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April 25, 2008

Suffolk: a Review - Lincoln Allison visits Suffolk and discovers that flat land does not have to be boring

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison visits Suffolk - and finds a place that excels at the English art of re-inventing itself.

I am very well travelled within England. I am from the North, live in the Midlands, frequently visit the South East and I've taken many a holiday in the South West. I have played cricket, watched football and given lectures and papers all over the place and, as if that wasn't enough, for fifteen years I wrote "travel" articles about places, mainly in England. I know all the counties well except one: Suffolk. So last week I set out for Aldeburgh to remedy the exception, not so much because it was the home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears as because it is as far from anywhere not in Suffolk as it is possible to be.

Suffolk is a flat county, the eighth largest in England with around 1,500 square miles and something under three quarters of a million people. It has no motorways, no "first class" cricket and one professional football club, Ipswich Town, which I have always considered too far to go for an away game. It probably has a university these days, but not one I've ever heard of nor been invited to. In short, it is "periphery" rather than "core" even though much of it is within a hundred miles of London.

It is not part of what geographers call the "coffin", the rectangle of land from Southampton to London to Leeds to Liverpool (very roughly) which had most of the demographic and economic growth of the twentieth century. However, in the last twenty years of the last century Suffolk did some catching up as the population went up by 13%.

It stills feels like a backwater, though, and in a good way. The woman who sells you your granary loaf (88p) in Lavenham has plenty of time to tell you about her 48-year-old son who still lives at home and it becomes clear in conversation that she has hardly ever left Suffolk. As you drive around the county you are often zig-zagging at right angles across an empty flat landscape. These are not the straight roads of a Roman or Napoleonic planner, but former tracks joining up the dots of settlement. I even had a hint of local politics, drinking a pint of Adnams with most of Aldeburgh council as they cursed the County Council before crossing the road to their ancient town hall, formerly a moot hall, where they have to duck under the five foot high doorway.

If I can invoke the complex, contested concept which seems to worry the hell out of people these days, Suffolk is the most "English" of places. This is partly because the claim of Victorian historians like J. R. Green that the English are essentially (rather than partially) "Anglo-Saxon", which we have absorbed to some degree and foreigners have absorbed even more, seems to be really true here. Romans and Normans penetrated these wet flatlands less than they did other places and names, patterns of settlement, perhaps even DNA, is more distinctively Saxon (or Anglo-Saxon) here than elsewhere.

Indeed the county's greatest pilgrimage these days is to Sutton Hoo, the boat-burial place of Saxon kings on a ridge above the River Deben where the greatest hoard of Saxon treasure was discovered in 1939. We owe this discovery to a medieval farmer whose ploughing lopped off one end of a barrow and thus inadvertently fooled later (mainly Tudor) looters as to where any treasure might be located, but it changed our view of history and the "Dark Ages" because of the high quality of workmanship and the items with origins in Byzantium and India.

You could argue that there isn't much to Sutton Hoo as it stands because most of the artefacts are in the British Museum, leaving a field full of bumps and a shed with a pedagogic display on the Anglo-Saxons. But our guide, a lady whose age I found difficult to estimate, made it all a five star experience, bringing life and atmosphere to her tale of ghostly visions and the dogged determination of the local, thirty-bob-a-week, archaeologist, Basil Brown.

If another feature of Englishness is the dissolute, devil-may-care, heroically eccentric aristocracy, then the greatest of all may be found in Suffolk: the Herveys of Ickworth with their rotunda of a house which they furnished on a four year trip to the Mediterranean. Their sexual history is jaw dropping and it may be that the tradition is not dead: Lady Isabella Hervey (born 1982) has been voted (among other things) "World's Sexiest Aristocrat".

But Suffolk excels generally at the English art of re-inventing itself to fit what we think it should have been. If I had a pound for everything I saw or consumed which was "traditional" or "Suffolk" (or even both) I would have left the county with a large profit. It's strong on real ale, of course, with Adnam's of Southwold and Greene King of Bury St. Edmunds. And real food: dressed crab from a fisherman's hut on Aldeburgh's shingle beach, excellent kippers for breakfast, splendid platters of traditional Suffolk cheeses (none of which existed thirty years ago), local bacon, sausages and so on. Anyone who thinks that the campaigns for English food and "local sourcing" led by Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein et al. have not had effect should visit Suffolk.

Most impressive of all is the traditional Suffolk wildlife engineered by the combined efforts of the National Trust, Nature Conservancy, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and local authorities. As we entered Southwold a marsh harrier reared up over the car: there was once thought to be only a single breeding pair left in the country. Bitterns boomed over Minsmere; they were once thought to be completely gone from the British mainland. We sat for some time watching two avocets, each standing on one leg with its heads tucked underneath its wing as if trying to ignore the vulgarities of the ducks and terns squawking around them.

And architecturally, Lavenham is the most perfect medieval town. That is to say, it is actually early Tudor, but Suffolk was, as ever, behind the times and its eccentrically shaped and leaning timber-frame buildings completely fulfil our image of the medieval.

As a man of the hills I have to concede that flat land is a great deal more varied and interesting than I tend to assume. The Sussex Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty contains reed beds, mudflats, woodlands, coastal heaths, inland heaths and shingle as well as farmland and every kind of river, mere, broad, dyke and pond. From most of them you can see the largest building in the region, which is the nuclear power station at Sizewell. It looks like a cross between a very large warehouse and a mosque. For some people this might be thought to "ruin" the place. But you could take the more inclusive view of my eldest son towards the concept of the seaside. Sniffing disdainfully at Cape Cod he remarked that,

This is not real seaside. Real seaside smells of chips and you can always see a nuclear power station.
Any truly successful visit should involve the discovery of a place which you had previously never heard of. I knew about the cutely restored Theatre Royal in Bury St. Edmunds, even though it has only been open again for six months. But I did not know about Thorpeness.

You get to Thorpeness by walking north from Aldeburgh, either up the beach or on the path through the nature reserve inland. As you approach the skyline is dominated by two buildings which appear to be a normal East Anglian clapboard house suspended over a forest and a Norman castle. They are in fact "the house in the clouds" (you can google it and rent it for up to 3000 a week) and a block of flats in the shape of a Norman castle. In the nineteenth century Thorpeness was a small fishing village rumoured to be involved with smuggling.

But in the first third of the twentieth century G. Stuart Ogilvie (1858-1932) turned it into a holiday village where people could live as if "in Merrie England". Ogilvie was a Scot, a lawyer, a would-be playwright and a friend of J. M. Barrie. He made his big money investing in Russian railways. His village is not quite like anything else: a place of timber-framed houses and 1928 almshouses, of duck ponds and boating lakes, but also of tennis courts and golf courses. William Morris and Robert Blatchford meet Betjemanesque sporty suburbia - an alternative place to set The Prisoner or Hot Fuzz or an episode of Midsomer Murders. There is some evidence that people are slightly ashamed of Thorpeness: it doesn't feature at all on the County Council's website map of the county and it has been voted "weirdest place in England". But I think it is a fine, if extreme, example of the English ability to let fantasy mould reality.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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