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A sense of place: The Waveney Valley

PUBLISHED: 13:08 13 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:49 20 February 2013

Map by Bev Baddeley

Map by Bev Baddeley

With its contrasting landscapes of busy boat-filled rivers and tranquil, tree-studded fields, the Waveney Valley is an idyllic piece of rural England, as Peter Sampson finds out

With its contrasting landscapes of busy boat-filled rivers and tranquil, tree-studded fields, the Waveney Valley is an idyllic piece of rural England, as Peter Sampson finds out

Oulton Broad seems as good a point as any from which to start a wander along the valley of the Waveney, even though the broad actually has nothing to do with the river. The Waveney, as it approaches Lowestoft, abruptly shies away and heads up north in a great curve towards Yarmouth and its only connection with the broad is through Oulton Dyke.
Oulton Broad is a surprise for the unwary, a delightful one but still a bit startling in the rather humdrum suburbs of Lowestoft. There you are, negotiating the usual ugliness of roundabouts and dual carriageways, white vans and lumbering buses, your eyes intent on traffic lights and zebra crossings, when, suddenly, lo and behold, to your left theres a gleam and a glitter and people sauntering by the side of a stretch of water that curves round to the horizon and out of sight.
I ambled along the path where people moored boats with names like Sweet Lady, Moonstone or Le Boat. A grey-haired woman in shorts walked her Scotty dog in the morning sunshine and there were geese honking and whistling on the water.
Its much better than Windermere, a man said, while his wife read the Daily Mail on the bench alongside him. Quieter, like, not so busy and crowded. Theyd had their breakfast in a holiday camp down the A12 and were going to spend the morning pottering by the broad and watching the world go by. Later, after lunch, they were going on a boat trip.
Further down the same path is Nicholas Everitt Park, where theres quiet and solitude and a museum. All in all, its just about what a good municipal park should be and Oulton Broad seems to have managed to get the balance right between touting noisily for tourist custom and giving visitors the chance of some peace and quiet.
Turn west, though, and the Waveney valley proper begins and you point yourself towards Beccles and Bungay.
Ah, Beccles and Bungay.
Beccles and Bungay: they do sound a bit like black-coated, wing-collared Victorian solicitors (Discretion assured). Or perhaps, after a couple of pints of v
v Adnams, you might see them as a double act from the music halls Bungles and Becky (With a smile and a song).
Theyre more interesting and more individual than that.
When Catherine Suckling walked up the aisle of St Michaels Church in Beccles on May 11, 1749, even her most fervent maternal dreams couldnt have envisaged that a son of hers would be so famous that he would be buried in the crypt of St Pauls Cathedral after a funeral procession through the streets of London involving 32 admirals and 10,000 troops, that his body would be placed in a sarcophagus originally designed for Cardinal Wolsey and that the king would be reduced to tears on hearing of the death.

The old centre of the town has its charms, though, with buildings of red-and-black brickwork, Dutch gables and pantiles and the stump of St Michaels tower, which they built at the wrong end of the church and separate from the main building so that it wouldnt fall over a cliff into the Waveney marshes.

The man she married that day was the Rev. Edward Nelson and their son was, of course, Horatio Nelson.
So Norfolk doesnt have sole rights of ownership on Nelson. Whats more, did you know that one of the honours bestowed on him during his career was the post of High Steward of Ipswich?
Beccles isnt a cosy, pretty-pretty little market town. Its big, with a population of some 14,000 to 15,000, if you count in its eastern and southern suburbs towards Worlingham. For Suffolk, thats quite sizeable.
The old centre of the town has its charms, though, with buildings of red-and-black brickwork, Dutch gables and pantiles and the stump of St Michaels tower, which they built at the wrong end of the church and separate from the main building so that it wouldnt fall over a cliff into the Waveney marshes. The older, narrower streets have names that recall the towns medieval trading past. Puddingmoor, Bathgate, Hungate and Saltgate.
Its a busy, bustling place which probably takes time to get to know.
Head west and take the country road to Bungay, passing Shipmeadow and Nunnery Farm and the Tally-Ho Tearooms.
Bungay is nice. Theres no other word for it. Its a pleasant little town, less than half the size of Beccles, with a centre built in a jumble of different architectural styles that manage to live comfortably together, something you find only in old towns whove been cared for with a gentle touch.
Theres a castle with two impressive gatehouse towers and apparently the thickest walls of any castle in the country, once the boast of that turbulent and ruthless Bigod family that later set up its headquarters in Framlingham. Much more attractive is the elegant Butter Cross, built in the Market Place in 1689. Unusually, the figure of Justice on top of it has her eyes wide open and local gossip says its so that she can keep a sharp eye on the traders in the market held there every week.
I liked the look of the Fisher Theatre, an 18th century building thats been brought v v back to life in recent years as a now flourishing Arts Centre.
On the towns outskirts is the firm of Richard Clay, the printers, a holy spot for J.K.Rowling aficionados, since it was here that the Harry Potter books were printed, under conditions of security and secrecy that would have made Fort Knox blush with shame.
Once youre out of Bungay, traffic almost disappears, everything goes quiet and you start to move through rural Suffolk at its most lush...
Youre following the Waveney along a quiet, uncrowded road with only water-meadows and clumps of trees on the rivers bank to separate you from Norfolk.
Then, just when you least expect it, something rather bizarre happens.
Only a couple of miles outside Bungay, you come to the Buck Inn. To one side of it, rather oddly, there are two aircraft fuel tanks poised on display. Pull in behind the pub and youre suddenly confronted with what must be the most startling and unexpected sight in the whole of Suffolk, let alone in the Waveney valley. Just inside an open gate, theres a ground-to-air missile poised for launch and behind it are two fields astonishingly crammed with Sea Harrier jump jets, Canberra bombers, Lightning and Vampire fighter jets, all gleaming silver against the green of the Suffolk countryside that surrounds the place.
There are huts devoted to displays about Bomber Command and the Observer Corps and Air-Sea Rescue, alongside hangars in which ejector seats are lined up against a wall next to bits of Spitfires and Hurricanes. There are helicopters and autogiros.
Theyve even got a NAAFI. Over a cup of tea there, one of the volunteers who run the place theres only one fulltime member of staff told me the whole thing began nearly 40 years ago with a group of enthusiasts meeting in a shed. Now, its the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum, no less.
We dont need to advertise, he said. Theres about 35,000 visitors come here every year. All over the world, they come from. I asked him how on earth they got these huge aircraft into a field at the back of a pub in deepest Suffolk. Oh, we had to use a helicopter once, he said.
If you want a break from all this military technology, at the back of the display fields is a raised boardwalk through the nettles and reeds that takes you down to a cool and shaded section of the Waveney, where you can sit and recover your bewildered senses.
After that, nothing much happens to the Waveney. Nothing dramatic, that is. For miles, it goes on being the county boundary that keeps us apart from the barbarous hordes of Norfolk and runs past gravel pits and plantations and ruined priories, passing half-hidden little villages like Homersfield and Mendham that you reach down the narrowest of lanes among the wheat fields and tree clumps.
In far-off jungles back in the days of the British Empire, the Waveney valley was the sort of countryside that District Commissioners wearing solar topees and white shorts used to dream about as they sipped their gin slings on tropical verandahs.
Its good to see how much of their idyllic England is still there.


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