Category Archives: Suffolk

Daw’s Hall Nature Reserve

Daw’s Hall is not far from where we live, yet, in the nine years we’ve lived here, we’ve never managed to visit. A bit like when I lived in London – which I did for decades, I never visited ‘the sights’ unless we had visiting Italian relatives.

Last weekend we finally made it and it was one of those glorious days. Everyone there was charming and lovely, there is a bee house where you can learn all about bees, amazing scenery, you can walk all around the reserve, slowly, in under an hour – so not onerous. And there are ducks and geese and lots and lots of flowers – depending on the time of year. If you’re lucky you can see the little train toot by. At the end, you can stop and have home made cakes (not tried) and cake.

It’s only open at certain times of year, so do check, but I’m reliably informed that in June the roses are magnificent. Open days coming up are this half of 2016: 29th May, June 5th, 12th and 19th.

There is an admission charge, but it’s not much – £5 for adults, £1 for children.

No pictures cos I left my phone at home. Maybe this made it even more magical…

The day I finally became Julia Roberts.

Remember the scene in Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere go to the opera? She wears a long red dress, and he presents her with an expensive necklace before their date.

It was not the date, nor the jewellery I envied. It was the fact that she cried during the opera. For a long time I wanted to cry at the opera. I heard that people did. My partner often cries at opera, so moved is he by it. I never have. I’ve tried, because I thought that’s what happened if you really got it, if you were somehow more cultured than I thought I was, if you had a beating heart inside your body. But no.

I grew up in an Italian house where opera was frequently played. I really appreciate opera. I absolutely love some of it. I think the singing is fantastic and I can really appreciate all the hard work that goes into it. But it doesn’t make me cry, and for a really long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. What made me cry, what makes me cry still are cheesey-to-anyone-else Italian tunes from the 1950s and 60s. If you want to see me go silent, turn my back to you and then discreetly pull a hanky from my pocket, with a magician’s slight of hand, play me Claudio Villa.

He’s not an opera singer. He may not even be a very good singer. I don’t know. What I do know is that he makes me cry, because it resonates with me. It reminds me of being little, being in Italy, when I still had two generational layers in front of me, shielding me from the world. When I could look sideways at my family tree, and a little bit up, and see lines and lines of cousins and aunts and uncles. He reminds me of hot afternoons with the orange ‘mangia disco’* in the corner ‘eating’ our vinyl 45s. The canopy pulled down over the balcony shielding us from the worse of the day’s sun, my belly full of gnocchi made by my grandmother and the lunch table a graveyard of bread crumbs and wine corks.

Then there’s art. Growing up, art was for people who had studied it. Who understood. Who knew dates off by heart and who could say thing like..well things like I can’t say because I don’t know. I stayed away from art galleries.

And then, a few things happened. I met my partner, Pete, in 1997. He taught me that art was what you made it – what spoke to you. And what that was was entirely personal to you. That it was okay to not like some art, even if everyone else loved it. And it was okay to like art even if nobody else did. That gave me confidence. Just a few months after I’d met him, (warning: some monumental name dropping coming up) I found myself at the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the only British journalist – for some reason – invited to a dinner and then a do (where there were other journalists)  with Jeff Koons, Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. I was sat next to Koons and before I’d simply not have been able to talk to him, but, suddenly I felt able to. I can’t pretend it was the most interesting dinner I’ve ever been to: it wasn’t. But it was memorable.

I was working at the Independent at the time, and my friend, Chris Maume (now obituaries editor of the Independent) was one of those journalists who was so learned that he could write about sport or art and imbue each with knowledge from outside the actual subject. I think that’s a real skill, because if no man is an island, no subject is, either. He came into the office one day having been to an art exhibition (I wish so much I could remember which, now) and when I asked him how it was he said “God, it was BRILLIANT, I wanted to fuck the art.”

Well. I had never heard any of the art journalists describe art like that. Little by little, I got the confidence to go to art galleries, to realise that it was my response to stuff that mattered.

I still didn’t cry at the opera. But a few months ago, we went, en famille, to see Proms no.69: Carmina Burana, and I did cry. At the Latin choir. And that’s when I realised that it wasn’t just Claudio Villa and his ilk that make me cry. Sung Latin does it too. When I used to go to the sung Latin mass at St Etheldreda’s, where there is a splendid choir, I used to cry. In the middle of mass. Like I was having a religious experience, which perhaps, I was.

Last weekend, we went to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival at Snape Maltings, which is not far from where I live. I love Snape. It has a bit of everything: concert hall, shops, walking, Pump Street Bakery where I can drop £20 on breakfast pastries and pretend I have a family of ten. Ostensibly we went to catch Hollie McNish, whom I’ve been a fan of for some years, ever since I saw her on You Tube reciting a poem about breastfeeding. We all went to a little talk she did about Freedom, where she talked about how she was free to write whatever she wanted, but, in fact, she didn’t always feel free to perform her poems, because some of them got loads of hate mail. One of them was, ironically, the first poem of hers that I ever heard and the one that my children had listened to: Embarrassed, about breastfeeding her daughter. She read it out. I struggled to say upright. I went up to talk to her afterwards to say that I, too, had stopped writing about breastfeeding because of the hate mail. It gets hard to deal with, after a while.

The next day, at her performance, she read out other poems: about what it’s like to be old, what real beauty is, what happens to your body when you have a baby. I felt incredibly moved. I may have cried again. My children were sat, transfixed. I love how Frozen hardly touched them, but here they were in a concert hall listening to a slam poet and utterly in the moment. My youngest wrote poetry all the way through in this little note book she’d been given. Two were utterly brilliant, one  was about the sea and one was about her going into a coffee shop and drinking 17 coffees. She’s six.

I was so emotional that afterwards, when I went up to Hollie again and get her to sign her second book, Cherry Pie, for my girls, all I could utter was ‘hi’.

On the Saturday, my eldest and I had also been to see Jack Rooke‘s performance: Good Grief. Rooke is 21 and his dad died six years ago. The performance is about his dad, his nan and Jack’s grief. No poetry was read out. It was a great performance: so well observed and funny. Plus he gave out malt loaf, Get out of Shit cards (mini moo cards yay!) and a tin of custard creams was passed round half way through. There was a bit of swearing. Swearing and biscuits. I could see my eldest thinking “wow, this poetry festival is great!” But half way through he does this bit about his dad, and how for six months after he died, he’d still call his dad’s number, asking him to “come home now”, asking him to pick him up (he was a cab driver).

I cried.

*mangia disco means record player in Italian but it literally means ‘eats the records’.

The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum and Garden Cafe, Dedham

Dedham is a village near where I live. We stumbled upon it a few years ago, when we did a marvellous country walk along its river bank (the Stour). It is an area of outstanding natural beauty that is heavily protected and, historically, always seems to have had residents who care about what happens there. It is Constable country: the artist lived down the road at East Bergholt and all around is the landscape he painted. He went to school in Dedham – you can see where in the square, the Old Grammar School – apparently walking there every morning along the same sort of route we took when we first discovered the village.

Dedham doesn’t have many shops, but it does have probably the best toy shop in the world (more on this another time).

The last time we went, I thought I’d see where we could have some good tea and cake. And this search took me to the Garden Cafe in the Munnings Art Museum (you see how I access culture? Via cake). The art museum wasn’t anything I’d ever seen or come across in Dedham before, and indeed, it is tucked away, nearly a mile’s walk from the village centre and badly signposted once you’re through the park (good playground). At one stage you are in deep Dedham suburbia (I guess this is where the houses that cost less than a million are) and you wonder if you’re in the right place at all. But you are and you keep going and then, there before you is Castle House, where Sir Alfred used to live and where a great part of his paintings are now kept.

(You can drive there, but we walked from Dedham.)

The museum is lovely. I love that children only pay £1 (adults: £6.50). I confess I’d never heard of him. Munnings painted lots of horses, he lost an eye to a bramble bush and went on to become a war artist for the Canadian army. He was controversial, as president of the RA, he made a speech slagging off modernists like Picasso and Matisse, live on BBC radio air. His first wife, Florence, attempted suicide on their wedding night. She killed herself two years later. The film Summer in February, starring him from Downton Abbey and Dominic Cooper, is about this part of his life (I’ve yet to see it, but want to). Florence was expunged from all record of Alfred’s life.

I didn’t come away feeling exactly warm towards him. But nevertheless it was a captivating museum. Although most of the pictures are of horses, my favourite was the bon viveur one above which is called Taggs Island and is displayed above the stairs.

Alfred’s second wife, Violet, had a black pekingese called Black Knight, which she carried everywhere with her. When he died, she had him stuffed and continued to carry him everywhere with her. One of the stewards in the museum remembers her, in the village, asking other customers to hold the stuffed dog, whilst she got money out to complete her transactions. There was even a ‘autobiography’ written by him, Diary of a Freeman (the dog was made a Freeman of the City of London, of course)..Black Knight is still there, stuffed and forever asleep on a cushion, in a glass case in the museum, with a red telephone next to him, presumably so he can order room service, when no-one is looking. My youngest was transfixed by this. Just goes to show that Karl Lagerfeld’s cat, Choupette, isn’t the first pet to chronicle their comings and goings.

The cafe in the garden, next to Alfred’s studio, is lovely. I mean, really first class. The staff were just delightful, the cakes (and you know how I am about cakes) DELICIOUS, all light and airy and even though I didn’t think I wanted them, I managed to eat everything on my plate. We had a coffee and walnut cake and a Victoria sponge, which had just been put out and was giant and multi-layered, the size of one of those pans we have in Italy, to cook pasta for fourteen in.  I didn’t try the food but it looked really good – all sorts of healthy salads and nice looking paninis. I promised the children we’d go back in the autumn to sample lunch, but it was a promise I mostly largely for myself

Do check opening times – of both the museum and the cafe. At the time of writing they were:

“The Café’s opening hours are 10:00am to 5:00pm and the Museum is open 2:00pm to 5:00pm Wednesday – Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays (April to October). Please check in advance if we are open at other times.”

Pump Street Bakery, Orford

Orford ness is one of our favourite places. We go there at least once a year, for a very long walk, a picnic, and chats. Even my youngest can manage to walk around the red and blue walk (not green though, it’s never been open when we’ve been there, we always time it wrong).

(For those on Fitbit, you can rack up about 15,000 steps, or six miles  walking those routes.)

What we like to do is get up really early and head out without breakfast, fantasising about what we’ll eat from the Pump Street Bakery, when we get there. The fact that such an amazing bakery exists in what is a tiny village in the middle of nowhere astounds and delights me. And makes me very jealous. I wish we had one where I live in Suffolk.

This is a tiny bakery, that is crammed into an old house. There are very few seats. But it is glorious. Please don’t miss it if you venture anywhere near Orford (which is a very pretty village). We’ve sampled the Bear’s Claws, the doughnuts, the brownies, the Eccles cakes and the almond croissants so far. You have to try the Eccles cake to believe that currants can be held in a puff pastry and be a thing of eye-watering beauty.

We have breakfast – cappuccinos (very good) with pastries dipped in them, perched on the benches outside.  I want to try a gibassier next time I’m there. I’m afraid the pastries are so good, I completely forget to photograph them, so the picture above is a photo of my feet on Orford ness beach. Probably my favourite beach in the world.

Not to be missed.

Orford Ness

We discovered Orford Ness quite by chance last year. It’s about an hour from where we live and we went there on my birthday last year, with steak pasties in our ruck sack and no expectations.

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We were blown away. Not literally of course, although that’s always a possibility on Orford Ness. It’s an old military bomb testing site – once one of the most secret places in Europe until just a few years ago – and there are still unexploded bombs there so you have to stick to the paths (the Coast Ranger told me that the light house keeper blew himself up by stepping on an UXB many years ago, but I don’t know if he was making that up..). It’s a desolate, fascinating, fragile place.

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Visitor numbers are strictly limited and you can’t book in advance, so you can only turn up and be booked on the next boat of that day – they run from 10am until 2pm to get you out there (the journey takes about a minute). The last boat back is at 5pm and they have a system in place to make sure you don’t get left behind.

So what is it? Well it’s a peninsula, a spit of land, off the very pretty village of Orford (well worth a visit). Although it is, strictly speaking, accessible by land from Aldeburgh, it isn’t for the general public and so it feels like an island which you can only get on to by boat.

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And it’s weird. If you like abandoned places you’ll love this place. There’s left behind ordnance, old buildings – some now too fragile to go into unfortunately. The National Trust – which owns it – treads a fine line between letting nature reclaim it and looking after it. There are three paths and they are only open seasonally, and not all are open at the same time and, as the numbers are limited, there is a real ‘cut off’ feeling when you get there.

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There is only one toilet and no picnic places. When we’ve been we tend to perch on old rocks ‘n’ things. There are no trees so there is no cover, so sensible shoes/clothes/sunhat/sunglasses are a must depending on the weather (which is always that bit more extreme than on the mainland). No dogs or bikes allowed.

But it’s magical. Unfortunately you can’t walk down to the lighthouse anymore and then along the amazing shingle beach which houses a significant portion of all the shingle in Europe. The lighthouse was sold last year (you can still go visit) and the beach suffered terribly in last year’s storms. Ten metres were lost in five months, four metres in just one night.

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This is such a shame because it was one of the best beach walks I’ve ever done, there’s something so raw and…epic…about this bit of coastline.

August 2015 note: this has now changed, and although the Police Tower (which is still shown on the maps) was washed away, you can walk down to and along the beach on approved paths and it is still magical. But it’s always good to check first as things do change on Orford ness!

I am completely obsessed with the Cobra Mist building, which stands, hulking and secret in the distance (you can’t get to it and you certainly can’t go in it).

I had to make do with standing ankle deep in suspect water in one of the AWRE (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment), where work ceased 43 years ago and nature has taken over. It was one of the eeriest, creepiest places I’ve ever been in. I was actually too scared to go in some of the rooms, which were dark and dripping with water.

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The rest of Orford Ness is fragile, beautiful and unlike anywhere I’ve been in the UK. So close to ‘civilisation’ and yet the moment you step onto the peninsula it feels like nowhere you’ve ever been. It feels slightly dangerous, like you’re just on the edge of something happening…

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To reconnect with the world, when we got back onto Orford, we went to the Castle Green to the lovely Lisa’s Ice cream cart and had a truly excellent ice cream..

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The Suffolk Flower Farm

Yesterday I went to the Lavenham Farmer’s Market and had a completely wonderful time, as usual. I swear they must pipe oxytocin through the hall there.

As I walked in, I saw a woman walk out with a small posy of really lovely flowers. And I clocked them and thought “wow”. And as soon as I walked in I saw this amazing stand of flowers saying “grown not flown” with the most beautiful garden flowers in bunches, in pots. And, after I’d stared at them all for a while,  I bought a small posy of flowers for £5 (see pic above).

They are lovely and if you live in Newmarket, Sudbury, Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds or Haverhill you can have lovely locally-grown flowers delivered. The company – the Suffolk Flower Farm – also does special occasions and farmer’s markets where you can pick up smaller bunches.

Lavenham Farmer’s Market

When I lived in London, we used to go to the Islington Farmer’s Market, which was great. There was a man there who sold baby lettuce leaves by the bag, and his leaves were so tasty. They had real bite and flavour to them and were far removed from supermarket lettuce which melts on the tongue and tastes of not very much, so as to appeal to as many people as possible. You couldn’t move for Bugaboos (including our own) and it was all very north London, but it was fun and there was raw milk sold (something I really miss) and great bread (something I no longer have to miss now I make my own).

When we moved to Suffolk, it took us a while to find the Lavenham Farmer’s Market which is now my favourite farmer’s market of all time. It’s held once a month (the next one is this Sunday, 23rd, it’s held on the fourth Sunday of every month), not once a week like our London one. There is usually plenty of parking and there is always something unusual to find. It’s not huge, but it’s not small either. Each time I go I find something amazing and different and have the best chats with people, from those who grow their own heritage apples, to the honey man from The Beehouse Honey Co in Great Yeldham who told me all about his bees and how different ones had different personalities and we had a honey tasting, as sophisticated as any wine tasting.

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One month we were walking round when my eldest got a really itchy neck (she suffers from mild eczema) and I looked round and there was this stand selling natural products, called Honey bee Natural Beauty, which uses honey and beeswax from their own hives. It was very Neals Yard-esque and the products smelled amazing (you know how sometimes you find these natural products and they smell just like what they are, made up in someone’s kitchen? Well these aren’t like that. There’s an orange body lotion that smells well posh and proper and I am going to buy it next time). And I said to the man “Do you have anything for eczema?” and lo and behold, he produced something called “Vitamin A Cream for Eczema Prone Skin” which cost £9 and really helps (it doesn’t cure of course since no one knows what causes eczema, but in our battery of creams and lotions, this earns its place).

And I’ve met people there, from Slamseys Drinks, who sell amazing gin  with fantastic labels, like nothing you’d find anywhere else.

I always stock up on Edward’s Cordials (strawberry and mint is great for the summer and there’s a new flavour coming soon but I forgot what it is…).

If you’ve never been to Lavenham it’s well worth a look around. It’s bonkers. I think it has the highest number of listed buildings of anywhere in England, but I may have made that statistic up (oh the glorious freedom of blog posts, no need to check facts like in newspapers). Lavenham has some great art galleries and I go in there with my children and no-one gets sniffy (my children are amazingly appropriately behaved though, as I’ve taken them everywhere with me from a very young age). Although there is one shop that says “breakages must be paid for” so that shop doesn’t get my custom because who needs that shit?

Afterwards we sometimes go to Clare, which is another amazing little Suffolk village that has proper shops. We go to Cafe Clare there, (1 Well Lane) which is tiny and quaint and we always have great service and lovely food there. It’s not the Wolseley but a great place to get a cup of coffee and a sausage sandwich and they are always accommodating to our children (I’ve seen them let dogs in too if that is relevant to you).

You can then go for a walk at Clare County Park. If you go during the week, do check out the hardware store – Hudgies.