My favourite town: Framlingham

PUBLISHED: 00:18 22 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:54 20 February 2013

Framlingham's colourful town sign

Framlingham's colourful town sign

In the second of our series, Peter Sampson explains his fondness for this market town, once described as one of the finest places to live in England

In the second of our series, Peter Sampson explains his fondness for this market town, once described as one of the finest places to live in England




Ask people in Suffolk to name their favourite town and you do get a rather..whats the right word?...bizarre? surprising'?... surprising is perhaps kinderyou do get a rather surprising set of answers.
There are people, for example, who believe Lowestoft to be the Shangri-La of Suffolks towns, a place of eternal youth and happiness in a whirl of pink candy floss. Others prefer to nominate Bury St Edmunds as being the countys one oasis of civilised calm in an uncouth and barbarian world, Suffolks very own Frinton. Some claim that Felixstowe strikes an interesting balance between industry and suburbia. I understand people have been known to speak kindly of Sudbury.
But lets be frank. To pick a favourite place in Suffolk means you absolutely must pick a market town. After all, theyre remarkably sophisticated inventions, neither swollen villages nor decaying conurbations. Each of them has worked out for itself just what is the right size to provide people who live there with most of their basic needs while still letting them choose their own balance of solitude and sociability. Size does matter.
And Framlinghams got it pretty well right.
For a start, when those of us who know the town walk up Bridge Street to the town centre, we quickly find ourselves in one of the pleasantest market squares in the county.
All the traditional things are there: a couple of banks, an optician, a Sue Ryder shop, some estate agents and the Crown Hotel. Along one side, weve got the chemist and the newsagent and the tea-room. The town also has a delicatessen, a baker, good schools and a hardware shop where you can buy two shelf brackets, a pair of wellingtons, a net bag of crocus bulbs, some carpet tacks and a tube of superglue. Theres a range of pubs from the sedate to the clamorous.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays the square (though its actually more of a triangle) is crowded with market stalls, where you can get lavender and lupins from a local nursery, pigeon breasts from a local butcher, second-hand books (History of the Spitfire, Rood Screens in East Suffolk, With Rod and Gun through the Hindu Kush), waffles and crepes, muesli and wicker baskets and Suffolk damson jam. Housewives hunt for a bargain on the bric-a-brac stall and theres a splendid choice of breads, from pain au chocolat to pumpernickel, while a fishmonger sells plaice fillets still smelling of the sea.
Its just what a small market should be.
Admittedly, some of us are a little uneasy about the way that two Market Square eating places now dabble in the suspiciously foreign habit of putting chairs outside on the pavement, in which customers can lounge as they sip crme frappucinos and watch the Framlingham world pass by. If were not careful, therell be a bistro on Market Hill before long selling wild rocket and rosemary focaccia. With garlic.
No, it wont happen. Theres far too sensible an air about the Framlingham community.
When we want to know whats going on, we eavesdrop in any one of the three best places in the town for finding out the newest chat, much of it benevolent. One is over mid-morning coffee in the Crown, where the gossip is discreet and murmured; the other is in the car park of the supermarket, where there are always groups of three or four local people chatting about Framlingham matters; and the third is at the weekly Country Market cake sale in the United Free Church near the Post Office. In none of these places is there much of a preoccupation with the silly, the trendy and the Sunday colour supplement fashion pages.
Thats not all there is to Framlingham, though. Off one corner of the Market Square runs Church Street, at the end of which youre face to face with the most impressive of Suffolks castles.
Before you reach the castle, however, just opposite the Conservative Club you pass a flint-towered St Michaels, with its ancient organ and some vividly decorated Tudor tombs of the great and the not-so-good, including Henry VIIIs last victim, the Earl of Surrey. The church itself appears in Simon Jenkins book Englands Thousand Best Churches and deserves to.
The castle, for 200 or more years, was the home of the Bigod family, Earls of Norfolk, and as arrogant, bloody and ruthless a bunch of ruffians as you could meet in any nightmare. The place was besieged, surrendered, attacked again and, on the field where Framlingham people now have their annual Gala, some 13,000 people gathered in 1553 to acclaim Mary Tudor the Queen and march with her to London to claim her throne.
Now, within the castle walls, on summer evenings, local people can enjoy plays and concerts where once Roger and Hugh Bigod and the rest of that ferocious family roared their anger. Rooks squawk around the barley-twist chimneys, children shriek happily in the dungeons and the elderly contemplate the way time and lives pass so rapidly.




Just opposite the Castle Inn, by the pond where they used to drown witches, children squeal and roll down the grassy bank and there are ice-cream cornets.





People play bowls outside the castle walls in what must be one the loveliest settings of any bowling green in the county. Theres a fine leisurely stroll down to the Mere, a watery nature reserve, and you can walk round the whole castle and its moat and bailey. Just opposite the Castle Inn, by the pond where they used to drown witches, children squeal and roll down the grassy bank and there are ice-cream cornets.
All the fury and frenzy have long gone and its a place where people walk their dogs across the outer bailey on a crisp winter morning. The castle itself is only a shell round a green lawn but from the top of the walls you look out over the jumbled roofs of the town. Part of what makes the whole of Framlingham such a pleasant place to wander around is its higgledy-piggledy assortment of buildings. Weve got timber-framed and pargetted houses, as you might expect, but there are also Regency, Georgian and Victorian buildings all arranged in a fairly ad hoc mixture of roof lines and colours and sizes. And yet it all holds together somehow to make the town feel comfortable and relaxed.
Of course, Framlinghams adolescents, all hormones and acne and despairing cries of Its just not fair! probably think comfortable and relaxed is the same as boring but no doubt they have their own little secret hidey-holes and meeting-places. Tourists turn up in scores every year but Framlingham manages to absorb them quietly and sensibly. You wont find much touristy knick-knackery to squeeze the hot and sticky pennies out of their purses and pockets, no tee-shirts with Hugh What a Scorcher! or Im very Surrey emblazoned across the bust.
As for the community itself, the people of Framlingham are busy in a flourishing and intricate network of clubs, societies and associations. They ring church bells, loose off arrows, paint pictures, fish for roach, grow onions, watch films and peg out at croquet. Some hurl each other around on judo mats, others hit shuttlecocks over nets and there are those who dabble in the mysteries of bridge. All human life is there.
At Christmas, the town council puts up and decorates a tree in the market place. On a dark winter teatime just before Christmas Eve, carol singers gather around the tree and I defy anyone not feel a prickle behind the eyelids and a lump in the throat.
Framlingham has been shaped by its past but, of course, thats true of anywhere. This towns history has been more dramatic and colourful than the past of many other places of the same size but the place has kept its head and refused to become a theme park. It hasnt allowed the history to smother the place, as some towns have done. Far from being a dull, dead fossil, its a living, working town that doesnt rely on the past to justify its existence in the present.
Its no wonder that a survey in Country Life magazine a few years ago listed Framlingham among the ten best towns in England in which to live. It simply is a very nice place.

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