“Don’t worry, I’m not a ghost!” – myself, speaking to a group of scared teenagers in a park near Norwich in the middle of the night.
Today is a marvellous day, covering some extraordinary sites across Suffolk and into Norfolk. It’s the first day where little goes wrong either, apart from my jumper getting eaten by my bike chain. The stories and scenes I came across are striking.
So far in Suffolk the country roads have been mainly flat, surrounded by serene forest and seemingly gentle coastline. It’s curious then that the area is so enshrouded with its own ghostly folklore, most recently by M.R. James, of strange hauntings of malevolent supernatural creatures. James attempts to unlock the hidden and dark histories and myths that must lurk beneath such seemingly tranquil and ancient landscapes. Among the ruins I come across today, intimations of a lost world of the dead and disappeared recur. ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ was the feeling James sought to produce in each story. Let’s see what happens then today.
I wake up at Blaxhall youth hostel with a sore head, the effect of drinking too much whisky the previous night. My sleep is restless and full of broken up phrases, and missing my partner and my home, my spirits are a little low. But the weather is good, and after half a bag of currants I head out, past beautiful Snape and its Maltings, through the village of Leighton, with less character than its neighbours but featuring a ruined abbey outside that British 18th century roamer William Gilpin would find picturesque. I pass narrow lanes filled with poppies and sleepy cattle, interrupted with village pubs. I get lost, then find myself passing through the lush Minismere forest, passing rural scenes straight out of a 19th century rural painting, before winding up through Dunwich forest, falling off my bike in the mud, but passing trees and scenery that seems unchanged for millennia. The magic of the moment is only slightly disrupted by a trail of seven American military jeeps roaring down the muddy path, full of laughing people.
Eventually I make it to Dunwich, a place with no real direction signs, making it even more remote and mythic. I arrive and pass the ruins of a medieval Greyfriars (or Franciscan) friory, now little more than the remainders of a few walls. I touch the stones, the only real remains of Dunwich, a town that was once capital of East Anglia, and a busy harbour until successive storms eroded it away over the 12th and 13th centuries. A local myth round here is that on a dark and stormy night, the church bells can still be heard beneath the sea.
As I wander down to the beach, full of tourist visitors clustering in groups among the pebbles, I listen to Brian Eno’s spectral ‘Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960’, from Ambient 4: On Land. The music ebbs and flows like the tides and gulls, yet containing a brooding menace and sense of loss that fits the landscape. Even the graves have been washed away.
Perhaps any rural area demanded it. What seem like peaceful villages to my eye would’ve been more sprawling and more impoverished farmers’ communities up until the land enclosures of the 18th century, and the mass migration of farm labourers into urban industries across England. These places would have been full of people, many poor and suffering from sicknesses easily treated today. We confuse the countryside with an idyll, when like all nature, it is more cruel and more powerful than any vain human attempt at mastery.
I take an accidental detour by pretty Westleton, then take a long road round to Southwold. I am sorry to skip the passenger ferry from Walberswick, but it’s a Sunday, families are out in force, and my luck with ferries isn’t great. Passing Blythenburgh, I reach Southwold, and am struck by the place. It’s a distinctly middle-class seaside resort. No pub offers football. The town is heaving but, compared to say Southend, there isn’t much to do. Perhaps it appeals to a more sober, self restrained and aesthetically appreciative visitor? Class differences are visible here. Indeed this part of Suffolk has, like Orford, Aldeburgh and Woodbridge, been transformed by wealthy Londoners buying nearby second homes here. There isn’t much that ‘local’, aside from the local Adnams brewery.
That said, it’s a sunny day at the seaside and I’m happy. Paul Theroux and others make a big thing of the seaside in British culture, but I’m not quite persuaded. Any land with good weather will have heaving beach towns on sunny days. But British seaside resorts do stand out in the way much else of our customs and built environment do, in that they were built by the Victorians and haven’t really been updated since. Old piers, deckchairs, donkey rides, beach-huts with personalised names like sticks or old Rosie, fish and chips and lettered rock. There’s an unlikely town in the north of England where much of this originates, but I’ll tell you more of that when we get there. Beaches here are also largely underwhelming, small and usually full of pebbles. Yet they offer places where we can idly consider the eternal majesty of the sea, the oceanic feeling, before returning to our transient preoccupations and habits. As well as take the kids somewhere entertaining, which seems to be the motivation for most.
A visitor passed here about 40 years ago, a German lecturer named WG Sebald. As he arrives at Southwold, he is unsure whether he sees a sea monster in the distance. As he sits atop the Gunhill, he envisions the battle of Sole Bay in 1672 where English ships fought inconsequentially against the Dutch, and visits the curious Sailors’ Reading Room, ‘by far my favourite haunt’, a place I am sorry to miss. There’s little trace of him now among the bank holiday weekend families and hubbub of the place.
The ride through the country is pleasant. I follow the A12 for a bit then pass through Kessingland and Pakefield, past a Pontins holiday camp and into cheery Lowestoft. I wander about and get as close as I can to the most easterly point in Britain, the first of four milestones. I really like the town, more Southend than Southwold, with a good beach, funfair, marina and full of people largely having a great time, the odd couple arguing notwithstanding.
Benjamin Britten was born here, and much if his music responds to the tempestuous Suffolk coast. Peter Grimes is one wonderful instance, based in a quiet fishing village which could easily be Aldeburgh, and the frequency of MOD sites and relics of war comes to life in War Requiem. He is an intriguing figure, dedicating his life to music, a conscious objector, collaborator with Auden and fundraiser and champion of regional arts, like the Aldeburgh festival, which took place at Snape Maltings, where I passed earlier.
It’s also an idiosyncratic place, and one if the oldest known human habitations. Though it’s worth noting that we only have evidence of Lowestoft’s history, or the ancient human findings at Sutton Hoo just to the south, because during the Ice Age everywhere except bits of east Anglia were totally covered in ice. Imagine that now? Environmental change wiped out the earlier humans who once hunted here.
Bizarrely, yet in a way any kind of proximity plays out, Lowestoft has often had a running war with Yarmouth. Fishing boats once attacked each other, and Lowestoft’s river Waveney was deliberately silted up by Yarmouth vessels, ruining Lowestoft’s trade. During the English Civil War, both enemy towns fought each other, Lowestoft taking the royalist side against Roundhead Yarmouth. It later had a huge herring industry, where for three months a year Scots Gaelic speaking fisher-girls would migrate down for work, and be paid very little to gut and pack the fish as it came off the boat. It was a dirty and rough job. Britten’s mother would take her young family down to the rough fisheries to give out free soup. Its these stories that challenge the nobility of our imperial Lady, of being the workshop of the world, when the vast majority could not read, worked nearly twice as long hours as we do today, and lived in appallingly cramped, damp and squalid conditions. When Give or Niall Ferguson tell us to celebrate our empire, let’s ask them whose empire they mean.
As I leave Lowestoft, I buy a rainproof poncho from Argos in case any evil cloud follows me again. The accent of the shop assistant and her pleasant conversation are the first local accent I’ve heard.
The journey to Yarmouth is pretty nice, with clear cycle paths weaving through the country. There is no sign to announce it, but I have now left Suffolk and entered Norfolk. I arrive into Gorleston, a slightly dull looking town with the odd curious feature, like an old fishermen’s institute that looks like a lighthouse.
Reaching Yarmouth, I pass active docks and quays, a place that still has its fishing industry on display unlike Lowestoft. Crossing the bridge into the separate island of Yarmouth, the town quickly seems scruffy and mixed up, bad signage and a confusingly large shopping area obscuring access to the sea. I’m a little put off staying at first. But as I wander round, I discover that it’s a lively and diverse place, and for all its Blackpool style amusements and chintzy hotels, a fun place too. I cheer up as I walk down the promenade and talk to people on the beach. One group of lads, quite sunburnt, are digging a huge hole. I ask why. “We’re building the Alan Partridge hotel”, one laughs, fine homage to Norfolk’s best buffoonish anti-hero. I hope that my brother will read this and comment with one of Partridge’s best one-liners.
I eat a jacket spud which acts like a potent organic battery as I pedal along the A47 to Norwich in the afternoon heat. It’s very hot but the ground is flat. The road is a little too dangerous to take photos on, but it’s my chance to look out on the Norfolk broads. I see windmill and cattles, and flat fields threaded with little streams that seems unchanged for centuries. It is beautiful, but so hot. An hour later, I am quite done, quite possibly sunburnt, and am relieved to find a McDonalds drive-through, where I stop to charge up my phone, devour an ice cream and cold drink, update the blog, and eat my dinner.
There has been one consistent sight on my voyage: McDonalds, appearing everywhere, from unlikely rural spots by a motorway to every kind of town centre. They seemed to be staffed with local people and often popular. I should be sincere with what I see. In its way, McDonalds is perhaps one of the best sites to study contemporary England today, our love of cheap and filling American food, our desire for refuge in deeply anonymous places.
Consider the last time you were in a unique-looking pub, or shopping centre? It’s expressed in the similar clothes people wear and the foods they eat. There isn’t much complaining about this constructed reality, because it appeals to a distinctive modesty in our culture, a reluctance to indulge in self-expression, and it reflects a desire for a simple, convenient way of life. Despite involving the latest forms of food technology and production, it gives a semblance of tradition and normality which seems homely and relaxing to many people today. Why should one object to common comforts? At the same time, it’s another reminder that our reality is a construct, and the way we live is so different to those of the past. I find optimism in this. If, for all the goods and ills of the common era, we can adapt to bad housing, poor diets, shoddy transport and all else, then could we not, through the right social and political transformation, create a better society where people can carry on getting on with it? Citizens are made, not born.
As I leave the McDonalds near Blofield its getting dark, so I decide to skip Norwich for tomorrow as I’ll have to pass through it anyway and head to Wymondham. Google maps has now proven countless times on the trip that it is an unreliable guide for calculating times between places. Nervously, I follow its suggestion, heaving up the A47 in the dark. Its a terrifying experience. All my bike lights mean little in the dark and busy dual carriageway, cars speeding and beeping me from behind. My nerves are pretty shot, but I survive for half an hour then detour at Swardeston.
Here the journey gets weird.
I follow a tiny country byway, dusk increasingly settling in. There are no houses, no people, just increasingly black and haunted-looking forests. A black cat – or is it a dog – appears in front of me. If it’s a dog, then by local legend it is the devil himself. I pedal on. I’m feeling increasingly spooked out, in a way I haven’t felt since I was a child. One dark narrow road follows another, walled with high hedgerows that obscure the light, and full of dark old cottages and condemned barns. Tiny bugs and little birds flit across my flashing bike light in an alarming fashion. Mice run under my bike. As I continue through one long black forest, no linger able to see the path, the wind picks up and for a time I think I hear a women’s voice talking to me. I dismiss it as a figment of my imagination and pedal harder. Soon I cannot tell road from sky. I could collide into anything were it left on the path. It is s terrifying and thrilling ride through deeply haunted countryside, now as malevolent seeming as any MR James ghost story.
I find my sleeping place, Kett’s community park. I chose here as part of my tribute, but the park is hugely exposed and is more a playing field. As I nervously set up my tent next to a kids centre, I hear a group of teens wandering my way. I’m bricking it, but rather than hide, I explain my intentions. I think it’s when I tell them that I’m not a ghost, in such deeply haunted countryside, that I scare them away. After that I’m able to get a reasonable night’s sleep, and wake early, packing up just before a cohort of dog owners arrives.