Saturday, 31 December 2011

Postcard from Suffolk

Very few pleasures in life beat pulling into the drive of your childhood home at 1.01am the day before Christmas Eve. The long drive south is mitigated by the quiet joy of familiarity—the clack of the front door as I pull it (quietly) behind me, the click of the light switches (unchanged since the house was built in 1950), the way the house stretches and creaks like an arthritic old lady.

And once dawn breaks, my first glimpse of Suffolk in daylight. Acres of green, the copse where deer live, the vaporous plume from the sugar beet factory.

All these ordinary details combine to make up the lining, the stitching, the flounces and frills of a magic cloak: slip it on as you arrive in your favourite and most familiar part of the world and you feel ten feet tall.

But it’s not just my personal relationship with Suffolk that makes it great. It’s a Land of Plenty—great sweeps of arable land, chocolate-box villages, grand old houses, an old-fashioned coast. And life here is good: unemployment is low and life expectancy high. Amazingly, the ONS published data this year claiming that a girl born in Moreton Hall in my home town of Bury St Edmunds could live to 128.

To my mind, nowhere epitomises the unique charm of Suffolk more than Lavenham. Built on the riches of the wool trade in the fifteenth century, you won’t find anywhere prettier with its half-timbered houses. In shades of pink and yellow and white, they could be gingerbread houses decorated with icing. Villages such as Kersey, Monks Eleigh and Long Melford are handmaids to the beauty queen. And if you’re down that way, the thatched thirteenth century St James’s Chapel at Lindsey, not far from Kersey, draws you in with its quietly dark atmosphere.
Grand homes are plenty: Ickworth House, in its Italianate splendour, Melford and Kentwell Halls, both in Long Melford. And the stunning Norman Tower and Abbey Gate of Bury St Edmunds, reminder of the now-ruined abbey’s mighty past.
The Abbey Gate, Bury St Edmunds

The coast delights and intrigues—the cheery beach huts of Southwold with its incongruous view of Sizewell B nuclear power station, Dunwich, the city lost to the sea, where on a quiet day you can hear the bells toll a watery lament…

But it’s not these great landmarks of Suffolk that I love best. I would instantly exchange the prettiness of Dedham Vale for the flat, infinite land north-east of Bury St Edmunds where I grew up. Why flatness is spurned I don’t know, for flatness means the freedom of an endless viewpoint, to walk unhindered for miles until you feel you might fall off the edge of the world, to devour the limitless sky. The freedom of this landscape confers on you a feeling of majesty.

One of my favourite walks is to follow the path from Great Livermere to Ampton, from one gatehouse to the next. To your right you’ll see the Church of St Peter, and in the distance, the ruined church at Little Livermere. Cross the mere and birds returning from their travels skid onto the surface of the water, sending out ripples as far as you can see. They may not be beautiful, but there is something about their grace that makes them enchanting. Once they have settled the only sound is the wind in the tall pine trees. Look down and you’ll see the remains of a bird—this is shooting country, don’t forget—and discarded cartridges. It’s as if it’s been vaporised—only a skeleton and a few grey feathers remain.
Great Livermere

So late in the year this landscape is bleak, but beguilingly so. Apart from the gatehouses and the churches, there seems no trace of human life, and the intense greens and blues on a bright winter’s day make the surroundings other-worldly. It’s not until you cross the long, wooden bridge over Ampton Water and Ampton Hall (built in 1892 in Jacobean style to replace the old hall destroyed by fire seven years previously) comes into view that you are reassured that there is civilisation out there.

Ampton Hall
We’ll return in the spring, when the mere will be bursting and noisy with life and when we’ll meet other walkers on the long, wild path. Until then, I’ll keep another precious Suffolk memory tucked away safely in my heart…
Tell me about the place you call home.


  1. A majestic and inspiring piece dear Emma. I have lived in many a place since my birth in the East End of London, gradually migrating northwards through the years. Family research has turned up the amazing fact that all the places I have lived in were once inhabited by my direct ancestors, even though I ended up in them by pure chance and in complete ignorance of the fact. Houses I have inhabited over the past 15 years were but residences, the last place I was able to truly call home was a little cottage on the edge of Epping Forest, the first house I owned as an adult, in the town I grew up in from the age of 8. From there houses held no connection for me, just an address, a place where I lived, until now. The day I stepped into the house where I now live I had the feeling of coming home, as did my husband. We both had an overwhelming feeling of it being the place we were meant to be, and events conspired to allow us to purchase the house, even though we thought it wouldn't be a possibility when we first fell in love with it. And yes, I can honestly say that after one blissful month of living here, I am most certainly, finally HOME! Home is where the heart is they say, and your heart is always aglow when you are home.

  2. Thank you, Janis, for your lovely comments. I love the fact that you have unwittingly followed in the footsteps of your ancestors over the years. And how wonderful that you have finally 'come home'. It seems I am destined to be a nomad for a while, so I must admit I do envy you, - but you're right, home is where the heart is!

  3. I loved this!
    Bristol is my home city, and someone has thoughtfully given me 'A People's History...' for Christmas which has provided some interesting reading.
    We've once visited Suffolk, and were enchanted. There's clearly a lot more to see. The only oddity for anyone brought up in the West Country is that there, the sun appears to sink on the wrong horizon - the land, not the sea :-)

  4. Thank you, Penny. Bristol's a vibrant city, there must be so much more for you to discover! Do visit Suffolk again if you get the chance - it's magical!