My favourite town: Woodbridge

PUBLISHED: 11:47 18 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:12 20 February 2013

Photograph by LUCY TAYLOR

Photograph by LUCY TAYLOR

Peter Sampson admires the higgledy-piggledly sloping streets and lanes of a true market town. With boats by the river, interesting shops and good restaurants it's well worth a visit, or rediscovering Woodbridge

Peter Sampson admires the higgledy-piggledly sloping streets and lanes of a true market town. With boats by the river, interesting shops and good restaurants its well worth a visit, or rediscovering Woodbridge

There arent many railway stations which have a flotilla of colourful yachts in their back yard but Woodbridge Station does. The boats are just behind the Whistlestop Caf and the Tourist Information Centre.
Its all a bit odd, really. You park next to a modern cinema-cum-theatre-cum-restaurant on a busy road, cross the railway line by clambering up and down over a blue-and-white Victorian wrought iron bridge and, suddenly, there you are: slap bang in a yacht basin. Rigging gently clinks against mastheads under a leaden sky, theres a little sandy beach and a cold estuary wind sets the yachts and dinghies and houseboats bobbing, their outboard motors propped at an angle over the stern.
Across the Deben, the top of that heavily wooded slope is where Raedwald was buried in the ship his followers had laboriously dragged up the hill.
Some of the boats look smart and expensive, some are tiny and a touch decrepit. Theres a blue houseboat with a barbecue grill and some bay trees on its roof and the white boarded Tide Mill poses picturesquely in the background. Its all rather 1930s and it wouldnt be too much of a surprise to come across Hercule Poirot tippytoeing his way along the path, handkerchief held delicately to his nose to ward off the smells of mud and tar and grey water.
People can stroll quite a distance down a riverside walkway past the boat yards and down towards the yacht and rowing clubs, where the gulls clamour by the slipways.
Its pleasant to imagine a steady procession of salt-stained, grizzled mariners, wild-eyed with the seas terrors after fighting their way through what they claim were the worst Atlantic storms in maritime history, who leap off their boats and, in less time than it takes to shout Yo-ho-ho and belay, me hearties, are sitting warm and comfortable in the Riverside Theatre on the Quayside only yards away from their moorings.
After munching their way through boxes of Quality Street as they watch the latest Spielberg or cheer the local amateurs in a Christmas Mother Goose, they then pop next door to catch a train to Ipswich in time for the evening game at Portman Road.
What could be more conveniently arranged?
Woodbridge is that sort of place.
Take the southern end of the town, for instance, where youll find another example of just how convenient a place Woodbridge is. A large block of flats and apartments has just been built there to provide retirement homes and, very usefully, theyve also built right next to it a brand new, up-to-date, all mod cons medical practice, just a gentle amble away. And close by the medical centre is Notcutts Garden Nursery, a good place for a quiet stroll in the sunshine among the roses and the apple trees before lingering reminiscences and gossip over a cup of tea and a slice of fruit cake in their restaurant.

Two well-stocked and helpful book shops, with books by Stephen Fry
and Richard Mabey, cater for a particularly Woodbridge readership

Mind you, making everything convenient can be a curse as well as a blessing.
A large chunk of Woodbridge between the Thoroughfare, one of the main shopping streets, and the Quayside has been disembowelled, demolished, laid waste to make way for a vast but undoubtedly convenient car park which even its best friends would find hard to love. Nearly always crowded, it does provide easy access, however, to the towns shops through the Turban Centre.
A lot of things in Woodbridge seem to fit together in this tidily convenient sort of way.
If youre knowledgeable about antiques, for instance, you need to do little more than breathe on the shop windows in Church Street and youll find yourself gawping at stuff that ranges from the very, very elegant and expensive to the cheap and cheerful.
Push on a little further up the hill, past St Marys Church, to the area round the Shire Hall and youre into the boutique enclave. (Incidentally, just what is the collective noun for boutiques catering for the trendy and moneyed young? A giggle? A coo? A shriek?)
The Thoroughfare itself, however, doesnt fit this cosy little pattern. Its rather more interesting. Apart from the predictable supermarkets and chemists, theres an intriguing variety of places to spend your money, from a large and thriving health food store to a Red Cross charity shop, from a family-owned furniture place to opticians, a chocolate shop and a superb bakery. Two well-stocked and helpful book shops are there, with books by Stephen Fry and Richard Mabey catering for a particularly Woodbridge readership.
Oddly, theres a startling number of coffee shops for a town this size, some with pavement seating and one where you sit indoors in comfortable armchairs to read the papers. Its all very laid back, in a Seattle sort of way.
Their customers could well be Woodbridge residents who need to unwind after spending the previous evening doing what Woodbridge residents do at some of the towns multifarious social gatherings hip-twirling at Cuban salsa classes, perhaps, or playing poker in green eye-shades or twisting into improbable postures in convoluted yoga exercises.
Perhaps theyve been busy sculpting, toning and shaping themselves at the Legs Bums & Tums group or being a wandering minstrel in the Gilbert & Sullivan Societys Mikado.
Im not sure that Edward FitzGerald, undoubtedly Woodbridges most famous son, would have entirely approved of all this gadding about and gossiping.
He spent most of his life in and around Woodbridge and wasnt too keen on the social whirl. He much preferred to spend his summers pottering around the Deben estuary and along the Suffolk coast on the boat which he named Scandal after what he said was the staple industry of Woodbridge.
He was a likeable man. He once described blancmange as congealed bridesmaid and you have to like a man who can come up with a phrase like that but he was undoubtedly a bit odd.
The fact remains that Woodbridge is a pleasingly comfortable sort of place. where people smile politely as they pass you in the street. Should you ever feel a little jaded by its unending niceness, the Quaysides waiting for you. There, after all, you can always get yourself a boat and go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, if you prefer that sort of thing.
Woodbridge would be a good place to come back to.

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