Derbyshire – old mills, New Mills

I’d been to Derby once or twice before and found it rather dull – I was visiting universities and it didn’t have one of those back then, I was also visiting cathedrals on the side and it had one of those but really it’s just an overgrown parish church. Beyond that there didn’t seem to be much to it, but I was recently drawn back by the opening of the Museum of Making. This is in the Derby Silk Mill, which is claimed to be the world’s first fully mechanised factory, and it led me to realise that the way to appreciate Derby’s place in the world is to visit the whole Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. This was certainly the birthplace of modern manufacturing, with factories driven by water power from the early eighteenth century, but it’s hard to pin down the actual starting point – for years we were taught that Richard Arkwright opened the first factory at Cromford in 1771, and that the Arkwright System was the basis for efficient manufacture until the time of Henry Ford. But now it seems that the Derby Silk Mill got there first, in 1721 – what’s more, it was built next to another mill founded in 1704 which did the same thing, using water power to twist silk thread, but this one went bust. I never found an explanation of just what the key innovation was which means that the Derby Silk Mill is now seen as the first factory. Its founder, John Lombe, went to Piedmont in 1717 to undertake some industrial espionage and returned with the details of their silk-throwing machines (used since the fifteenth century, it seems) and with Italian craftsmen to make and install them.

 Regardless of this, the Museum of Making is well put together and well worth visiting (and it’s free). There’s a good café in the foyer, along with an ‘exploded’ Toyota car and a Rolls-Royce aero engine (both produced locally, of course), and the main exhibition on the manufacturing history of Derby and the Derwent Valley is up on the first floor. The second floor is a novel collection of manufactured items organised thematically by their principal constituent material (needless to say there’s a lot of metal – the whole building is lined with cast-iron signs warning and prohibiting, which seems to have been a dominant theme of Victorian life). There’s a small shop up on the third floor, and also studios, the Midland Railway archive, and a superb model railway which claims to be Kirtley Junction, a station on the MR between Derby and Chesterfield.

 I also visited the Derby Museum and Art Gallery (also free, of course), although I knew that the paintings of Joseph Wright (1734-97, Derby’s most famous artist) had been removed for a few weeks due to roof repairs – instead that gallery was occupied by some posters for 1970s gigs in Derby, including the Sex Pistols (although that one was cancelled due to national outrage after their TV performance), Sham 69 and Amazing Blondel. There’s plenty of archeology, the military history gallery is very detailed, and there’s a recreation (with the original panelling) of the room in which Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Council decided to turn back towards Scotland, much to his disgust. The other Derby City museum is the Pickford House, a fully intact house from the city’s Georgian peak.

 One modern oddity in Derby is the Assembly Rooms, on the Market Place, a key piece of brutalism by Casson and Conder (1977) – it’s regarded as ‘the most important postwar building in the country’, but has been shut up since a fire in 2014, after which asbestos was found, so its future is very much up in the air. My take on it is that it may be important, but it’s not particularly attractive, so why not do something really good with this site?

 I also noted that Derby City Council is really quite serious about rewilding, with sites ranging from Allestree Park, on the city’s northern edge, where 130 ha (including parts of a former golf course) will become a mosaic of woodland, scrub and meadows, with red kites, dormice and Highland cattle, to the Derwent Meadows and Alvaston, southeast of the centre. This latter is the area I saw most of, notable the riverside route of National Cycle Network route 6 passing Pride Park and Arenaland, with high-tech venues but not much sign of nature away from the riverside strip.

Northwards along the Derwent

The UNESCO World Heritage Site connects Derby with various other mills to the north in the Derwent Valley, notably Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford. There’s a good visitor centre there, and various shops and a café, but really you’re here for the buildings and location – and there’s plenty more industrial heritage around. Opposite the mills is Cromford Wharf, the end of a canal (opened in 1794) that can be followed (on foot or bike) south to Ambergate, which is coincidentally the first railway station on the Matlock branch. Just a mile or so to the south of Cromford is High Peak Junction, where it met the Cromford and High Peak Railway, opened in 1831 to serve mines and quarries to the west – this climbed over 300 metres in its first five miles, only possible by means of rope-hauled inclines. This daunting slope is now the High Peak Trail (National Cycle Network route 54), which links with the Tissington Trail, also a disused railway, to provide a brilliant day out on the White Peak. At High Peak Junction you can also step into what claims to be the world’s oldest surviving railway workshop. I cycled as far south as Belper, which also has some impressive mills, built rather later – unfortunately the museum and visitor centre is currently closed.

 Heading north from Cromford Mills, you first have lovely Cromford Village, with the excellent Scarthin Books and the Greyhound Inn, a fine hotel built by Arkwright to accommodate business associates and potential investors. Just north is Masson Mill (opened in 1783), known for the epic poem by Erasmus Darwin describing the manufacturing processes there – it’s now mainly a retail outlet, but there is a small museum. Then you come to Matlock Bath (which has its own station), once a hydropathic spa but now a sort of inland Blackpool that’s popular with motorbikers. Matlock itself, now the terminus of the rail branch, was a slightly classier resort which still looks good but doesn’t offer many real sights of interest. It’s the southern end of Peak Rail, a heritage railway that runs (at 25mph) along about 4 miles of the former Midland Railway line towards Bakewell, Buxton and Manchester; happily for me, there’s also a cycleway (NCN route 680) alongside it. NCN 680 continues as the Monsal Trail on a delightful stretch of the old railway with various tunnels and viaducts – however there’s a gap between the two sections (from Rowsley to near Bakewell) that’s bridged by a perfectly adequate bridleway that Sustrans has for some reason decided not to incorporate in the National Cycle Network. Usually they’re desperate to get cyclists off main roads such as the A6 but not it seems in this case. You can detour via lovely Bakewell, but I chose to stick to the Monsal Trail, which – surprise surprise! – passes some more classic water-powered textile mills at Cressbrook and Litton. The first Cressbrook mill was built in about 1785 but burnt down and was rebuilt by Richard Arkwright; the current fine Georgian building was built by William Newton (another important figure) in 1815, and is now divided into flats, some available for rent. Litton Mill was founded in 1782 and struggled from the start, mainly due to poor access and the lack of workers within easy reach – it became notorious for the terrible working conditions endured by the apprentices sent there from the parish workhouses.

 The next day we found ourselves in New Mills, on the west side of the Pennines but to my surprise still just about in Derbyshire (it could have been Cheshire or Greater Manchester) – partly to tackle the metal walkway strung through a gorge (sort of) between the railway and yet another mill, the Torr Vale Mill (built in about 1788 and powered by water until the 1940s, although steam power was also used from 1856 when it was expanded – it remained operational until 2000). In fact the path to the walkway passes through the remains of Rock Mill (built in about 1790 for cotton-spinning, becoming a steam-powered printworks in 1829), and Torr Mill (also c1790, producing cotton until 1890). A more recent innovation here (between various dramatic bridges where the Goyt and Sett valleys meet) is the reverse Archimedes screw installed in 2008 to produce hydroelectric power (for the nearby Co-op shop, among other things).

 So I’m happy to have seen the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, or one of them, but it’s not just about the oldest factories – the Smedleys knitwear factory near Matlock has been in operation since 1783, longer than any other in the world. I assume this is the same family as Smedley’s Hydro in Matlock, which was Britain’s largest hydropathic hotel from the 1840s to the 1950s.

 Pubs, of course

Derby’s pubs have a good reputation, but I did note that the pubs with good real ale tended not to do decent food – they’re drinking places, which was slightly unexpected in a city with so few students. But the Brunswick Inn, the Old Dolphin, the Smithfield Alehouse and the Derby Brewery Tap House are all good places to stop, loosely along the river from the station to the cathedral. A special shout-out for the Angler’s Rest in Bamford, one of the earliest community pubs (opened in 2013) which now includes a café and the village post office. And I did visit two excellent bookshops in the Peak – Scarvin Books in Cromford (with a nice little café) and Scrivener’s Books and Bookbinding in Buxton (which doesn’t have a café but does offer free tea/coffee-making facilities).

Margate and Broadstairs

Having cycled north from Canterbury to Whitstable (see my previous post), I set out to follow the cycle route (National Cycle Network regional route 15) along the Kent coast and into East Sussex – it’s largely on the sea wall, and thus level and 95% traffic-free, with the odd detour over the cliffs. In fact the route over the White Cliffs, on either side of Dover, involves rather more climbing, but from Whitstable to Deal is easy. And there’s an interesting variety of towns along the way, none very far apart, which I want to attempt to classify a bit.

 Some towns have become heavily associated with gentrification in the last decade or so, with hordes of hipster DFLs (Down From Londons, mostly specifically from Hackney and Shoreditch) moving in and driving prices up. This applies most strongly to Margate, but also to Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Folkestone, and even Deal. But there’s also an overlapping group of towns that are reinventing themselves through art (as Bilbao did, for instance), such as Margate and Folkestone, and in East Sussex Hastings and Eastbourne. Then there’s a group of ferry ports (Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone), of which only the second is still active – and then there are the small towns that used to be Cinque Ports (and were then notorious centres of smuggling), such as Sandwich, Deal, Hythe and (just across the border in East Sussex) Rye and Hastings. So it’s not easy to compare or judge these varied towns, but I think I can say that, for my own personal reasons, Broadstairs was probably my favourite.


East of the Roman fort and church towers at Reculver, the former Wantsum Channel, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland of Kent until the sixteenth century is now largely rich farmland, although pockets of wetland are being restored; cycling, it’s an empty few miles on the sea wall and then several more miles of fairly featureless resorts/retirement villages (Minnis Bay, Birchington, Westgate-on-Sea) before reaching Margate. Before the coming of the railways, when excursions from London were by boat, Margate became the first beach resort rather ahead of Brighton (which stole the limelight when the Prince Regent started visiting in the 1770s) – Britain’s first seawater baths opened in 1736, followed by the first beach donkeys in about 1780. The Theatre Royal opened in 1786 (and was refurbished in 2007), and artistic figures such as Keats and the actors Mrs Jordan and Mrs Siddons, not forgetting Nelson and Emma Hamilton, made Margate famous.

 The first object of interest there is the beach shelter in which TS Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land (‘On Margate Sands/I can connect/Nothing with nothing.’) – it might seem unlikely at first, but in fact his subject matter was exactly the new lower-middle class (clerks, typists and the like) who came here just after World War One. 2022 is actually a big year in the history of Modernism, marking the centenaries of the publication of both The Waste Land and Ulysses, not to mention Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and also the founding of the BBC, the first performances of Brecht’s Drums in the Night and Walton’s Façade, and the release of the Expressionist horror film Nosferatu. Quite a year. The Waste Land was published in October 1922, but the centenary was being marked in April (which is when I came here), perhaps because that’s when the poem opens (‘April is the cruelest month’ – a reference to Chaucer, whose pilgrims were of course travelling to Canterbury). By the way – there’s lots of lazy journalism at the moment about ‘the almost unreadable Ulysses’ – no, as they should know, it’s the later Finnegan’s Wake which is really hard.

 Just beyond is the spectacular Dreamland cinema (1935) – currently masquerading as the Empire, due to Sam Mendes filming Empire of Dreams there (a love story set in a seaside cinema, with Olivia Coleman and Colin Firth). It’s a wonderful piece of Deco architecture, with a soaring fin tower and, apparently, a cinema organ still in working order. Behind it is the Dreamland theme park, which I hadn’t heard of before researching this trip (and it was still closed for the winter), but it seems to have been key to Margate’s lure for the arty/hipster East Londoners – not so much for its architectural importance (the cinema and scenic railway are both Grade II* listed) but for its retro quirkiness, and for the hip bands that play there. It had run out of steam and closed but was compulsorily purchased by Thanet Council in 2013 and restored, reopening in 2015. It also includes the Cinque Ports pub, built in the 1930s and recently refurbished, offering craft beers and modern pub fare.

 Just to the east is the art institution I had actually come to see, indeed the only one of the various high-profile art galleries along the coast that I actually found open. Turner Contemporary is named after possibly Britain’s greatest artist (no, not you, Tracey, although you may be Margate’s greatest artist), who came here regularly from the age of eleven, when he was sent to live with an uncle, and called its skies ‘the loveliest in all Europe’. The original plan was for a striking building by Snøhetta+Spence that was supposed to open in 2007 out on the harbour arm. That never happened, but a less challenging design by David Chipperfield (who I’ve also come across in Berlin and Anchorage, of all places) opened in 2011 on the waterfront by the start of the arm. There was a temporary visitor centre nearby in Droit House, the former customs office (built in 1812), which is now a proper tourist information centre. As you might guess, there’s no permanent collection, but contemporary artists curate exhibitions which often refer to Turner and include his works on loan. There’s also a good café, run by hip caterer Barletta, which also runs the rooftop café at Dreamland, and there are a couple of micropubs out on the harbour arm (the Harbour Arms, of course, and the Lighthouse Bar).

 Margate does have a small and attractive old town – nothing medieval, however, but a few traffic-calmed streets with quirky boutiques and cafés, most notably Crate, a contemporary art and yoga space in the former Isle of Thanet Gazette printworks, with  the predictable single-origin coffees upstairs in the Storeroom café. The tiny Little Prince pub is tucked away in the Old Kent Market, on Market Place. There are also some fine restaurants between the old town and Turner Contemporary, such as Angela’s, Dory’s, Bottega Caruso and Ambrette – however the really cool places are up in Cliftonville, the clifftop suburb to the east which is the centre of Down From London hipsterdom – most notably the Albion Rooms, a Victorian hotel refurbished by The Libertines as a recording studio complex.


It’s just a few miles, around Foreness Point, to Broadstairs, the easternmost town in Kent (but quite a long way west of Ostend). It doesn’t try so hard to be cool, and therefore, of course, achieves it. Actually it’s always been a bit gentrified, but with a population that doesn’t need high-speed rail access to London. Culturally, it’s associated with Charles Dickens, who was an amazing writer but doesn’t have the modernist credentials of Eliot. Arriving by bike from the north, I passed Bleak House, where Dickens holidayed in the 1840s and 1850s, writing David Copperfield and (his masterpiece) Bleak House – but the house was known as Fort House until the start of the twentieth century (the fictional Bleak House is in St Albans). It’s not open to the public, but there’s the Dickens House Museum in a house overlooking the harbour that was supposedly home to the model for Betsy Trotwood (in David Copperfield).

 The harbour was renamed Viking Bay in 1949, in a rather confused tribute to Hengist and Horsa, the brothers from Jutland who began the Saxon (and Jutish) settlement of England in 449 – they came from what is now Denmark, but they weren’t Vikings. At Pegwell Bay, south of Ramsgate, where they actually landed, there’s a replica of a Viking ship, which was sailed from Denmark in 1949 – they copied a Viking ship because they apparently didn’t know what Saxon and Jutish ships were like, even though the Sutton Hoo ship had been discovered in 1939. The original settlement here was the village of St Peter’s, inland of what is now the railway station; the harbour of what was known as Bradstow or ‘broad place’, and then Broadstairs, was only developed from about the fifteenth century – the original timbers of the Tudor jetty are apparently still there, encased in later stonework, and approached by York Gate (1540), at the foot of Harbour Street. Incidentally, this is why Broadstairs and similar places have Victorian churches (at the rear of Bleak House, in this case) rather than a lovely old parish church.

 In any case, an elevated esplanade gives great views over the harbour and the sands of Viking Bay, and behind it are some charming narrow streets with proper old-school shops, the most interesting being Harrington’s, the ironmonger’s that supposedly inspired the immortal Four Candles comedy sketch (Ronnie B popped in when visiting Ronnie C, who had a holiday home here) – I was surprised a couple of years ago to see that a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford was called The Four Candles, apparently because Ronnie B was a pupil at Oxford High School, and I was relieved to see that there’s a Four Candles pub here too (see below).

 Food and beer are in fact one (two?) of Broadstairs’ main calling cards – start with ice cream from the delightfully retro Morelli’s parlour, complete with soda fountain and jukebox, then move on for dinner at The Table, Wyatt & Jones (or their offshoot Flotsam & Jetsam, which began as a pop-up takeaway and is now a very popular café) or Stark. But that assumes you can actually get in – eating out has become so much harder than it was, even if pandemic restrictions are largely finished. Stark is only open from Wednesday to Saturday evenings and W&J and F&J both open only from Thursday evening to Sunday lunch, while The Table opens Thursday to Saturday evenings and Saturday lunch (maybe they do all work a bit harder in summer). So they only open when they can be sure of being fully booked well in advance, unless something goes wrong, so forget about spontaneous dining. And Stark only offers a six-course tasting menu, stressing (their capitals) *PLEASE NOTE THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO CATER FOR ANY DIETARY REQUIREMENTS, DISLIKES OR ALLERGIES AND WE ARE UNABLE TO OFFER ANY SUBSTITUTIONS*. You know what? I’ll just go to the pub. Maybe via Staple Stores in St Peter’s, a bakery and café selling sourdough bread, cakes and pastries, and good coffee – but that’s only open Thursday to Sunday mornings. Surely the thing about staples is that you need them every day?

 Fortunately, Broadstairs does happen to have a very strong selection of micropubs, which are a bit of a Kent speciality. In the centre of town is The Magnet, which looks like a traditional pub (if on the small side) and serves largely traditional, and mostly local, beers. Towards the station is Mind The Gap, and just beyond is The Four Candles, mentioned above – when it opened in 2012 it was Britain’s twelfth micropub, and since 2014 it has also been Britain’s smallest brewery, with a tiny plant in a three metre by three metre cellar that somehow produces 440 litres a brew. The Magnet and Mind The Gap are both attractive little places where you’re likely to find lovely Gadd’s beers (properly called Ramsgate Brewery, but as the brewery is now here in Broadstairs that tends to be ignored) – Eddie Gadd the brewer is presumably related to Steve Gadd of Staple (but not to Steve Gadd the American jazz drummer). In fact the brewery now has a taproom for those who want to drink on an industrial estate. Other larger pubs are also available, with a range of gins, wines and food, although the ones in the centre of town are quite touristy.

 Margate is buzzy, and has been for a decade or two, while Broadstairs has a more established gentrification going on – it’s true that bed and board are harder to organise in Broadstairs, but if you can get that sorted, it would be my pick.


I recently took a cycle trip along the coasts of Kent and East Sussex, starting in Canterbury, going north to Whitstable and largely following the sea-wall from there – it’s a largely traffic-free route as far as Rye, which makes a lovely two- or three-day excursion. And there are interesting towns every hour or two, which appeals to me more than just crunching the miles.

Canterbury was the capital of the Cantii, a Celtic people who, as you might expect, occupied what is now Kent; the Romans called it Durovernum Cantiacorum, and it then became the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Kent. It became England’s’s ecclesiastical capital due to the arrival of St Augustine in 597 to begin the country’s conversion to Christianity. The cathedral still dominates the centre, at the heart of a religious complex that’s less permeable than the Vatican or Kremlin. To get close, you have to pay £14, or attend a service – morning prayers are pretty austere, held at the far end of the crypt, but you can then wander around the cathedral, whereas choral evensong is more interesting but you won’t be allowed to linger for long.

In 1170 Augustine’s successor Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral by four knights incited by Henry II, partly because he resisted the king’s view that the church should be under his control; so it’s no surprise that Henry VIII, who definitely did want the church under his control, tried to wipe out all evidence of the martyrdom cult that had developed and had led to Canterbury being a major destination for pilgrimages. It was also the starting point of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route to Rome that I recently cycled part of. Nevertheless Thomas is now a saint in the Anglican church as well as the Roman Catholic one, and the site of his death (known as The Martyrdom), in the north transept, is marked with a new altar, installed in 1986, beneath a metal sculpture of a cross and two swords.

The stained glass images of the Ancestors of Christ, in the Great South Window, are mostly from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but recent research suggests that some pieces may pre-date the great fire of 1174, which would make them among the world’s oldest examples of stained glass. There are also some interesting similarities with Cambridge, as the central tower was built (from 1491) by John Wastell, who went on to build the fan-vaulted roof of King’s College, Cambridge.







Not far away are the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, outside the cathedral precincts but enclosed this time by English Heritage. Founded by Augustine in 598, this became one of the great Romanesque abbeys of Europe (and possibly where the Bayeux Tapestry was created), but was destroyed by Henry VIII, who else. A bit further from the centre is St Martin’s church, thought to be the oldest church in Britain that’s still in use – some of the stonework survives from a Roman building used as a church from 597 by Augustine and Bertha, the French Christian queen of Kent. The nave was built in about 600, with the east end and tower added between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. It’s hardly ever open, but you can clearly see the different types of stonework on the south side. A few days later, in Lydd, I came across the second-oldest church in Britain that’s still in use, also with Romano-British stonework – but of course there’s no comparison with what I was seeing in Rome and Ravenna just six months previously.

St Martin’s, Canterbury

Up against the Roman walls in the southwestern corner of the city (near Canterbury East station – go figure), the Dane John is a Roman burial mound that became the motte or base for the keep (or donjon – whence the name) of the first Norman castle. This didn’t last long, and in 1123-35 a second castle was built just to the north; this has been closed since 2018 due to falling stonework, ie after nine hundred years it’s been abandoned due to our government’s wonderful austerity policy.

There are many other fine medieval buildings here, from churches and city gates to half-timbered inns, but one which caught my attention was the Hospital of St Mary of the Poor Priests on Stour Street, founded circa 1220 and rebuilt in 1373; the hospital closed in the 17th century and the building was then used as a workhouse, a school, a police station and then as the Canterbury Heritage Museum, until it closed in 2017. Now it houses The Marlowe Kit, the studio space of the Marlowe Theatre (the main theatre is a decent modern building opened in 2011) – the name is a pun on Christopher (‘Kit’) Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great rival, who was born in Canterbury in 1564. A few days later, in Rye, I came across the birthplace in 1579 of Shakespeare’s collaborator John Webster.

The Canterbury Heritage Museum may have closed, but there’s still a Roman Museum, and what is known as The Beaney (The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, in full), incorporating the former Royal Museum and the Beaney Institute (opened in 1899), with educational spaces and the city’s library and tourist information centre. I couldn’t quite pin down why I liked it, but the seemingly random mix of displays is actually well thought out. There are lots of interesting items from around the world brought back by travellers from Canterbury, such as clubs from Nootka Sound, acquired during Captain Cook’s second voyage, and Indian pieces from Stephen Lushington (1776-1868), who was MP for Canterbury and Governor of Madras, sometimes at the same time – Jane Austen wrote ‘I am rather in love with him. I dare say he is ambitious and insincere.’

One small gallery covers the output of the Smallfilms animation studio (run by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin), including children’s classics such as Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, Clangers and Bagpuss. There’s also quite a lot of decent art, both in a gallery and mixed in with other displays – a Virgin and Child by the workshop of Perugino (late 15th century) and a Baptism of Christ after Perugino (circa 1700) and others attributed to van Loo and Van Orley, as well as actual  authenticated works by Aert van der Neer, van Dyck and Gainsborough, plus several Murders of Becket, including one by Opie. Twentieth-century art includes works by Lucien Pissarro, Walter Sickert, Laura Knight, John Bratby, Gillian Wearing and Elizabeth Frink. The gallery next to the main entrance is devoted to TS Cooper (1803-1902), a local icon who spent his life basically painting cows (the last at 99 years of age) – I was largely unmoved, but there is one view of Canterbury cathedral across the meadows that’s reminiscent of Constable’s views of Salisbury.

Canterbury is now a student town, but it’s a younger more arty crowd than I’m used to in Cambridge, with lots of dyed hair and ripped jeans. The ‘historic’ university (founded back in 1965!) is the University of Kent at Canterbury, somewhat isolated on a hill north of town (above the world’s first railway tunnel, completed in 1826, as it happens), but Canterbury Christ Church University is far more visible, with multiple buildings in the city centre – it was founded as a teaching training college in 1962 and became a university in 2005 (without passing through a polytechnic phase). And Canterbury College is now part of the University for the Creative Arts (which has several other campuses across Kent and Surrey).

There’s the odd decent restaurant and pub (eg the Parrot and the Dolphin, both on St Radigund St – which is a surprising link with Cambridge) but really I only want to mention the Goods Shed (closed on Mondays) next to Canterbury West station (the one north of the centre) – it’s a fine farmers’ market with a great café and restaurant and other stalls such as Cheesemakers of Canterbury, Docker (sourdough and craft beer) and the splendid traditional Butchery (and you won’t hear me say that very often).

Canterbury’s stations

Don’t get me started on Canterbury’s rail links – perfectly functional, but very confusing for historical reasons. There are two stations, Canterbury East (which should really be called Canterbury South), on the Faversham-Dover line, and Canterbury West (which should really be called Canterbury North), on the Ashford-Ramsgate line. Both have trains from London Victoria, which set off claiming to be heading for Dover, Ramsgate or Margate, but in fact continue on a couple of loop routes around Thanet returning to Victoria (with route announcements changing as they proceed). Then in 2009 a High Speed service was added, using the HS1 Channel Tunnel line from London St Pancras as far as Ebbsfleet or Ashford, from where they also take a loop around Thanet, some calling at Canterbury West – so if you don’t mind paying the surcharge for this service, the hourly Ramsgate via Ashford High Speed service is the fastest way to get here. Therefore it’s possible to get a train to Canterbury from almost everywhere on the Kent coast – with the exception of Deal and Sandwich which are reached from Canterbury only in the rush hours (change at Ramsgate otherwise).

North to Whitstable

I headed north on the Crab and Winkle Way, the northern half of which follows the route of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway (known as the Crab and Winkle) – this was the world’s first passenger railway, opened in 1830, four years before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Because the C&W didn’t use steam engines throughout (static winding engines hauled the trains up a couple of hills), the L&M has become more famous, but its claim to be the first passenger railway is a bit weak. The southern half of the Crab and Winkle Way actually follows the Saltway, a far older trading route from the salt pans of Seasalter, just west of Whitstable. The route passes through The Blean, a large area of largely intact ancient working woodland that now includes an enclosure for European bison (which I didn’t see).

The old fishing town of Whitstable was a popular escape from London for the more bohemian element long before high-speed trains opened up places further east such as Margate. It was known above all for its oysters (from Roman times) and whelks (not winkles, from the nineteenth century), and still has some gastro options, as well as excellent micro-pubs. Britain’s first micro-pub, in 2005, was actually the Butchers Arms, just to the east in Herne Bay, and Kent still has more of these tiny delights than anywhere else.

Darwin in Cambridge and Kent

I’ve always regarded Charles Darwin as one of the truly great figures of history (even though his male-dominated view of breeding behaviour is under intense scrutiny at the moment). Writing guidebooks to Chile and Uruguay, I came across many records of his travels there and included as many quotations from his journals as I could – his descriptions of 1830s South America are still fresh and relevant. I’ve included plenty of books by and about Darwin in the reading lists at the backs of these books, and looking in turn at the references and acknowledgements of Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, it was brought home to me how much Cambridge, where I live, is a global centre of Darwin studies. This is partly because of the letters and archives held in the Cambridge University Library, and partly because two of his sons taught at the university and their families were important figures in local life (and the foundation of Darwin College is part of this). The university’s museums also hold many of his specimens – I particularly like the story about a volunteer at the Museum of Zoology discovering – on Darwin’s 200th birthday – a tinamou egg that he had collected in Uruguay but had been damaged because he packed it in too small a box. It turned out to be the only surviving egg collected by him.

 The key text on the Darwins of Cambridge is the much-loved Period Piece (1952 – and supposedly never out of print since) by Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), daughter of Sir George Darwin, Darwin’s son and Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge from 1883. She was a fine artist, marrying fellow artist Jacques Raverat and leading a revival of wood engravings, which became a distinctive feature of twentieth-century British art. I have my grandmother’s copy of Period Piece, a hardback printed in 1954, with Raverat’s charming illustrations, including some of their family home, Newnham Grange, now part of Darwin College (and somewhat changed). Later in her life, in 1946, she moved into The Old Granary, by the river at the end of Newnham Grange’s garden, now also part of Darwin College. This is a graduate-only college, founded in 1965 as a spin-off from Caius, St John’s and Trinity Colleges, incorporating existing houses with modern buildings that fit in perfectly well (and the riverside gardens are lovely). One of the college’s features that I particularly applaud is the DarBar travel grants, three awards a year of £200 and a free pre-departure drink, in return for sending a postcard to the college bar.

Newnham Grange

The Old Granary

 Other Darwin houses in Cambridge have also been absorbed into modern colleges – at the south end of the Huntingdon Road, The Grove was home to Charles Darwin’s widow, surrounded by meadows (long gone) where her sons Frank and Horace built homes for their families. Built in 1813, it’s now home to the MCR (graduate common room) of Fitzwilliam College. Horace (who founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company and became Mayor of Cambridge) built The Orchard, a smallish Tudor-style house that’s part of Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall).

The Grove

The Orchard

 One aspect of Period Piece that I especially enjoy is the description of the beginnings of Cambridge’s cycling culture in the 1890s (you may recall that I pondered cycling’s rôle in the development of West Cambridge). ‘My mother had (I believe) the first female tricycle in Cambridge; and I had a little one, and we used to go out on family rides, all together …  I found it very hard work, pounding away on my hard tyres; a glorious, but not a pleasurable pastime. Then one day, at lunch, my father said he had just seen a new kind of tyre, filled up with air, and he thought it might be a success. And soon after that everyone had bicycles, ladies and all; and bicycling became the smart thing in Society, and the lords and ladies had their pictures in the papers, riding along in the park, in straw boater hats.’

 She also writes about cycling alone down the Backs after dark, coming back from her grandmother’s or uncle’s houses, and the ‘great gulfs of darkness between the faint gas-lamps’, as well as the ‘most unpleasant people’ living in the tumbledown cottages of Mount Pleasant, who knocked her off her bike and pulled her hair. Why she didn’t go via Magdalene Bridge and the city centre I don’t know – maybe the undergraduates were just as boisterous and troublesome?

The Kent connection

I also went recently to visit Charles Darwin’s home, Down House, an easy bike ride from Orpington station in Kent – the village of Down was renamed Downe in the 1840s, but the house remained Down. Charles and Emma moved here in 1842, after four years on Upper Gower Street in London, and lived here for the rest of his life. The image of him living as a bit of a hermit is widespread but wrong – not only was he involved in village life (as a magistrate, among other things) but he also communicated constantly with family and with the wider scientific community, with 14,500 letters surviving to and from him. In 1851 he spent nearly £20 (equivalent to £1000 now) on paper, postage etc, and in 1877 he spent nearly £54.

 I’ve wanted to go there for ages, possibly since 2016 when I might have read about the reopening of the main bedroom, along with a collection of prints by Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. Incidentally, there are also now prints by Gwen Raverat on the upstairs landing, although these did not exist when the family lived here. Anyway, it’s all beautifully cared for (thank you, English Heritage) and there’s a real sense of it as a family home – the garden is particularly full of family memories, with the sites of various natural history experiments, not to mention the cold showers that Darwin took in a bid to settle his ‘weak digestion’. There are good factual displays, but I didn’t learn anything that I hadn’t already read in Darwin and the Barnacle – however, I did come away thinking that there really should be a full-on Darwin Museum, to go into his amazing career in more detail. Maybe on a nearby site at Downe – not in Cambridge, thanks all the same.

 But I can’t really recommend the café, which tries to be National Trust-y but just can’t manage the same quality of staff, in particular. Never mind, there are two good partly Tudor pubs in the village.

Garden cities of Hertfordshire

It’s an odd thing that when I take the train from Cambridge to London’s Kings Cross station I pass through both of the original Garden Cities, at Letchworth and Welwyn, as well as a couple of the later New Towns, at Stevenage and Hatfield (and if I go to Liverpool Street instead of King’s Cross I pass through Harlow New Town). For those who are not familiar with them, garden cities and new towns were twentieth-century responses to the dreadful living conditions in Victorian industrial cities. To be fair, industrialists had tried to improve living conditions from the end of the eighteenth century, in model villages such as New Lanark, Saltaire, Port Sunlight and Bourneville, but it was Ebenezer Howard‘s book To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), revised as Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902),  which caught the public imagination and launched a movement. The aim was to create a community with the benefits of both town (good jobs, educational and cultural opportunities) and country (nature, fresh air and low rents), expressed in Howard’s diagram of The Three Magnets (remembered in the name of the Wetherspoons pub in Letchworth…), with Town, Country and Town-Country pulling the People towards them.

 Howard founded a company called First Garden City Limited which raised funds and bought land, and drew up plans with the architects and planners Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker; construction began in 1903 with the first cottages occupied the next year. In 1905 the first school was completed as well as the Mrs Howard Memorial Hall (in memory of Howard’s first wife, who had died in 1904) and the Cheap Cottages Exhibition, aiming to show that houses could be built for £150. This brought a lot of publicity, and around 114 of the original 131 cottages are still occupied (with round green plaques by the front door). These are mostly north of the railway, along Nevells Road, The Quadrant and Wilbury Road (the current station dates from 1912, following earlier halts in 1903 and 1905), but most of the public buildings, shops, schools, cinemas etc are to the south, as well as the Urban Cottage Exhibition Area on Lytton Avenue, which followed in 1907. Also opened in 1907 was the Skittles Inn at the east end of Nevells Road, the famous ‘pub with no beer’ which nevertheless became a popular adult education centre. Many architects were involved in addition to Parker and Unwin, such as CM Crickmer, Baillie Scott (mentioned in my post on West Cambridge), William Clough (whose nephew Sir Clough Williams-Ellis worked as site supervisor here, and went on the build the fantasy village of Portmeirion from 1925) and others, creating an attractive medley of styles, mostly rooted in the Arts and Crafts movement, and there are plenty of gardens and other green spaces, as intended. The shopping centre and public buildings are in a slightly grander, more classical, style.

Parker and Unwin’s offices, Letchworth

 But there was always meant to be industry here as well – the most obvious example is the wonderful Spirella corset factory immediately northwest of the station, now converted to offices. Irving Parachutes (founded in 1925) and the British Tabulating Machine Company (which arrived in 1920, and made the Bombe machines for Alan Turing’s code-breakers at Bletchley Park) both played major rôles in World War Two; the latter eventually became the computer company ICL (taken over by Fujitsu in 1998). The Anglia Match Company was founded (under a different name, no doubt) in Salzburg by Ukrainian-Jewish brothers who moved the business here in 1935 (it closed in 1954).

Urban Cottages, Letchworth

The town is only accidentally car-dominated, unlike the post-World War Two new towns, which were designed that way. Even so, there should be a lot more cycle parking, and the route west to Hitchin needs to improved, which wouldn’t take a great deal of work. The National Cycle Network’s route 12 runs north-south through the town, passing the UK’s first roundabout (c.1909), just south of the centre at the Broadway/Sollershott junction.

 Quakers and Theosophists were prominent among the early residents, and as mentioned above alcohol was frowned upon when the town was founded; however there are now a few decent pubs, and even the Garden City Brewery.

 In terms of museums, Letchworth is a bit rubbish, as North Hertfordshire Council decided to consolidate its offering, closing the Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery in 2012 and eventually opening a pretty good new museum in the former Hitchin Town Hall in 2019. But One Garden City, which now manages Letchworth, decided it did need a museum after all, and in June 2019 opened a one-room micro-museum exploring Letchworth’s social history for school groups. Of course you can walk or cycle around and get a feel for the place. I have the detailed 1977 Letchworth Conservation Area map which describes many of the original buildings – I don’t think it’s available now, but may be able to find a series of Heritage Trail leaflets. Otherwise, there are organised walks such as this.

 One thing that caught my eye in the Hitchin museum was the painting of The Red Curtain (c1916) by Harold Gilman, one of the leaders of the (post-Impressionist) Camden Town Group, who moved to Letchworth in 1908 (living first at 15 Westholm Green, then at 100 Wilbury Road). The Red Curtain was painted in the living room of Stanley Parker, brother of the architect Barry. Spencer Gore visited Gilman and produced fine paintings of Gilman’s House, Wilbury Road and Letchworth Station.

Next stop, Welwyn

The second Garden City, at Welwyn, was founded after World War One – it was much closer to London (on the Great North Road and the Great Northern Railway) and it was accepted that many residents would commute to the big city, but it was also a successful development of Howard’s ideas. Nowadays it seems more City than Garden, in comparison with Letchworth, but it does have splendid green axes, mainly north and south along Parkway. It was laid out by the French-Canadian architect Louis de Soissons (1890–1962), who used grander Queen Anne and neo-Georgian styles in the centre than at Letchworth – but the residential areas are pleasantly green and informal. Instead of cheap cottages, Welwyn had the the Daily Mail Ideal Home Model Village (41 houses on Meadow Green and Handside Lane) opened by Earl Haig in 1922.

 Just to the northwest (in the steep valley crossed by the Digswell viaduct, the major two-track bottleneck on the East Coast Main Line), the original village of Welwyn is now known as Old Welwyn and has preserved much of its charm – I’m always happy to see the plaque noting that Vincent Van Gogh walked here from Ramsgate in 1876 to see his sister Anne, who was teaching French here. It’s near St Mary’s church, a classic thirteenth-century structure that’s listed Grade II.

 The railway (a much wider corridor than at Letchworth) became a barrier, with the new centre to the west and industry and what soon became ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ housing to the east. Immediately east of the station, the Shredded Wheat silos are a familiar landmark – built in 1926 by de Soissons (inspired by Le Corbusier, but also by the grain silos of the Canadian prairies), the factory closed in 2008 and has been a problem ever since. Originally called Welgar (geddit?) and later Nabisco, it’s now been dubbed the Wheat Quarter, but all proposals for its future use have been bogged down in controversy. Plans by Tesco (whose headquarters are nearby) for a mixed-use development have been rejected by the planners; 27 of the silos were demolished in 2017, and there’s now talk of building 1,220 homes with arts and community spaces – but the buildings would be up to ten storeys high, double anything previously allowed here.

It’s a long way across the railway to the Wheat Quarter

One surprising thing about Welwyn is that you can visit some Roman baths here; what’s weirder is that they are right under the A1(M) motorway. A steel vault was installed when the new road was built, and in fact you’re hardly aware of the heavy vehicles thundering overhead. They’re not the best Roman baths I’ve seen, but they’re worth a visit.

Change for Hampstead

In addition to the two garden cities, there’s Hampstead Garden Suburb, which arose in response to fear of development following the opening of Golders Green station (on the London underground’s Northern line) in 1907. Initially there was talk of an extension of Hampstead Heath, but then Unwin left Letchworth to plan a garden suburb, involving architects of the calibre of Edwin Lutyens, then known for his work on country houses but later famous for laying out New Delhi, inspired by Garden City principles. Baillie Scott was also involved here, as (in the 1930s) was Ernst Freud (son of Sigmund). It has grand public buildings and churches, informal residential areas, green spaces, but no industry or pubs, and few shops. The extension created to the east in 1911-12 was soon cut off when Lyttelton Road and Falloden Way were connected to the Barnet Bypass and became part of the A1, near its junction with the North Circular, still a sewer of pollution and noise. I don’t know the area well, but it’s long been known as a good place to live, with intellectual and artistic associations.

Hexham and Hadrian’s Wall

Way back in 2012, my cycling buddy Rob and I had an enjoyable four-day jaunt from Newcastle through Kielder Forest and a smidgen of Scotland to Carlisle and Bowness, and back along Hadrian’s Wall, more or less. (See also my photos.)  Recently we returned, so he could write an article about cycle routes around Hexham. I did a couple of rides with him, and also visited a couple of the Roman forts as well as Hexham itself, which Rob didn’t have time to do (apart from the pubs, of course – see below).

 The main town between Newcastle and Carlisle, Hexham is a stout market town that has become the main base for visiting Hadrian’s Wall, just a few miles to the north. Historically, it exists because St Wilfrid founded a Benedictine monastery here in about 674; having studied abroad, Wilfrid became abbot of Ripon and achieved fame for his role in the Synod of Whitby in 664, persuading the King of Northumbria to align his church with Rome rather than the Irish church. He was then appointed bishop of Northumbria, ie York, but his time in office was interrupted by several periods of exile (when he usually travelled to Rome to plead for papal help).  In 660 the East Anglian princess Æthelthryth (more often known as Etheldreda, or even Audrey), was forced to marry the fifteen-year-old Prince Ecgfrith of Northumbria, despite her vow of virginity and desperation to live as a nun. Wilfrid persuaded Ecgfrith to agree to her wishes for a while, but in about 672 she fled home to Ely and founded a monastery there. The relevance of this is that she gave Wilfrid her dowry, the area known as Hexhamshire, to pay for a new monastery, and he was based here after 705, when John of Beverley took over at York. Built with stone from Hadrian’s Wall, Hexham Abbey was a very grand edifice in the continental style, but was destroyed by the Vikings in 876, after which the Benedictines were replaced by hereditary priests, believe it or not.

 In 1113 Augustinian canons arrived to rebuild the church, but work was halted in about 1180 to allow the new Gothic ideas to be properly absorbed. In any case the nave was destroyed by the Scots and left in ruins for 600 years; the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537 but continued in use as the parish church. From 1860 the east end was rebuilt, and from 1908 the nave, in classic Victorian-Gothic style – it really is a splendid building now. What’s more, in 2012 the monastic buildings removed by Henry VIII were returned to the church and now house a good (free) exhibition centre and a café. The crypt, with its carved Roman stones, is unfortunately closed due to damp. There are various treasures, but perhaps the most striking are the Passion paintings, a set of wooden panels painted in the early sixteenth century, including a dance of death.

 On the far side of Market Place is the Moot Hall, a keep-like structure built around 1400 that was used as a courthouse and, behind it, the Old Gaol, built in 1330-33 as England’s first known purpose-built prison and now a museum. The Archbishops of York held civil as well as ecclesiastical power in Hexhamshire, meaning that eighty per cent of those tried were found innocent, and hardly anyone was executed except for the most heinous crimes – theocracy isn’t always a disaster. However the Market Place did see a bit of a bloodbath after the Battle of Hexham in 1464, when thirty Lancastrian rebels (supporting Henry VI against Edward IV) were beheaded, including the Duke of Somerset. In addition, around 50 died in 1761 in a riot against military conscription. And one of the museum’s major themes is the lawless period of the Border Reivers (see my post on Carlisle), when there was a semi-military regime of March Wardens on both sides of the border – it’s a good display but it uses some specific terms without explanation, particularly talking about ‘loyalty to the Surname’, which was something similar to a Highland clan.

 Back on the other side of the abbey is a surprisingly large and pleasant park, combining the gardens of Abbey House (opened to the public in 1911), Hexham House (opened in 1928) and the Sele (opened back in 1753) – it’s all now listed as Grade II, as is the very grand Queen’s Hall across the road, built in 1866 as a town hall and corn exchange – it now houses a splendid library, arts centre and tourist information office.

 What have the Romans ever done for us?

Apart from providing a large stock of pre-shaped stone for building churches and houses in the following centuries, of course. However, after that, while people were vaguely aware of Hadrian’s Wall itself, the forts and milecastles were largely lost and forgotten. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that a couple of local landowners-cum-amateur archeologists began to rediscover and explain the remains. The first forts were built of wood after Agricola’s victory at Mons Graupius (possibly in Aberdeenshire) in about AD 83, and the wall itself came later, between 122 and 128 – the emperor Hadrian made the epochal decision to end the previous policy of steadily expanding the empire and instead to consolidate it along natural geographical borders. His successor Antoninus Pius tried to establish a new border further north at the Antonine Wall, but this was abandoned by Marcus Aurelius, returning the border to Hadrian’s Wall; forts were still being rebuilt in the third century (and the first traces of Christianity appeared c370 AD).

Chesters – the bathhouse

 Chesters, the closest Roman fort to Hexham, just four miles north, was inherited in 1832 by John Clayton, who worked as a lawyer and also started excavating in 1843; he also bought Housesteads in 1838 and Vindolanda in 1863, as well as milecastles and other sites along the Wall. His record-keeping was poor, he dumped lots of scraps of bone and ceramics in the river, and when the baths were excavated 33 skeletons were simply lost, but his work was a massive stepping-stone for the professional archeologists who came later. The museum at the site, opened in 1896, has a good collection of inscribed stones, such as altars and milestones, and glass, buckles, jet and shale beads and Samian ware. When Byron writes ‘Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!’ he’s clearly writing about wine from the Greek island of Samos, but it turns out that Samian ware is pottery from Gaul (now France and the Rhineland), made in the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and easy to date due to the potters stamping their name on each piece.

 Vindolanda, a dozen miles to the west, is now owned by the Vindolanda Trust – the house that is now the museum, Chesterholm, was owned by the antiquarian the Rev. Anthony Hedley until his death in 1835, and by the Claytons of Chesters from 1863 to 1929; the archeologist Professor Eric Birley owned it from 1929 to 1950, and it remained a private home until 1974 when it was bought by the trust (led by Eric Birley’s son Robin). Rather bizarrely, the adjoining house, with a field that almost cut the Roman site in two, was owned by a family friend of mine until they sold to the trust in 2013.


 There’s more to see here than at Chesters, with plenty of stone work, both from the the fort itself (which had at least nine incarnations) and the vicus or civilian village to the west, where visitors enter. The museum is larger and more modern, with lots of leather shoes, wooden clogs, spear and javelin heads, boxing gloves, leather tents, brooches and combs, a chamfron (a ceremonial facemask for a horse), tools, keys, coin and more red Samian ware, although most of the pottery was made on the south coast of England. There are also wooden objects such as tent pegs, buckets and bungs, shovel, baskets, alder pipes and an alder toilet seat. The most important find here (so far) was the Vindolanda Writing Tablets, postcard-sized wooden tablets unearthed since 1973, the first examples of Roman writing in ink. At least 752 have now been found, giving a wonderful picture of everyday life here, starting before the Wall was built – one is an invitation to a birthday party, an almost unique example of writing by a Roman woman to another. They are now held by the British Museum, with a good display here, but there are plans for some to be brought back here.

 Excavations continue every summer (with a break in 2020 only), with a display of recent finds in the museum, such as a bowl with Christian symbols (2009), a meat cleaver, cheese press, intaglios and a gaming board and counters (2019), and already in May 2021 (and not yet on display) a stone carving of a naked male figure holding a spear and standing in front of a horse or donkey.

Excavators at work at Vindolanda

 Back in 2012, we also visited Housesteads fort, a couple of miles north-east of Vindolanda (and eight miles west of Chesters), which is managed by English Heritage but can also be entered free by hikers on the Hadrian’s Wall path – the three miles west to Steel Rigg is one of its most dramatic stretches. The lower sections of various buildings survive, notably the commander’s house and the communal latrines. There’s a tiny museum here, but nothing compared to those at Chesters and Vindolanda.

Housesteads – the hypocaust (underfloor heating) of the commander’s house

Housesteads – communal latrines

 A beer desert

We really struggled to get a decent drink after a day’s cycling – the Station Inn and the Tannery had no cask or real ale at all, nor did the Anchor Inn in Heydon Bridge, which would have been a great place to stop right by the now-pedestrianised bridge. We did stop at the Tannery for pizza, and they were also out of the first wine we tried to order. The Heart of Northumberland is a well-respected free house and did have four real ales on draught, but it’s almost totally set up for dining so we just had one good pint and moved on. We did find some refreshing Deuchars at the Globe, and a decent local pale ale from Twice Brewed at the Grapes, which is a Craft Union free house, seemingly aiming to compete with Wetherspoons at the cheap end of the market – we did also have a Ruddles at ‘Spoons, but it was well past its best.

 There are some better prospects a few miles outside Hexham, notably the Dipton Mill Inn two miles south, which is home to the Hexhamshire Brewery – but was, alas, closed for building work. A similar distance to the north-east, the Rat Inn in Anick is clearly a fine gastropub, but I went past at the wrong time of day. I will say that even if beer is a problem, local chutneys are excellent and widely available! And there are some interesting Indian restaurants (which we did not sample) – Zyka has a good line in game curries (pheasant and venison) and there are others right on the station platforms at Hexham and Corbridge so that people from Newcastle can be poured onto the train home after a night out. I had a good light lunch at Hextol Tans, a vegetarian café on the traffic-free St Mary’s Chare (it’s run by the Hextol Foundation, helping the disabled, and tans are gloves, a big local product in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). And we really enjoyed a dinner on the same street at Buongiorno, a Sardinian-owned place that we’d have happily eaten at a second time if we hadn’t left it too late.

Coventry – a city of culture, not a ghost town

In 2016 I visited Hull and published a blog post about its preparations to be the UK’s second City of Culture the next year. The first had been Derry-Londonderry in 2013, and the third is Coventry, in 2021, so I have now (post-lockdown) been there to see how they’re getting on, despite the inevitable pandemic-related delays – it will now run for a year from May 2021. Being UK City of Culture does not mean that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra move in for the summer, it’s far more about local strengths and community projects – in the case of Coventry, that above all means reliving the Two-Tone and ska era of The Selecter and The Specials (remember Ghost Town? They insist that wasn’t just a description of Coventry in the 1970s). The Two-Tone exhibition at the city’s main museum, the Herbert, opened just after my visit but looks good, and there are gigs and sessions organised by the likes of Terry Hall, Pauline Black and Neville Staple. Another Coventry-born musician getting involved is Clint Mansell, of Pop Will Eat Itself, who has become a very individual and successful composer of film music, and there’s a gig by Pete Doherty, who formed his first band when he was at school in nearby Bedworth.

 There’s also some recognition of Delia Derbyshire, the legendary pioneer of electronic music with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s (remembered above all for the freaky theme music for Doctor Who), who was also born in Coventry – and there’s a new permanent display on her at the little Coventry Music Museum, out east on Walsgrave Road. Oddly enough, Philip Larkin, who is generally associated with Hull, was actually born in Coventry; 2022 will mark the centenary of his birth, so the City of Culture will mark this in the first half of next year (though the actual date is in August).

 There are some attractive temporary venues, such as the cathedral ruins (see below), the Assembly Festival Garden (on a building site at the north end of Much Park St, with a couple of tents and an outdoor venue) and the canal basin (just across the ring road to the north). The Belgrade Theatre was very important back in the 1960s (it was Britain’s first purpose-built civic theatre, designed and funded by the city council, as in most German cities, for instance), it pioneered theatre in education and had an amazing repertory company that included Ian McKellen, Joan Plowright, Frank Finlay, Leonard Rossiter and Trevor Nunn, who used to hitch-hike regularly to see shows down the road at Stratford-upon-Avon until the RSC begged him to move there and join them. Arnold Wesker’s most famous plays were premiered here, as was Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I was briefly obsessed with the idea of directing myself as a teenager. Anyway, the Belgrade is going strong (the Grade II-listed building, a bit like a mini-Royal Festival Hall, was refurbished in 2006-7) , but doesn’t seem to be heavily involved in Coventry2021.

 The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum is also in good shape, having been totally turned around in 2008 with a new glass-roofed entry foyer on the cathedral plaza, on its north side, as well as the obligatory café and education spaces (and it’s free). The history gallery does a good job of explaining the city’s development as a major centre of the clothmaking industry – by the fifteenth century it was the largest inland city in England, and was effectively its capital in the late 1450s, during the Wars of the Roses. It did then decline, but developed a specialism in ribbon-weaving from around 1700. Anyone who had name-tapes sewn into their school clothes will remember Cash’s, the only survivor of the city’s ribbon weaving industry. From 1868 the first bikes in Britain were produced here (by the Coventry Sewing Machine Company) and in 1885 James Starley invented the safety bicycle, which superseded the penny-farthing and made cycling a mass pursuit. In 1894 the Lanchester Motor Company produced the first British-built petrol car; George Singer left the Coventry Sewing Machine Company to make bikes, and then began making cars from 1901 – by 1951 a quarter of all cars produced in Britain came from Coventry. In 1888 Alfred Herbert set up a cycle components company, which became one of the world’s biggest machine tool companies, and of course it was he who funded the building of the museum.

 You can also see George Eliot’s desk (which she actually used in London); she was born in Nuneaton and went to school in Coventry, coming back when she was 21 and making radical free-thinking friends who encouraged her and published her first articles in the Coventry Herald and Observer. Her great (but to my mind tedious) novel Middlemarch was set in a ribbon-weaving town that is clearly Coventry. She has been channelled for a Coventry2021 event. Another Coventry-born author is the definitely untedious Lee Child, creator of Jack Reacher – he features in a Coventry2021 podcast and in fact passed through back in April to promote his biography, written as it happens by the wife of a friend of mine.

 On the art front, there’s a room of European art, with a couple of surprises, notably a big unframed Luca Giordano of Bacchus and Ariadne, as well as a Lawrence of George III, a Morland, a Zoffany, a Holman Hunt (after Rembrandt), and their oldest painting, believed to be Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald by Lucas d’Heere (1573). Elsewhere they have works by Frank Dobson, Gustav Metzger, Hepworth and a couple of Epsteins. A pair of carved stone mural panels depicting Man’s Struggle by Walter Ritchie were created in 1957 for the pedestrian precinct (see below) and moved in 1994 to the outside wall of the Herbert – unfortunately this is now at the rear and is not seen by most visitors. As with Hull four years ago, the Turner Prize award ceremony will be held at the Herbert in September (with an exhibition continuing until 10 January).

 Another gallery deals with the various versions of the Lady Godiva story, which arose in the late twelfth century. The historic Godiva (grandmother of King Harold’s wife) died in 1067, having founded a Benedictine abbey in Coventry in 1043 with her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia (they were both buried there, although it is long gone). It’s most unlikely that she was naked as she rode through the town, and Peeping Tom was invented by Tennyson in 1842.

 Finally, the Peace and Reconciliation Gallery has photos of the damage from the 41 air raids that hit the city in 1940, killing over 1,200. Until then the city had retained much of its medieval fabric, but most was lost in the Coventry Blitz. The plaques on the remaining half-timbered buildings – ‘Last surviving example of …’ and so on – really bring home just how attractive the pre-war city must have been. Spon Street, on the west of the city centre, survived relatively well, and several medieval buildings that also survived but were now in the way of rebuilding were moved here. One result was that Coventry and Stalingrad became the first twinned cities in 1944, followed after the war by Dresden, and eventually 24 others. Another was that a pre-war plan for redevelopment, inspired by Rotterdam, could be put into effect without too many restraints – despite Coventry’s enduring image as ‘Car City’, it included the first pedestrianised shopping precinct in Britain (along with a ring road, rooftop car parking and a circular multistorey car-park, admittedly), which is still going strong. However, in January this year plans were unveiled to demolish much of the precinct and replace it with an identikit modern shopping centre and flats – which seems perverse just when Covid-19 and online shopping are causing so many similar malls to implode. There have been widespread protests, so it may be possible to revive the (deliberately) neglected parts of the city centre rather than demolishing them. That would be a worthy project for the City of Culture.

 Various isolated medieval buildings do survive, giving a glimpse of what pre-blitz Coventry must have been like, and there’s potential to use them more. Nearest the centre, Cheylesmore Manor, or at least its gatehouse, now serves as the city’s registry office; the thirteenth-century manor house was demolished in 1955, but the gatehouse was probably built after 1338 for Edward the Black Prince, who used the manor as a hunting lodge. The Whitefriars (Carmelite) friary was built in 1342-1538, with a 96 metre-long church where the ring road now is; all that remains is a sandstone dormitory that was taken over by the Herbert Museum in the 1960s and opened to the public until the early 1990s, when it was closed due to spending cuts. At the moment it’s only open for the Heritage Open Days every September. Finally, the Charterhouse is now run by the Historic Coventry Trust and is being restored with National Lottery funding, along with the surrounding Heritage Park (and the chapel of London Road cemetery, just across London Road); the Trust is also converting various historic properties (including the gatehouse to Whitefriars) to very distinctive tourist accommodation.

 The bombed-out shell of the cathedral has been preserved, with a modern replacement built at right angles to it, unusually. I hadn’t seen it for about thirty years and I’d forgotten just what a superb building it is. The architect Sir Basil Spence brought in fine artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Hans Coper, Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink to ornament the building, and Britten’s War Requiem was premiered at the new cathedral’s consecration (with English, German and Russian soloists, and on my third birthday, as it happens). There’s also a strong Canadian connection, with the ceiling made of donated Canadian cedar and the organ donated by the Canadian College of Organists; in recognition of this, there’s a large bronze maple leaf in the floor at the west end of the cathedral. In addition, the cathedral’s new Director of Music is the Canadian Rachel Mahon.



  I visited Coventry Poly, as it was, for work a few times in the 1980s, but have virtually no memory of it now. The present Coventry University, however, is surprisingly large (with plenty of Chinese students, by the look of it) and seems to be expanding. In fact it was able to announce plans to demolish its main admin block, the Alan Berry Building, built in 1963 immediately opposite the cathedral, in 2022, to open up the vista to the cathedral. They’ve also just refurbished the Ellen Terry Theatre, a striking Deco cinema used by performing arts students (the great actor Dame Ellen Terry was born in Coventry in 1847), and they plan to restore the Grade II-listed former Civic Centre as a teaching block. I also cycled out to the University of Warwick, in the suburbs of Coventry (don’t ask), of which I have stronger memories – its Arts Centre has a very strong reputation but is closed until this summer (‘in time for Coventry2021’), when a new building housing cinemas, an accessible art gallery and a restaurant will be added.

 The University of Warwick is also connected to Aurrigo, a Coventry company that is developing autonomous vehicles – I mention this only because two of their shuttles were very recently on trial in Cambridge, and I also saw their delivery pods at work when I was in Milton Keynes. However the city of Coventry is also supporting new transport technologies, aiming first to switch all its buses to electric power, and then from 2025 to open a VLR (Very Light Rail) line from the University of Warwick via the station and city centre to the hospital and the Ricoh Arena – this will use single battery-powered vehicles, running on light track that will not need heavy engineering to install (reducing construction costs by three quarters). The plan is for the vehicles to operate autonomously, but perhaps not at first.

Coventry comes to West Cambridge

And finally, food and drink

Unusually, given my need for food and remaining lockdown restrictions, I found myself not in pubs with real ale but in craft beer bars where the drink comes in colourful cans and costs rather more than it should. One nice venue is Dhillon’s Spire Bar, in the base of the Christchurch Spire, all that remains of a city-centre church destroyed in the blitz – they actually have their own brewery and taproom out near the Ricoh Arena. The beer’s not bad, but I was more interested in Twisted Barrel Brewery, which makes vegetarian beers without using isinglass (a clearing agent from fish bladders). The tap room is in the rather hipster FarGo Village, a former industrial site on Far Gosford Street, just east of the centre; unfortunately they’re also committed to managing everything via their app, which rules out techno-clumsy old guys like me. I mean, what’s so difficult about using a contactless card?

 There are lots of ethnic food options, plus street food at FarGo Village and elsewhere, but the most interesting new option is Forme & Chase in the Telegraph Hotel, which opened in May in the former offices of the Coventry Telegraph newspaper, a classic postwar building nicely restored. There’s also the Generators rooftop bar here, for cocktails and snacks.

North Norfolk

I originally wrote about North Norfolk (mainly the area around Burnham Market) as an addendum to my post on King’s Lynn, but I’ve been back and it probably deserves a post of its own.

May 2018 – From King’s Lynn it’s not far (a couple of hours by bike, an hour and 20 minutes by the twice-hourly Coasthopper bus) to Burnham Market, centre of a group of villages on the North Norfolk coast that are all associated with the childhood of Admiral Lord Nelson, and all have pubs named after him (the Nelson, the Hero) or one of his protegés, such as William Hoste. Burnham Market has become known as Chelsea-on-Sea (though it’s not actually on the coast) and is totally clogged with visiting SUVs in summer; the other Burnhams (Thorpe, Overy etc) are as lovely but don’t have the Humble Pie deli, the Tuscan Farm Shop, Gun Hill Clothing Co. or Gurney’s fish shop. Fortunately, a new 186-space village car park was opened in 2016, which should help. At the attractive little (largely 14th-century) church of St Mary the Virgin I found that Nelson’s daughter Horatia, who lived here with her widowed uncle, was engaged to one curate but ended up marrying his replacement in this church in 1822 – so Jane Austen wasn’t making this stuff up!

 The coastal wetlands are very popular with birdwatchers and others who like bracing walks to welcoming pubs, but this area always reminds me of one of my favourite films, Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the equally fab original novel, studied creative writing at UEA in Norwich, and it’s to Cromer that they go on a day trip (though it’s Clevedon pier in the film). At the end the doomed lovers go to a stranded boat, which is on Holkham beach, rather more famous for the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love.

June 2021 – Burnham Market is still cluttered with footway-blocking SUVs, and as most of Norfolk’s lanes are wide enough for a bike and a car to pass, but not a bike and a SUV, it’s easy to get very fed up with them. However, the lanes are actually very quiet, and immediately east of the Burnhams is Holkham Hall, where pedestrians and cyclists have free access to enjoy the estate (you can rent bikes there too). Holkham is also known for its sustainable approach to farming (information panels by the fields mention a long-term contract to supply barley to Adnams, mentioned in my previous post), and for its classy catering – I’ve eaten at both the Victoria Inn (outside the North Gates) and at the Courtyard Café, and both are great.

 The progressive attitude to farming is appropriate, as ‘Coke of Norfolk’ (Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, who inherited Holkham in 1776) was a great agricultural improver, following in the footsteps of the legendary ‘Turnip Townsend’, who devised the Norfolk four-course system, involving rotation of turnips, barley, clover, and wheat crops, on his estate just to the south near Great Massingham.

 I cycled a bit beyond the park, to Walsingham (site of strange Anglo-Catholic – and Roman Catholic – shrines and nowadays Russian Orthodox chapels too) and Binham Priory, far more religiously straightforward and absolutely lovely inside, with three storeys of Romanesque arches. If you can’t get in (it’s open for about five hours a day at the moment), the western façade is very important to architectural historians as possibly the first use of bar tracery in Britain (it also appeared at Westminster Abbey, Lincoln and Windsor in the early 1240s), but the window is largely bricked up now so it’s not very attractive.

Binham Priory (interior)

Binham Priory (exterior)








I returned via Creake Abbey, near Burnham Market, which is ruined but still attractive, and always open. When I left I cycled down the Peddars Way, a dead-straight (well, the surviving parts, anyway) track which probably dates from Roman times, though it seems similar to far older routes such as the Icknield Way. On the way from King’s Lynn to Burnham Market I had passed through Castle Rising, on the Peddars Way I passed through Castle Acre. Both have the remains of relatively small twelfth-century castles with splendid earthworks; Castle Rising has not reopened after lockdown, but Castle Acre (or Castle 0.4 Hectare, as my metric friend calls it) is free and always open – it boasts the biggest bailey in England. There’s a fine church, and the ruins of Castle Acre Priory are  also worth a visit, although you do have to pay.

Through Suffolk with WG Sebald

I recently re-read The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, partly because my housemate is from Suffolk and the book claims to be about walking through Suffolk. It isn’t really (it’s much more than that), and it starts and ends in Norwich, in the adjacent county of Norfolk, where Sebald taught at the University of East Anglia. I’ve previously written about Norwich, and also about Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham, which are in Suffolk but nowhere near Sebald’s route. And now I’ve just cycled down the Suffolk coast (loosely speaking), from Lowestoft to Woodbridge – because it’s marshy in places and eroding fast in others, there isn’t a road or cycle route along the coast, but there is often a path.

 Sebald begins by discussing Sir Thomas Browne, who was a doctor in Norwich from 1637 until his death in 1682 and is occasionally remembered as the author of some remarkably eccentric books. The most relevant is Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, supposedly an account of some Anglo-Saxon pots then recently excavated in Norfolk, which veers off, in majestic but melancholic Baroque prose, to discuss human burial customs and thus mortality itself. Sebald’s first chapter is written in similarly dense prose, and although he loosens up a bit in subsequent chapters, The Rings of Saturn is also largely about death and the futility of human life (Saturn was the god of melancholy, of course). Considering that it was actually written in German and translated into English,  the parody of Browne’s style is remarkably good, although there are a few clunky bits (the Shakespeare quotes were easier to put back into English, though). His trip through Suffolk was just a starting point for huge and eccentric digressions on all sorts of topics (often literary), which seem random and confusing but add up to present a coherently pessimistic worldview in which the Holocaust and other disasters are always waiting in the wings. Sebald was also notable for embedding pseudo-documentary photos in his books. The Rings of Saturn is hard work but darkly fascinating – it’s interesting just how many writers and artists revere Sebald and how much influence he’s had (see below).

 Sebald was a great believer in buried correspondences and random connections, and I often pick up on similar links in my own posts. In The Rings of Saturn there are lots of references to Rembrandt and the Netherlands, where I was in September, but also to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which played a rôle in the previous book I read, Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallet; he also mentions the 1987 ‘hurricane’ which also appears in Peculiar Ground, although moved to 1989; there’s mention of Borges’ connections with Uruguay, which I explore in my Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay (which I’m updating at the moment); and I recently read Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, who is a professor in the same university department as Sebald, along with the poet George Szirtes, whose work has referred to Sebald.

 Anyway, I started by taking a rather more modern train to Lowestoft than the one Sebald took; the easternmost town in England, it’s a port that is run-down in parts but nowhere near as bad as Sebald makes out – I get that he was a professional miserabilist, but claiming that the economic collapse caused by Thatcherism was somehow making previously literate people illiterate, and that a third of the Dogger Bank’s fish are now born with deformities caused by heavy metal pollution, is a bit much. The slow-burn approach he took elsewhere works far better. Sebald (or his narrator, who is not quite the same person) stayed at the drab Albion Hotel, which is presumably the Victoria, now warmly recommended by a friend of mine, as it happens.

 After passing Benacre Broad, where the trees were all dying (it’s now Benacre Nature Reserve, and seems pretty healthy to me) and Covehithe (see below), he reached Southwold, a lovely town which I’ll say more about in my next post. For some reason this stretch of coast is known as Sole Bay, but Sebald (or his translator) also refers to the German Ocean. The battle of Sole Bay in 1672 is largely forgotten now because there was no clear winner, but it involved no less than 168 ships in the Dutch and Anglo-French fleets and between 35,000 and 50,000 men, of whom around 4,100 died. Another classic Sebald digression involves twenty pages on Joseph Conrad’s early years (interleaved with Roger Casement, the Belgian Congo and the Battle of Waterloo) – it turns out that Conrad’s first English landfall was in Lowestoft, where he began learning English by studying newspapers in pubs – and the pub opposite Lowestoft station is today called the Joseph Conrad. It’s a Wetherspoon pub and I didn’t stop (well, it was barely lunchtime).

 Like Sebald, I crossed the Bailey Bridge from Southwold to Walberswick – this is not the original bridge (Sebald got this wrong), but is on the route of the narrow-gauge railway that linked Halesworth and Southwold from 1879 to 1929. One of his less plausible digressions concerns the railway’s carriages, allegedly built for the Emperor of China’s private railway; it seems that the six-wheeled carriages did have rather exotic balconies at either end (removed after the First World War), but that’s as far as it goes. But this leads him to the topic of silkworms, forced to become a metaphor for not just inevitable death but also the Holocaust and other genocides in general. He didn’t mention either Walberswick or Aldeburgh, clearly far too nice and genteel to fit his theme, but I will look at them too in my next post. Dunwich, on the other hand, famously a major port until the thirteenth century which was then abandoned and largely washed away, is perfect for his theme of decay and disaster. In Anglo-Saxon times it was capital of the East Angles and then rivalled London as England’s chief port on the North Sea (too early for it to have figured in the European Hanse Museum in Lübeck) – but storms in 1286 and 1287 wiped this out and its churches and other buildings disappeared as the cliffs eroded over the following centuries. Now there are a few houses, a tiny museum (next to The Ship, a fine pub known for its food) and the ruins of the Greyfriars priory, as well as a few bits of rescued masonry next to the Victorian church of St James.

 Incidentally, Dunwich is also known to some of my friends as the destination of the Dunwich Dynamo, an all-night cycle ride from London on the Saturday night closest to the July full moon. Once a loose post-pub tradition among London cycle couriers, it became semi-formalised from 1993, and in recent years over two thousand cyclists have tackled the 112-mile ride, with hot food and drink available at village halls, before collapsing on the beach at dawn.

 I also stopped in Clayhithe, a few miles north of Southwold, which Sebald only mentions in passing – this was also a port, though far smaller than Dunwich, and has also been lost to the sea. The coast here has retreated at least 500 metres in the last two centuries, a process which is clearly not going to stop. The wrecks of wooden ships are increasingly being discovered along this coast – in 2018 and again in February 2021 one dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century was revealed by the shifting sands here, and in March 2021 another appeared at Thorpeness, further south, which may possibly be a collier like Captain Cook’s Endeavour. The church of St Andrew is now a small thatched building (quite common for churches in this area) within the ruins of a much larger one – on top of which a pair of kestrels were nesting.

 Continuing south, I pushed my bike along a short stretch of shingle beach, from the National Trust’s Dunwich Heath property to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve – this is one of their flagship sites, known for its reed beds where large numbers of ducks and geese overwinter, and rarities such as avocets, marsh harriers and bitterns breed (I heard a bittern booming further down the coast, which was a first), but there’s also plenty of sandy heath where stone curlew, wood larks, Dartford warblers and nightjars can be found. I was also surprised to see three groups of red deer in this area, as well as lots of single muntjac deer, which are something of a plague across the region. As in many places along this coast, there are signs warning of adders, and there are various unusual butterflies here too.

 After Minsmere, I cycled through Leiston and Thorpeness (avoiding Sizewell, although you can’t avoid the sight of the nuclear power station) – Leiston Abbey is free and open daylight hours, and there’s rather more of it than at the ruined churches just north. A Premonstratensian monastery was founded in 1182 at Minsmere, and moved here in about 1363 when flooding made the original site untenable. After the Reformation it was used as a farm and a residential music school now occupies the main building. Thorpeness is an oddity, a holiday village created just before the First World War by the local landowners, the Ogilvies (who also owned Minsmere); it didn’t really take off but there are some very attractive Tudor Revival houses as well as a charming lake and golf course. As it turns out it’s ideal for the age of AirBnB, one of the most prized rentals being The House in the Clouds, converted from a water tower in 1923.

 Continuing south from Thorpeness you’ll soon pick up a decent cyclepath along the promenade that leads in to Aldeburgh, a delightful town that I look at in more detail here. Sebald actually skipped Aldeburgh in The Rings of Saturn (it’s far too nice to fit his theme); he got a lift from Southwold to Woodbridge and, after walking north to investigate the home of Edward Fitzgerald (eccentric translator of Omar Khayyam and starting-point for stories about the Anglo-Irish (my people) and their decaying country homes), walked to Orford. There’s a fine castle and church to be seen here, but the main attraction is Orford Ness, a rather ghostly shingle spit (only accessible by boat) which was closed off as a testing ground for weaponry for eighty years and is now preserved by the National Trust. I haven’t taken the boat to the ness yet, but Sebald found it ideal for musing on post-apocalyptic ruins.

 Sebald then returned north inland, with other weird encounters and digressions (such as a visit to his friend, the post and translator Michael Hamburger) – but I was slightly surprised that he didn’t mention Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s portrait of an English village was actually a compilation of several villages just north of Woodbridge in the 1960s (but still largely untouched by the huge changes in rural life and farming that were lurking just a few years into the future) – perhaps it was too bucolic for his purpose, but recent research by the University of East Anglia has looked at the utter transformation of the countryside since Blythe’s time, with results that might have given Sebald food for thought.

 As for me, I cycled to Orford via Butley and Iken (each with another attractive little church), and then along the south side of Rendlesham Forest (known for UFO sightings, supposedly) to Woodbridge, and caught a train home. This is an area known as the Sandlings, which I’d not heard of but which certainly lives up to its name, with sand blown across the back lanes and some bridleways that were so soft and loose that I had to push my bike. The light sandy soil was used only for grazing sheep until the Victorians fell in love with blasting birds out of the sky in the name of sport – it turned out that breeding pheasants was an ideal use of the land. Just before reaching Woodbridge I called in at Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon ship burial site currently enjoying a moment thanks to the film The Dig (with Suffolk-born Ralph Fiennes) – thanks to the lockdown the indoor exhibits and viewing tower were all closed, so all I could actually do is look at some mounds, but the café was open, which was what I needed.

 Woodbridge is a pleasant little town that’s known mainly for still having a high street lined with independent shops; there’s also a nice church further up the hill, and on the waterfront (still active so not over-prettified) a white weatherboarded tidal mill (usually open to visitors, but also closed due to Covid-19). The Whistlestop Café at the station is also a highlight for some.

 So, what to make of all this? Is there any good reason to follow Sebald through Suffolk? Well, no, it doesn’t really work, given all his digressions through time and space. Robert Macfarlane (who has also written beautifully about Orford Ness) said in 2012 that he was  planning to follow in Sebald’s footsteps to produce an ‘unconventional biography’ which will be fascinating, but as far as I can see this has not yet emerged. Film director Grant Gee (who has worked with Joy Division, Radiohead, Blur and Nick Cave) has produced a short film retracing Sebald’s journey which seems interesting, and writers and artists such as Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner and Tacita Dean have written about Sebald – these are all rather more worthwhile, I would expect, than just walking down the coast. There are also various blogs attempting to pay stylistic homage with varying degrees of success (but getting basic facts wrong, which offends me as a real working travel writer). In any case, and partly because hotels are still closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown, I chose to cycle, with one night camping in Dunwich Forest, rather than follow the actual walk.

 The artist Ali Pretty (who I knew at school) is leading the Beach of Dreams project, a 500-mile walk from Lowestoft along the coast to Tilbury this summer (starting on 27 June 2021 and finishing on 1 August) – it’s a community project asking the question “How can we creatively reimagine our future?”. Now that does sound worthwhile.

Southwold, Walberswick and Aldeburgh

It’s generally acknowledged that Southwold is the queen of the Suffolk coast, and it is lovely, but in some ways I prefer Aldeburgh, a cultured and more laidback place – not that Southwold is the least bit Kiss Me Quick, but it is busier and more commercial. Southwold does have a pier, but it’s not what you might think – built in 1900, it was destroyed by storms in 1934 and 1979 (and in the Second World War, to a certain extent), then rebuilt in 1999-2001, and is now a family business. There are the usual cafés and gift shops, but the unmissable attraction is the Under The Pier Show, a beyond quirky arcade of weird slot machines (now expanding into virtual reality).

 For some of us, the great attraction in Southwold is Adnam’s brewery, a local success story that stands as a telling contrast to Greene King in Bury St Edmunds, which has set out to become as big a second-tier brewery and pub company as it can, by buying up rivals and closing them down. Adnams, however, prides itself on good community relations and a sustainable approach to its business, exemplified by the beautiful grass-roofed distribution centre opened in 2006 three miles out of town. Unfortunately this brought to an end their tradition of delivering beer around Southwold with a horse-powered dray. The brewery is still in the town (tours are available), and has been totally rebuilt internally – they thought of moving to their Reydon site but in the end they decided to stick to their roots in town and built the distribution centre there instead. They can now produce lots of one-off craft beers and also lager, and have built a great reputation for their balancing act between classic cask standards and trendy innovations. They are keen to cooperate with other brewers, and in 2010 they also started a distillery to produce Suffolk gin, vodka and whisky. 

 And of course they have pubs – the Sole Bay Inn, the Lord Nelson and the Red Lion are all good, as well as the Swan and Crown hotels. There’s also the Adnams Store and Café just off the High St (they also have stores in Aldeburgh, Woodbridge, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Saffron Walden and elsewhere). Their key beers are Southwold Bitter, a 3.7% session beer, Ghost Ship, a 4.5% pale ale with Citra hops (and an alcohol-free version) and Broadside, a 4.7% premium bitter (bottled Broadside is 6.3%). The chestnut-brown Bitter is a fine example of the classic English style, along the lines of Harvey’s Sussex Best (and it’s interesting that Harvey’s is one of the few other breweries still to be brewing in a town centre, Lewes to be precise).

 It’s only in the last decade or so that the town has come to terms with the fact that George Orwell wrote his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, here, in his parents’ retirement home, Montague House, on the High Street. It’s now available as a holiday let, and an Orwell mural now faces people leaving the pier.


 Speaking of places to stay, the writer WG Sebald was apparently a fan of the Crown Hotel, but ‘the Sailors’ Reading Room is by far my favourite haunt’, as it is for many others – next to the Lord Nelson, it was built in 1864 as an alternative to the town’s pubs for its sailors and fishermen, and still serves that purpose, but has also developed into a sort of museum, with historic pictures of ships and sailors, model ships and glass cabinets of maritime bits and pieces. Another historic relic of sorts is the Electric Picture Palace, created only in 2002 in disused stables on Blackmill Road; as you go in, you’ll pass a uniformed commissionaire, a dinner-jacketed manager and an usherette. There’ll be an interval when a ‘Tiny Wurlitzer’ organ will appear, and at the end you will of course wait for the National Anthem before leaving. They show a lot of classic films as well.

 A couple of miles away on the far side of the Blyth river is Walberswick, reached by a foot ferry or the bailey bridge, built to replace the bridge of the narrow-gauge railway that I mentioned here (it’s going to be closed for repairs this summer, which is causing some debate – it’s exactly when most people will be affected, but apparently the tides dictate it). I asked my friends in Walberswick if this rather formless little village felt overwhelmed by lively prosperous Southwold, but they said ‘No! We feel superior’, and what’s more my friends felt superior (in a nice way, I

The Bridge at Walberswick, by Philip Wilson Steer

think) to other people in Walberswick because they’d been coming there since the 1950s, long before the various Freuds (and partners such as Richard Curtis) who have to a certain extent put it on the map. It was in fact known at the end of the nineteenth century, when artistic types such as Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald summered here.

 Incidentally, there may not be much in Walberswick, but there are two good pubs, the Bell and the Anchor, the second of which has been run since 2006 by Mark Dorber. For about twenty-five years he ran the White Horse on Parson’s Green in London, which had a moment in the mid-80s when it was known as the Sloaney Pony and was at the heart of the Sloane Ranger phenomenon – but he also played a huge rôle in bringing about the revival of the classic IPA style, and in pushing the idea of pairing food with specific beers. I only once went in to the White Horse, where the England Number 8, Dean Richards, was towering over the crowd – he was not in the least sloaney.

 The other thing Walberswick is known for is crabbing, indeed the British Championships were held there until they fell victim to their own success – and in an age of social distancing it’s not possible for kids to line up on the Kissing Bridge as they used to. The aim is to catch the largest crab possible (bacon is the bait of choice) and release it, so it’s utterly pointless and just another of the weird ways in which humans torment other animals.


 Both Southwold and Walberswick have fine churches – St Edmund in Southwold was built in the 1430s to 1490s, after an earlier church burnt down, and so has an unusually unified style, with a continuous roof over nave and chancel. It’s known for its very fine rood screen with painted figures of saints, and the carved angels looking down from the ceiling. The glass is plain, due to the combined efforts of the Puritans and the Luftwaffe, so it’s even more full of light than other churches built at this time from the profits of the wool trade, such as in Lavenham. 

 St. Andrew’s in Walberswick is striking because (as in Covehithe), it’s set in the ruins of the previous church. This was built in 1473-93, but just a few years later, after the Reformation, congregation numbers plummeted for some reason and most of the church fell into disuse. Finally, at the end of the seventeenth century, most of it was demolished and a smaller church fashioned out of the south aisle. The tower also had to remain, as an aid to navigation. The pulpit and altar screen also survive from the older church, and there’s an interesting mosaic made of stained glass from its windows.

 But the best church in the area (listed Grade I and all that) is at Blythburgh, a few miles inland and reached by a nice walk along the former railway. This also gives access to the reedbeds at the heart of the Suffolk Coast National Nature Reserve, which also includes a lot of sandy heathland – both habitats are very important for birdlife (around 300 species), butterflies and moths (500 species), as well as over 100 species of cranefly (who knew?), otters, natterjack toads and five species of deer.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I cycled on to Aldeburgh, a charming little town that’s quieter and less commercial than Southwold (it has a stoney beach whereas Southwold’s is sandy) – it’s known above all as the home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who were rather forward-thinking when they founded a music festival in 1948, with performances in many local churches. It was even more forward-thinking to take over the industrial site of Snape Maltings, five miles inland, which now houses not only a beautiful concert hall and the Britten-Pears music school but also a gallery, café, pub, self-catering accommodation and posh shops – I mean, how did BB know that lifestyle shopping was going to be such a big thing? It’s a surprisingly large and attractive complex, with scope for further development.

 Aldeburgh itself has suffered from coastal erosion, although it’s less obvious than at Dunwich, Orford and other former ports along this coast; even so, few pre-nineteenth-century buildings remain and the historic Moot Hall (c1529, now housing the town museum) was in the town centre and is now on the promenade. In the nineteenth century Aldeburgh revived as a bathing resort (and the railway arrived in 1860); the delightful shopfronts on the present surprisingly wide High Street date from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and are key to its Conservation Area status with their fanlights, pilasters and decorative ironwork.

 Other architectural oddities on the seafront include the two look-out towers, built by two rival pilotage groups to spot ships heading south towards the Thames, the modernist lifeboat station (built in 1994), and a Martello tower (half a mile south), the northernmost of the chain built to defend against a Napoleonic invasion (now available as holiday accommodation). The South Lookout Tower is where Laurens van der Post wrote in his later years, and is now part of an artists’ residence.

 Aldeburgh church is a little north of the centre, and has a largely nineteenth-century interior, so it doesn’t get as many visitors as Southwold’s fabulous church; but there’s a fine stained-glass window by John Piper in memory of Britten, with scenes from his church parables, and a memorial to the 1899 lifeboat disaster. The large churchyard contains not only the graves of Britten and Pears, alongside each other, but also nearby those of Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav), Britten’s assistant and also a composer, musical educator and conductor in her own right, and the soprano Joan Cross, who created rôles such as Ellen Orford and Mrs Grose in Britten’s operas.

Maggi Hambling’s Scallop, on Aldeburgh beach, with a quotation from Peter Grimes

 Britten and Pears’ home, The Red House, is near the golf course on the way to Snape; I saw a flip remark that the historic Sailor’s Path to Snape (recently refurbished with solid wooden boardwalks) was ‘Britten’s walk to work’, but I don’t believe it for a moment – he always loved travelling by car and bought a Rolls-Royce as soon as he could. Anyway, the Red House is well worth a visit; in addition to the house and lovely gardens, the library and composition studio were built in former barns (where the Roller also lived) and there’s a modern gallery over Britten’s open-air swimming pool (which is still there beneath the floor).

 Among more modern musicians, Peter Sinfield (of King Crimson) and Isabella Summers (of Florence and the Machine) both live here – but I was more surprised to learn that Gerry Fiennes (1906–85), author of I Tried to Run a Railway, was mayor of Aldeburgh in 1976 – he has something of a cultish following, having introduced both the Deltic diesel locomotives (for sustained 100mph running on the London-Edinburgh route) and the merry-go-round trains (for moving coal in bulk); but publication of his wickedly humorous book in 1967 led to his being sacked by British Rail. In fact I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as I already knew that his cousin Ralph Fiennes was born in Suffolk, and puts on a very creditable local accent in The Dig (about Sutton Hoo). Another mayor of Aldeburgh (in 1908) was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose family owned the Snape maltings; she was not only Britain’s first female doctor, but also its first female mayor, and she also lies in the churchyard.

 Food-wise, the emphasis here is totally on fish, and smoking fish is big here and along the coast to Orford and into Essex. Aldeburgh Smokehouse (also known as Ash Smoked Fishes, though I think that should be ash-smoked fish) is a hut on the beach just north of the centre. Aldeburgh Fish & Chip Shop is the most famous chippie on the Suffolk coast, and The Lighthouse on the High Street is also a fine seafood restaurant. Aldeburgh was also famed for Lawson’s Deli (also on the High Street), which became Slate Cheese in 2017 and is still excellent (the best Suffolk cheese is Baron Bigod, the only British raw milk Brie-style cheese). Slate Cheese also has a branch in Southwold, and other trendy outlets such as Two Magpies Bakery, Quba and Joules (for clothing and furnishings) also have branches in each town. It’s also noticeable that there are good bookshops in both towns and in nearby villages too (though these are mostly internet/mail-order operations); the Southwold Bookshop is now owned by Waterstones but that’s not at all obvious.