This is Diss

In which Mrs. P and I explore the Norfolk/Suffolk borders…

Mrs. P and I have holidayed in Suffolk quite often. We love the gently, rolling countryside, the ancient, rambling towns and the wide, wild coast. On this trip, it was nice to see familiar places anew, looking at them through the eyes of writers who were also inspired by the county. It was also nice to share some of our favourite places with friends.

Our first port of call on these trips is usually Bury St. Edmunds. This charming little market town allows us to stop for lunch and get a bit of shopping. It is home to a large abbey, wherein, St. Edmund lies buried. The fact that the abbey is in the centre, gives the town an old-fashioned, rustic feel. A very large and impressive gatehouse survives amid the ruins and there is a beautiful town-centre garden. Charles Dickens stayed regularly in Bury St. Edmunds, lodging at the Angel Hotel, an imposing ivy-covered building that sits opposite the Abbey and dominates the town square. Next door is the Athenaeum, where several authors gave readings in the 19th Century, among them, Charles Kingsley, William Makepeace Thackeray and Dickens himself, who read excerpts from The Pickwick Papers here in 1859. He returned in 1861 to read from David Copperfield.

A little way North of Bury is the tiny village of Great Livermere. In the Rectory, in 1862 was born one of the writers whose work evokes the remoteness and mysteriousness of the East Anglian countryside. M.R. James was the definitive writer of Victorian ghost stories, in which, innocent outsiders pay a price for meddling in a past they little understand. James portrays the countryside as mysterious, misty and wet: the landscapes are indistinct, with mist partially clearing to reveal shadowy figures:

The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. On this bleak stage at first no actor was visible. Then, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared…

M.R. James, ‘O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
Church of St. Peter, Great Livermere

Great Livermere Rectory is not really visible from the road. I caught only a glimpse through the thick hedge surrounding it. The church is accessible and is appropriately unusual, with its squat tower, surmounted with a wooden belfry. Inside, it is very light and the clear glass windows seem particularly large. There is some beautiful carving, particularly the rood screen. In the chancel, there is a slate grey plaque to the great man himself, acknowledging some of his many achievements (he was a successful academic, holding prestigious posts at Eton and Cambridge). His stories remain popular today: they are frequently filmed and new adaptations of his books provide a highpoint to Christmas telly schedules; ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You‘, ‘The Tractate Middoth‘ and ‘A Warning to the Curious‘ have all had recent airings on TV.

Mrs. P and I were actually staying in Norfolk, at Blo’ Norton Hall. The Hall, and the village it inhabits, sits on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, which is defined here by the Little Ouse, which flows back towards Cambridgeshire and the Wash. It was to this hall that, in 1906, a young Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) came on holiday. She spent her days cycling around the lanes around Thetford and Diss and worked on a short story while she was here. There are some very pleasant converted barns, of varying sizes, which are let for holidays. It was well-equipped and comfortable, with an enormous kitchen and all the comforts of home. I had brought a copy of ‘Memoirs of a Novelist‘ to read while I was here. This collection contains ‘The Journal of Miss Joan Martyn‘, the story she wrote while staying here.

Blo’ Norton Hall, Norfolk

Diss is a very pretty market town. There is a tiny museum, with a wealth of agricultural history, along with a display about the R34 airship, which set out from Diss on the first ever double crossing of the Atlantic. The church is large and robust with a Victorian interior, though parts of the building date from the 15th Century. The rector here in 1504 was John Skelton. He was a poet, whose work was widely praised in his own time: he had been poet to Henry VIII. His most famous poem, Ware the Hawke, tells the story of a rector’s attempts to rid the church of an infestation of pigeons by introducing a hawk. Today, you are asked, via a hand-written note on the door, to ensure the door is kept shut to deter the birds.

John Betjeman fell in love with Diss when he visited in 1964, to film a programme about the town for the BBC (still widely available online). He was friends with the poet, Mary Wilson, wife of Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. She had grown up in the town; his ‘Mind’s Journey to Diss’, describes a train journey, with her, from London. In it, he describes the changing landscape as they approach the town. Betjeaman described Diss as “the perfect small English town.” He became instrumental in the preservation of the town and was awarded presidency of the Diss Society; an accolade he is said to have valued more than the laureateship!

Mrs. P and I spent a pleasant couple of days tourning the Norfolk/Suffolk borderlands: looking in old churches and stopping for drinks at wayside inns. We even had an ice-cream on the prom at Great Yarmouth. There are many Dickens connections in this part of the country, as he was staying in the area whilst writing David Copperfield. He is supposed to have discovered a family living rough on Great Yarmouth beach in an upturned boat and based the Peggotys’ house on these unique lodgings. David Copperfield is born and raised in Blunderstone, which is based on the village of Blundeston:

St. Mary the Virgin, Blundeston

There is nothing half so green that I know anywhere, as the grass of that churchyard; nothing half so shady as its trees; nothing half so quiet as its tombstones.

Charles Dickens, ‘David Copperfield

We discovered, at St. Mary’s Ditchingham, the grave of Henry Rider Haggard, author of Victorian tales of high adventure and white supremacy. In ‘King Solomon’s Mines‘ he created the action hero, Allan Quatermain, portrayed on screen by Sean Connery and Patrick Swayze, among others. Haggard has the honour of being one of the earliest authors to be adapted for the screen: ‘She‘ was filmed by Georges Méliès in 1899. He was born in Bradenham in Norfolk in 1856 and was packed off to Africa at a young age by his father, who didn’t believe he would amount to much. He had a reasonable career in the Foreign Office and became an officer in the High Court in Natal. He started to write in order to record the important events he had witnessed. Returning to England in 1879, he married Marianna Margitson and moved into her home: Ditchingham Hall. His daughter, Lilias, also became an author and is buried in the churchyard.

Towards the end of the week, Ms. E, along with her boyfriend, Mr. Lingley, joined us for a couple of days. They are a lovely couple and Mrs. P and I adore their company. E had agreed to help me out with a bit of research for a day or two and, in return, we put them up and fed them. We started by taking them to lunch at the Butt and Oyster in Pin Mill, quite a drive from where we were staying but definitely worth it. It’s a lovely pub: sprawling, with many rooms traditionally furnished: lots of polished wood and tiled floors and a definite nautical feel. The pub is at the waterside, so close that the river Orwell must come lapping up the walls at high tide. We had an Adnams or two – an advantage of having a driver for the day – and a very good seafood platter. It was very popular: packed out with sailing people and, when a prime spot became available in a bay window, we dived for it and bagged it.

The Butt and Oyster, Pin Mill

The river Orwell is a magnet for sailing enthusiasts, as it is, according to Sailing Today, “one of the prettiest rivers on the east coast“. Arthur Ransome, yachtsman and author of children’s sailing stories, used to visit the Butt and Oyster to watch the boats. In fact, his own boat, the Nancy Blackett, is kept nearby, owned by a preservation trust and makes appearances as sailing galas and local events. It is even available to charter, if you fancy a historic sail of your own. Next door to the pub, a little art gallery has a collection of photographs of Ransome and his next boat Selina King. The Orwell Estuary features in two of his novels, We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea (1938) and Secret Water (1939).

We decided, over a lunchtime conversation, to visit Aldeburgh that afternoon. Mrs. P and I have been to Aldeburgh many times before but we were happy to see it again, it being a delightful little seaside town. After parking near the seafront, we wandered up the hill to the large, elegant parish church to take a look inside. Within, is a memorial to George Crabbe, a poet who was born in the town in 1754. He is probably best known for The Village, a poem about a seafaring community on the East coast, parts of which were used as the basis for the opera Peter Grimes (1945) by fellow Alderburgh resident Benjamin Britten.

George Crabbe: poet and Aldeburgh resident

We walked back into Aldeburgh via a very good and well-stocked little bookshop on the high street. Personally, I was aching for the fish and chip shop and gazed at it longingly as we passed but a very large lunch had not yet receded far enough into to justify an afternoon snack. Instead, we got ice cream and wandered down to the beach, spending a very happy hour or two wandering along the shingle and looking for interesting stones, one of Mrs. P’s favourite activities. We stayed until evening, when we returned to Blo’ Norton and spent the evening drinking and chatting late into the night.

Our week was over too quickly and we headed for home the next day. On our way back, we stopped first at Melford Hall. This 16th Century Manor house was the home of the Hyde Parker family. Beatrix Potter was related to them and frequently stayed. There are a number of her possessions on display in her room: her dressing table and bed have been preserved as she would have left them. The adjoining tower room has been turned into an exhibition about Potter and her connection to the hall, complete with some of her own sketches and stuffed animals she brought for the children. The hall has a fascinating history, having been used as officer accomodation during the second world war. Thankfully, the servicement were respectful of their historic environment and only burned down one wing during their stay.

A brass Pongo on the streets of Sudbury

A little further south, we broke our journey again at the little Suffolk town of Sudbury. Famous as the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough, the wide market square is dominated by St. Peter’s church, now an arts and exhibition centre. Opposite are the town council offices, in which, a little museum tells the story of the town. There are displays about many aspects of the town and surrounding area, including Charles Dickens, who based part of Pickwick Papers in the Sudbury, and Dodie Smith, who lived nearby and set part of her most famous book, the 101 Dalmatians here. the local museum has a display dedicated to her. Her typewriter is here, complete with one of her last notes: a heartbreaking admission of her failing abilities. Alongside these are some books and model dalmatians, created to promote the book and the much-loved film it inspired. There is also a memorial fountain by the railings of St. Peter’s and, if you look carefully at the bollards around here, you may just find one with a brass dalmatian head.

I don’t think Mr. Lingely realised quite how much driving he would be doing over the couple of days he spent with us but he took it all on without complaint. In fact, he embraced his task with enthusiasm. We parted company at Sudbury, promising to meet again soon and headed for home.

Melford Hall, Suffolk (photo by Matt Lingley)

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