The Power and the Story

A chance meeting with neighbours on our site at Felixstowe, who’d recommended a site to us, had sent us scuttling back to the coast at Sizewell. Sizewell was an old fishing village once. Now it is better known for accommodating a notorious nuclear power station, Sizewell ‘A’, now decommissioned and encased in 3 metres of concrete. Sizewell ‘B’ sits next door to this huge, grey, man-made monolith and is sky-blue with a white dome, like a space-age cathedral. On arrival to Sizewell I experienced an irrational frisson of trepidation, perhaps brought on by a recent viewing of the hit series, ‘Chernobyl’.

Sizewell ‘C’ is now on the agenda, unpopular with many, judging by the signs dotted around the surrounding villages.

An extensive wind farm, Greater Gabbard was just about visible on the horizon out to sea. Once we were installed at our site and settled outside the bar, [which overlooks the wild beach], I eavesdropped on a neighbouring conversation in which a woman expressed vitriolic hatred for the wind farm, barely visible even on this clear, sunny evening. To her near left the twin power stations rose up menacingly, compounding the irony of her invective.

But despite the power monsters in their varied forms, this is a wonderfully wild and unspoilt piece of coastline, rich in wildlife. There are extensive marshes, forests and beach habitats. At the entrance to the beach car park a jaunty cafe, ‘Sizewell ‘T”, was doing a roaring trade in chips and ice creams.

It is a popular spot for locals and the touring section of our site was busy with a steady stream of visitors, although the shower blocks are closed.

We strode out along the beach, the weather clear and balmy and then down into Thorpeness, a cute, coastal village, thronged with visitors on this sunny afternoon. The village boasts a ‘mere’. Here was the original ‘Wendy’s House’ of J M Barry fame, also an immaculate windmill and the famous ‘house in the clouds’, which can be rented for holiday stays.

Aldeburgh is supposedly a simple cycle away from our site, though the path morphed from flat tarmac to rutted, sandy track in no time. Again, the town was busy with tourists, too many for the High Street pavements to cope with. It’s a pleasant seafront with fish smokeries and a broad, green swathe on which stands the ‘Moot House’, a half-timbered building housing what must be a tiny museum.

It took longer to queue for the checkouts at Aldeburgh’s High Street co-op than to explore its two or three streets. Provisions were running low and Sizewell is short on grocery stores [there are none].

Next day, with the promise of rain on our last day we cycled again, this time to Dunwich. The route was hilly, a surprise for the knees. Dunwich is a minute village, one street of cottages dominated by a pub/hotel, but with a cafe and kiosk near the beach. There is also a ruined abbey and a museum of sorts. Taking what Husband termed a ‘short cut’ back to our site at Beach view, we found ourselves in the National Trust reserve. ‘Strictly no Admittance without Tickets’ stated the sign as Husband rode through, oblivious. A second turning before the entrance booth took us along a heather lined track. ‘No Horses, no Bikes!!’ proclaimed the sign, which Husband peddled past, heedless. After several wrong turnings we arrived at a ‘kissing gate’ and were obliged to manhandle the bikes through it by up-ending them.

Our last day at Sizewell dawned humid and drizzly. After lunch we walked, taking in the beach and a dripping forest, sweltering in rainwear; and returning to our site for tea and cake.

The Back and Front of Beyond

Kessingland may sound like it’s a theme park, but it’s a sprawling village on the Suffolk coast between Lowestoft and Southwold.

We arrived to our first site, located at the ‘top’ end of the village next to a zoo. i’ve no complaints, but to access the very best part of Kessingland, the bit at the ‘bottom’, by the sea entailed a long, boring walk down a street in which the immaculate allotments provided the only interest. During a wild, windy walk along Kessingland’s unspoilt, shingle beach we discovered another, beachfront site and, feeling a little treacherous for having booked 4 nights at the top end site, we moved.

On the new pitch we faced the iron grey North Sea and a wide shingle beach dotted only with clumps of hardy vegetation and a few dog walkers, miniature tankers and container ships making stately progress towards Harwich broke the horizon, lit up like decorations at night.

Kessingland is devoid of massed terraces of gift shops or coffee shops, boasting only 2 pubs and a tiny Tardis of a shop, ‘The Beach Hut’, in which a customer must vacate before another can enter [and this, even before the advent of the dastardly virus!].

Too windy for cycling, we opted for a long walk along the broad beach and dunes, almost to Lowestoft, meeting few others. Back at Kessingland we ‘helped out’ by eating at the pub, ‘The Sailors’ Home’, where the meals are a triumph of economy over gourmet dining.

Next day we took a bus into Southwold, Kessingland’s opposite; tourist Mecca, with gifts, galleries, bakeries, coffee shops, a pier, a market, rows of colourful beach huts, amusements and thousands of visitors, few of whom seem able to observe the pedestrian one-way system. There are some tenuous links to George Orwell, a dedication to whom is splattered over a large wall on the pier.

Following our 4 nights in Kessingland, we headed inland, first to Oulton Broad, a large lake and a marginal draw for visitors, although the neglected pleasure boats languishing at their moorings tell a Covid story of their own. Some access to the lake is restricted due to private homes but we could see the old ‘wherries’, flat, barge-like vessels that were once used for freight. In the afternoon we struck off into the marsh, following paths through the reed beds.

Then it was off to our next destination, a pub site in an inland village near Diss, Norfolk. The weather was turning gloomy and rain threatened as we turned into the entrance. Here a few pitches had been carved out of the land behind the pub and a shower shed constructed for the half dozen units. We adopted a ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ mentality as the rain closed in. The pub is clearly in difficulties, offering some meals and entertainment but attracting few revellers.

Next day rain was firmly established and we set off to Norwich, using the ‘park and ride’ system and well prepared with raincoats and umbrellas. Norwich is a beautiful and historic city, which compensates, perhaps for some of Norfolk’s less gorgeous attributes. There is a magnificent cathedral, a renowned market, numerous museums [closed], a castle [closed] and ‘the lanes’, a series of narrow, cobbled streets flanked by old buildings. Having met friends for lunch we wandered for as long as we could manage in the rain.

Though dry, the next day was cold and having cast around for a nearby sightseeing tour we decided on Diss and Bury St Edmunds, Diss being a smallish but not unattractive place with a ‘mere’ and Bury St Edmunds a well-to-do town with an abbey and immaculate gardens.

I was not sorry to leave the pub site. We were to head back out to the coast and the sun was shining…

An English Forest Weekend

The New Forest, in Hampshire, southern England featured in a lot of my childhood. We were all three born in a village on the edge of it. My father travelled across it every day for work in Southampton and we went often for picnics and recreational activities like those family cricket games of the fifties or accompanying scout camping trips.

Of course as children we were accustomed to seeing the animals of the Forest roaming free and were used to marauding bands of ponies invading our garden and enraging my father, who would storm outside in the middle of the night with objects like biscuit tins to bash and banish them from his precious vegetable beds. They always returned-until cattle grids were installed across all the entrances to the village, when to my immense disappointment the night visits ceased.

What a contrast East Anglia seemed when we re-located there! Even as a young child I was shocked at the impoverished fenland landscape, my mother compounding the sensation by telling me I’d have had my own pony ‘if we’d stayed in The New Forest’.

I was not to return to live next to The New Forest for another nineteen years, during which time it had altered considerably and had begun to assume its reputation as a tourist magnet.

Nowadays the Forest has National Park status and is thronged with visitors of all nationalities. Cheffy restaurants, trendy hotels, gastro-pubs, tea shops and costly gift emporia have proliferated in the towns and villages but it remains, to us a precious resource that we still love to walk, cycle and camp in.

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What better location to spend a weekend celebrating an anniversary and birthday? We park up, go for a hot, dusty cycle, return, shower and make for the convenient station where we take a tiny train to yachty Lymington. Here there are ferries to the Isle of Wight but we are interested only in the Lobster and Burger Bar where we feast-but not on burgers.

Next morning we have guests expecting breakfast:

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And we retreat inside the van until they give up. The ponies, cows, donkeys, deer and pigs of the Forest are a delight but need to be treated with caution. The Forest roads, terrain and flora are all theirs and humans must bow to their superiority, whether it means waiting in a traffic queue for them to shift from the centre of the road or going the long way around to the shower block on the campsite.

After another sweaty bike ride we get ready and set off to The Pig, favourite for Sunday supplement features and writers of restaurant columns.

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I’d say we aren’t The Pig’s average customers as a quick glance reveals that few would have travelled here from the camp site-many will be staying in one of the artfully ‘shabby chic’ rooms or have arrived in convertible sports cars, their pastel sweaters slung casually around their shoulders, their stilettos tap-tapping on the wood floors.

It’s nice, although the food is not quite as stunning as I’d been led to believe. But outside the gardens alone are worth the visit, immaculate, symmetrical veg beds and a path leading to a voluptuous pond area.

Next day we BBQ with old friends and enjoy a good gossip under the shade of the pull-out. All good!

School Days-not Always the Best Days

For four years, from the age of seven until eleven I lived with my family in a village in a remote part of north Norfolk-the part which is generally known as ‘The Fens’. Here the landscape is, at best minimalist-bearing no hills or trees as far as the horizon-only flat cultivated fields bordered by drainage ditches or ‘dykes’. At that time, the early 1960s, transport links were sketchy. Many village inhabitants had travelled no further than the village boundary and never to the nearest metropolis of Wisbech, six miles away, which was accessible by private car or by the school bus-leaving in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon. I attended the small village school until the ’11 plus’ examination decreed that I should make the daily journey to Wisbech High School, a grammar school for girls housed in an old building along the side of the River Nene. It was a culture shock. My primary school in the remote village had been tiny-only two classes-and now I entered an institution as disturbing as a mausoleum, with winding staircases, austere classrooms and landscaped grounds. We wore scarlet berets as part of our ‘outer wear’ and many of these could be spotted floating along the river each morning as we crossed the bridge from the bus stop, so that we soon learned to clutch our hands to our heads on the way over. I was relieved that my best friend, Gillian Farley had also ‘passed’ the exam and could share an experience which could only be described as a kind of endurance test for small girls. Our form mistress, Miss MacFarlane presided over us in a ferocious manner and with a draconian set of rules and regulations. She was also our mathematics teacher, an unhappy situation for those of us for whom maths was a constant mystery. Gillian was even worse off than I and was sent home one weekend with 2,000 [yes-2,000] lines to write on the subject of x times x = x squared. She’d committed the unforgivable sin of writing x times x = 2x. What a shocking crime! My red shoe-bag, proudly constructed by my mother as a money-saving ploy, was not quite the same ‘red’ as everyone else’s. My gymslip, again a proud home-make, did not appear to be shop bought. These differences led to daily mortification. Small errors, omissions or mishaps were punished by shaming order marks, a collection of three leading to detention. This would mean staying behind after school in the library and copying from books, a huge deterrent to those of us who would then miss the only bus home at the end of the day. When I collected an order mark for forgetting to bring a text book to a class and having to share with someone I spent weeks worrying about getting two more. After we sat end of term exams our desks in the form room were positioned in ‘exam order’ beginning at the back of class, to affirm the superior status of those whose average was top as opposed to those at the front-near Miss MacFarlane’s elevated platform-who had struggled. Poor Gillian was one of these, doomed to spend form time under Miss MacFarlane’s disapproving nose. I had somehow managed to get myself into the anonymous ranks of the middle. Do schools like this still exist? I hope not! I could never reflect that days at Wisbech High School were the happiest of my life. No child should ever be terrified of school!

TMTE than TOWIE…

               Here in the UK where get our share of reality TV the creative whizzes behind the shows display no signs at all that they are running out of ideas. One such programme is a day-to-day look at life in the county of Essex, a county that has gained itself quite a reputation during the last fifteen years or so, for its characterful populace and their antics.

                I must confess I am not a follower of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and that all of my knowledge of said show has been gleaned from reading reviews or catching glimpses of the ‘slebs’ in glossy magazines whilst waiting for appointments [as explained in previous posts], but I’m guessing that fans of the programme could be forgiven for thinking that all there is to Essex is London overspill towns, spray tans, vajazzles and estuary vowels [for the uninitiated-Essex edges itself around the mouth of the Thames as it joins the North Sea and the inhabitants speak in a distinctive, unmistakeable accent]. It is easy to gain a preconceived idea of a place.

                I consider myself, as far as the UK is concerned, to be a South Wester-that is to say I was born in the South West I’ve spent most of my life living there, however I did spend some significant periods of my childhood living in both East Anglia [North Norfolk] and Kent, and although I know and recall both of these areas well I knew nothing of Essex until this week, when we journeyed Eastwards to rectify this gaping void of ignorance.

                Of course I was well aware that besides the sprawling conurbations of Basildon and Romford there were whole tracts of beautiful countryside, swathes of marshes teeming with wildlife, charming coastal towns and quaint villages and I have not been disappointed. We made first for Mersea Island in the south-an island only in that a wide, muddy causeway separates it from the ‘mainland’, given over largely to holiday parks, but also home to manicured villages with black, clapperboard houses with voluptuous gardens, village duck-ponds and wonderful pubs. We visited the Oyster Bar, indulging in an enormous sharing platter of crab, prawns, mussels, cockles, smoked salmon, smoked haddock and of course, oysters-accompanied by a Guiness [Husband] and a chilled white wine [me].

                Colchester, towards the East boasts the reputation of being the earliest recorded town in the country, although here my expectations were a little dashed. It is a handsome town, with some fine buildings but not spectacular. It has a modest, well-tended castle but I suspect all vestiges of antiquity were thrashed out of it long ago to make way for the ubiquitous likes of H&M, Marks and Spencer, Greggs and Tesco Express.             

                On again then to the East coast beyond Colchester, where were truly in the depths of the countryside, but near to the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe [across the water to the North in Suffolk]. It is an exemplary scene of rural England. So much for preconceptions-and all about three hours away!