The Maldon Soap Company

Made over the border in Essex, the Maldon Soap Company makes all of its soaps, shampoos and cosmetic products by hand. Ingredients are sourced locally where possible and include the very famous local Maldon Salt alongside honey and home grown calendula (marigold) for their lip balms and lotions.

Pure aromatherapy quality essential oils are included as these have a long and proven history of beneficence for the hair and skin and for the same reason  palm oil, parabens, SLS and extra foaming agents are avoided. Vegetable glycerine from palm free sources is used because of its importance as a humectant- its ability to attract water from the environment and from the lower layers of skin (dermis) which  increases the amount of water in the surface layers of skin. Another aspect of glycerin’s benefit is that it is a skin-identical ingredient, meaning it is a substance found naturally in skin. In that respect it is one of the many substances in skin that help maintain the outer barrier and prevent dryness or scaling.

Of additional interest to us is the colour of a product and how it is obtained and reassuringly, the Maldon Soap Company uses naturally derived products such as beetroot, paprika and spirulina and minimally too- no lurid shades here to permanently stain your bathroom grouting, bath or skin.

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First off the bat was their Pure Almond Soap, log cut and a beautiful buttermilk colour. Made by soaking organic almonds overnight to eliminate their skins, they are then blended with distilled water to make almond milk and then blended with sweet almond oil and scented with almond extract. That is all. Scented like a natural marzipan, this soap foams up exquisitely and cleaned our skin leaving it not tight and stretched (the poor mans Botox perhaps?) but supple and soft. We would be happy to use this on children too and as a kitchen hand cleanser because it is quite neutral in scent.

Husband comes home like Pigpen from Snoopy at times, trailing great gouts of dust that also become ingrained and that is why we were keen to road test the Coconut & Oat Soap on him. He is understandably not keen to sandblast himself with grit sharp exfoliants and scrubs having sensitive skin and being desirous of a bath and shower experience that is soothing after a long day. But something too gentle simply won’t get the grime off so he can then rewash with the more fouffy products.

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Tan in colour with a proper natural scent of coconut as opposed to the Hawaiian Tropic razzle dazzle scent (which is not natural) the soap slab feels incredibly silky to the touch and works beautifully as a scrub for mildly grubby mitts and body BUT we wouldn’t recommend it as a heavy duty product. Best for scrubbing dry elbows and feet, gentle enough for grubby kids with a propensity for dry skin and it didn’t leave our skin feeling as taut as a well tuned violin like a lot of scrubs can.

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My favourite blast from my hippy teenage past is the scent of patchouli and the memories it invokes of the local ‘head shop’ (known as the Purple Shop in Ipswich) with its luridly painted exterior and clouds of incense billowing out of the door which permanently scented every product we bought. This soap is glycerine clear, far removed from the headache inducing heavy orange yellow of the patchouli oil that stained the neckline of my gypsy blouses and with a light scent that captures patchouli in a very modern way. The scent lingered on my skin for hours afterwards- brilliant in hot weather when a lot of perfumes feel too heavy or use bergamot fixative which is reactive in the sun and stains the skin. Earthy, complex and oddly relaxing, this soap wouldn’t smell right on small children in our opinion. It is very grown up.

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Translucently pale yellow, coloured with Turmeric and assertive,  True Litsea Cubeba soap is fragranced with the uplifting citrussy scent of Litsea Cubeba (May Chang), a small pepper like tropical plant native to China, Indonesia and Taiwan. Used to relax and useful for meditation, this scent is used to uplift the senses and revive the spirits with a clean almost ‘fizzy’ fragrance- most definitely a morning soap. To us it smells as though pure lemon juice, lemongrass and elderflower have been distilled into solid form and is also so reminiscent of the spice blends used in the cooking of these regions. The soap foams well but not excessively, handy when you are in a morning hurry but I wouldn’t use it as a kitchen hand cleanser because it is not neutral enough- it will scent ingredients when you handle them.

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Gorgeous scrubs and potions await you at the Maldon Soap Company

One of my favourite cosmetic companies is Guerlain because of their violet scented products- lipsticks and Les Meteorites face pearls, so we were delighted to receive a little block of Parma Violet soap. Greyish in colour because it has not been artificially coloured a lurid shade of purple, this soap is very silky in the hand and subtly perfumed. It doesn’t hit you like a sledgehammer when you open it, something we did fear might be the case because so many cosmetic companies miss the point of violet scents-they are not the heavy hitters in a garden; rather they are shy, elusive in scent and want you to come in close.

Dry and powdery, violet scents disappear and reappear like magic because they are anosmic, stimulating scent receptors then temporarily shutting them off completely. Violet cannot be smelled for more than a few moments at a time, then, after a few breaths and a period of time, the scent magically reappears. Because the brain hasn’t registered it in the preceding few moments, it registers as a new scent stimuli. In Hungary, they call violets “árvácska” which translates to “little orphan”. this may or may not reference the fact that Parma Violet plants were originally sterile and therefore have no parents. They have to be propagated via other means.

Parma Violet soap again was not drying, left my hands and face feeling satiny and I’d most definitely use this soap before going to bed. It has that slightly soporific scent, alluring and we’ll say no more.

I don’t have feet, I have hooves. After a long old winter in clumpy boots and thick tights, I am an inch taller with the dry skin (sorry TMI) I have accumulated and after using the Footner foot sock, I needed something to keep my foot care on the right path, especially as I now have to wear punishing heels due to being an inch shorter after my hooves were treated. The Minty Scrubby Foot Scrub was a good place to start, not overpoweringly menthol in scent,  trembling and slightly jelly like in the pot and flecked with little bits to scour away the debris of the day. Releasing an invigorating smell as I used it, the particles (salt? sand?) are tiny enough to work their way into small cracks and crevasses, helping to break down dry skin and smooth them down. I don’t like larger grained products because it is easy to scrub too hard and end up with sore, abraded toes and soles. This product feels precise and because of the texture, doesn’t run everywhere (expensively wasted down the plug hole usually), stays where it is supposed to and as long as your feet aren’t too bad, it’ll do a good job.

I soon ran out of the skin saving face balm because it is bloody brilliant and better than Elizabeth Ardens vile smelling ‘Eight Hour Face Cream’ which to me smells like something you’d use on an old horse. Slathering the skin saving balm on my elbows, knees, sunburned ears (oops), chafed bits, nose and even using it to soften the inside of a stiff pair of leather shoes (my tip of the day because after all leather is skin right?) this is my absolute recommendation for everyday keep-on-the-desk usefulness. Slightly sticky and very emollient so you will have to wash your hands after using it (don’t use it if you are wearing silk and viscose until it is absorbed), this works incredibly hard on problem areas and I’d suggest using it as a kind of Scud Missile balm- when you want to spot treat an isolated area as opposed to slathering it over your entire body. It doesn’t really have a scent per se, just a slightly medicinal smell so that must mean it is healing right?

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Avocado and Shea Hand & Body Cream

Made from cold pressed avocado oil, orange flower water, shea butter, beeswax, avocado butter, citrus and vanilla fragrance, this hand and body cream couldn’t really be anything other than super moisturising could it? Contradictory in its thick luxurious texture yet easy to spread onto skin and settling in well with not too much lingering ‘slip’, my poor old lady looking hands really need some attention. Faintly herbaceous in scent, not Avocado-y as such but vegetal and gentle, it doesn’t leave you smelling of last nights guacamole, even when the sun heats your skin up. If you have more mature skin this is the cream we’d advise as mine positively sucked it up and within minutes, it had disappeared leaving something a little more imbued with youth than before. I cannot be certain but I have noticed that my skin springs back a little easier on the back of my hands and they don’t appear so crepey- I have always had old looking mitts: even at aged ten my palms were dry so I have grown up believing this to be irredeemably genetic. Maybe not.

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Glycerine & Lavender Handcream

The Glycerine & Lavender Handcream has been applied to a very peachy babies bum with mild nappy rash and also to other body parts  and mum reports this cream has definite possibilities as a multi purpose one, not just for adult hands. Using the moisture attracting and sealing Glycerine and packed with calming, soothing and soporific Lavender, what better way to get anybody to relax (and sleep in the case of babies) than with this cream? Working well for burns, scalds, blisters and all manner of grazes, we’d use this as another all purpose cream too. It is thick,makes a good barrier cream and will  grease mark clothing so needs to be applied before dressing or very carefully and we’d again caution its use after cooking because the lavender is very penetrating but in a good way. Being a fan of lavender in food- our favourite cheese is a ewe’s cheese spiked with lavender sprigs and our favourite macarons are lavender and honey, maybe cooking whilst wearing this is not such a bad idea after all?

The Maldon Soap Company

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Broads national park: a ranger’s guide

From the best places for boat hire and day trips on the Norfolk Broads to spotting its wildlife and finding great places to eat and drink, ranger Robin Allard has the lowdown.
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Canoeing on the Broads. Photograph: Julian Claxton

What’s new?

A canoe trip can be a real family adventure and a chance for that “taster” of the Broads. This year we have developed our canoe trails that extend from the Broads’ canoe hire centres. Visit enjoythebroads.com to find out how you can explore; you’ll see that each trail offers options for the length of your route. The trails are mostly on the less tidal upper reaches of the rivers with an opportunity to get close to nature.

Park highlights

The areas of Heigham Sound, Hickling Broad, Horsey and West Somerton have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and are a haven for wildlife. You are bound to see the Marsh Harrier over the reed-beds looking for its next meal. You may be lucky and see an otter or if you venture up to Catfield Staithe you can happen upon the kingfisher darting along the river banks. There is a lot to do,Horsey has tea rooms, a wind-pump to visit and lots of walks, you can hike to the beach and watch the seals basking on the sands.

If the canoe hire option seems daunting then you can hire a dayboat from the yards of Martham Boats in Martham or from the Potter Heigham yards of Herbert WoodsPhoenix Fleet and Maycraft. I prefer the electric launches, in order to preserve the tranquility of the experience.

If you don’t want to sail/paddle/drive yourself then the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has trips out from its visitor centre at Hickling in an electric powered reed lighter (two-hour trips, adults £10, kids £6). The trip includes a visit to an 18m viewing tower with fantastic views over the reserve and staff on hand to answer all your questions. Hickling Broad is also the home of the Hickling Sailing Club a windsurfing club. It is a fantastic sight to see a large variety of dinghies and sailboards racing across the broad with their multi-coloured sails and spinnakers.

My favourite spots

An historic Norfolk trading wherry Albion on the River BureThe Norfolk Wherry Trust is home to the historic Wherry Albion. Photograph: AlamyA good viewing spot – and one that is often missed by people – is to climb to the top of Ranworth church for its sumptuous vistas over the broads. My own billet (meaning where I keep the patrol boat!) is next door to the Norfolk Wherry Trust. For an extra special treat you can charter a wherry with your family and friends and experience this iconic and historic mode of transport.

Where to eat/drink/sleep

Coltishall is a good place to eat, with three pubs, chip shops and more. My favourite is the Fur and Feather Inn (thefurandfeatherinn.co.uk) at Woodbastwick village. To get there you should walk from the moorings at Salhouse Broad. The pub is home to Woodfordes Ales and for me, as a real ale fan, it is a proper treat. Brewery tours are available.

My best wildlife encounter?

Over the years I have had all sorts of encounters with wildlife but although I have heard the unusual “booming” sound of the elusive bittern, I have yet to actually see one!

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The Museum of East Anglian Life

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The beautiful views from the museum

Set on a  beautiful 75 acre site with nearly 3km of woodland and riverside nature trails surrounding it, The Museum of East Anglian Life deserves to be known as one of the best museum attractions in England with a seemingly endless list of exhibits and things to do and see. Consisting of over fifteen historic buildings and collections of over forty thousand objects telling tales of East Anglian life, we’d definitely recommend a return visit because one day is not enough- especially if you wish to walk more of the beautiful Gipping Valley of which tantalising glimpses can be seen from the beautifully maintained meadows and mowed paths traversing the grounds. A  footpath runs alongside the river Gipping, through the town of Stowmarket, taking walkers along the Gipping Valley to the docks in Ipswich.

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Romany caravan lovingly restored

Entered via gift shop, visitors then pass through Abbots Hall with its displays depicting the seasonal nature of food production – from bird scarers used by children, to beet forks with knobbly ended prongs onto a wide grassed area around which stand cart lodges packed with displays, the toilets, Osiers Cafe and the meadows leading to the other parts of the museum. Easy buggy trails have been laid and highlighted around some of the displays, the babychanging and toilets are well laid out and clean and throughout the site you will find little ride on toys to transport tired little legs. These have (and can be) left where you like after you have used them.

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Tractor race track in the play area

The enamel blue skies and warm temperatures on the day of our visit were a bonus with such a large part of the site being open air and many exhibits requiring outdoor walking to get to them; we would recommend sturdy waterproof shoes and a light jacket for inclement weather and plenty of sunscreen on hotter days. Children will want to take advantage of the outdoor playground, safe and well maintained with slides and climbing frames plus a fenced and grassed tractor race track furnished with plastic ride on toys to charge around on. Picnic benches, grassy hummocks and acres of mowed meadows made this area safe for children to run around with respite from the sun provided in the form of mini thatched cart lodges.

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Further down the meadow is a small allotment surrounded by pens of rare breed animals- sheep, hens, rabbits and ducks; chickens, Suffolk black pigs and various goats, the latter tantalisingly close to the herb and vegetable patch. The sight and smell of it must have driven them demented, goats being goats. Wander past this, cross the small lane and ahead of you lies the Eastbridge Windpump surrounded by a wildflower meadow, hedgerows heavy with elderflower and cobnuts. A wooden bridge over the river leads you towards the towpath, pastures dotted with cows and Stowmarket picturesquely framed in the middle distance.

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Skeins of families moved from exhibit to exhibit in ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ style crocodiles; from the Blacksmith shed (originally built in Grundisburgh)  and cart lodge filled with restored Romany caravans and a vintage Airstream that we coveted, to the Boby Building with its jangling steam belching giant engines, wheels higher than my head. Manned by cheery gentlemen wearing neckscarves and broad smiles, the children swarmed around these huge beasts of the road whilst around them lay sheds full of tractors, snowploughs and vintage cable laying equipment. In one corner of the shed could be found a child sized workshop complete with overalls hanging on pegs, mini hard hats and toy tool kits ready for junior handypeople. Interactivity is definitely encouraged here.

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The same applies to all the mini exhibitions which are well curated and expertly explained via information boards and have a go displays. The ‘Toys Past & Present’ has a primary coloured corner encouraging children to play and adults to write about their toy memories seguing into displays of home environments from the past- a 50’s sitting room and kitchen with textile patterns  reminiscent of those by iconic designer Lucienne Day; the atomic age, natural phenomena such as bark and the Memphis School all exerting their influence. A further display of a Victorian parlour, a kitchen and a bedroom contrasted with the obsession with plastic and modernism typical of the 50’s.

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Toys from the Past activity area

As we explored the site further, the discoveries were never ending. Inside Edgars Farmhouse with its bucolic and verdant garden and cutesy chocolate box exterior we found an interior stripped back to the architecture so as to tell the story of its construction. The first recorded owners of the farmhouse were John Adgor and his wife Ascelina. In 1346 they held nearly 40 acres of arable land, 1.5 acres of meadow, 1 acre of pasture, a rood of wood and 3 acres of alderwood in Combs. The farmhouse was saved from demolition in 1970 and reconstructed on the museum site. Built unusually in the style of an aisled hall with passing braces (as you’d more usually see in a church), there is an interactive cross brace joist for visitors to take apart and (attempt to) rebuild; a great way of deomonstrating how ingenious these simple construction techniques are.

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The Alton water mill was packed with things to read, look at and explore from bowls of different grains to an actual grindstone where we could add wheat and grind our own flour as shafts of sunlight highlighted the dust motes floating in the breezes. The mill works on water pumped up from the Rattlesden river and although no longer in commercial operation, is regularly operated for demonstrations.

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The tin tabernacle

Especially charming was the Moulton Chapel- a tin tabernacle, the ‘flatpack’ style of chapel often found in East Anglia, Wales and the West Country and of no affiliated Protestant denomination. Containing an empty baptismal total immersion pool, a side room used for Sunday School with tiny ladderback chairs, little hymn books and its humble, pared back vibe, it serves as a reminder that faith requires no adornment. The tabernacle was home to ‘Tell it to the Bees’- an mini installation demonstrating why bees are an important part of English folklore and why these traditions still echo through to today. No creature has provided man with so much wholesome food; nor has any inspired so many beliefs and superstitions. Bees, hives, and beekeepers appear in paintings and sculpture, on coins, jewelry, and Mayan glyphs; and carved into African tree trunks. The Greeks called amber Electron, and associated it with the Sun God Elector, who was known as the awakener. Honey, which resembles amber, was also known as an awakener, a regenerative substance that was revered across the ancient world. The resemblance of honey with amber led to the Bees exalted status amongst ancient man and secured its favor over other fossilized insects

‘Telling it to the Bees’ references the importance of these creatures to the rural economy and families – bees would be the first to be told of a family death, their hives draped in black cotton and the first to be told of good news too. The underpinning common sense was of avoiding disturbance to the hives. A family busy with the business of bereavement and burial might lack the time to attend fully to their bees so covering them keeps them quiet and reduces the chances of swarming because they feel unsettled.  Inside the tabernacle a mini beehive acts as repository for the secrets and hopes of children as they write their news onto slips of paper, posting these through the slot.

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Happy to meet up with an ‘old friend’ we took a moment to sit inside the ‘Settling House’,  also known as the Round House, Tally House, or Counting House which sat at the heart of Bury St Edmunds cattle market for over 130 years. The Victorian Gothic building, with its distinctive octagonal design, was rebuilt on the museum site in 2011 and contains depictions of the Bury St Edmunds market by David Gentleman who also illustrated books by George Ewart Evans.

The Settling House was originally used by traders to complete their business, with the toll collector given permission to sell ginger beer and buns. The building soon became the central hub of the cattle market, the place where traders met and tickets to the auctions were handed out. We remembered this building well firstly from the bustling market where traders with cages full of rabbits and chickens would chat to farmers en route from the livestock market behind the Settling House, to the produce market on Buttermarket. The close of the livestock market was the death sentence for this building and for a decade it stood neglected and marooned in a sea of parked cars until it was rescued by the Museum and rebuilt on its site.

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Osiers Cafe

Having recommended you stay the day here, we can also recommend the on site cafe, Osiers, which is a delightful spacious place to sit and eat cake (home made), snacks (home made) or full meals (home made- get the picture?). With its sun trap courtyard shaded by trees and parasols, picnic benches and army of not too bold ducks, this is a safe place to stop mid visit, eat and allow the kids to try out yet more ride on toys that are everywhere here too. Over in the corner are cart lodges, birds flying in and out of sedge or thatch, airstream caravans with the sun glinting off them and games such as croquet for loan.

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Edgars Farmhouse

Finally, we meandered over to the Abbots Hall and Gardens, a Queen Anne style house built in 1709 by Charles Blosse, a local gentleman and merchant and boasting a perfect walled garden that is framed beautifully from many of the deep silled windows inside. For us, this was the icing on the cake with its expertly curated displays and timely interactive child friendly activities, each linked to an ongoing display. Amazingly helpful staff are there to help you understand the context of each exhibition and their expertise in passing on their knowledge really enhances the visit.  In this imposing yet friendly space the rooms are arranged and designed to explore concepts of home in East Anglia and the feelings these instill and provoke within us. Our sense of place, of self, our attachments to our traditions and the landscape; what we remember and what we pass on to others forms the backdrop to the often deeply moving exhibits. The room dedicated to the local asylum St Audrys and the ways in which it formed  home, sanctuary AND confinement to its residents elicits very powerful emotions with patients belongings- wallets and spectacles, the tokens used to exchange for goods (Token economy) records and artwork by local people. If you are interested in finding out more, we can recommend the St Audrys Project and ‘Telling it Like it is’.

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Interactive displays

For children we saw a wonderful dressing up corner in the exhibition ‘The Good Life’ celebrating all things 1970’s and most definitely mining the Tom and Barbara ‘look’ and a great little interactive gardening task which related back to said same self sufficiency movement during that venerable decade- children and adults were invited to write on little tags what their garden meant to them and hang them on a grid. Plastic tubs full of nature inspired toys- watering cans, little bugs bore labels inviting children to explore and play with them in a room overlooking the stunning gardens.

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The history of local Romany families begun by their beautifully restored waggons outside is enlarged upon inside Abbots Hall with a travellers view of the home and amazing funeral floral tributes to local community leader Dannie Buckley. Tackled too are less edifying facts; a glass display tackles discrimination and the name calling and discrimination often experienced by travellers, looking at words like ‘chav’.

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We have long been supporters of the tradition of oral history (or testimony) and the museum interweaves the testimony of local people in several exhibits; in the St Audrys exhibit where we hear the accounts of people who have worked there or lived in the region. Movingly, the accounts of patients are missing because St Audrys dates from a time where the service user movement had yet to develop and mental illness was buried in layers of taboo, shame and silence. There is also a room dedicated to the work of George Ewart Evans, the father of British oral history. Sound recordings preserve local dialect and idiom, the table is set, books by regional nature and local history authors to the right of each plate and photos document the Yeoman and field worker heritage of East Anglia. Ewart Evans, author of one of our favourite books, ‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’, also broadcast and published countless articles on the old traditions and became a pioneer of oral history in Britain after moving to Suffolk from his native Wales. As the artist and illustrator of many of his books, David Gentleman says;

“The scope of George’s work is complex and hard to define. His books might seem on the surface to be simply about subjects: the countryside, and the past. Much in them is indeed remembered: old people talking clearly and vividly about how things were, in their recurrent phrase, ‘at that time of day’ – that is, when younger. Certainly one can enjoy the books in a spirit of nostalgia, and take pleasure in the charm of the rural subject matter. But George was too clear-headed and too objective for nostalgia, and one quickly finds out – as he did – that the lives and times he recorded were far too hard for anyone with any humanity to wish them back. Rather, he used the past as a way to understand the present.”

A quote that applies as much to what the Museum of East Anglia is doing too.

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The Museum of East Anglia

Suffolk & Norfolk by authors and artists

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The dramatic East Anglian scenery inspires.

Reading What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge as a child, I was struck by Katy Carr’s determination to embark upon a literary tour of England and Scotland in 1886, when she came over here via steamer on a trip given as a gift from a benevolent family friend. Describing us as ‘storybook England’ Katy paid tribute to our great writers by planning pilgrimages to many places associated with them.  Visiting the grave of Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey and travelling to Winchester Cathedral so that she might have the privilege of seeing the grave of her beloved Miss Austen, Katy’s chance meeting with an oddly Dick Van Dyke like cockney verger by Austens grave, deals with a favourite cathedral legend- that the staff had not a clue who Jane Austen was, although if they’d read their own 1854 handbook all would have been clear. Katy’s outrage at our lack of appreciation for a writer she deemed the greatest of all was very amusing to me and a great twist on the popular misconception that Americans have little awareness of anything outside of their own national boundaries.

Wooded Landscape with a Peasant Resting circa 1747 by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

Thomas GainsboroughWooded Landscape with a Peasant Resting c.1747 from Tate.org

Our beautiful, historic countryside under those wide East Anglian skies have seduced many a writer and artist. Writers such as Rafaella Barker claim the peace of the Norfolk countryside allows her a creative space she would struggle to find anywhere else  “I live near the sea and I like the limitlessness of the horizon and being on the edge of the British Isles” and many local artists have placed East Anglia firmly as subject and theme of their work (Constable and Gainsborough). Cedric Morris, the famous painter and horticulturalist was co-founder of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Dedham in Norfolk. Morris took over the lease on The Pound, Higham, Suffolk, in 1929, and acquired the freehold in 1932, creating one of Morris’most accomplished gardens. A number of artists stayed there, including Francis Hodgkins, Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping and their costumed parties were legendary. They remained there until 1940 when, after the fire at the Dedham Art School, they moved to Benton End. Morris inspired and supported Beth Chatto to develop her beautiful garden in Elmstead Market, now world famous and was a collaborator and peer of Ronald Blythe, writer of ‘Akenfield’ who now lives near Wormingford.

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Bottengoms Farm in ‘At the Yeomans House’ by Ronald Blythe

Blythes subsequent body of work draws deeply upon his surroundings, hishome ‘Bottengoms Farm’, his position as lay reader at local churches and love of nature, history and theology. Meditative, opinionated and thoughtful, his “Word from Wormingford” diary for the Church Times has been written every week for two decades. Blythe was born in Suffolk. His family has lived here for centuries; even his surname comes from its river Blyth and his farm was once owned by the painter John Nash whose wife invited him to see the place in 1947. In ‘Akenfield’ Blythe gave voice to a people previously neglected by nature and social history writers- the working class countryside folk. Blythe stated; “If you read John Clare, he makes you realise that they weren’t just lumpen creatures, even if they couldn’t read and write. They had dreams and visions which we don’t know about.” 

The wheeling gulls and tandem cries of children; the eddying of water through sandy rills, fingered inlets and maram grass covered islands at low tide…. Arthur Ransome has a long association with both counties, first visiting the Norfolk Broads in the thirties and using it as inspiration for his children’s books Coot Club (1934) and The Big Six (1940). These two books centre upon the Broads village of Horning and touch upon the coming of change with the increasing use of motorised boats. In Coot Club, the ‘Hullabaloos’ on their motorised craft The Margoletta’ are the villains in the story and Ransome makes no bones about letting us know his opinion of their actions. Spending too much time in the riverside pubs, they ignore speed limits,make a lot of noise, are racketty and uncouth as they chase the gentle wind powered boat, ‘Teasel’.

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Horning Ferry Mill

“‘And so, rejoicing in their freedom, the outlaw and his friends sailed on their way, through a country as flat as Holland, past huge old windmills, their sails creaking round, pumping the water from the low-lying meadows on which the cows were grazing actually below the level of the river. Far away over the meadows, other sails were moving on Ant and Thurne, white sails of yachts and big black sails of trading wherries.’

 We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water are set in coastal Suffolk and Essex, with the former involving a voyage to Flushing in the Netherlands and the latter the exploration of the islands of Hamford Water near Walton-on-the-Naze. Made famous in ‘We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea’ the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the River Orwell overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolks most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransomes time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if the beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.

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Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill

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Peter Duck

Occasionally Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brings it to Suffolk for events (Felixstowe Book Festival on 28th June being one of them) and people can see for themselves the craft that inspired his writing craft.

 

 

The very famous I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has its origins in her glimpse of an ancient medieval moated castle in 30’s Wingfield, Suffolk and her love of the classic Suffolk pink wash thatched cottages, the ruined manor houses that were once the heart of our villages and the families living in gentile penury- trying to maintain an appearance of a life they can no longer afford. Describing life for these families as one where ‘the past is like a presence, a caress in the air’, presumably a comfort in the hard times of the present, all is ‘drear, dank, depressing, boggy and raining’- an image of Suffolk we have little truck with. Even in the colder months, there is a seer, monochromatic and dramatic beauty; the moving tracery of bare tree branches as the unforgiving winds straight from Siberia swipe across the fields; the standing black edge of copses on a ridgeline beneath a dome of slate sky; the soft swells of fields and deep cuts carved into the earth by the many rivers and streams feeding them. It is a different kind of beauty to the bucolic and abundant green of summer but it is still beauty.

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We East Anglians  have found easier and more functional ways of living with a past that is often wrought vividly upon the present- our surroundings are full of history which impacts today. We find it less oppressive than Smith’s protagonists although accounts of beaurocratic skirmishes with local planners are writ large upon our regional newspapers each week. Does anybody recall the saga of the lilac painted house in the village of Clare which went on for months, divided villagers and caused no end of fury among historical purists?

Many places in Suffolk are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment. Their stories tells themselves, stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place. In 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaelogist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and complete feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum. Tiny fragments showed that rich textiles once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen overshirts to shaggy woollen cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the acidic soil, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king.

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The mask of a King?

The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship and extensive international connections, spanning Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of great halls, glittering treasures and formidable warriors described in Anglo-Saxon poetry was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the childrens story Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister story about a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. The idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world.

The dry and sandy Brecklands yielded treasure of their own, inspiring Roald Dahl to travel to Mildenhall to interview the Ploughman who found the remarkable find of Roman silver and now displayed in the British Museum. This formed the basis of a subsequent story ‘The Mildenhall Treasures’ where Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. The curator of the British Museum, Richard Hobbs writes about his association with the story and the treasure- “I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.” Dahl’s account is now accepted as a true account of their discovery.

Arguably the most famous visitor to Aldeburgh, (even more famous than Sir Michael Gambon who tried to solicit one of my chips whilst sitting next to me on the benches of the White Hart Pub next to the famous chip shop), Orlando the Marmalade cat was the star of a series of books written for children. Written by Kathleen Hale, who spent holidays in the town, Aldeburgh is renamed ‘Owlbarrow’ and  many of the illustrations in the books feature landmarks in the town, most notably the Moot Hall. In this charming series, based in 1952, Orlando brought his wife Grace and their kittens to  stay on the beached ship the Iona, now no longer in existence but depicted in the illustration below.

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Orlando on his boat, located in Aldeburgh (Owlbarrow)

Kathleen Hale’s books have been treasured by children and now grown-ups since they were first published; the illustrations being rich in detail and painterly enough to appeal to parents too. Only two of the many titles are still in print: A Seaside Holiday and A Camping Holiday, both stocked by the Aldeburgh Book shop which now owns the merchandising rights from Kathleen Hale’s publishers Frederick Warne at Penguin.

With its setting in the deepest reaches of the mysterious and watery Norfolk Fens, The Future Homemakers of America’ is the story of six young women in postwar Norfolk by Laurie Graham. Five are US Airforce DWs (Dependent Wives) living on the Crampton base, baking cookies, cakes and pies while crew-cut, square jawed All American husbands master the skies in fast and horribly unsafe machines that were then at the cutting edge of war machine technology. With dependable narrative tropes in its women, including Kath, a doughty Fenland woman alongside an historical background of those turbulent post-war years, illustrated by facsimiles of newspaper pages including some scarily lurid Jello salad and cake recipes, this is an easy read of a book that does manage to capture some of the culture shock felt by our USAF influx and those who came into contact with them. The Future Homemakers of America officially began in June of 1945, working to combine and unify hundreds of home economic clubs in high schools across the US and sought to unify young Americans across the land to become strong leaders in their families, careers and communities.

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In 1945, when the first Future Homemakers of America chapter was founded, the mission and curriculum were basic: preparing young women to be homemakers. In recent years, more males have become involved and interested in the organization and finally, in 1999, the organization’s national chapters voted to change their name to Family, Career and Community Leaders of America to more accurately reflect the organization’s mission and to disassociate its leadership-building programs from societal stigma that the term “homemaker” has developed over the previous five decades. .

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The historical connections between Norfolk and North America began in the 17th century, when a large number of migrants moved together to the newly-created colonies including the family of US president Abraham Lincoln who came from Hingham. Actors James Stewart and Walter Matthau were both stationed in Norfolk whilst serving for the United States Army Air Force (USAF) during World War Two and Reis Leming, a member of USAF personal based at RAF Sculthorpe, saved the lives of 27 people in the Norfolk Floods of 1953. He was awarded UK and US medals for bravery. The Eighth in the East’ project was established to document the story of the 8th United States Army Air Force in the East of England and is a great place to start should you wish to find out more about this fascinating period of history.

In complete contrast to this cosy tale of young American women going about their domestic (and not so) lives is the ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by the writer M. R. James. The story tells the tale of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery. When blown, the whistle unleashes a supernatural force that pursues and terrifies its discoverer.

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The untamed and shifting coast of Norfolk and Suffolk inspires stories of mystery and ghostliness

From the age of three (1865) until 1909 the home of MR James, if not always his residence, was at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk. This had also been the childhood home of another eminent Suffolk antiquary, “Honest Tom” Martin (1696–1771) “of Palgrave.” Several MR James ghost stories are set in Suffolk, including “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (Felixstowe), “A Warning to the Curious” (Aldeburgh), “Rats” and “A Vignette” (Great Livermere). The wild, unearthly and limitless skies, beaches and horizon of the Norfolk and Suffolk coastal areas are effective backdrops for what James described as “putting the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me.”  The shifting clifftops and shingle beaches, eroded by winds and tides and dunes that appear and disappear as if they were in the Sahara, often form the most incongruous of obstacles to total annihilation by the waters. Danger is covert and safety is illusory on the literary frontier of the British continent- the shoreline.

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The oddly porous and shifting boundary between land and sea inspired author Jeremy Page to write ‘Salt’ and set it among the Blakeney saltmarshes of North Norfolk and the fens near the Wash. What forms a person, the surge and ebb of family history as it reaches into each new generation, shaping and eroding, forms the broad theme of this novel. Here, the sea gives up the half drowned body of a young German soldier after the Second World War where he is rescued and sheltered by Goose, a reclusive and mystic who predicts significant events by cloudwatching. Fed on Samphire, a coastal plant with spears that carry the essence of the sea, he impregnates her and sails away on a boat after she gives birth to their daughter. The repercussions permeate the story as do the other worldly descriptions of a landscape that gets under the skin of all who encounter it with its tangled and indistinct boundaries between land, water and sky.

Saturated with another kind of Norfolk- that of an 80’s childhood in the neon brashness of a seaside resort is ‘Weirdo’ by Cathy Unsworth, believed to be based upon the popular holiday destination of Great Yarmouth with its thin veneer of holiday gaiety. Think gaudy funfair, amusements and  wide promenades festooned with bags of candy floss and racks of striped rock; the Harbour, model village and the dunes; Bernie Winters, Tarbuck, Orville the Duck and Jim Davidson appearing on the pier. Gaggles of teenagers fizz with the anticipation of kissing under the pier and can be found dotting the sea, top halves visible as they sway, buffeted by sand brown waves and cries like seagulls; their limbs yet to be bronzed by the sun and held aloft the water, pale and supplicant.download (34)

There is another side to all towns though and revisiting Great Yarmouth through Cathi Unsworth’s narrative introduces us to the seamier aspects of seaside life – the pubs, the bed and breakfast DWP benefit residents, the bail hostels, drugs and the prostitution. This crime story switching between events in the early 1980s and 2003 where a former cop turned private detective, Sean Ward, is hired to look into a brutal murder that occurred two decades previously, really hits home. Seaside towns have always attracted a transient, migrant population and Gt Yarmouth is no better or worse than any other British town in this respect where hard working residents have just the short summer season to earn enough to sustain them economically through the other six months of the year. When you find yourself living in a town on the edge of the country, the sense of having nowhere else to turn is brought into even sharper relief and, should life not have gone the way you intended it to, the sense of being washed out to sea by rivers or washed up onto the shoreline by the tide is intensified. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go, the novel ends with Kathy in a Norfolk field, “thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.” Says it perfectly doesn’t it?

Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of ’22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here. “Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.” With a well established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband  Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret – Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says; “I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”

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Appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for many books set locally and in ‘The Swimmer’ by Roma Teague we are thrown straight into the tale when 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain. While he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair. When tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.

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Creeks and marshes surround the landscape around Orford

The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around Orford where the book is set with this becoming a stunningly beautiful and brooding backdrop to the story. Shaped by conflict, affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum.

Former resident of the tiny Suffolk village of Mellis, situated on the ‘High Suffolk’ claylands where Oliver Cromwell once exercised his troops on the largest English area of unfenced common land, Roger Deakin was one of the Worlds most respected nature writers. Part of a distinguished group of East Anglian writers, artists and aesthetes that includes Richard Mabey, Adrian Bell and author of ‘Akenfield’, Ronald Blythe; J A Baker (author of ‘The Peregrine’) ,Cedric Morris the artist and plantsman based in Hadleigh, Robert MacFarlane, Mark Cocker and Patrick Barkham, Deakin sadly died in 2006 leaving a wealth of archived material and three stellar books- ‘Waterlogged’, ‘Wildwood’ and the posthumously published ‘Tales from Walnut Tree Farm’.

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The late, great Roger Deakin

In Waterlog, he writes of  his watery journey around Britain: an attempt to discover the country afresh by swimming through its seas, rivers, lakes, fens; its swimming pools and secret bathing holes in a manner both earthy and highly aesthetic. Deakin has the soul of a poet and writes so beautifully that I grieve his loss afresh with every word. Inspired by a rain splattered early swim in the moat surrounding his Mellis home, he experiences life through a ‘frog’s eye view of rain on the moat” and watching each raindrop as it “exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst” which inspires this watery odyssey.

Deakin swims Hampstead swimming ponds also frequented by an eclectic group of dedicated wild swimmers-ladies left over from more genteel times to young university students, recounts a chasing off by an angry Winchester College river jobsworth and crawls along the brackish creeks of Cornwall like a cross between a mudlark and a catfish. He weeps over the brutal concrete incarceration of the River Lark upon his arrival in Suffolk  ‘I stood outside the Bury St Edmunds Tesco. Here, the Lark had been treated with something less than reverence as it flowed through the forecourt car park [...] The hapless Lark, which once meandered gently through water meadows here, had been neatly packaged in an outsized concrete canyon. No water vole would dream of venturing here, nor otter, purple loosestrife or figwort’.

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From dreaming about water to dreaminess once in the water, Deakin expounds upon an alien and magical environment within which we are all at sea within despite having spent forty weeks gestating with no need of lungs or gills. As he says “No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born.” Then he contemplates the strangeness that can be found in the water as opposed to our strangeness within it- ‘In the night sea at Walberswick,’ Deakin observes, ‘I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through neon waves like dragons.’ This other worldliness and an existence of which we retain no conscious memory of is shot through with a more practical acceptance of these mysteries- “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,but there is also a third thing, that makes it water and nobody knows what that is.” He is content to not know.

Sadly not all have found the watery, flat and strikingly desolate scenery of the Fens inspiring or feel their peculiar beauty. Author Anthony Trollope painted a grim and unforgiving picture of them in his novel ‘Beltons Estate’ (1866).  His heroine, Clara Amedroz, has to chose between a wealthy suitor and a distant cousin called Will Belton. Belton owns a farm near Downham Market but is keen to leave the Fens and take up his inheritance in the West Country. Trollope was familiar with the fens through his work as a surveyor for the Post Office but was not enamoured by the landscape. In the book, Belton walks to Denver Sluice and back and Trollope writes ‘a country walk less picturesque could hardly be found in England’. 

Historically the Fens were regarded as a disease ridden place, haunted by witches and Will o’ the Wisps, rippled through with superstition that barely went challenged because of a largely intransigent and static population, hampered by the difficult undrained marshes, reeds and drains. Travel had to be by water or along roads that could be treachorous at night. Even today the Fens have retained a reputation for witchcraft. In his series of books, Phillip Pullman sets some of the action in the Fens (‘Northern Lights’) where at a great gathering of the Gyptians, they decide to mount an expedition to head to the Arctic where they have discovered the missing children are being taken. He clearly sees the potential for gatherings going unnoticed and undisturbed in such an isolated landscape; in addition it would be most easy to see threats appearing on the horizon from afar. The flat light and relatively few trees render movement difficult to hide.

In the prelude to ‘Hereward the Wake’, Charles Kingsley (author of ‘The Water Babies’)  highlights the sky made larger and more dramatic because of the stubbornly flat topography- no hills or mountains interrupt the vast watery terrain and dark silty earth is punctuated by sere reeds and ink black slow moving waters:

‘Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the open sea; and that vastness gave, and still gives, such cloudlands, such sunrises, such sunsets, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles.’

The poet Edward Storey is equally appreciative, noting that;

“You walk the roof of the world here.
Only the clouds are higher
And they are not permanent.
Trees are too distant for the wind to reach
And mountains hide below the horizon.
The wind labours through reed
As though they were the final barrier.
Houses and farms cling like crustations
To the black hull of the earth.
Here, you must walk with yourself,
Or share the spirits of forgotten ages.”

His books include: Spirit of the Fens (1985) and In Fen Country Heaven(1996). In Fen Boy First (1994) he gives an account of his childhood growing up in Whittlesey (which is actually in Cambridgeshire). Fen Country Christmas (1995) is a collection of stories, legends and Fenland superstitions in which he takes a look at skating; a popular sport in the region and one which Roger Deakin mentions in ‘Waterlog’. The speed skating races held along the long and straight dykes and inlets of the region were hugely popular and the blade sharp winds fresh from the Russian Steppes and Siberia froze the water hard. Heads low and well muffled against the cold, skaters sped along, cheered by locals who gathered at accessible points along the way and warmed afterwards with mugs of spirit spiked tea. Graham Swift’s novel Waterland (1983) is also set in the Fens, influenced by George Elliot’sMill on the Floss’, with a  narrator Tom Crick, who lives in a lock keeper’s cottage on the bank of the (fictional) River Leem flowing out of Norfolk. It may be that the river Leem is modelled on the Little Ouse which flows between Thetford and Brandon, discharging into the Fens and is possessed of some truly beautiful banks along which many locals picnic and paddle off in warmer months. The names of local villages, of the Fens themselves and rivers are curious, poetic and usually explanatory of their location and their people who lived among them: Prickwillow, The Hundred Foot Drain, March, Ely  (‘Isle of Eels’), Crowland (One of the five Fen monasteries) and Black Sluice.

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Photo by Rex Sly of the Fens

As a child of sixties and seventies Suffolk and Norfolk, I can attest to just how off the beaten track it was. Although a map from 1766 shows a route from London to Great Yarmouth which follows much of the current A12, there was a sparse transport network and communities therefore remained nuclear, remote from each other and the rest of the British landmass. Added to this the network of marshes, waterways and fens and you can see why travel was difficult and transport development expensive when you take into account the population- which remains small to this day. In her novel, ‘The Twins’, Saskia Sarginson talks of her decision to set the book in a Suffolk forest (Rendlesham or Minsmere are the most likely inspiration) and about her love of our county; ” In 1972 there was little TV and no computer games and at that time Suffolk was off the beaten track and unspoilt – the perfect place… for the girls to run wild” The dense pine forests, starkly shingled beaches that are difficult to traverse and the mythology and history all drew her towards Suffolk as a setting and into this pot, she set the story about another of life’s mysteries- twins.

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Rendlesham Forest

Forests are a trope that gives on giving. Their psychogeography is magical, foreboding, filled with threat, promise, light filled glades and crepuscular mysteries. From fairy tale filled childhoods, we are conditioned into an overwhelmingly emotional relationship with these disappearing habitats: they are both familiar in the nightly telling of stories set in them and terrifyingly strange in their potential for causing us to become lost and disorientated. Rendlesham Forest compounds this with an additional history of strange nightly events when a group of American servicemen stationed at military bases in Suffolk went into the forest to investigate mysterious lights.

What occurred next has been the subject of debate, but some of the servicemen have since said they saw an alien spacecraft, with one of those involved later claiming to have touched it. Attempts have been made to explain the incident, with theories ranging from an elaborate hoax, to the men being confused by lights from a nearby lighthouse. The closure of the woods at the time of the incident only added to the conspiracy theories among locals who have the most familarity with the forest and are therefore well versed in detecting usual happenings from unusual ones. However, it remains a source of fascination for Ufologists and among the newly released National Archives files is a document – which the MoD says insists is a fraud, describing aliens encountered in the forest.

The document, on what appears to be official departmental paper, reports that the “entities” were “approximately one and a half meters tall, wearing what appeared to be nylon coated pressure suits, but no helmets”.They were apparently “hovering above ground level” and were recorded speaking in an “electronically synthesised version of English, with a strong American accent”. They were said to have had “claw-like hands and with three fingers and an opposable thumb.” Whatever happened (or not), the forest authorities have not been slow to capitalise on something that sets them apart from other British forests, setting up ‘UFO walking trails‘ and other seasonal attractions designed to appeal to the thousands of tourists to the region.

Benjamin Britten had a long and productive association with Aldeburgh, inspiring artist Maggie Hambling to design the Aldeburgh Scallop on the shoreline with an edge pierced with the words; “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, taken from Benjamin Britten‘s opera Peter Grimes. Not without some controversy (the Scallop has been defaced with paint thrown over it in the past) we nonetheless think it is moving and dramatic; we cannot imagine Aldeburgh beach without it. Christine Nash, wife of artist John Nash found Ronald Blythe a cottage near Aldeburgh and Blythe was introduced to Britten, becoming  friends and editing festival programmes for Britten while trying to write his own first novel. Blythe recalls returning home one day to find a note pushed under his door inviting him for a drink at Britten’s house. It was from EM Forster.

Charles Dickens has stayed at the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds while giving readings in the nearby Athenaeum, inspiring a mention in ‘The Pickwick Papers ‘ (the hotel offered a resting place to main character, Samuel Pickwick) and the hotel retains the room with the original bed in which Dickens slept;

“The coach rattled through the well-paved streets of a handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance, and stopped before a large inn situated in a wide open street, nearly facing the old abbey.”

 The gallerist Sadie Coles and artist Sarah Lucas both have homes on the Suffolk coast as do Emma Freud and her talented author cousin, Esther Freud. The photographer Jurgen Teller and the fashion designer Roland Mouret also have Suffolk homes.

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Maggie Hambling’s ‘Scallop’ sculpture on Aldeburgh Beach

Around 1910, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, the Barrister-Playwright owner of nearby Sizewell Hall had a brainwave. He bought an area of coast and dunes and in 1910 set about establishing a purpose-built resort based on the fishing hamlet of Thorpe, changing the name to Thorpeness. The Meare, a man made lake covering 64 acres with scattered islands, is no deeper than one metre at any point and is a very popular place to sail boats upon whilst on the shore, black clapboard buildings cluster the edges of a village green. The islands feature playhouses and characters from children’s books, in particular ‘Peter Pan’ because Ogilvie was a friend of J M Barrie. The tiny islands contain locations found in J. M. Barrie’s novel such as the Pirates Lair, Wendy’s home and many others which children are encouraged to play on. Thorpeness, like Aldeburgh is described as having ‘it’s back to the sea’ and this is deliberate. Ogilvie deliberately used the Meare as an alternate focal point for his seaside town and rejected the Victorian/Edwardian fondness for promenades which he thought were vulgar.

house-in-cloudsOpened in 1913, many of the original boats are still in operation. The author made regular visits to the village and was pictured outside the country club in 1919, even helping to design parts of Thorpeness. His model resort might have been influenced by Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Utopian garden city movement, but it became an exclusive home away from the main home for the wealthy and artistic. The famous ‘House in the Clouds’ was one of Ogilvie’s creations; an attempt to disguise an utilitarian water tower as a house. It is now a private holiday rental although the child in me will always imagine Peter Pan swooping in through the front door at dusk. What better home for a flying boy than a house in the clouds?

Much speculation can be found as to the possible real life location of Hell Hall, home to Cruella De Vil and the place where the abducted puppies were taken in Dodie Smith’s book, ‘The One Hundred and one Dalmatians’. We know that Smith was a frequent visitor to Suffolk and Sudbury is mentioned in the book and Hell Hall is described as in the village of ‘Dympling’. No village of that name exists or ever existed although the hamlet of Shimpling can be found at a rough midpoint between Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, just off the A134.

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“Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury.Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk,’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square.They had hoped they’d meet some dogs and hear if any news of the puppies had come at the Twilight Barking, but not as much as a cat was stirring. While they were drinking at the fountain, church clocks began to strike midnight.”

 

A memorial plaque on a water fountain by St Peter’s given by Alice Mary Brown features an excerpt from the book as above and the original Johnstone Twins illustrations from the book are owned by Ipswich Art School. Sudbury also has some charming Dalmatian topped posts marking the Old Marketplace behind St Peters as you face the end of North Street and has staged festivals celebrating the book.

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We hold the animal characters in our favourite books from our youth close to our hearts- ask any adult what his favourite book was as a child and you will be able to pinpoint his decade of birth with relative ease. Some books transcend the generations though, either because they are continually reprinted and turned into films (Roald Dahls canon) or parents pass them onto their own children. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is a case in point in a country that is both horse and dog mad-this story of a horse and its child owners has timeless themes. Sewell was born in Great Yarmouth into a devoutly Quaker family and it is possible that her determination to feature an equine hero was born of her own accident in childhood that left her unable to stand without a crutch or to walk for any length of time. For greater mobility, she frequently used horse-drawn carriages.

Sewell’s only published work was Black Beauty, written during 1871 to 1877, after she had moved to Old Catton, a village outside the city of Norwich. During this time her health was declining and she was often so weak that she was confined to her bed, making writing a challenge. She dictated the text to her mother and from 1876 began to write on slips of paper which her mother then transcribed. Sewell sold the novel to local publisher Jarrolds on 24 November 1877, when she was 58 years of age. Although it is now considered a children’s classic, she originally wrote it for those who worked with horses. She said “a special aim [was] to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”. 

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She died aged 57 and was buried on 30 April 1878 in the Quaker burial-ground at Lammas near Buxton, Norfolk, not far from Norwich, where a wall plaque now marks her resting place. Her birthplace in Church Plain, Great Yarmouth, has been the home to a museum and, as of 2014, a tea shop.

We will leave it to Norfolk writer Malcolm Bradbury to have the last word;

 “A sense of place is fundamental to the writer. Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen

Rosa Jurjevics with a photo of her mother, Laurie Colwin, the novelist and food writer around whom a cultlike following has arisen. Ms. Jurjevics was 8 when her mother, then 48, died in 1992. CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times

Emily Gould stood in an Upper West Side kitchen on a Saturday evening and gazed into a crumb-encrusted pan full of creamed spinach. “It kind of suffered on the subway a little bit,” she said.

It was a moment that might have appeared in an essay by the food writer Laurie Colwin, whose recipes were on the menu that night. Ms. Gould is a writer whose first novel will come out this summer, and the apartment belongs to her friend Sadie Stein, a contributing editor for The Paris Review. Both hang out with a young, literary, food-obsessed crowd, and they had met up with two friends to eat baked mustard chicken and that creamed spinach, debating and paying tribute to a writer whose work overflows with stove-centered gatherings just like this one.

Emily Gould, left, Sadie Stein and Lukas Volger at a New York dinner party based on Laurie Colwin recipes. CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

“I think of her as kind of a proto-blogger,” said Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, which in 2012 inducted Ms. Colwin into its cookbook hall of fame. “I would say she’s a transitional figure between M. F. K. Fisher and Julie Powell.”

Ruth Reichl, the writer, editor and former New York Times restaurant critic, said: “You want to be in the kitchen with her — that is her secret. She is the best friend we all want. She never talks down to you.”

In turn, friendships have formed around her work. Ms. Stein, 32, first picked up “Home Cooking” when she was 9 or 10; her parents had it around the house in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. “I quietly commandeered the book for my own use,” Ms. Stein recalled. Years later, a shared passion for the Colwinesque view of food and life brought her together for those dinners with Ms. Gould; Ruth Curry, who works in publishing; and Lukas Volger, a cookbook author and entrepreneur.

Acolytes like Ms. Stein and Ms. Gould don’t merely read Laurie Colwin. They revisit her passages over and over again, and develop a guardian-angel-style attachment to her. When Ms. Reichl arrived at Gourmet as editor in chief, in 1999, she discovered in her office a cache of about 400 letters from mourning fans who had written to the magazine after Ms. Colwin’s death. Ms. Reichl’s “very first act” as editor, she said, was to have the letters messengered over to Colwin’s husband, Juris Jurjevics, a founder of the Soho Press publishing company who lives these days in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Most professional food writers can only dream of connecting with an audience in that way. “When I first went to Gourmet, every writer that came in said that he or she wanted to be the next Laurie Colwin,” Ms. Reichl said.

A tattered copy of “Home Cooking” and Ms. Colwin’s baked mustard chicken.CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

To Ms. Colwin’s partisans, her essays stand out as an antidote to glowy, glossy magazine photos in which carefree, beautiful people savor a spread of gastronomic wonder around picnic tables on some farm in Umbria, with shafts of Spielbergian sunlight illuminating the scene. By contrast, Ms. Colwin’s world is one of hangover cures, dinner parties gone awry, an apartment so minuscule that its inhabitant has to clean dishes in the bathtub, and the appeal of simple, unstylish grub like boiled beef, black beans, lentil soup and potato salad.

“She’s like the anti-Martha Stewart,” Ms. Reichl said. “It’s not about perfection.”

It would be easy to describe Ms. Colwin’s recipes as American comfort food, but that categorization doesn’t get at their essence. They’re more like an eccentric form of autobiography. As you approach them, Ms. Stein said, “you have to know her tastes are weird.”

Among those who did know her, Ms. Colwin was a catalytic force. Vibrant and vigilantly observant, she drove fast, despised elevators, collected colanders, specialized in spot-on mimicry and had what might be called a Proustian enthusiasm for domestic splendor.

“She was a great cook, but the fiascos were kind of fabulous,” Mr. Jurjevics recalled. “She cooked haggis once that was like the advertisement for ‘Alien,’ with the cracked egg.”

Ms. Colwin in her kitchen in Chelsea. CreditFairchild Photo Service

She held strong opinions —  about crockery, English food, romantic protocol, the lovers of her friends — and she didn’t hesitate to express them. “She did not approve of writers who were self-dramatizing,” said Scott Spencer, a novelist and friend of Ms. Colwin’s. “And she did not approve of difficult, inhospitable, challenging, overly fancy kinds of food. It was a culinary philosophy that may have been born of necessity, since her fridge was the size of a suitcase and her stove had four small burners and a balky oven —  and the oven was mainly used for storage.”

When Mr. Spencer met her, Ms. Colwin lived alone on Bethune Street, in the West Village, in an apartment that became known, in her essays, as the Lilliputian place where she explored the gastronomy of the hot plate. Somehow she gave parties, “perching us here and there throughout her room as if we were pieces of human scrimshaw with which she decorated her cozy quarters,” Mr. Spencer recalled in an email.

Her friend Willard Spiegelman, now a professor of English at Southern Methodist University, recalled her parties as feeling “almost entirely improvisatory,” with Ms. Colwin dashing out at the last minute to find some flowers, watercress, a chicken. “Laurie’s primary interest was never in food per se,” he said. “It was food as a way of gathering people together.”

Later on, Ms. Colwin and Mr. Jurjevics moved into an apartment on West 20th Street. (They married in 1983.) “She was not somebody who went out a great deal,” recalled her friend Alice Quinn, now the executive director of the Poetry Society of America. “But she loved, loved, loved having people over to her home.” The food she served was “always very simple,” Ms. Quinn said. Guests might have found flank steak, watercress salad, chocolate cake.

That lack of pretension continues to endear her to readers. (Open Road Integrated Media recently signed a deal to release all of her works as e-books.) As Nozlee Samadzadeh put it: “You can’t be a snob when you’re cooking on a hot plate. But you can eat very well.”

Ms. Colwin’s husband, Juris Jurjevics, photographed his wife and their daughter, Rosa, around 1990, in a salute with corn on the cob. CreditJuris Jurjevics

Ms. Samadzadeh, a 26-year-old programmer and editor behind a blog calledNeeds More Salt, encountered Ms. Colwin after falling in love with a recipe for tomato-and-corn pie that was published on the blog Smitten Kitchen. (Deb Perelman, the creator of Smitten Kitchen, said that Ms. Colwin’s work is “so relatable that you feel like it could have been written five minutes ago.”) Before long, Ms. Samadzadeh found herself gorging on Ms. Colwin’s books, trying out the scattershot recipes and silently asking herself a question at one life juncture after another: “What would Laurie Colwin do?”

Rosa Jurjevics asks herself the same question. Now nearing 30, Ms. Colwin’s daughter, also a writer, rents an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant where she holds onto her mother’s favorite French mug, serving bowls, photos, recipe binders.

Ms. Jurjevics was only 8 when her mother died, overnight, of a heart attack. For fans of Ms. Colwin’s essays, she is a pivotal figure: the girl who made “spider webs with the fancy chicken-trussing strings, which I do remember doing,” she said. She was there to witness the process of her mother’s experiment with the legendary “black cake,” a Caribbean dessert whose ingredients steep in their own fruit-dense flavors for months.

In some ways, Ms. Colwin prefigured a lot of what the food world is obsessed with now: organic eggs, broccoli rabe, beets and homemade bread, yogurt and jam. “She was so ahead of her time with the organic stuff,” Ms. Jurjevics said. “That was so hard growing up, I’ve got to say. I was the kid with the weird lunch.”

On the other hand, the surge in food media might have befuddled her. “I wonder what she would have made of so many things,” Ms. Jurjevics mused. “Would she have a computer? Would she email people? She was so particular about everything. Would she blog? I wonder, would she compulsively Google herself?”

Ms. Jurjevics can’t always relate to the predominantly heterosexual, comfortably upper-middle-class demimonde captured in her mother’s fiction, but she picks up her mother’s voice, her phrasing, her opinions, her way of looking at the world, on every page of “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking.”

She has gone back to those books countless times. The novels, she said, “may be wonderful, but they’re not what I’m looking for. I just want more of her.”

Recipes: Gingerbread | Creamed Spinach With Jalapeño Peppers |Baked Mustard Chicken

 

 

 

 

 

Fig Tarts with Honey and Raw Sugar

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Photot coutresy of Muy Bueno Website

Some scholars believe the fig to be the original forbidden fruit picked by Eve in the Garden of Eden and provider of man’s (and woman’s) first foray into fashion in the form of a fig leaf covering for their genitals. Since then the prominence and usefulness of  fig leaves have risen and fallen in a rough correlation with the prevailing morals and mores of the day.

The first unveiling of Michelangelo’s David was pelted with rocks as Florentines expressed shock at its nakedness and a covering fashioned from many fig leaves was swiftly placed upon it. The Vatican of the Renaissance was not as relaxed about public nudity as its creators and the same was assumed about Queen Victoria, centuries later. Visit a vault under the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and you will find an outsized Fig leaf made to cover the genitalia of the replica statue of David whenever she came to visit the galleries

The fruit of this bushes’ loins have never fallen from grace in many parts of the world though, whether they be growers or importers of the Fig. Native to Caria–an ancient region of Asia Minor between the Mediterranean and Black Seas and now able to be grown in the less balmy climes of Great Britain, the fig is a natural bedfellow to all manner of indulgent and positively biblical foodstuffs- milk and honey and spices, used to perfume, preserve and enhance that which they are cooked with.

However in the case of the Fig we are not bashful about serving it fully nude as long as it is also resplendently ripe; the flesh should yield to a squeeze, droplets of the sugary juices gathering at the bottom of the fruit. Figs don’t really ripen after picking, they just get softer without an improvement in flavour so you must buy them at peak of ripeness and be ready to eat them immediately. However the slightly under ripe imported figs you see in store can be made more luscious by roasting or stewing into a compote and this tart, published here with the kind permission of Muy Bueno website is the perfect way to enjoy them.

These fig tarts are simple to make with only three ingredients — ready made pie crust, honey, and of course the star of the show…figs. Figs drizzled with honey and baked soften and sweeten the fruit and adds a delicious roasted flavor. Sprinkle the pastries with some raw sugar and  you have a lovely sweet pastry to enjoy for dessert; don’t use soft sugar either, you need the crunch of Demerara. Gives 6 servings.

INGREDIENTS:

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions
1 pound figs, cut into ½” wedges
Raw sugar
Honey

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Cut pastry into six 4” squares, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and prick all over with a fork.

Top with figs, leaving a ½” border. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake tarts until edges of pastry are puffed and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with more sugar just before servings.

 

 

The new nature writing- we review ‘Doubling Back’ by Linda Cracknell

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We love the evolving genre of British nature writing and the fact that new kids on the block are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as they create fresh narratives. Robert MacFarlane. Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin and Katharine Harris- these are all references in spirit and style in this exquisitely written and designed book.

 ‘Of all the current crop of excellent “new Nature Writers” Linda Cracknell is probably the most physically present to the reader.  These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking.”Sara Maitland

Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. This book celebrates life, family, friendship and walking through landscapes richly textured with stories.

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The river Spey near Newtonnmore

Our favourite? Linda’s walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.

The deliberately accidental and surprise filled psychogeography of our youth has yielded to the path chosen for travel simply because it is is the path most travelled. What we value most about this exciting form of  nature/travel writing is its ability to transport us right back to that time when getting there was not the primary purpose of a journey. That’s not to say that the end point was or is not important; whether this be emotionally or practically, but somehow the ability to have still points on the way; to notice, see, hear and feel got lost.

 

 

 

 

Summer Reads 2014 – we review

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Summer’s here and it’s time for some much needed escapism so we’ve compiled a diverse mix of fantastic reads to keep you busy through the summertide.

Immerse yourself in a psychological thriller, retrace memories from past worlds, be romanced by our literary classics or gasp at surprising plot twists.

Share your thoughts on these reads on the discussion boards or reviews and if you think we’ve missed a must-read off the list do let us know on this thread.

 

the_luminariesThe Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize, Catton’s 800 page masterpiece is definitely one for (hopefully) uninterrupted immersion.

Set in the wild coast of New Zealand, during the 19th century goldrush, it is a medley of mystery, thriller, historical epic and pure inventiveness. The twelve characters move in and out of each other’s stories, and also tie up with the intricate zodiac structure that oversees the entire novel. It is about greed, money, temptation, fate and human nature.

Give it a shot, while you have the time.

 

 

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The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes 

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You was a phenomena with over 3 million copies sold worldwide. (Remember the summer of 2012 when every beach across Europe was awash with people reading this or 50 Shades?) Jojo fans are in for a treat this summer with her latest novel The One Plus One out in paperback just in time for the hols.

 Jojo will be joining us for a webchat at the end of September.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlene 

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You wouldn’t think this was a debut novel, it is so accomplished and confident.

Ruth is an elderly lady living alone in a remote part of New South Wales. When a governement-funded carer, Frida, comes to look after her and slowly begins to infiltrate her life, a suspense story begins where what is real and what is imagined becomes blurred and unreliable.

A witty, menacing psychological thriller that is also a brilliant evocation of old age, forgetfulness and regret.

The Telling Room: Passion, Revenge and Life in a Spanish Village – Michael Paterniti

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During a visit to the picturesque Spanish village of Guzman, Michael Paterniti heard an odd and compelling tale about a cheese made from an ancient family recipe that was reputed to be among the finest in the world. Hooked on the story, he relocated his family to the tiny hilltop village to find out more. Before long the village began to spill its long-held secrets and Paterniti was sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery.

The Telling Room is as surprising, evocative and wildly entertaining as the world it portrays.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel will come as a surprise to those who have defined her by the blockbuster Eat Pray Love.

Set in the 1800s, The Signature of All Things weaves an epic story of adventure, love and botany. The incredible authenticity of detail and Gilbert’s master story-telling make the journey across the continents, through the centuries, and throughout the 500-odd pages, joyful and swift – making this a perfect summer read and our bookclub choice for September.

The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh

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An electrifying and titillating read where we find seduction, desire and troubled passion in the heat of the sultry summer sun.

Each summer Jenn and her husband return religiously to Mallorca’s West Coast but this year the arrival of Jenn’s stepdaughter and her boyfriend Nathan brings with it a series of unexpected events. Nathan’s beauty and youth cannot escape Jenn who finds herself recklessly gambling away stability to feed this new sprung obsession.

Walsh’s novel is undoubtedly this summer’s steamy read; suspense-filled and just dripping with passion

A Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

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‘I loved the writing and the characterisation, oh, and the plot – yeah, all really pithy. Really great': sound familiar? How many books have you claimed to have read but never actually finished, or even started? Miller decides to rectify his twenty odd years of lies and to silence his nagging guilt to become the literate man he’s always claimed himself to be.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: ‘classic, cult and everything in-between.’

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut 

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A fictionalised and fascinating account of E M Forster’s life around the time he was working on A Passage to India.

Using extensive research, Galgut has brought in the characters around Forster (a mad maharajah, the spoilt Bloomsbury set, an adored Egyptian lover) and created a moving novel that explores the interior life of a complex, conflicted yet brilliant man.

E M Forster – A Room with a View

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Love! Truth! Beauty! A chance encounter, an impulsive kiss and Lucy Honeychurch’s world is forever changed. Torn between settling for a life of acceptable convention or the calling of her true love, Lucy epitomizes the struggle for individuality.

Definitely EM Forster’s most romantic novel, with the easy flowing passion of the Italian culture set against the constrictions and repressed sexuality of English Edwardian society.

A classic ideally suited to summer, sunshine and freedom.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys – Viv Albertine 

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“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both” so begins Viv Albertine’s remarkably candid memoir.

In it she tells the story of what it was like to be a girl at the height of punk and of what happened post-punk, taking in a career in film, IVF, illness, divorce – and making music again, twenty-five years later.

From music and fashion to family and feminism, this is a truly remarkable memoir and the story of a life lived unscripted, told from the heart.

The Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan

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Amy Tan has been writing high quality blockbusters for decades, ever since The Joy Luck Club became a huge besteller in 1989. Her latest is an intelligent saga about coutesans in China at the turn of the 20th century.

Violet, half American and half Chinese daughter of the owner of the courtsean house, is forced into this world, where (amongst the betrayal and sadness) she also discovers female friendship, loyalty and love.

A classic Tan page-turner for those who loved Memoirs of a Geisha.

Her – Harriet Lane

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Perfectly reviewed onsite by EduardoBarcelona: “If you enjoyed Alys, Always I can heartily recommend HER.

“Written by an early Mumsnetter, this is the kind of book that you HAVE to read in a day. It speaks to all of us who have ever wrangled children – in fact I was late to work after spending an hour in the bath trying to get to the end. (Bad hair day ensued).

“I did chuckle afterwards that you can imagine the whole book as a long AIBU, from two people’s viewpoints… just BRILLIANT.”

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family – Maxim Leo

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Maxim Leo was born into an East Berlin family whose story, like the GDR’s past, is one of hopes, lies, cruelties and betrayals – but also love.

Compassionate and unflinchingly honest, Red Love is a moving, absorbing and smart memoir of life in a country that no longer exists.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

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Our July Book of the Month is, as Alice Sebold brilliantly called it, ‘a dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative’.

Narrated by the jaunty, sharp and very amusing Rosemary, the novel centres around the disappearance of Rosemary’s siblings, and the impact on her and her scientist parents. It looks like a straightforwardly comic novel but underneath lies an enormous moral dilemma. Fowler sets radical experimentation against personal experience, science against compassion.

Winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award 2014, this book manages to be unusual and funny and sad and disturbing all at once.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld 

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Like The Night Guest, this critically acclaimed novel centres on a woman living in a remote area, threatened by fears that are perhaps real or imagined.

Jake is a woman with a secret, having moved from Australia to a tiny island off the British coast. Her past and present dovetail in a beautifully crafted suspense story that is unsettling and mesmerising.

Often compared to early Ian McEwan and Iain Banks, Wyld is an absolutely exquisite writer and a highly talented young voice.

The Vogue Factor – Kirstie Clements

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In May 2012 Kirstie Clements was unceremoniously sacked after thirteen years in the editor’s chair at Vogue Australia. Here she tells the eye-opening story of life in fashion’s fast lane.

From the glamour of photo shoots in exotic locations, fashion shows and of course outrageous fashion, to the ugly side: the infighting, back-stabbing, desperation of models to stay thin. All this sprinkled with an array of glitzy slebs make this a fascinating summer read.

Mom and Me and Mom – Maya Angelou

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Having died in May this year, Maya Angelou has left behind an inspirational legacy of strength and perseverance which speaks out to many of us. We’ve selected Mom & Me & Mom as it unearths a deeper layer of Angelou’s compelling life story, revealing a more intimate and heartfelt insight into her relationship with mother Vivian Baxter Johnson.

The novel reveals why Maya was raised by her paternal grandmother and discloses the emotional turmoil Maya suffered as she began to perceive of her mother as a presence of absence.

Touchingly emotional, this story considers the bond between mother and daughter as it is at once torn apart and then reconciled

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Fatima Bhutto

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Bhutto’s debut novel centres on a single day in the life of a single family living in the tribal areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border.

A fascinating insight into both real lives and the true politics of the region, the three brothers represent different attitudes: ambition, caution, idealism.

Bhutto is a beautifully economical writer, with no waffle, and she has managed to open up the debate about this troubled area without giving any moral judgement.

A thought-provoking piece of fiction from this highly-regarded writer.

What A Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe 

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We decided to include a trip back to the 80s in our summer round-up, after enjoying reading this recent thread.

What A Carve Up was unflinchingly the book of the decade and cited by many Mumsnetters as their favourite book of all time. Coe’s classic captures the political movements of Britain in the 1980s with true humour and reflects on the blurred boundaries between greed and madness through the microscope of Thatcher’s Britain.

What he illuminates is both hilariously acute and touchingly thought-provoking, or as one Mumsnetter says, ‘Ridiculous, but an absolute hoot!’

 

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful – Gideon Lewis-Kraus

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Frustrated with life in Berlin, author Gideon Lewis-Kraus undertakes three separate ancient pilgrimages. He recounts his travels over hundreds of miles: the thousand-year old Camino de Santiago in Spain with a friend, a solo circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and finally, with his father and brother, a migration to the tomb of a famous Hassidic mystic in the Ukraine.

Both succinctly funny and movingly honest, Lewis-Kraus examines with piercing insight our search for purpose in life, and how we travel between past and present in search of hope for our future.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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We recently interviewed Norwich resident and author Emma Healey here and were blown away by the insight this young woman has into the myriad of ways by which Dementia affects not only the person, but family, friends and the society around them. Crossing genres from family drama to crime, the story unfolds via what is forgotten, half forgotten and that which can never be forgotten- the long ago disappearance of Maud’s sister and the apparent disappearance of her close friend Elizabeth.

Suffolk Spuds Rock!

The sun is shining on potato farmers, and new varieties are springing up all over East Anglia.

Life has been tough for spud growers in recent years, but experts are predicting a bumper crop this season. Carolyn Hart meets the Suffolk farmers who are capitalising on the conditions by introducing new varieties such as the Maris Peer.

Matt Gregory's farm in East Anglia will this season produce about 130 tons of potatoes a day

The spuds do not make themselves immediately noticeable, but all along the side of the A12, from Ipswich to Lowestoft, lies a corridor of light sandy soil that is especially good for growing solanum tuberosum. The sand allows the soil to warm up more quickly in the spring, which means you can plant earlier and harvest later in the year so that, in theory, spuds can be lifted almost every day from May to November.

That is in a good year, of course; potatoes need a dry spring and then plenty of water – but not floods of it. The past few seasons have delivered quite the opposite: cold wet springs, dank summers and lowering blankets of cloud producing monsoon-like floods. It has been something of a nightmare for potato growers, who have also had to cope with a piratical trio of diseases: blight, scab and black heart. But last year saw the beginnings of an improvement, and this year, according to Peter Tinkler, the chief potato buyer at Marks & Spencer, the growing conditions are ideal. ‘It’s been warm, sunny and dry with just enough rain. It’s so good that we’ve managed to bring forward the entire UK season. We’re three weeks ahead of last year,’ he says enthusiastically.

PHOTO: Marsha Arnold

Sadly for him, M&S is not yet a ‘potato destination’, but he hopes to change all that with his latest passion – the Maris Peer, a new potato renowned for its sweet-tasting, creamy-coloured flesh and uniform shape, and one of the stars of the show along the A12 corridor. ‘The weather this year has been especially good for new potatoes,’ Tinkler says. ‘They’re going to be so good… the quality will be amazing.’

Tinkler is standing in a sunlit Suffolk field with two men who are as keen on spuds as he is – Matt Gregory, who manages several farms in the area, and Phil Britton, a potato technologist for the vegetable packers Manor Fresh. ‘There’s never a dull moment in potatoes,’ Britton affirms as we watch Gregory and his potato lifter at work. ‘Potatoes have been grown here in Suffolk on this south-sloping land for generations.’

Gregory, who conceived a passion for farming aged nine when the lure of a local farmyard full of machinery and a greenhouse full of plants so entranced him that he ‘forgot’ to go to school, is now in charge of 3,500 acres of East Anglian arable root land, of which 600-700 acres are given over to potatoes.

As well as the Maris Peer he grows Charlotte, Annabel, Carlingford, Maris Piper and King Edwards and is constantly involved in trialling new varieties. ‘I’d rather develop new varieties than bring back disease-prone old ones,’ Gregory says.

PHOTO: Marsha Arnold

But the effort in making a new spud is immense – you have to be two years ahead in terms of seed. You just have to hope it works at the end.’At this time of year Gregory and his team of 11 tractor drivers will work each day from dawn, harvesting 130 tons of potatoes a day, delivered to the packing house in five daily lorry loads. Of those, 80 tons go to M&S every week. ‘We don’t store potatoes,’ Gregory says. ‘Everything lifted goes straight to the customer. That makes us unique in this area.’

He takes us on, up to see a field of potatoes in full flower near Iken, a swath of hazy purple sweeping up a shallow hill towards the salt marshes of the Alde estuary and the sea beyond. Over our heads the skylarks sing, and the sun continues to shine out of a clear blue sky. ‘This is very unusual weather for a British farmer,’ Gregory says as he stands patiently among his potatoes waiting to be photographed. ‘Who’d be a model?’

Further down the A12 to Ipswich, Stephen Robson, the chef at the Suffolk Food Hall, a collective of local producers, butchers and bakers with a garden centre and restaurant attached, has spent the morning thinking up ways to use a Maris Peer potato to its best advantage. ‘It’s a very sweet potato,’ he says, ‘good for roasting and wedges.’ Today, he is making a fricassee of Maris Peer, lettuce, peas and bacon to go with a fillet of salmon, a dish of potato wedges and quartered Maris Peers sautéed with scallops. The spuds are as delicious as Tinkler promised they would be, redolent of unexpected sunny summer lunches.

We eat them in Robson’s kitchen overlooking the Orwell estuary, shadowed by the tremendous Orwell bridge whose 190m span and towering concrete pilings provide a surreal view of lorries flying high over the river while yachts glide silently by underneath, on their way down to Harwich and the sea.

Fillet of salmon, fricassee of baby gem lettuce, Maris Peer potatoes and streaky bacon

Rosemary and Maldon sea salt potato wedges

Pan-seared scallops with sautéed maris peer potatoes

Chargrilled lamb steak and maris peer potatoes

Maris Peer potatoes available from M&S, £1.59/kg

For more stories from the Saturday Telegraph magazine visittelegraph.co.uk/magazine