A stranger in Leiston
10:37 25 June 2010
Not the Heritage Coasts most fashionable destination, maybe. But Sam Rosebery warms to how the down-to-earth Leiston folk are ready and willing to poke fun at themselves
They are all eyes; the tottering trio of old boys perched on the low retaining wall around High Green, where no doubt they sit on sunny days, watching the world go by.
Eventually curiosity gets the better of them and, with a few hefty bum-shifts along the wall one of them is close enough to make himself heard.
Whats that squit youre a-reading then? he asks.
Mugging up on local history before setting off around the town, I tell him. And to prove it, repeat a few nearly-learned facts about Leistons past.
The old codger is decidedly unimpressed until I get to the bit about the number of taxpayers in the town at the time of Henry VIII.
Thirty three! he exclaims, hamming it up in his Suffolk way.
Thass more an there is today.
Waggery seems to be something of a speciality in Leiston although later in the day I become the butt of the joke when asking directions to Lovers Lane.
Leiston is unusual in the county, especially among towns along the Heritage Coast, in that it is very much a product of the industrial age. Its appearance reflects the history of Richard Garrett & Sons, which in the late 18th and early 19th century transformed what was a small and sleepy rural backwater into a thriving and important centre of heavy engineering.
Certainly the predominant building style in the older part of the town is typical of the era close-knit terraces of redbrick two-up-and-two-downs, rows of semis and modest villas.
From here agricultural equipment, especially steam engines, was sent out all over the country and, indeed the world. I once enjoyed a picnic in the shadow of a traction engine long-abandoned beside a dead-straight dirt road in the middle of a Queensland desert the only shade available on a blazing day in that unrelentingly flat and arid place.
A cast iron plaque on the rusting boiler read: Made in England. Richard Garrett & Sons, Leiston, Suffolk.
However, the Garrett works closed in 1980 and its fair to say that since then Leiston has struggled to find a new identity.
Yet its fantastic location a short hike from the coast and with thousands of acres of heathland and sandlings on the doorstep, including the RSPB Minsmere reserve not to mention the cultural delights of Aldeburgh just down the road is a godsend for those who might otherwise be excluded by inflated house prices elsewhere from living in this enviable neck of the woods.
Leiston is also big enough to have all the services anyone would need. You can get your ticker checked in Main Street, your eyes done in High Street and teeth fixed, appropriately enough, in Crown Street. Theres an excellent swimming pool and sports centre in Redhouse Lane, as well as v
v a cinema, also in High Street, pubs, cafes and takeaways
Theres a practical range of shops, too, from a big Solar supermarket, through butchers, bakers, grocers, florists, newsagents and stationers to fashion stores, hair and beauty, electrical, home furnishings, hardware, pets supplies and even tattoos and guitars.
I could have spent hours fossicking in both Terrys Junk Shop, in Cross Street, and in Leiston Trading Post, High Street. But this is a working dayho hum.
Main Street, where the 64 bus tips you off anyway, is a good place to start a visit, with the 18th century White Horse pub at one end and Barclays Bank, in what was once the vicarage, at the other. In the middle, next to Leiston library, is the Engineers Arms, opposite the gates to the original Garrett works, which takes up most of that side of the street a collection of elegant 18th and 19th century houses and works buildings, including what is now the Long Shop industrial heritage museum, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Sadly the museum is still closed for the winter on the day of my visit, but re-opens at the beginning of April.
The Grade II*-listed Long Shop, which housed one of the countrys earliest production lines, was built in 1852 by Richard Garret III, whose grandfather, also Richard, founded the family business in the late 1770s in a forge around the corner in High Street.
They were quite a progressive and liberal-minded lot, it seems. It was Newson Garrett who established the maltings at Snape in 1854, now the venue for the annual Aldeburgh Music Festival, and one of his six daughters, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, became Britains first woman doctor at a time when the idea of female interest in bodily bits and pieces was really rather shocking. Another daughter, Dame Millicent Fawcett, was a suffragist who in the late 1800s campaigned tirelessly for higher education for women, co-founding Newham College, Cambridge.
Yet industry lives on the in the form of nuclear power generation just down the road in Sizewell in fact the parish is known as Leiston-cum-Sizewell.
The two nuclear reactors are an extraordinary sight in their windswept, beachside setting, although Sizewell B, with its familiar golf ball dome and long dark blue buildings has a certain awesome charm. A bit alarming, too, when sirens blare out unexpectedly as you walk by on the beach path.
However, Leistons history goes way back and it was in the 12th century that Rannulf de Glanville, Earl of Suffolk, built on the Minsmere marshes an abbey for a particularly up-tight order of white canons, known as the Premonstratensians. Flooding took its toll and all that remains today are the ruins of a chapel near the Minsmere sluice gates.
The abbey was rebuilt in 1365 on a drier site north of Leiston and while largely destroyed after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536, the highly romantic ruins can still be seen from the B1122, or Abbey Road, leading out of the town.
Today the abbey belongs to the Pro Corda Trust and has been home since 1977 to the National School for Young Chamber Music Players. A medieval barn and what was once the canons guest hall, can be hired for conferences and weddings.
If you are heading out of Leiston on Abbey Road, its worth detouring down Westward Ho, just beyond the railway crossing gates over the single-track line that carries nuclear waste from Sizewell towherever
For behind a high red brick wall and surrounded by towering trees is the internationally renowned and forever controversial Summerhill School, the alternative co-educational boarding school founded in 1921 by free-thinking educationalist AS Neill and today run by his redoubtable daughter Zo Neill Readhead.
Back in town, displayed on construction site hoardings on the corner of Abbey Road and Waterloo Avenue is an outdoor art exhibition of works by pupils of nearby Leiston Middle School. And there is some really good stuff here, too, my favourite being a take on Andy Warhols stacked soup cans in this case Staffs 57 Varieties including such delicacies as Dodgy Doughnut, Horrible Horse, Queer Quiche, Pongy Pizza and Unsmoked Unicorn.
Opposite is Leiston Quaker Meeting House of 1860 and in the High Street is the handsome Methodist and United Reformed church, while in Church Road, off Waterloo Avenue, is the parish church of St Margaret, a remarkable example of gothic revival architecture from 1854.
The Victorian church replaced an earlier medieval building which proved too small for the expanding town. Only the tower of 1360 remains.
Next door is Leiston Hall, a large and elegant Dutch-gabled mansion now divided into homes, while some distance behind the church is an impressive Georgian pile known as The Cupola which, tantalisingly, can only be glimpsed in part through the trees.
Seeing my frustration at not getting a better look, a kindly dog-walker directs me to a footpath off the end of King Edward Avenue from where there is a splendid full-frontal view of this grand house.
Determined not to leave Leiston without visiting Lovers Lane, I set off down Valley Road, although it turns out there is little romance to be found in what is now the main access route to the Sizewell power stations.
Unsure if I am heading in the right direction, I make enquiries of an elderly couple wending their way gently into town.
The man gives me a very old-fashioned look indeed and walks stiffly by, although his lady stops in her tracks.
Ooooohif I were 30 years younger, she hoots.
Then looking me up and down, adds with mock regret: and if you were a bit tastier n