My favourite town: Bungay

PUBLISHED: 12:55 22 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:02 20 February 2013

My favourite town: Bungay

My favourite town: Bungay

Quack cures, quirky buildings, friendly townsfolk and even the remains of a castle. No wonder Paul Barnes is happy to extol the virtues of Bungay

Quack cures, quirky buildings, friendly townsfolk and even the remains of a castle. No wonder Paul Barnes is happy to extol the virtues of Bungay

There are certain place names that have a comic element in them, so that they look and sound funny. Its hard to read and say Biggleswade without the hint of a smile. Theres something frivolous about Beccles, like the pet name for a girl who rides a fat pony. And then theres Bungay. Say it out loud and it could be an adjective to describe beer thats been tainted by its barrel, in the same way that a wine might be dismissed as "corked".

H.G.Wells thought the name Bungay was sufficiently odd seeming to be borrowed for the title of the novel that many think is his masterpiece, Tono Bungay, published just over 100 years ago. Tono Bungay is a quack tonic, a bogus cure-all that made its inventor a fortune thanks to the desperate gullibility of his customers. Naturally enough, a copy of Tono Bungay sits on a shelf in the towns tiny museum, in the district council offices in Broad Street. Opening hours are nine till one, and two till four but its the visitor who has to do the opening. Get the key, let yourself in, turn on the lights, and turn them off again when you lock up.

A whole showcase is devoted, rightly, to printing. The craft has been practised in the town since 1795 when Charles Brightley set up shop. Shortly afterwards John Childs arrived from Norwich to join him, eventually becoming his son-in-law. Childs, "printer, phrenologist and port drinker," had a mission to produce cheap bibles for the masses, but as a radical nonconformist he refused to pay rates to the established church whose teaching he deplored. So in 1837 an Ecclesiastical Court sent him to Ipswich prison, but a righteous uproar by influential petitioners got him released.

These days Richard Clays huge, unhandsome print works sprawl along Broad Street. For years the firm continued Childs work of printing bibles and was famous for it; now its more famous still for the Harry Potter books. In 2003 Clays and Bungay hit the worlds headlines when a forklift truck driver stole some page proofs of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and tried to sell them to a tabloid paper for 25,000.

A couple of square feet of museum space are given to Bungays railway station, which last saw passengers on its platform in 1953. The station master, Mr Clarke, thoughtfully presented the very last ticket to the Rev William Lummis, Rural Dean of South Elmham, and distinguished military historian. Was the clergyman a railway enthusiast on the quiet? Lots of them were at one time.

Annie Powling, evidently a strong woman in her day, was a station porter, greeting each train by singing out "Bungay-on-the-Mud", presumably when the River Waveney misbehaved and leaked. Annie was the grandmother of Mary Bardwell who keeps the Toy & Gift Emporium in the Market Place. "Bungays not a clone town," she says, "every shop has its own individuality." Shes deeply fond and proud of the place and when she was only 28 served a term as mayor.

"Excuse me," says a small boy, believing me to be on the staff, "have you got a Rubiks Cube?" Mary steps forward, shaking her head. Its an item they dont stock and the boy departs empty-handed. "When he does find one itll cost him about 20," says Mary.

Eager to promote the town, she stocks local history books and folk memories of the place on CD. Theres even "Bungayopoly", a board game produced locally by the Bungay Games Factory and based on actual enterprises in the town. On the throw of a dice players enjoy profit or suffer loss at the expense of their opponents. There are municipal hazards to negotiate. Land on the "Ladies and Gents" square and theres a fee of 1 payable to the Bank for use of the super-loo.

Marys right about Bungay being relatively clone-free. There is the odd shop front with the title and emblem of a national chain, but among the glories of the town is the number of unfamiliar names, some of them representing generations of local trading. Nurseys, the sheepskin specialists, have been in business since 1790 and the firm is still in the family. The Owles family has been making and selling furniture for decades; memorial tablets to bygone Owles roost in a corner of the Priory Church of St Mary.

Theres next to nothing in the way of a consistent roofline in old Bungay, as if its various builders were determined to emphasise their differences in taste and style, unhindered by planners, but with the same end in view. Tall and short, plump and thin, the houses look up or down at each other, some plain but nicely proportioned, others cheerfully decorated. The old London & Provincial Bank is a private house now, with a wonderful window. Squeezed into Earsham Street it has a solid and serious charm, proper to its one-time status as a beacon of financial stability.

Antony Bardsley runs Bungays excellent bookshop. "We love it here," says Antony. "You can see the countryside from the house, and were right in the heart of the town. You can hear the countryside from the house as well."

For 12 years Bardsleys Bookshop has been a haven for browsers, but online competition means its tougher to make ends meet. Antony might call it a day, which would be tragic. As he puts it himself: "The advancing demise of the traditional second-hand bookshop is a cultural heritage disaster." Hes right, of course. Its something youll never get on the net: a bookish natter, and the scent and feel of the things.

There is so much to relish about Bungay, all within an easy walk. The Butter Cross on market day, bright with fruit-and-veg and busy with gossiping locals. Only yards away, behind Jesters coffee shop, are the knobbly remains of Bigods 14th century castle, still under siege from children. I watched men install bright green railings to protect the stones.

To pause and reflect on all this theres a choice of good pubs, and a lovely locally brewed bitter, bright and satisfying, a bit like Bungay itself.

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