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East Anglia

Image: Horning - dinghies

9 July 2011

It’s time for some educational tourism. No, time for some entertaining travel. Isn’t it the same thing? Or at least, it can be the same thing, can’t it? We think so.

For the next few weeks this page will be a bit more like a blog. My wife and I are going to do some exploring. So instead of posting mini-essays about places or theoretical musings about ‘travel as education’ I will be giving a diary-style account of our trip into East Anglia. Along the way (literally – wherever we go) I will be collecting information and taking photos for use in some of my usual style of mini-essays. So this will be the exploration phase and later will come the reflective stuff about what we have found. We’re both retired, so we’re able to spend the next five weeks out there in those big-sky counties on the east coast – Norfolk and Suffolk.

Some of the time we will have our feet up and a bottle of wine or a G&T at hand. At others we will be out there looking for all kinds of interesting and beautiful places. There are so many! Beaches and salt marshes, the Broads and the rivers, fishing ports, farming villages, heath-lands and occasionally some bits of cities (though not too much of those). We know that there are stories to uncover: of a Roman city still awaiting excavation, of the creeks where swallows, eels and amazons tried to sacrifice a human being, and where a pioneer had fun with a model, a bit of skirt and a powerful fan. And a good few other tales to be told as well.

Next: forget backpacking – go hi-tech exploring in 21st century style.


Image: Kia Sorento and Adora 542DL

10 July 2011

Hitch-hiking with back packs, camping, and hostelling – been there, done that, got the cine-film..... a long time ago.

Years ago a primus stove, pack of sausages, a pair of clean socks (for the second week, of course) and an Ordnance Survey map were the essentials with tent and rucksack. And a box camera or Russian rip-off version of a 35mm snapper to record views in blurry black and white. No longer. We citizens of Geriatrica need a few more home comforts than that. Life also demands electronics in the shape of TV, lap tops and digital cameras as well as much more than a canvas tent and good boots. So after a year of planning for retirement we invested in a caravan and a car able to tow it.

It’s like life has phases for the would-be explorer. During the First Age of Exploration travelling light, through jungles or desert wastes where seldom has man (or woman) strode and camped before, is the style to be followed. So went Alexander Humboldt, Lewis and Clark and, in our own age, Ed Stafford who has trekked the Amazon from source to sea. In the Second Age the traveller follows established pathways, uses the transport and accommodation provided and visits what popular guide books have recommended. They might well have children to take along. Thomas Cook pioneered it and a thousand companies developed it. By the Third Age of Exploration the traveller mimics the First Agers in following their own itineraries but enjoying home comforts where they can. Third Agers use hotels, they might stay in other peoples’ homes – or be more independent than either by travelling in transport that doubles up as their accommodation and place to reflect on the experiences of each day as it passes. At the lightweight end of this range is the cyclist-plus-tent, just a tad less strenuous than the First Age hiker as some kind of road is followed. Motor bikes and cars, motor homes and caravans, narrow boats and sea cruisers are the vehicles they make use of. We chose a 4x4 with a carefully-specified caravan behind it.

Caravans have had an image of being used by older folk on quiet camp sites who do jigsaws or sit knitting all day long. Or they are parked in their hundreds in rows and columns of rowdy families barbecuing burgers, playing beach games and knocking back beer. Like all stereotypes there is truth in these images but a lot of real-life variation is omitted along the way.

Pat and I are older. We like quiet camp sites. Our caravan has all the mod cons of cooker, shower, telly, fridge, comfortable seats and beds. But like many modern caravans it has a 21st century spec with hi-tech features that help make it into a base for exploring where we want to explore, follow up the fascinations of the environments around us and tap into the cyber-world of information that all of us live in today. So it has power-move motors letting us manoeuvre the van using a hand-held remote control. A computerised system lowers the corner steadies on arrival at the chosen pitch, adjusting the angle of each until the caravan is exactly level. The on-board batteries are kept topped up by a solar panel on the roof. There is a satellite tracking system in case someone manages to tow it away – on receiving an alarm on my mobile I can get the data to feed in to Google Earth to show where it is and where it is heading. Our laptops plug in to the power circuits. Using dongles we are online with ease, if at the mercy of cell net reception strengths and download speeds. In theory at least our holiday snaps can be viewed within hours minutes in Hawaii, though why the good people out there should want to I don’t really know. A satellite dish receives dozens and dozens of TV stations.... just hope no tall tree or other obstructions cuts of the signal. But we aren’t heavy users of TV anyway and often prefer whatever DVDs we have put on board for each trip. Finally, the days of using a Morris Traveller to tug along a plywood box on wheels are long gone: we use a 4x4 that takes no nonsense from the hi-tech hobo attached to its tow bar. It even tells us what the tyre pressures on the caravan are at all times and should one start leaking air another warning bleeper alerts us. I wouldn’t want the caravan to end up as matchwood on the A1 like one almost did the first time I towed one more than 25 years ago. That’s another story.


12 July

[Internet access via a dongle – using a mobile phone hook-up – is not reliable so far. Yesterday proved impossible]

We made a later start than planned but had a very good run down to our first camp site in Norfolk yesterday. Traffic was heavy along the A1 as far as the M18 turn but then lightened considerably. There were a lot of caravans on the move – more than usual, with several large mobile homes and even half a dozen ‘fifth wheelers’, a much rarer sight in the UK. These, if you haven’t come across them, are large caravans hitched onto the back of pickup trucks in the way articulated lorry trailers are connected to the driving unit. Perhaps there was a trade show somewhere or one just held last weekend.

We had little trouble finding the camp site, in a village north of Norwich. It is at a former farm that like many has added new income from the Certificated List arrangement of the Caravan Club – no more than five ‘vans at a time. So they are quiet sites often favoured by older people or families with very young children. The pitch is in a very neat paddock with tall hedges around. Though modern vans have their own toilets and showers there is on this site a bathroom and loo available at the farmhouse only a few metres away.

We ate out as it had been a long day. On the way back we drove round the village. No shops – and no church. Only the one pub on the main road. The Ordnance Survey map shows hardly any villages have churches around here, though there is one further up the road with only a farm for company. Either the relatively sparse population gathered from miles around or else the Norfolk people were more ungodly, which doesn’t seem likely.

Today took a slow start as we sorted and set up more things in the caravan. Internet access worked and the satellite TV got tuned in – not without some frustrations and a brief inability on behalf of yours truly to work out which direction here is South......

We drove to Cromer and found it very busy with visitors, so just had our picnic lunch. Then we took ourselves to Felbrigg Hall, a Jacobean-and-later large estate house in the ownership of the National Trust. Like many great houses it has a strong influence from the Grand Tour – paintings of Rome and Italianate scenes. Early tourism, in fact- the classic kind of touring.


Image: St Michael's and All Angels Church - Aylsham

13 July

Talking to the caravan site owner settled some thoughts about the village here, which is Hevingham. There used to be two shops including a village store but both have gone, the general store having become an antique shop. There were (I think he said) three pubs. The only one now is the Fox and Goose where we ate on our first evening. The garage has become a caravan sales company’s premises. The nearest filling station is either towards Norwich on the A140 or beyond Aylsham on the same road to the north.

Aylsham is the nearest centre for shops. We went there this afternoon. What a pleasant little place! The Black Boys pub overlooks the market square. Horatio Nelson went there to a ball in December 1792 according to a proud stone plaque near the entrance. The town has a Town Hall, quite small but marked off by a classical-style pediment set into the brickwork above the door, though lacking the columns a Greek temple would have had. Well, pediments are pediments and proclaim some measure of importance however they appear. There is a good collection of shops in the square or along side roads: a large pharmacy, a couple of butchers, a well-stocked grocers, one or two tea shops and restaurants and a few estate agents. Some were closed though whether it was early closing day or not wasn’t entirely clear as a bakers closed every day at 2pm, fresh-baked produce having been sold presumably, so maybe the butchers did the same. On balance the number of places shut and the ease of getting a space in the car parks suggested today is half-day closing.

The church, just off the market square, is dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. It’s large, very light inside and an interesting building for its outside appearance using flint and chert plus some freestone and even some brick in its design. John of Gaunt held the local manor in the fourteenth century and built most of the present day church. Humphrey Repton, the landscape gardener, lived by the church and is buried against the chancel wall where a fine memorial to him has been built into the structure.

We promised ourselves a return visit – especially when the weather is brighter and without the short, fine rain showers that there have been today.

Image: Cromer Hall

14 July

Weren’t holidays in caravans Great Adventures with lots of sunshine and lashings of ginger beer? It’s pouring down.

At least it gives time to sort photos. Here's one taken near to Felbrigg Hall. This one is of Cromer Hall. In Hunting the Hound of the Baskervilles (see the list to the left) I mentioned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had heard the story of Black Shuck, a fiend of a hound that was supposed to burst from the ground along the cliffs west of Cromer to terrorise the locals. He was told this by Bertram Fletcher Robinson when they spent some time as guests at Cromer Hall. It was interesting see see and photograph one of the places (Stoneyhurst College being another) that gave Conan Doyle the image of Baskerville Hall in the Sherlock Holmes story. There are other Black Shuck stories around - one in Bungay, Suffolk. I can imagine the Gothicky Cromer Hall on a wet day like today,wind blowing in off the North Sea, inspiring such stories. East Anglia has created images of loneliness and fear in the minds of other writers and artists, too, such as Benjamin Britten for his opera 'Peter Grimes' and Dorothy L Sayers and her detective story 'The Nine Tailors' set in the fens. J M W Turner's landscape paintings give one view, Britten and Sayers another.


Image: Weather station

15 July

Yesterday stayed wet much of the day but the evening was clearer. We had this glorious sunset. The weather station is fixed at the front of our caravan. We used the park and ride system to go to the Castle Museum in Norwich, of which more later. As soon as we can we are going to Cromer (better chance of central parking). Crab, caught this morning, will be on the menu.

Image: Felbrigg Hall

16 July

Felbrigg Hall

Some photos from the visit we made the other day to Felbrigg Hall. The National Trust is one of the two great non-commercial repositories of landscapes and architecture alongside English Heritage. Over the years both have much improved their services to conservation and their visitors. Felbrigg is no exception. Professional and voluntary staff make visitors welcome while guarding the treasures of the house. Perhaps the English/Welsh National Trust has had to catch up a little with its equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland in drawing middle and working class homes into its collection, but after all it has had a much larger number of big, expensive houses to take on and save as well.

Felbrigg was built and furnished by members of the Windham family over more than three centuries using a previous Jacobean property as a basis. William Windham II returned from the Grand Tour and, on inheriting the house in 1749, commenced changes and the addition of pictures, sculptures and books acquired on the Grand Tour. Like many other scions of land-owning families he showed off his extensive collections from time travelling through Europe. Prestige and respect was needed for the successful leadership of their communities and life in high society. Travel was a way of adding to whatever education they had obtained and it often acted as a kind of university course as each young man was conducted through Europe by a tutor. Shown here is the ‘Cabinet’ or collection room with pictures and other artefacts from the Tour, including a painting of the Colosseum in Rome. The library had a huge collection of rare and classical books and globes of the world. When the last owner, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, died in 1969, the house was left to the National Trust. The rooms of the house had 13,000 books. Many of these were given to the new University of East Anglia with the core of classical works being retained in the library.

Image: Wroxham

18 July

Messing About in Wroxham

Messing about in boats was a famous phrase in “The Wind in the Willows”. That children’s book written before the First World War might have helped increase boating holidays on the Thames. Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” sequels “Coot Club” and “The Big Six” did the same for the Norfolk Broads on the eve of the Second World War. In Norfolk, as along the Thames, boating was already popular and excursions were growing in number thanks to the numerous guide books that had appeared.

We took ourselves yesterday on a small tour between the rain showers that made a first stop at Wroxham, scene of much Ransome-ing adventures. Would this Broads-side town still have the spirit of the 1930s? Well, no, except in the sense that whisky made on a massive industrial scale is akin to the productions of a small Hebridean distillery. OK, it was a Sunday in July, the height of the holiday season, but we parked, paid 1.20 for the privilege, walked to the bridge, photographed a few things – and walked back. Fine for those who want to hire one of several dozen small cruisers or take one of a dozen trip boats on a ride; or go shopping in gift emporia (a favourite word in every tourist resort) or sit in a pub or restaurant. This was more like massing around in boats and we moved on.

Image: Hemsby - former Pontins Camp

19 July

Tourist Traces

Driving from Caister-on-Sea up the coast took us through Hemsby. On the right of the main road what looked like the fence round a military camp appeared. Then beyond it we saw a collection of chalet blocks, all with boarded-up windows and peeling paint. A quick googling back at the caravan showed it to have been a Pontin’s holiday camp that was closed in January, 2010. It had been a Madison’s camp with 500 self-catering chalets, acquired by Fred Pontin in 1971 and rebuilt. It was too much of a temptation to miss: we parked in a side road and despite the rain I walked back to take the photos above.

Pontins used to run 31 holiday camps. Today they have five. A report in 2010 talked about a 25m Viking-themed attraction taking over the site, starting this year. So far no long boats have been sighted.

It’s surprising just how much even relatively modern tourism has created an archaeology full of fascinating bits and pieces – buildings, signposts, irregular shapes in the ground. Serious historians of tourism need to be archaeologists, too – there is important evidence out there. Perhaps ‘archaeology’ is the wrong term for something quite recent, but I can’t think of another word as expressive. We geeks will get there first. Tony Robinson and his team will follow, all in good... time.

Image: Caister-on-Sea Lifeboat Service

19 July (2)

Pat suggested heading to the coast at Caister-on-Sea. It’s not quite an extension northwards of Great Yarmouth. There is a beach and a good view out to sea – through around thirty wind turbines. They might be thought a blot on the seascape but are certainly an eye-catching attraction. Seeing them made it clear just why there is a controversy about wind farms at sea. Not In My Beach Environment perhaps?

It was still a very grey day with rain threatening at any moment. We lunched in our car in a car park facing, not the sea but sand dunes, with two large, dull-red buildings labelled ‘Caister Lifeboat’. Four elderly people were eating at one of the two picnic benches. They wore coats. The scene looked like the traditional joke about British summers: drive to the coast, drink tea from a flask, gaze out at the sea, walk to the loo if you must and then drive home again through the squally rain.

There is a broad tarmac strip leading to the lifeboat building closest to the sea. From the top of the slope the view spreads 180 degrees from north to south over a good, wide beach and the open sea. No ships or boats in sight today, just the neat groups of wind turbines breaking the picture. A lady with two young children walked to the water’s edge where the boy and girl found plenty to do digging and pebble hunting, putting their treasures into a toy plastic shopping trolley that they had pushed across the sand. At the entrance to the lifeboat house two men in the blue sweaters and jeans of the boat crew stood talking. A notice said visitors were welcome to tour this, a heritage centre, and the other building a little further back where the modern lifeboat awaited any distress call received. Admission - 2.00. Little else to do here, but it looked interesting anyway. We paid and went in.

It turned out to be the highlight of our Norfolk trip so far. For our money we were given cups of tea and an excellent history brochure. The exhibition was professionally designed with lots to see and much to discover, some of it very surprising indeed. The man who had written the text of the exhibition was taking his turn on duty that day, so we had a first-hand source of knowledge to give replies to our questions.

In brief, the Caister lifeboat is not part of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. This was the big surprise. Neither of us had realised that there were highly professional, full-time rescue services of this kind not part of the RNLI. Second, the current lifeboat is smaller than most (having seen the one at Cromer, a big brute of a steel powerboat, the Caister lifeboat looked relatively flimsy) but is fast – water-jet powered with large, inflated, safety tubes fitted right round the hull. The story we read, and heard about, was of a late eighteenth century company of Caister fishermen who rowed a wooden lifeboat to the aid of vessels grounding on dangerous sandbanks. Their motivation was the saving of lives – of Christian souls, as they saw it – but also to earn profit from salvage monies divided between them – a strict limit on membership was imposed. In 1857 the RNLI took over lifeboat services including that of Caister. Lifeboats came and went as designs improved and hundreds of lives were saved. By 1969 this service had rescued more than any other station around the British Isles. It was sometimes at a cost: in November 1901 nine of the crew of twelve on the lifeboat were drowned close inshore when it capsized in a gale, trapping them underneath.

In 1969 the RNLI decided to close Caister Lifeboat Service down. The fishermen of Caister objected. A local man ‘Skipper’ Jack Woodhouse put a boat on call immediately and within two years an inshore boat was in service. Jack Woodhouse appeared on TV’s Terry Wogan show twice. Money was raised to add an offshore boat and this was ready by August 1973. In later years Bernard Mathews, the famous Norfolk turkey farmer, and comedian Jim Davidson were two of the principal donors towards other, newer boats. One of these – see the photo of a model of it above – was a Valentijn 2000 craft designed by David Stogden, an ex-RNLI inspector. This kind of boat has been rejected by the RNLI but is in use in several European countries and Australia and is built in the Netherlands. It entered service in 2004. It sits on a special trolley cradle hitched to a caterpillar tractor in the second building. On receiving a call the control centre there summons a crew, opens the doors and the tractor tows it up the slop and down the beach into the sea.

The whole Caister set-up is remarkably professional, not only in the rescue service operated actually by unpaid volunteers, but in its public relations. The museum with a former lifeboat, exhibits and wall interpretation panels was designed by a specialist, Michael Hubbard of Cubic Design, he being a man with a theatrical background. All the information in the exhibition is reproduced in the brochure given away as part of the entrance fee. That is something which I think ought to be a feature of every exhibition – supplying the text and graphics, at an appropriate price, to be read and referred to later at leisure. I am using our copy as a reference for this posting.

As I said, it was a highlight of our trip so far, a chance encounter from which we learned a great deal about lifeboats and the men who risk themselves to save others at sea.


Image: Horning

20 July

Horning is a beautiful place. The River Bure makes a right-angle turn. It’s wide enough not to feel crowded. The village still is a village and from its signs and announcements, the kind of buildings it has kept and a Parish Council lady doing a questionnaire survey on parking there displays a firm sense of community. The Swan Inn of 1897 makes a handsome focal point close to the bend of the waterway. A pleasant outdoor table area by the river’s edge is a lovely spot for a meal. Next to it is the open green looking out along the upstream arm. A goodly sized flock of geese and ducks including Greylag and Egyptian Geese chase food titbits where they can. And it so happened that when we arrived the car park ticketing machines were just being reinstalled so nothing needed to be paid until around 1pm. What could be better than that?

We made a trip to Malthouse Broad next to Ranworth on the Southern Comfort riverboat (bottom picture, second from right). Fake it may be but it is very quiet – appreciated by the naturalists – and over an hour and a half the skipper gave an excellent commentary. Out near the reed beds we had two marsh harriers pointed out to us, and were told there are only about two hundred in the country. Gold stars!

This is real Arthur Ransome, “Coot Club” and “Big Six” territory, real messing about on the water country. The atmosphere was relaxed, the sun shone, people were cheerful – and there were lots of boats to be seen. Top right, a Norfolk sailing wherry doing a training trip. Middle top, youngsters trying their hands at sailing. The Swan Inn is top left.


Image: Ranworth Church

24 July

Speaking to the World of the Day

Norfolk is famous for its open broads where visitors can sail or watch wildlife. It is famous for its beaches, long and empty or busy with sunbathers and sandcastle builders. It’s also famous for churches. TV has spread the images of all these delights far and wide. We knew of some, like Ranworth Church, from television documentaries. Others were found in Simon Jenkins’s “England’s Thousand Best Churches”. He is chair of the National Trust and has also written a companion book on England’s thousand best houses. A bit of work with Google Earth and Ordnance Survey maps located accurately the positions of a selection of churches to keep an eye open for. Some are not too obvious, being, like Salle and the deliciously-named Little Snoring tucked away, occasionally not in the centre of the village for which they are named.

Ranworth we knew also from a visit almost thirty years ago. It has a tower, four-square, flint-faced and tall like many of its Norfolk kind, visible from miles away. Our boat ride from Horning traced a path winding along the Bure and then the Ranworth dyke almost to the church itself. Next day we drove there. It could have been a visit to climb the tower for the view which includes the spire of Norwich Cathedral, Happisburgh lighthouse and a possible hundred other churches. But that temptation we turned down – the climb is up steep steps, two ladders, and past a heavy trap door.

What we wanted to see again was the fifteenth century Antiphoner held by the church, a magnificent example of the book which recorded the psalms and responses used by congregations of the time in services marking the passing of each day and the holding of religious festivals. The book is held in a steel case to protect it – made, I believe, by inmates of Norwich prison. The book has 285 pages made from sheepskin, widely available in medieval East Anglia, and tough enough to stand corrections that would be made by scratching out mistakes. Monks from nearby Langley Abbey that also supplied the church ministers would have hand-written the orders of service used in the Abbey and its churches. Much more than that, though, they drew and coloured beautiful, tiny illustrations to bring to life stories and events recalled during the services. They are bright examples of illuminated manuscripts, made with the limitations of medieval knowledge but a treasure-trove of information about the world of the fifteenth century. For example, the story of Jonah and the Whale has Jonah standing as if in serious prayer in the mouth of a huge fish with huge teeth. The surroundings were probably based on the monk’s view of a Norfolk river with a church in the background. The fish, though apparently smooth-skinned, not scaly, seems to have been inspired by the large like that could be caught in the local waters.

Ranworth Church has more than the Antiphoner. A wooden lectern of the same century as the illuminated manuscript stands in the nave. It has an extract of plainsong chant inked onto one face of it, looking just like one shown with similar words and music in one of the Antiphoner pictorials. Between the nave of the church and the chancel is a wooden rood screen with late medieval paintings of saints and curved wings with tall candle holders. It’s regarded as the finest rood screen in East Anglia. There are the wooden misericords, folding seats to relieve the tired limbs of elderly clergy (services were taken while standing – pews being a later semi-luxury). There is a large stone font for baptisms, quite possibly from a much earlier church on this site. The steeple-shaped wooden cover that once stood over it did not survive beyond the eighteenth century however, unlike those in churches like Salle and Worstead. These, and other treasures, are well described in what must be one of the best guide books to a small church that I have seen. Ranworth’s claimed 100,000 visitors a year helps to justify its production while returning to the visitors a wealth of clearly-presented information.

Visitors to Ranworth in the late Middle Ages will have made their way there by sighting the tower reaching high in their distance. They would have known and enjoyed the paintings in the church and the stories that they told (and medieval churches usually had paintings covering every wall – stained glass often being added, if at all, much later). Then, as now, churches like this spoke to the world about the lives and beliefs of the folk who built and used them.



25 July

On The Farm

Which is where we are, north of Norwich. It’s a site limited to five caravans maximum. There are also some workshops rented out to small businesses. The farm is only about a hundred acres and the owner, a friendly one-man worker, tells us it’s too small for modern economics. He grows barley and sugar beet. With the dry summer the cereal has done badly but has to be harvested this week. Can’t it wait a little to grow more, I asked? No, it’s at the stage when it has to be cut and threshed, is the reply, so for a few days our farmer is driving the harvester, loading the grain into a tractor-trailer and piling it temporarily into a storage shed. He shows me the grain heap: it should be much larger. Then he scoops up a handful and picks out a few of the fatter grains from amongst the thin, short ones making up the majority of the crop. Lack of water has left them stunted. “The barley will go to a company up the road and then if I’m lucky be sent for malting. Otherwise it’ll be animal feed” he says.

His sugar beet is doing better in a field out of sight beyond the barley corn. That will soften the economic blow of a bad summer. Once he and his father, who bought this farm years ago, were more diverse. Pigs were kept as well, but no more. Some years ago a business man asked to rent an old shed on the farm, the beginning of diversification. Operating a caravan site in a square of neatly mown grass surrounded by old yew hedges (the house dates from 1675) was another move. We have seen this pattern before in Shropshire where a farmer sold his land, kept the farmhouse and built a small business park and opened a caravan site. Around the Norfolk countryside are the big fields that do better with wheat, barley, oats, beet and potatoes plus some small herds of cattle and a few pig units. And there are some good conifer woodlands producing timber.

It’s a trite comment to say farmers are always complaining. Ours does not. He is more philosophical in stating what the situation is. For us, travelling this countryside, staying on a friendly farm, is an education. To spend good time here and not take notice of what is happening around us would really go against the grain.


Image: Air Defence Radar Museum

25 July

There is a scene in that best of all naval movies set during the Napoleonic Wars, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” when HMS Surprise is seen in full sail with her officers and crew swarming over decks and rigging like ants. To change the metaphor, the whole ship is a machine, half human and half creaking timbers and rigging. Running before the wind, watching for the enemy, practising gunnery and dealing with the daily needs of her crew demands not only skills and brave action but a sophisticated system of control ready to respond to the potentially deadly environment.

It was a thought which came back to me when we visited another small but highly successful attraction going under the dry name of the Air Defence Radar Museum.

Some weeks ago a Google search linked with the usual Ordnance Survey maps and Google Earth came up with mention of the museum. We had stayed briefly in Northamptonshire and come across the fact that the first trials of radar to use aircraft had been carried out in the Daventry area in February, 1935. Following a train of snippets on the internet led from one thing to another. The first permanent radar stations were seven in number down the south eastern coast of England. Each had three tall steel towers with fixed aerials, transmitting signals, and three wooden towers with equipment to receive the reflected pulses coming back from aircraft flying to the east of them. This tower system would prove vulnerable to attack but was also superseded by smaller, revolving aerials covering 360 degrees of the surrounding area. In time nearly all the high towers would go, but it turned out that one, just one, still stands in a place called Steniglot in Lincolnshire. Over to Google Earth. Finding Steniglot wasn’t too hard but locating the actual steel tower was a different matter. It took much close searching before one of the classic indicators of aerial photography revealed it. I was looking at a long, long shadow as if cast by a national grid electricity pylon. At the base a small shape. Over to Google Street View...... the computer screen picture dived in and swept to a horizontal view as if I was landing in a fast aircraft. Pan left .... fields .... a road ..... and then, the base of a tower rising well above the field of view. Tilt the picture upwards and more appears including the large flat metal mesh ‘platforms’ that were the actual aerials. So another pushpin is added to the Google Earth map to mark it down for a visit and a photograph ... sometime ... soon.

It was that train of electrons that led me to the Radar Museum at RAF Neatishead. Then I more or less forgot about it until we visited Horning and passed the sign for the place. Next day we drove to it, but found it was only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays and one Saturday in each month, and we were looking at it on a Monday. It appeared a bit non-committal, too, being along narrow lanes and past a sign offering the whole station as a development opportunity for leisure and tourism. An imposing wire mesh gate, a drab camouflage-green building, a sign warning that here was a military site strictly off limits to visitors. Should we come back the next day?

Of course we did. Driving in through the gate revealed more fences and more dull buildings, but also some real radar-set vehicles with one of them carrying a large revolving scanner. And behind these was a Bloodhound surface-to-air missile.

The museum has difficulties opening on more days because it uses around fifteen volunteers to look after the ticket counter, shop, tea room and of course the display galleries spread through 26 rooms. Even so about 60,000 people look round each year – sixty on the day we were there. It may sound like small numbers but it is of a level the museum can handle comfortably. People can wander round at will – “look in to any room you find where the door is open” was the invitation. But arrivals are given a very short briefing (good military style, that) and then conducted in small groups to three of the main rooms in turn where a different volunteer – and they all have technical backgrounds, many of them having served at RAF Neatishead before its closure in 2006. The centre piece of the whole museum is the Cold War Operations Room, a James Bond-style area with four levels of operatives and controllers looking towards cathode-ray equipment and wall displays. The lighting is low level but the all-important displays shine with bright colours to handle information from numerous outside sources on ground stations, ships and aircraft around Britain. This room was in use co-ordinating British air defences until 1954 when its functions were moved to an underground bunker on the station. In the 1970s the room was re-equipped as RAF Neatishead’s Operations Room once more, remaining in use until the whole system was relocated to other RAF stations working in a more distributed network. What is on show today is the set-up as in use up to 1993. A former RAF officer described how it all worked: the way in which regular defence exercises were carried out in co-ordination with NATO allies, and procedures that would have been followed had a nuclear attack been launched by the then-Soviet Union.

The other two rooms described and demonstrated by volunteer staff are from the Second World War. Here is the link, in the 1940 room, to the Steniglot radar tower and the other Chain Home stations as they were called. The Battle of Britain was fought under the controlling system of many command and operational centres in south east England using radar, telephones and radar. This room has a part-size mock up of a Fighter Command ‘filter room’ where incoming information about possible attackers was interpreted and passed where required to Fighter Control. The second room shows a radar set up as it would be in 1942 when the revolving aerial arrays had been brought into use. Cathode ray tubes with lines sweeping in circles became the forerunners of modern air transport control centres. Plotting tables with uniformed women pushing wooden indicators around with the attack sighting reference number, number of aircraft and their height are again shown by museum mannequins as in the 1940 room. As it happens these WAAFs would probably find themselves on a fizzer for wearing makeup and deviant hairstyles......

There is a huge amount of material in other exhibition rooms: historic equipment, models, documents, photos and more. The availability of knowledgeable staff to answer questions in a friendly, approachable fashion made our visit another highlight of the trip. The museum recommends a two-hour visit. We stayed for two and a half.

And Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World? Just as the film corrected the swashbuckling misrepresentation of old Hollywood movies about square-riggers at war, the Air Defence Radar Museum brings home just how since the 1930s military defence is a matter of huge, interactive, integrated operational systems. For HMS Surprise in the film read the United Kingdom in the present age, linked in with a whole ‘fleet’ of other defensive units around the North Atlantic Ocean and beyond. Roll on the day when every country is connected and working in unison to keep the world at peace.


Image: Anna Sewell

1 August

A Love of Horses

“A short time after this, a cart with a dead horse in it passed our cab-stand. The head hung out of the cart-tail, the lifeless tongue was slowly dropping with blood; and the sunken eyes! But I can't speak of them, the sight was too dreadful. It was a chestnut horse with a long thin neck. I saw a white streak down the forehead. I believe it was Ginger; I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over. Oh! if men were more merciful, they would shoot us before we came to such misery.”

[Sewell, A (1877) ‘Black Beauty, His Grooms and Companions: The Autobiography of a Horse’ page 198, London, Jarrold & Sons]

We had driven through Lammas, Norfolk, and caught a glimpse of gravestones set in a wall. It was only later that we found that one in particular had very special significance. It was the memorial stone to Anna Sewell, author of the 1877 book ‘Black Beauty’ from which the quotation above is taken. Sewell had been born in Great Yarmouth but spent some years in Stoke Newington, London. In the city she had witnessed the cruelty often meted out to the hundreds – thousands – of working horses there. Later on she lived, a semi-invalid in Catton, Norwich. From her bedroom window (her house is seen above) she could view horses like those seen in the very field that she could see. With worsening health she wrote and dictated her one and only book with the help of her other. It was published by Jarrold and Sons of Norwich and became a best seller – though she only received a single fee of a few pounds. The story, written as if by Black Beauty, caught the imagination of a huge audience and tugged at its consciences. It is said that the book brought to an end through changes in the law a number of cruel practices and altered the attitudes of people towards urban and rural horses.

A chance view of the memorial stone, a little internet searching, some map work and a little questioning of local residents took us to find her house – and to learn more of her story, where she came from and where she spent her life.


Image: View from caravan - Suffolk

5 August

Moving South to Suffolk

After three weeks north of Norwich we moved south yesterday. Our new caravan site is near to the beautiful medieval town of Lavenham. It rained during the whole move but beyond getting wet there were no problems. We are on another farm, bigger, cluttered, but full of interest and again with friendly owners. A moorhen and chick splashed around in a drainage channel separating us from a wide field of wheat nearly ready for harvest. Two apple trees are heavy with fruit, some of which has already rained down on the grass, enough to provide Sir Isaac Newton with a dozen new inspirations and his mum with stacks of pies.

The internet access here is much better so there is catching up of postings to be done. But there is enough within a twenty mile radius to keep us busy exploring for all of the next two weeks, Pat says. And we will be going further than that a few times.......


Image: Angel Hotel sign

6 August

We’re No Angels – Just Embarrassed We Work Here

After a good walk through Lavenham yesterday we arrived at the market square looking for somewhere to sit and find a cold drink. The Angel Hotel was an obvious place – there were three bench tables outside, one of them free. I went inside to order two orange and lemonades. A pleasant barman made them up and went to the till across the other side. He entered the figures and then stared at the screen. Tried again. Checked something. Looked surprised. Called his manager. She looked at the screen and nodded, muttering “yes, that’s it”. He came over and asked for 10. The manager turned to someone else at the bar and I just heard her say “we’re going to lose a lot of business that way. People won’t come back”. Too damn right they won’t.

Outside we looked at the hotel sign. In small lettering above the hotel name it said ‘Marco Pierre White’. 5 for a glass of orange and lemonade produced from factory-filled bottles is brand-name exploitation of the worst kind. Lavenham has a fully justified reputation as a highly attractive tourist location – and seeing the state of the economy in farming in the area needs it more than ever. Marco Pierre White bought six East Anglian hotels from the defunct Maypole Group in March 2011 including the Angel. This Leeds-born chef has a reputation a bad boy of British catering, ejecting customers he doesn’t like, turning in his Michelin stars because the inspectors were less qualified than himself (he claimed) and in 2009 charging 5 for a pint of beer at his Yew Tree Inn at High Clere, Hampshire. His reasoning was that drinking in his pub was a matter of ambience and service quality, not just the beer. The Angel lacked any special ambience, the service quality was perfectly good but nothing - nothing - about the transaction justified 5 for the drink.

Talking to a local resident working elsewhere in the market square produced an expression of horror at the tale, and another visitor I chatted with later in the day thought it would damage the village’s image. At a time when tourism needs to be seen as other than a way of exploiting the customer, this kind of attitude to running a pub is the sort of thing this part of Suffolk needs like a hole in the head.


Image: Aldeburgh beach scenes

11 August

We drove to Aldeburgh last weekend. The wind on the coast was quite strong, much to the liking of the lads kite-surfing and wind-surfing. The town was busy with – at lunchtime of course – queues waiting outside fish and chip shops. The main street runs along, but just away from, the actual coast. Every parking space was taken so we drove on towards the southern end where cars either stay below the start of the barrier beach thrown up by the tide, causing the River Alde to turn south, or they can go up onto the barrier and along. We did that and found a good few parking spaces, though now away from the town itself. The barrier has been given a concrete face towards the sea, against which huge banks of shingle have been built up by storm breakers. Behind the barrier the River, forced to turn through ninety degrees, begins its long journey to where is becomes the River Ore. The barrier beach spreads wider. It can only be usefully reached by a small ferry from Orford, and there it is called Orford Ness. All kinds of wrecks and some sombre wartime and cold war structures remain. Prominent is the strange pavilion-like building that was used for testing the triggers for nuclear weapons. It has a cast slab of concrete for a roof that is supported by pillars clear of the walls below. Should a test explosion have gone wrong the idea was that the columns would have been knocked out by the blast and the ‘lid’ fall down to seal the open space below containing the explosive device.

That sight was on our ‘long list’ of visits to make but it was not going to be had last weekend and indeed will await some future trip. We watched the water-sportsmen skidding and somersaulting over the waves. Then we drove a little further to a Martello Tower, one of around 140 originally built in Britain to repel a Napoleonic invasion. They were massive brick and rubble structures with very thick walls and a flat top below a parapet on which was typically mounted a single artillery piece crewed by an officer and around twenty men. I don’t believe that any of them saw action. This one at Aldeburgh is now owned by the Landmark Trust and can be rented as holiday accommodation.


Image: Aldeburgh - Benjamin Britten

17 August

Benjamin Britten, Aldeburgh and Snape Maltings.

Aldeburgh means water sports, beach games, fish and chips and – Benjamin Britten. As one of the two most successful composers of the twentieth century (I’m counting Edward Elgar as the other), Benjamin Britten brought a very different kind of fame to the town. Between the 1930s and his death in the 1970s his output was spectacular covering genres from opera to film scores (eg the documentaries “Night Mail” and “Coal Face”) and including solo vocal pieces, chamber, orchestral and instrumental works. He is well known to millions of children learning about classical music through his “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. To an older, international generation affected by conflict he is remembered for the “War Requiem”. To lovers of opera, his main showpiece works, then “Peter Grimes”, “Billy Budd”, “Albert Herring” and “Paul Bunyan” are amongst the fourteen he composed. “Noye’s Fludde” – after the Chester Miracle Plays – and “Let’s Make an Opera” appeal especially for community and young person’s groups. He was influenced by many sources but especially the work of the American composer Aaron Copeland, the Russian Shostakovitch and Rostropovitch, and Balinese music. His life partner was the tenor Peter Pears for whom he composed many musical accompaniments. They lie buried side by side in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul in Aldeburgh. Just behind them is the grave of the composer Imogen Holst, daughter of “The Planets Suite” composer Gustav Holst.

In 1948 Britten, Pears and the librettist Eric Crozier founded the Aldeburgh Festival. It has continued and grown ever since as one of the most important musical events in the country. The former maltings at Snape, near to Aldeburgh, has been the main venue since 1967. A complex of concert hall, rehearsal rooms, studio, library, refreshment rooms, shops and recently, apartments, has been created alongside the River Alde.

In the church where Britten is buried is a stained glass window dedicated to him and his music. On the beach at Aldeburgh is Maggi Hambling’s memorial to him of two giant, steel, scallop shells. Pierced lettering round the edge of one is a quotation from local poet and source of inspiration for some of Benjamin Britten’s music George Crabbe: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”. Children play on them; families picnic by them or just admire their shining presence, like Britten’s legacy making Aldeburgh what it is today.


Image: Jimmy's Farm

18 August

Jimmy’s Farm

In the 1980s the Victorian and Albert Museum became notorious for a Charles Saatchi-inspired marketing slogan that it was “an ace cafe with a museum attached”. It was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek statement, but it was made at a time when vitriolic diatribes were under way about the heritage industry putting profits before everything else. We have been long-standing admirers of Jimmy Doherty as a TV presenter about farming, wildlife and his farm project near Ipswich and so were keen to make a visit to the place. We arrived in the late morning so lunch in the restaurant made sense – and proved to be a real highlight. Then we explored the farm. It was interesting, it was enjoyable, but.....

Let me explain, and to say why the V&A phrase came to mind.

Jimmy Doherty gave up on a PhD to take a city job in London, but abandoned that life in 2003 to follow his dream of becoming a pig farmer. Not raising any old pigs, you understand, but the almost-defunct Essex pig. And to do it using certain ethical standards from pork to fork as he put it – in other words, selling high quality meat in his own shop (often sausages) and feeding his customers in the restaurant he planned to have using the highest standards that he could reach. To do so he borrowed money, found a farm, installed himself and his girlfriend Michaela and got to work. He had help from his friend the TV chef Jamie Oliver and many other supporters. It therefore made sense that raising pigs, selling their produce in his shop at the farm and running a restaurant at the farmyard was the correct business plan to pay off the debts while continuing to develop the project. Securing a TV series early on helped to promote the farm and his ideas about quality food from rare breed animals. Customers arrived. They could walk round the farm for free but had to pay a small admission price to follow a nature trail running into the woodland which was part of the farm.

There was plenty of drama in the TV series. Jimmy proved to be an able communicator. Income from the TV deal also helped. It also led to more TV work on farming worldwide, on the principles of food production and on the life of Charles Darwin and the work of the Natural History Museum in London. The Darwin involvement brought him to the idea of ‘Darwin’s Garden’ as part of the farm, a development created in conjunction with a landscaping firm. Other rare breeds were added – some cattle, goats, sheep, even a few alpaca and a butterfly garden. The whole appearance to those who followed his TV work and knew about the farm was of someone learning farming from scratch and then keen to communicate about farming in general and his own, almost campaigning approach, in particular.

So we made our visit. It was a bright day though getting windy with a squall or two of rain later. The car park was busy but with no parking charge and no entrance fee the impression was positive. We had decided to eat in the restaurant as a key part of the experience. After a brief look round the garden by the farm buildings we went in to the restaurant. The manager, young, pleasant and clearly knowing his job greeted us and found us a table – only a few were occupied as it was only shortly after 12 and it filled up well later. The ambience was very good. It appeared to be a spacious rebuild of an old barn, clean and well lit with a mix of old beams and new, with good, solid tables and chairs set out in carefully divided-off sections. The menu offered two courses for 15 and three for 20, a nice way of pricing the meals. Pat chose the butternut squash, goat’s cheese and spinach tart. I had the soup of the day – sun-dried tomato. Both of us decided that we had to go for the slow roast rare breed pork with crackling, creamy mash and braised red cabbage, Pat adding a glass of wine and me a pint of beer. All of it was good, though neither of us is a lover of pork crackling – others might delight in it. The meal and the occasion were just what we needed – this was lunch on a farm, not a five-star London bistro – well packaged, if you like, and in fact I suspect it was just as trendy as something in the city. In many ways it reminded me of a high quality, if folksy, American dining place on some place like Knott’s Berry Farm that went from being a restaurant to one of the earliest theme parks. Hmm! That vision is perhaps a tad troubling in this context: will Jimmy and Michaela’s future vision be to sell off to Merlin Entertainment and bring in all the fun of the fair, farmyard style?

Well pleased with the lunch we exited to explore the flower and vegetable gardens already glimpsed and to meet up with whatever porkers and other livestock we could find outside. Enthusiasm, hard work and a wish by Mr D to entertain and educate about farming had wound us up and we would now buzz around like happy students to find out lots more.

It didn’t work like that. As usual we split up to explore our individual interests, take photos and generally make sense of the farm. At the agreed hour we compared notes and came to the same conclusions: a good day, an enjoyable day, but.....

The setting is good, there is plenty to see – animals in paddocks, ducks on a pond, butterflies in a tropical hot house, vegetables, flowers and fruit planted out and well cared for – but what is the value of each of these things? Why are they important? And why, Jimmy, have you made them part of your dream-coming-true, famous farm?

There is a slight financial catch, by the way. The farm is free. You can walk round it without cost and just pay for the Nature Walk. But most of the animals by far are actually on the Nature Walk. Under that title I would expect to see the woodland, the fields of wild flowers and the pond. Only part of the farm is free – the animals, bar a few chickens, are beyond the pay point – which, by the way, appeared on our day to be looked after by some people on work experience from school. Now, I don’t object to paying a fee to see the farm, but I would rather know up front that the working fields away from the restaurant and three or four shops had to be paid for. It’s pushing it to describe the farm animals as part of a nature walk. Semantics? Or a label that has not been quite thought through? Or – is it misleading marketing?

An attraction like Jimmy’s Farm has to get its visitor-perceptions spot on. A couple of days later I was talking to the caravan site owner. Her daughter had been to Jimmy’s Farm and called in to the shop. She didn’t buy anything because the prices were high. Now the shop manager would have pointed to the quality of the produce on sale as a reason for the higher prices. This potential customer didn’t see it that way. Her mum said her daughter thought Jimmy was cashing in on TV fame by opening his farm and shop and selling at exorbitant prices, so she would not go there again. The perception that Jimmy Doherty was a TV presenter first and a farm entrepreneur second is the wrong way round. TV helped him achieve his dream but his wider fame as a presenter came later, after the farm was established. Of course it helped him expand and upgrade but the whole point is that he is not pursuing a supermarket cost-cutting approach above all else and making the farming methods serve that aim. He wants quality rearing of animals and quality growing of crops and that comes at a price.

The very sensitive presentation of products to the customer has to be handled with huge care. Pat noticed ‘Suffolk Blue Cheese’ on sale in the farm shop at 22 per kilogram. The nearest blue cheese in Tesco when she checked later was about 10 a kilo. The potential Jimmy’s customer needs to have the reason for the contrast explained carefully or else they might, like the young lady mentioned, go away to spread a very negative message.

Incidentally, Pat was sat outside waiting for me to return from my walk around, and saw a shopper arrive with a coolbox, fill it in the shop, and leave. Apparently she was a very satisfied, regular customer.

Our disappointment was the almost complete lack of information about the farm and what it was doing: the lack of visitor interpretation to use professional tourist terms. There is no farm guide book or brochure. Some plants and animals are labelled but the information is sparse, haphazardly presented and very variable. The all-important pigs include Saddleback and Essex varieties. There are slightly better information panels about them at the fields where they are kept – but sadly it was difficult to be sure when looking at the animals which one was which. A label on the surrounding fence would have been a very good idea. The alpaca – lovely, gentle, friendly animals – were in a paddock with no information whatsoever.

Image: Jimmy's Farm interpretation

The Darwin Garden was delightful, inspired by Jimmy’s own university degree work (studying insects) and the TV show on Darwin that he presented and in which he came across some of the experiments carried by the great evolutionist. However, the significance of the Darwin’s Garden layout and its plants was not explained – so in what way was it inspired by Darwin? A few A4 sheets detailed some experiments that Charles Darwin had devised and they told interested visitors how to do them. Unfortunately the sheets were fixed low down against raised edgings where few people would read them. Unless copied out or photographed for reference as I did they could not be of practical use. There were no interpretive materials on sale in the shop about the contents of the farm – or the experiments. The only work was Jimmy Doherty’s book called ‘On the Farm’ which came out in 2004. Originally priced around 20 it was on sale at 10 but could be easily obtained from Amazon market-place dealers for literally a few pence plus postage.

Image: Jimmy's Farm interpretation

We did buy – from the internet – the first TV series DVDs “Jimmy’s Farm’ at 6.39. Having viewed the episodes in the series I have even greater respect and admiration for Jimmy and his wife and the farm project. The struggles of episode 1 knock on the head the perception that he has cashed in on TV fame by opening a commercial rip-off operation. Along with the other TV work he has done there is no doubt about his drive, enthusiasm and sheer good quality communication. The farm is good value. The produce is good value – if you want high quality and are happy to pay for it. But visitors need the values, aims and objectives of what is happening on the farm communicated to them. And it needs to be made an ace farm with a good restaurant attached rather than the other way round.


Image: Pensthorpe Nature Reserve

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