Harlan Hague


East Anglia is quite near London, close enough for day-trippers. This might lead to the conclusion that its scenic countryside and attractive villages would be gorged with people on holiday. Not so. During a two-week visit, I saw a few English tourists, almost no foreign visitors, and not one American until the twelfth day.
The English neglect of the region I can only ascribe to the same sort of malady that afflicts some San Franciscans who have never seen Yosemite, an affront for which they should be put on public display in front of City Hall. Foreigners probably do not visit East Anglia because their holiday time is limited, and they choose other regions that are better known. And, though there are bus excursions available from London, one needs a car to see the area at its best.

As usual, one must make choices, and what follows is a suggested driving visit of five or six days. Use a good map of the region, and stay on the backroads if time and navigational skills allow.

Caveat: pick up a book that describes traffic rules and parking regulations and curb markings. Don't watch locals. They often park illegally and hope for the best.

To capture the essence of East Anglia, begin with the Lower Stour (stew'-er) River, just east of Colchester. This is Gainsborough and Constable country, renown ironically not so much for agriculture as the early cloth industry. Gainsborough, the portraitist and landscape painter, was born in Sudbury, probably in 1727, and worked there for a time. His birthplace, now a museum, can be visited. Constable, Britain's premiere landscape artist, was born at East Bergholt in 1776. His birthplace was pulled down in the 1840s by a neighbor who wanted to improve his view.

Constable painted some of his most famous canvases around Dedham and Flatford Mill. Dedham is probably the most popular village in East Anglia. An important weaving town until the mid-eighteenth century, Dedham today is tidy, quiet and picturesque. St. Mary's Church, the present building dating from 1492, owes much to the lucrative wool trade. Walk about the town, taking care not to miss the Flemish Cottages, originally a medieval cloth factory. Dedham Mill, now a private home, was the last working flour mill on the Stour. Ask at The Sun, an old coaching inn, about Elsa, their resident ghost. Don't miss tea at the delightful seventeenth-century Essex Rose Tea Room, opposite the church.*

Drive northwestward now toward Lavenham. En route, visit the fifteenth century Gainsborough's House, just off the town square at Sudbury, a busy market town. Lavenham is something else. One ofHouse in Lavenham the most interesting medieval towns in England, Lavenham is quiet and tranquil, a treasure of timber-framed buildings. Spend at least a full day here. Purchase a walking-tour guide from the Suffolk Preservation Society, just off market square. The Corpus Christi Guildhall on the square, built in 1520 as headquarters for a medieval guild, is magnificent. Now owned by the National Trust, the structure serves as community center and a museum of local history.

Half-way through the one-mile walk, stop at The Priory on Water Street. Originally the residence of Benedictine monks, and later medieval cloth merchants, the timber frame house and gardens, now a private home, are open to the public. Refresh yourself at the pleasant second-story tea room. For dinner, try the fish and chips at the pretty little pub at Bridge Street, a nearby village.

Market CrossMake your way by scenic lanes or the more direct A-roads to Wymondham (win'dum), a few miles southwest of Norwich. Begin at the seventeenth-century Market Cross, a curious octagonal structure, with an enclosed second story resting on wooden columns. The upper floor houses the tourist office. At the bottom of the square, on Church Street, stop at the fifteenth-century Green Dragon, the oldest inn in town. The pub has a small beamed dining room and pretty hotel rooms.

AbbeyContinue down Church Street to the brooding double-towered abbey. From its founding in 1107, townspeople and monks vied for control of the church. The Pope intervened in 1249, giving the east end of the building to the monks and the west end to the town. Each faction built its own tower. Henry VIII settled the dispute when he dissolved the monastery and demolished the east end, happily leaving the tower. The intact portion still serves as the parish church.

Nearby Hingham (hing'um) is a pretty village with many Georgian houses around two greens. The town is most interesting to Americans as the ancestral home of Abraham Lincoln. There is a bust of the American president in St. Andrew's Church, and the town has exchanged various monumental stones and timbers with Hingham, Massachusetts. We had tea and scones at--what else--the Lincoln's Tea and Coffee Shop on the green. Nice place. Some Americans will also remember Hingham for its associations with the American 452d Bomber Group that was based nearby during WWII.

Turn north now through lovely countryside and villages to Little Walsingham, north of Fakenham. Children at LavenhamWalsingham has been a pilgrimage center since 1061 when a vision of the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared here. As well as Anglican and Catholic shrines, the village has some fine examples of architectural styles through the centuries. The most popular pilgrimage is the walk, often barefoot, from Walsingham southward to the Slipper Chapel at Houghton St. Giles.

While my wife shopped at the Sue Ryder gift shop on the high street, I had tea at the pleasant coffee shop adjoining. I struck up a conversation with an elderly man who announced that he was going to walk the path to the Slipper Chapel barefoot. "I never!" his wife said. She leaned toward me. "He'll never make it," she said. But he did. In the Middle Ages, the devout, including Henry VIII, walked in the opposite direction. They left their shoes at the chapel--thus the chapel's name-- to complete the pilgrimage barefoot to Little Walsingham.

In Little Walsingham, we stayed at the Sue Ryder Foundation Retreat House, located behind the coffee and gift shops. Rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable, and reasonably- priced. Meals can be taken in the coffee shop or the Retreat House dining room. Recommended.

From Little Walsingham, drive north, then west along the scenic coast. If your journey takes place during summer, you will be blessed with purple fields of lavender around Heacham. Stop at the demonstration farm near the village. There are rows upon rows of lovely varieties of lavender. An inviting pavilion for lunches and teas is set up in the display area.

Just south of Dersingham on the A419, turn left for Sandringham. The Jacobean-style Sandringham House has been a country home of the royal family since Queen Victoria purchased it in 1862. The house and gardens are open to the public when family members are not in residence. The mansion and nearby church, a small gem in Perpendicular style, contain many memorials and memorabilia of the royal family.

Now turn westward for Stamford, long proclaimed, and justifiably, as "The Finest Stone Town in England." Dating mostly from the medieval and Georgian periods, the town is a happy blend of glorious past and modern vitality. A leisurely walk through the town is quite rewarding, in spite of the busy streets and sidewalks.

The local tourist office has lately added a new boast. Stamford is the site of the popular BBC television series, "Middlemarch," based on the novel by George Eliot. The brochure that describes the Stamford sites used in the series was the first offered to this tourist. I enjoyed the television presentation of "Middlemarch" immensely, but I wonder at city authorities who make much of serving as a stage for fiction when their town is layered in history. I bought a copy of the fine official town guide that wisely neglects to mention the program.

End your journey with a visit to Burghley House on Stamford's outskirts. Built in the mid-sixteenth century by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's favorite councilor, the house is one of England's most magnificent. Cecil's descendants live there still. The west front is surely one of the finest examples of man's handiwork. The interior and furnishings are equally impressive. Even the facilities are regal. A bronze plaque in the men's toilet announces that it was "Opened Privily" by the Stamford mayor on 4 May 1984.

Write to the British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10176, for general materials. Ask also for specific materials on East Anglia and addresses of local tourist authorities. Here's one: Tourist Officer, Suffolk County Council, St. Edmund House, County Hall, Ipswich, IP4 1LZ, UK. During your trip, do yourself a great favor. On arriving in a town, make the local tourist office your first visit. They can provide the best advice on what to see, what to do, and where to stay.

*Since publication of this article, Ian from Essex Rose informed the author that the tea room in fact is five hundred years old, dating from the late fifteenth century. The building is listed by the national historic buildings department of English Heritage.

Caveat and disclaimer: This is a freelance travel article that I published some time ago. Some data, especially prices and contact information, may not be current. Write to the author.

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