Top 10 UK Coast Roadside Surprises

I promised there would be a bit more to this blog while we rest after the summer, and here it is – the first of a highly irregular feature of Greatest Hits of our journey.

This one is a list of cool things we’ve encountered along the way more or less by accident – either by literally driving past, or by finding out about them at the last minute from signs or local leaflets; the unfamiliar tourist attractions, or just quirky things worth noting.


10. BUDE GCHQ, CORNWALL

Bude GCHQ - Wikipedia

 Bude GCHQ (photo: wikipedia)

Not exactly a “hidden” gem, but something many people passing it daily on the busy road between Cornwall and North Devon give a little notice, and if they do, probably don’t bother to to check what the strange array of antennas and radar domes is all about – this is the main satellite intelligence and electronic spying site of UK’s equivalent (and close ally) of the NSA – GCHQ. A quiet and unassuming place most of the time, it’s become embroiled recently in the Snowden scandal, so it’s been mentioned in the news quite a lot over the last few years – though still few probably know where it is, or what it is if they see it.


9. VARYAG MONUMENT, AYRSHIRE

Varyag Monument

A mysterious cross raised on the Ayrshire shoreline in cold, blue brass, and signed entirely in Russian, this monument commemorates a Russian steam cruiser Varyag, built in 1899, which served the Tsar’s Navy in the Russo-Japanese War, was then captured by the Japanese, and finally, returned to Russia via Great Britain, ran aground in the most unlikely of places – on the rocks off Scottish coast.


8. DA PLINKY BOAT, SHETLAND

Da plinky boat

Da plinky boat

It is a long, cold and lonely wait for the ferry from Britain’s northernmost inhabited island to Britain’s second northernmost inhabited island. Luckily, the good people of Unst provided a diversion in the form of a fishing boat turned into a xylophone: da plinky boat.


7. GARLIC FARM, ISLE OF WIGHT

Garlic Field

Garlic Field

Isle of Wight is famous for many things – far too many for its size, I reckon – but garlic was never on the top list of its attractions. We stumbled onto the Garlic Farm by following a shortcut imagined by our GPS – and stayed for good few hours. Not only is visiting the big garlic field a quirky treat by itself, the farm shop is full of excellent garlic-based goods, from chutney and ketchup to surprisingly tasty ice cream.


6. WELSH LANGUAGE HERITAGE CENTRE

Nant Gwrtheyrn

Nant Gwrtheyrn

Situated at the very end of a long, winding, narrow and steep road, Nant Gwrtheyrn is not exactly something you stumble upon by accident, but it is a surprising and well worth seeing place. A one-time quarrymen village, now finely restored as a centre for learning Welsh in its native environment, it’s beautifully positioned between the sea and the mountains, a jewel hidden from sight until the very last moment.


5. T.E. LAWRENCE’S LAST (CAKE) STAND, MORETON

Symbolic sarcophagus of T.E. Lawrence

Symbolic sarcophagus of T.E. Lawrence

There are several mementos of the great Lawrence of Arabia scattered in and around Moreton, since this is the place where he had spent the last days of his life – and, eventually, found his death in a motorcycle accident. But none are as strange as the cake stand at the Moreton Tea Room – which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the authentic bier upon which Lawrence’s coffin lay at his funeral.


4. MERMAID  OF ZENNOR

The Zennor Mermaid Chair

The Zennor Mermaid Chair

The small local churches of Cornwall, with their nowhere-else-known patron saints are often strange enough without involving mysterious Greek-mythology inspired legends, but the sea-side parish of Zennor easily takes the podium of peculiarity. The 600-year old Mermaid Chair, hidden away in the corner of the church, inspired not only a unique local mermaid legend and some dubious scholarship, linking it to pagan images of Aphrodite, but also a brand of local dairy ice cream – the Moomaids of Zennor.


3. CAIRN HOLY, GALLOWAY

Cairnholy I

Cairnholy I

Cairn Holy is a stone circle – one of hundreds in Britain. It is an impressive one – if the likes of Stonehenge and Brodgar’s Ring form the Premier League of stone circles, then Cairn Holy is easily at the top of First Division. It’s also easily missed, a mile off the less-travelled stretch of the A75. But that’s not what makes Cairn Holy a remarkable discovery: it’s the person of Joe, a fanatic amateur archaeologist obsessed with Cairn Holy’s secrets, who is present at the site almost every day, ready to entertain the visitors with wondrous tales and field experiments.


2. COCOA MOUNTAIN, BALNAKEIL

Balnakeil Craft Village

Balnakeil Craft Village

Driving through the frozen wasteland that is Sutherland in summer, we were lured first by the promise of freshly made hot chocolate, but the entire site of Balnakeil turned out to be a fantastic little place. A nuclear attack watch station in the 1950s, taken over by a commune of artists and hippies a decade later, Balnakeil is Scotland’s answer to Christiania, and a successful commercial venture to boot. And the chocolate, by the way, was delicious.


1. HONESTY CAFE, ISLE OF ISLAY

Honesty Cafe

Honesty Cafe

Another “end of the road” surprise, and best of them all; we found it looking for one of Islay’s finest ruins, the Kildalton church and the stone cross in its yard. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, miles from any civilization – except for this unmanned “cafe” consisting of a folding table, coffee and tea pots and a box of freshly baked cakes – and a honesty box. I can’t guarantee it’s still there, but regardless, it was easily one of the happiest and most humanity-affirming things we’ve seen on the entire journey.

Kyoto December

So now we know it. There is no time of year in which Kyoto doesn’t look stunning. Even in the middle of a snow-less, tepid winter, when all the other cities in moderate climates don a grey, torrid coat of slush and bone-soaking drizzle, she just takes another lovely dress out of its infinite wardrobe – one of eye-watering bright azure sky and evergreen leaves, and tops it with its best hat yet, a lavish pyramid of citrus fruits and camellia flowers.

Sometimes it powders it all with a smattering of snowflakes, but not too much; she’s all about understatement, after all.

Vignettes from Shimogyo-ku

1.

Picture this:
The end of a narrow alleyway, one of a hundred identical ones criss-crossing this part of town like threads on a plaid cloth. On one side, a small Buddhist temple, a uniform wooden gate in an ancient stone wall, that would look bizarrely out of place in any other neighbourhood; on the other, a dilapidated, run-down wooden house, too poor to count as a proper machiya, with dusty windows and plastic paneling on the walls (some Japanese like the outsides of their homes to look like the insides of their bathrooms).

In between, a small cube of raw concrete, shot through with garages hiding behind folding doors of corrugated steel. Amidst those, a plastic marquee hides the tiniest of shops, consisting of a single glass cupboard. On the shelves lay what I take for plastic imitations of tea ceremony sweets, tiny, colourful baubles that look more like toys than food.  

An ancient lady, bent with rheumatism and shaken with old age tremors, emerges from behind the curtain. At the back, her equally primordial husband stands over a machine mixing sweet red bean paste. The old lady opens the cupboard and takes out the sweet treasures, and at that moment I realize these are not imitations: these beautiful, painstakingly crafted items are actual sweets, each a tiny work of art, a single-bite parcel of sugary rice dough wrapped around the red bean heart in the shape of a mouse, a cherry, a Christmas tree. How is it that this old woman, whose hands tremble like ginkgo leaves in the wind as she takes the thousand yen note, is still able to create masterpieces like these?

Everything in this shop is as old as its owners. A bakelite Siemens phone. A kitchen scale which seems to remember the day the War ended. The red bean paste mixing machine, running on diesel in the back, that looks like part of a ship’s engine.

2.

Picture this:
Compared to the sweet shop, this place is almost modern. A glass door, with a sign that says “Tofu” and “Yuba”. A narrow glazed fridge. It’s half empty; of its many shelves, only a few are filled, with cups of soy milk and cubes of fried tofu.

The inside is dark and musty like a cellar. All the machinery is visible from street level, and all of it looks, again, as if built by some naval engineer in spare time. A woman, a generation younger than the sweets lady, picks up a tray of freshly made, still trembling soy curd, and carries it to the frying vats, bubbling away in the corner.

We ask for some yuba, the delicate skin of soy milk, which is Kyoto’s specialty; it looks unappetizing, but is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, a bomb of protein and calcium, used by Buddhist monks for centuries to provide them with the nutrition lacking in meat-free diet.

All the yuba is gone, the woman replies. You have to request in advance – or you can buy some in Daimaru, where we deliver, she says.

Daimaru is Kyoto’s Harrods and Selfridges combined; a huge department store, with the largest and best food hall in the city… and this is where the tofu and yuba produced in this tiny, dark, garage-like workshop ends up, neatly packed and presented among expensive, luxurious items like slices of Kobe beef, whole snow crabs or slabs of imported Spanish ham.

Slightly dazed with this revelation, we content ourselves with a cup of soy milk and wander off into the narrow streets, filled with tiny, dark, stuffy workshops where inconspicuous people work hard on other mysterious things that end up on the shelves of some of the finest department stores in the country.

3.

Picture this:
Another narrow street, another indistinguishable house among other indistinguishable houses of wood and grey concrete. There’s a greengrocers here. Boxes of fruit and veg spill out on the street, as if it was the middle of a farmers market. Sweet potatoes and aubergines, apples and yuzu lemons. It’s mikan season, and so the most prominent of all are crates of the juicy fruit, known as Satsuma in the West, divided by size and price. The largest ones are a hundred yen each.

We pick up a few and call for the proprietor, who’s nowhere to be seen. We wait. There’s no answer. Another customer approaches, a young mother on a bike, her baby in the seat at the front (in Kyoto, there are no baby prams: only bikes with baby seats perched precariously between the handlebars). She also calls for the shop owner, to no avail.

We wait some more, and then the young mother spots a notice stuck between the aubergines and points it to us. “I’m out for delivery”, says the note. In the middle of a busy street, in the center of a big city, the shop owner left her store unlocked, with all the goods out in the open, and disappeared somewhere on an errand.

We put the fruit away with some reluctance. They look so juicy… I think we could just leave the money on the table, honesty box-style, but I’m not sure, and it’s not like we won’t be back here soon.

Finland Pit Stop

A few snapshots of Helsinki and Tampere. This is far from our first visit to Finland, as we have family and friends here. This time, we spent an unexpected amount of time in post-industrial areas, transformed into lofts. Finns are brilliant at it – the examples in Helsinki and Tampere are among the best (and retaining the most of original, authentic form) we’ve seen in Europe, and you can see some of it below: the former abattoirs of Teurastamo, and the former weaving factory of Finlayson.

Day 118-125 and beyond… – Overwintering

Mazowsze

Mazowsze

Well, here we are. October 15th – exactly four months after leaving our London flat, we are in Warsaw.

As we had planned, it took us six days to drive across Europe – with stops in Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin and Poznan. We drove for 200-300km per day, all on motorways (including the new one in Poland – it wasn’t here the last time we traveled the country), at speeds the van hadn’t dreamt of… we think something may have gotten broken again, but we made it through all in one piece, and now have the winter to figure out if, and what, to fix.

We stayed with family in Brussels, with friends in Poznan, and on campsites in Germany. It was cold, windy, rainy, and for the last night in Berlin we had a fierce thunderstorm above our heads competing with airliners landing on a nearby Tegel airport.

We didn’t do much sightseeing – it wasn’t that kind of a trip; we did eat, though (and drink) in some of our favourite places, even if it meant standing 2 hours in a queue in Berlin for Mustafa’s legendary Gemusekebap. We did stroll around Brussels and Cologne for a bit, but that wasn’t our first time in either of them. We still need to go back to Cologne to visit the Roman Museum – it was already closed by the time we got there, and it looks like a full day trip anyway.

The campsites in Germany are of a completely different standard than the English ones. I’m not saying better – just different. There’s a very 70s working class holiday vibe in them; the one in Cologne is probably the best of the three, right on the Rhine; there’s fantastic Autumn going on in Europe right now, and there is no better sight in the world than autumn trees reflecting in the water (those who’ve been to Kiyomizudera in November will know what I’m talking about); Germany had plenty of that on offer.

We got into Warsaw on the last moment; the night before it was already frost on the ground, and first of the winter fogs, dissipating as we entered the motorway for one last time. It’s still Indian Summer in Poland, but it feels like the snow might come at any moment now, and we’re not fit to face the winter – not just yet, at least. So ,like a Great Heathen Army staying the winter in Repton, we’ll be in Warsaw, waiting for the spring thaws, before moving on.

This is definitely not the end of our journeys. Next year – next trip! And until then, we’ll be posting more summaries of last year, things we forgot to mention, tips, and whatever else we can think of – only not as often as before. So don’t go away too far!

Day 117 – The Last Night

Kent

Kent

 

One final stage left of our great circle – the road from London to Folkestone. One last day on the English coast. We’re almost back to where we started, four months ago – in Kent.

In early October t’s looking a lot more the “Orchard of England” than it did back in June. The orchards are heaving with ripe fruit, the woods glimmer gold and amber in the sun. The weather is dreamy, warm but not hot, the air is clear and fresh. England is wearing her best to bid us farewell.

If it’s Kent and sea, it must be Whitstable; we used to visit here once in a while, as it’s a rather lovely little town (possibly the finest within commute reach) and easy to get to from London, and the shingle beach is nice too, in low tide.

We haven’t been here for a few years, though, and we’re in for a surprise: the town looks better than it ever did. The fishing harbour is cleaned up and full of activity; some of the typical black-paint fishermen huts and warehouses are rented out for accommodation, some host an art and crafts market, some house bars and restaurant – but most importantly, many are still  in proper use, by the owners of a fleet of tiny fishing crafts crowding the busy harbour, This is not one of those dead, fake fishermen communities that can be seen in other parts of the coast.

It’s October, which means it’s the middle of oyster season, and Whitstable oysters are among the best in the world; we pass by a tiny black hut, which looks like a former smokehouse, just by the sea wall, surrounded by crowds of customers; this is the unlikely headquarters of the Whitstable Oyster Company. The sea wall itself is the bar of this establishment, and we sit there, enjoying expertly shucked native oysters, local organic ale, and listen to one of the employees explaining the business to a couple of impressable Americans.

The oysters of Whiststable – now protected by the PGI designation (unlike their northern brethren in Colchester, across the bay) grow uniquely big, old, and tasty; we learn that it’s due to the amount of calcium in the water – we are surrounded by chalk downs, and the Thames brings its share of nutrients and minerals into the mix. The oysters grow on beds that are built by hand from recycled shells – heaps of which lie all around the harbour in this high season. The resulting produce is – as we could have tasted – a delicate, almost sweet morsel of brine and muscle. Flash-frozen alive, the oysters are sent all over the world, including – where else – Japan.

Since we’ve been to Whitstable so many times, it may seem surprising that we’ve never been to nearby Canterbury. Well, now’s our chance. We don’t know much about the town – apart from its history as the cradle of English Christianity, of course – but we are agreed on one thing: no more cathedrals. Luckily, to even enter the gardens of Augustine’s cathedral it’s £9 per person, so we are glad to get by with just casting a glance at its famous towers through the gate.

The old town surrounding it, however, was more than enough to occupy us for the remainder of the afternoon. It turned out to be one of the prettiest old towns we’ve seen, comparable with that of Chester, with buildings from 15th and 16th century still in modern use; Canterbury may just have the most impressive Nero Cafe and Pret-a-Manger in England, both behind ancient, wood-carved facades.

Canterbury looks like a place worth spending a whole day in, and I regret a little we haven’t visited here before; beyond the old town walls there are even more ancient ruins, of the Abbey, established by St Augustine himself, and a Norman castle – begun as one of the first in England, even before William reached London after Hastings. But the true gems are within the finely preserved walls, on the pilgrim road just off the West Gate (itself a massive construction, the largest city gate in England): a 12th century Pilgrim Hospital, open to public, and the Weavers’ Houses along the River Stour. The Weavers were the Huguenots, escaping from France in 16th century, and the district they inhabit looks like carried over directly from a small town in Alsace, somewhere around Strasbourg: dainty black-and-white timber houses facing the canal, festooned with ivy and flowers.

The whole place has a cosmopolitan flavour; Kent, separated from the rest of Europe only by the narrowest of straits, has always prided itself on Continental connections – even Caesar writes about its good relationships with Gaul – and it remains the most Continental-looking part of England, not least because all the cafes and restaurants in Canterbury are either French or Belgian. We leave the city and head for Dover and Folkestone, with one small but important stop in the middle of the marshes near Sandwich. Here, visited only by rabbits and pheasants, stands a mighty Roman wall of a Saxon Shore fortress of Rutupiae; today’s Richborough.

We started this journey from another such fort, at Pevensey; that was a place where William the Conqueror had landed in 1066. We end the journey at Richborough: the site of an equally important landing, that of Emperor Claudius’s troops in 43 AD. This is where Britain’s written history begins (excluding Caesar’s little adventure, which also may have begun around Dean/Sandwich coast); this is the first Roman-built settlement, and for many years the chief port of Britannia (until overshadowed by Dover). The local oysters which we had so eagerly eaten, where known in Rome as Richborough Oysters, and favoured as an incomparable delicacy.

The site is, unfortunately, closed on Tuesdays, but it’s enough that we are here to see it, from beyond a wire fence; where all had started, we finish. What would the Roman soldiers have said about our journey? What would William’s knights? It took us four months to get to Ultima Thule of their geographers – Shetlands – and back; we didn’t have to fight any barbarian tribes along the way, although we did have to brace the same cold winds and rains that they would have on the journey north. We’ve been to the Hadrian’s Wall, and to the Legionnary fortresses of Caerleon and Chester; two thousand years have passed, and the walls still stand, and the names of the Emperors, generals and even common centurions still ring familiar in our ears. The Romans, the Saxons, the Normans, are all here to stay.

We drive through Dover, its gigantic castle casting a dark shadow in the setting sun; from a National Trust car park we climb half-way down the white cliffs – quite possibly the most famous cliffs in the world – towards the ferry harbour; we’ve never seen anywhere as busy as this. A never-ending snake of countless HGVs pours forth from the ferries, which pass each other in the narrow entrance without stopping. Easily a third of the trucks bear Polish signs and names; they had made the same long journey as we are about to endure – the final stage of the long holiday, getting back to Warsaw for winter. We’re talking it slowly – the journey that could be done in a day will take us about a week; but then that’s the most we can safely squeeze out of ourselves and the car. Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin… this is just a taste of what we hope to see next year. But that’s a long-term plan. For now, the short-term plan is: get to Folkestone in the morning and board the Chunnel shuttle…

It’s night now; the last night in Great Britain. The campsite is a fine one, in a gorge carved into the snow-white chalk cliffs; it overlooks the sea, and we can hear the waves churning against the shore below; the ships in the Channel glint and glimmer, and still further on the unseen horizon, the light of a French lighthouse peeps occasionally through low clouds. It’s warm and dry, and quiet, and the smell of sea lingers in the air. Somehow, at the very end, everything is just as it should be.

Day 112-116 – There’s no place like…

London

London

We are finally back in London – after nearly four months of the journey. It’s not yet quite the end, but we allow ourselves a few days of rest before the very final stage.

I’m not sure what to write about London here. We’ve lived here for over six years, and still are far from discovering all its secrets. It’s noisy, crowded, expensive; we love it here.

For us, coming back to London is all about the food. So we visit all our favourite markets, cafes and restaurants – and there’s enough of it to last us the better part of the week. Having lived, earned and commuted here for so long, it was easy to forget how expensive the city is. Yes, we’ve been told that by everyone, but we had no frame of reference; returning from months spent in rural England, impoverished Wales and half-empty Scotland, we’re in for a shock. You can easily spend in a day what would last you a week elsewhere – not even knowing on what. And we’re supposed to be the reasonable ones…

The weather is perfect, and from what we hear from the locals, it’s been like this all summer. But it’s muggy, the air has that unmistakable clinginess of a great city; dust, smog and humidity cover the hair and skin with a thin film almost from the moment you step outside. That’s one thing I haven’t been missing about London. The other is commuting.

It takes us a few days to get used to the crowd and the noise, and stop getting overwhelmed by the Tube. It’ true what everyone said; London’s crowds are incomparable to anything we’ve encountered. Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle – all pale to insignificance next to mid-week afternoon on Oxford Street. It’s getting harder and harder to remember the silence of Mull, the emptiness of Sutherland.

But once we get back to the ever-pulsating rhythm of the city, it becomes our second nature; it’s inspiring, it’s vibrant, it’s thriving. The crisis, even though caused by the City, seems to have bypassed it altogether. There are new shops and cafes at every corner, even in our little old Wallington; new skyscrapers, new apartment blocks, new estates. Everything is bustling with activity. Suddenly I feel like writing again, feel like trying new things.

And the food! I had waxed at length about the produce of England, about the fish of Scotland, about the milks and ciders and creams and fruit… but London is, still, in a league of its own when it comes to making good food. This is where everything is happening – even if the pies for the Pie Minister stand come from Bristol, and the salmon for the Hansen&Lydersen comes from the Faeroes, this is where everything comes together perfectly.

The people… whatever you may think of the Londoners, the people we know and meet here are just the best. We’ve been away for four months, but once we’re back, everyone recognizes us and greets us like old friends; it’s as if we’re back to our home village, not a 10 million strong city. That’s just quality you can’t beat.

I try not to think of the money, but it’s not easy – we’re over budget as it is, and staying in London is like having a hose connected straight to your bank account instead of a wallet; it’s easy to see how living here distorts the perspective, whether you’re a simple middle-class worker, a businessman or a politician. What’s happening here seems to have almost nothing to do with the rest of the country. It’s an island on an island, as remote from its nearest neighbours metaphorically, as Shetlands or Hebrides are literally. This can’t end well, I’m sure.

There are a few other places in the world we could live, but less than a handful compares to London, and most of them are in Japan, which is rather more difficult to pull off. I have no doubt we’ll be back soon – and not just because we need the car to go through the MOT next year ;) Besides, we now both have British passports, and that’s quite an obligation. For practical reasons, we must be off this time; but we won’t manage to stay away for too long.


On day two we move to another campsite, this time on the northern side of London, in the Lee Valley, between the river and the leisure centre; we remain here for the rest of our London stay. It’s a lot cheaper than the last one – £20 per night – but a bit farther away; it’s an hour’s commute to the city (there’s a bus stop just by the gate). But at least this one has some free slots, although it fills up by weekend.

The facilities are rather spartan, and could use a lot of improvement, but at least the washing machines are decent. The shop is open till late, selling all sorts of items useful for London, like travel cards.

Day 111 – A God in Colchester

Essex

Essex

The Sea takes with one hand, and gives with another; the sand and shingle stolen from Dunwich coast is thrown onto the great spit of Orford Ness, safely enclosing the narrow strait and the cosy little harbour of the small town of Orford.

The Ness is now just another in the number of bird and wildlife reserves along the East Anglian coast – known for its avocets and rare plants – but its recent history is much more fascinating than that; for decades, it was the site of the MoD’s experimental research facilities, ranging from advanced radar to high explosives and even, as rumour would have it, nuclear programme. The result is a uniquely dense accumulation of mysterious buildings and remains – monolithic black towers, concrete pagodas, arrays of radio antennae; obviously, like Roswell in the US, Orford has its share of UFO and Nazi conspiracies.

The only way to get on the Ness is by a National Trust ferry, which stops running in October; otherwise you need to satisfy yourself with spying the building through binoculars. But that’s not all that’s to see in Orford; back on the mainland, in the town, a tall, remarkable tower of a castle keep stands on a mound – one of the most unique Norman keep in Britain. It’s in the shape of a circle with three rectangular towers in a triangle, a far cry from the usual simple rectangle the Normans built. Nobody knows for certain why this castle – founded by Henry II on a rebel land – was build like this, why here; most plausible explanation is that, like Edward I’s Caernarfon, it was supposed to evoke the walls of Rome and Byzantium, as symbols of the royal power.

The symbolism of royal power stands at the centre of another major tourist attraction of this region; we pass it on our way south and naturally, we decide to stop as soon as we hear the name – a name possibly most famous in the history of English archaelogy: Sutton Hoo.

For some reason, I was certain Sutton Hoo was somewhere around Wash; I must have confused it with one of many other Suttons scattered throughout Norfolk and Suffolk. But here it is, just outside Woodbridge, the burial ground of chieftains of East Anglia, and the site of the by now almost legendary discovery of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial. Given that all the treasure from the most famous Mound I is now in British Museum (and we’ve already seen most of it there) we were mostly curious what exactly can a visitor centre offer in this place. Turns out, quite a lot.

The site is divided in two parts: outdoors is the burial ground itself, a collection of barrow mounds and enclosures, some 15 minutes walk through grassland and forest from the visitor centre. The other part is much nearer, a museum and treasury showing the history of the site, painstakingly crafted replicas of the artifacts (which are almost as, if not more, impressive than the originals, considering they were created using reconstructions of Dark Age methods); the new and unexpected part is a small exhibition of burial goods found underneath the visitor centre itself, which turned out to be built on another burial ground itself.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the reconstruction of the boat burial as it was believed to look like. Without explanation you’d be forgiven to think this is a reconstruction of a home of some rich warrior, sleeping after a mead hall feast, rather than a tomb. All the items are replicated here again, though with less precision – the famous helmet (now obligatory on the cover of every book on Anglo-Saxons), the grand shield, the sword-sharpening sceptre, and so on; it’s impossible to imagine what it must have been like to discover all these riches at a time when Dark Age Anglo-Saxons were still believed by many to be just primitive barbarians.

What surprised me slightly about the exhibition was the straightforward assumption that the person buried at Sutton Hoo was King Raedwald of East Anglia, the 7th century Lord of All Britain. I was under the impression that there is still no certainty over the identity of the buried hero, and yet here everyone just spoke of Raedwald as if the helmet had been signed with his name.

We drive past Ipswich – despite its modern industrial demeanor an old town, established as harbour by the very kings of East Anglia buried at Sutton Hoo – and leave Suffolk, heading for an even older town; some say, the oldest in Britain: the ancient capital of Roman Britannia, Camulodunum – or Colchester.

Colchester was one of the first towns we planned on visiting during this trip, back in the earliest stages of planning; it is one of the last we actually see, and only briefly – it’s quite late in the day by the time we reach the car park. Apart from the fact that it produces some of the best oysters available in London, there are two things I remember about Colchester: that it has the best preserved Roman town walls in Britain, and that its castle has the largest of all Norman keeps in Europe, larger even than the Tower of London; and there’s a specific reason for that.

The walls still manage to surprise us; as we get out of the car we see what looks like a wall around the car park, upon which some old houses are built. On closer inspection, we realize that this is it: part of the Colchester Wall, actual Roman stone and tile; and the town proper is beyond it, on a low hill.

Colchester town centre, surrounded by the Roman walls, is largely pedestrianized, made up of criss-crossing rectangular grid of narrow streets – another legacy of its Imperial past – lined with old shops, some of medieval provenience. In places, there are plaques and other memorabilia, reminding of what the archaeologists have found underneath the modern pavements of the city – a Roman tomb by the Body Shop, a house floor behind Boots… following these signs takes us to the castle gardens, and the castle itself.

It is a remarkable sight, something no description, and no amount of Norman castles seen before, can prepare for. Half a heap of rubble, half a Byzantine palace, the Colchester castle is built not only on, but of, the ruins of the Roman city. It is indeed enormous as Norman keeps go – the size explained by it having been constructed upon the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, the city’s chief temple, razed to the ground by Boudicca’s troops; built of the Roman rubble, its walls are not the usual dull grey, not even the white marble of the medieval plastering, but a jumble of yellows, ochres and reds. The Roman tiles, bricks, bits of concrete and mortar are all incorporated into its walls. Even the shape is unique, with one of the corner towers rounded into an apse, making it look almost like a Roman basilica.

Further in the garden there are some more Roman finds, including a genuine terracotta house floor; at the bottom stands the rest of the Wall, encompassing the entirety of the town centre; if you have more time, you can walk the length of the wall back to the car park – we opted for crossing the town again.


Somewhat unexpectedly, we managed to reach London tonight! Our campsite for the first night is the Caravan Club site (non-members welcome) in Crystal Palace Park, right at the bottom of the transmitter mast, shining eerily red in the night. Unfortunately, the place is full for the rest of the week! That’s only the second completely full campsite on this journey – and it’s middle of the week in October. That’s London for you.

It’s a good thing we have to move, actually. Like everything in London, the campsite is ridiculously expensive – £30 per night in low season – big, crowded and noisy; the pitch we’re given is a long walk from the facilities, and is just a bit of concrete. Still, it’s the nearest camping to the centre of London, so I’m not at all surprised it’s full.

We’re staying here for a few days; there’s one last day left to complete the Full Circle – a brief sojourn of northern Kent – before we’re off for our winter quarters!

Day 109-110 – The Hungry Sea

Suffolk

Suffolk

The many affluent villages of the Norfolk coast are among some of the prettiest and daintiest in all of England, with the only possible exception of those thatch-roofed Hobbitesque cottages in Surrey and Wight; they are all built in red and white stone, sandstone and chalk or flint, in various patterns and combinations. Those colours reflect Norfolk’s geology, best visible in the famous Hunstanton cliffs – which, in the shape of a Polish flag, are painted in two strips of red and white: the red is actually subtly divided into two shades, one of sandstone, one of red chalk; the white is your plain blackboard chalk. The cliffs also house a great colony of fulmars in summer, filling the air with the noise of their screeching and the foul smell of their stomach-oil.

The birds rule this coast, where once Romans had – the Norfolk being the location of the northernmost forts of the Litus Saxonicum, Saxon Shore, defending Britannia from the Germanic pirates, the remains of which still linger around villages like Brancaster and Burgh; the abundance of rare wading birds and proximity to Victorian London meant that Norfolk and Suffolk played a major part in the creation and evolution of RSPB. Its most popular reserves are still here – from Titchwell Marsh near Brancaster to Minsmere near Dunwich, filled with flocks of graceful pied avocets, the symbol of the Society.

With so much to see and do, in fine late autumn weather, the first day is a slow paced one, and we barely reach Cromer by the afternoon. Cromer, the “gem of Norfolk” is a seaside resort renowned for its crabs and other seafood; unexpectedly, it also has a good surfing beach – and even in the middle of the week there are still surfers here, struggling with the September swell.

After weeks spent in the barren wastelands, brown heaths and sheep pastures of the North, it is a strange experience to find oneself in the midst of a land so fertile and intensively farmed. Fields spread everywhere, and the farm shop displays heave with autumn produce – heads of sweetcorn, apples, plums, cabbages, potatoes, all freshly harvested from the land we drive through. There’s even lavender, grown in the Norfolk Lavender centre, to flavour honeys, beers and cosmetics. Further in Suffolk, the vegetable patches make place for pig pastures, acres upon acres of sties, where the bacon-givers roam freely in the muck.

The Norfolk Broads that we enter on the second day are another reach of a reclaimed land; now a quasi-National Park, the network of long, deep lakes, winding rivers and canals among the reed-beds and marshes is now one of the favourite holiday destinations from London, and even in late September the marinas are filled with small yachts and motor boats. The Broads had started simply as great ditches cut into the medieval peat fields to provide the surrounding monasteries and cathedrals with fuel; the sea raised and began to flood the region, despite the local efforts, and even the Dutch failed to dry the peat marshes. The landscape that remained after all that is very much that of Holland: all windmills, dykes, and canals. National Trust owns one of the windmills, a particularly attractive one at Horsey, and we turned from the main road to see it; it’s an idyllic site, great for picnics, with thatch-roofed cafe on the shore of a reed-strewn lake.

The Broads lie on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, and our next stop is in the southern of the East Anglian shires; the final of Britain’s Cardinal Points on our journey – the Easternmost.

Until you arrive at the very point, nothing betrays that there’s anything of interest here – the road winds through gas terminals and chemical plants of Lowestoft, with almost no signs to point the way. At the end there’s a small car park, a single tall wind turbine (tallest in England, incidentally), and a large, round plaque set into the ground. This marks the Ness Point itself, and shows the absolute distance to all the cities of Europe, and the rest of cardinal points; we learn it’s 850 miles to Warsaw, as crow flies.

The eastern gale batters against the foreshore, and tankers ply the Channel on the horizon; the wind turbine turns slowly, and the gas refineries belch fumes behind us. There are a few passers-by here, one or two tourists who seem lost, and a lonely bird watcher, looking at some unknown point in the distance. It is a scene as remote from the wind-swept, romantic emptiness of Dunnet Head, Lizard Point or Ardnamurchan as possible – and yet somehow remains, against all odds, quintessentially British.

The sea plays with the East Anglian coastline; the tides here are on a Biblical scale, fast and epic; in places the low-lying marshland is slowly submerged, in others, the beach expands and multiplies into moving tombolas and nesses, like that at Orford. People who live here must be constantly aware of this battle, which man must inevitably lose: just as, over the centuries, he had lost the villages towns of the Suffolk shore, and none more so than the nigh-legendary burgh of Dunwich.

We arrive late to Dunwich; but since the last remnant of a church wall fell from the cliffs twenty years ago, there’s not much to see here. It’s being here that counts, seeing the famously receding cliff and the cruel sea, lapping at its feet, and trying to hear the bells ringing beneath the waves.

Dunwich is now a tiny village of few streets, one church, one pub, and a ruined monastery. But just beyond the beach lies another Dunwich: a wealthy trade port of four thousand souls, devoured over the course of several storms in late Middle Ages. It’s not a mythical Atlantis, but a true lost city; the ruined monastery survived only because it was on its outskirts – and it was one of the two within its borders.

For decades the archaeologists believed that little or nothing of the old Dunwich remains on the bottom of the sea, but since 2008, with use of the newest techniques, the city has been thoroughly surveyed and mapped; still more work remains to be done, as most of the old town is buried by several feet of sand. Hopefully when we come here next, there will be some new discoveries made.


We cross the Dunwich Heath – still in bloom!, past more pig farms and beech forests, before arriving in Rendlesham Forest, not far from Woodbridge. The campsite here is in the middle of a dense open woodland, not far from the defunct RAF base known as “British Roswell” due to a famous UFO incident (we didn’t know about it during our stay).

It’s a decent site, well laid out, level and with good facitilies; it’s also a fairly small one compared to other forest camps we’ve visited earlier, and a fair bit cheaper – just £16 with hookup.

Day 107-108 – The Danelaw Dash

Lincolnshire

Lincolnshire

Norfolk

Norfolk

Having passed Scarborough – an unexpectedly large (and long) town, with a splendid castle looming over its twin harbour bays – we start the day at Bempton Cliffs, an RSPB reserve which would have impressed us greatly, had we started our journey from the eastern coast; it is the largest land-based gannetry in the world – but its twenty thousand birds are nothing compared to what we had already seen before.

It’s nice to see them this close without venturing out in a wobbly boat, though; from the view points, the gannets can be observed easily, circling for hours over the sea in their thousands. It’s not long after the breeding season, and many of the chicks are still in the nests, the same size and shape as the adults, but black all over; in time, the black pigment will remain only in the tips of the wings, to protect them from the impact of the death-defying dives the birds are famous for.

The super-tall Humber Bridge welcomes us with the strongest cross-winds we have yet encountered; bravely – and barely – we struggle across, the Humber estuary below us dark brown with tidal mud, and white with roaring waves. We are now in Lincolnshire; it is still the old Danelaw, the land once ruled by the Danes – the names of villages end with the telltale suffixes, -thorpe, -by, -ness…

Eastern Lincolnshire, having been mostly reclaimed from the sea and marsh over the centuries is the flattest, most featureless land in England. Fields of cabbage, sweetcorn and potatoes, sown on reclaimed soil, stretch from horizon to horizon. We take advantage of this flatness, and of the fine roads, to traverse as much land as possible in a day. We still keep to the coast as best we can – even if that means driving through the horror that is Skegness, the Blackpool of the East. It may be a quintessentially English seaside resort, but there is something American in the abundance of tacky entertainment available here; this is how I imagine Jersey Shore would look like if it was built in the Fens.

The distinctive, Dutch style windmills, boat filled canals and the Heavens-reaching pillar of the Boston Stump – the ridiculously tall and narrow tower of the town church – tell us we’ve reached another in the succession of the reclaimed territories of the east coast – the Wash; before long, we cross the intricate bascule bridge over Great Ouse and into Norfolk.

Norfolk is some two hours train drive from London. We are almost home. We’ve been here before, twice, both times to watch birds. The Wash, and the entire Norfolk coast, are a twitching paradise. In high season, there are millions of birds here – and tens of thousands of twitchers.

We stop at King’s Lynn, a town almost too familiar – this is where the London train stops. We haven’t really visited it properly before, and it’s time to make up for it today. The harbour and the Old Town around it is what interests us most; over the centuries, King’s Lynn’s centre moved away from the river, towards the non-distinctive market place and a network of shopping streets. But in the 14th and 15th century, the heart of the town lay at the harbour: around a district inhabited by the German traders.

King’s Lynn was the chief English port of the Hansa, second only to London in wealth and fame; the German trade confederation owned a large warehouse in the middle of the town, and it’s the only Hanseatic building still standing in England, a venerable wall of intricate brick, leaning from old age, but painstakingly restored four years ago. The Old Town around it boasts several more similarly ancient buildings, including the old jail and a monastic college, with its wooden doors still intact, the carving praising its benefactor, mayor Thomas, still readable in the heavy late medieval letters.

There’s still time to visit one of the many RSPB reserves along the Norfolk coast, for the sake of old time; Snettisham was the first such reserve we had ever visited, and to this day remains an unbeaten best. If you can only visit one RSPB reserve in your life, this is the one you want – provided you come here at the right time, on the right day.

The tide table is the key here; once every few days, especially in early Spring and late Autumn, a particularly high tide forces all the wading birds from all the nearby beaches to fly to a small, man-made lake at Snettisham. This is the greatest gathering of wading birds you’re ever likely to see; the silver clouds of tens of thousands of knots cover the sun and darken the sky; the redshanks and dunlins are not far behind, though in smaller numbers. The spectacle is unforgettable, and well worth shivering from cold in the tiny hide.

Today, however, was not one of those days, so we just took a stroll along the seafront and back, picking late blackberries from the bushes and remembering the old days. The knots and dunlins were still there, but far out on the beaches, barely in range of the binoculars, as the tide receded; pink-footed geese were
gathering for their last flight away for the winter. October was in the air.

Bempton Cliffs

Bempton Cliffs

King’s Lynn

King’s Lynn

Snettisham

Snettisham

 

 


Sandringham C&CC is a large site in the middle of a quiet forest park of the same name – better known, of course, as the Royal Residence. We didn’t catch a glimpse of the Queen among the trees, but we did find quite a lot of mushrooms growing freely among the motorhomes and caravans, given wide berth by the slightly terrified natives – all perfectly edible, of course.