still has and who enter our lives from time to time. It is these solid relationships, formed throughout our lives that withstand episodic contact and enrich us, marking out friends from casual acquaintances.
After a short stop we made our way back into Hemsby. It was 3 miles to our site, negotiating roads and harvested fields, or in one case through a crop of corn beside the road following in the tracks of some mammoth farm vehicle to avoid any damage and finally hopping on and off the steep grass verge. I’m not sure that anyone has been so pleased to see the pavements of Hemsby as we were on a sweltering Monday afternoon.
We took showers before our limbs had the chance to protest, drank tea and were thankful for the shade the tree lined site afforded us.
*After a stewards’ enquiry it was decided that I was indeed the culprit. However in an opportune turn of events a second load was also contaminated and on this occasion it was Alison’s blouse that contained the tissue. I refute allegations of having placed it there myself. For further enquiries please contact my lawyer.
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