Last month’s prolonged heatwave, reminiscent of our Turkey days, drove us from the sticky city to the cute little towns of Bungay and Beccles, just across the county line. Norfolk and Suffolk (the north folk and the south folk) are sister shires of the old East Anglian Kingdom and a gentle rivalry still persists between them, most notably played out on the pitch when Norwich play Ipswich at the footie. Bungay is a handsome town where the pace of life is stationary. At its heart is a long-abandoned tumbledown castle. A finely-tuned imagination is needed to picture it in its former glory.
After a slow meander around the Georgian streets, we settled on a cream tea in the little café next to the Buttercross, where local farmers once displayed their produce. It was, as Liam put it,
A gay with a bun in Bungay.
Since all the town’s banks have shut down and there’s only one ATM left, Lloyds Bank have pitched a mobile branch in a car park. Given the relentless rise of internet banking, it’s anyone’s guess how long this will last. These days, I can even pay cheques into my account using my smarty pants phone.
Next on the mini tour was Beccles, five miles along the border – a more substantial town and strangely awash with banks and ATMs. Beccles is one of several riverports on the Broads, the network of rivers, streams and flooded medieval peat excavations so beloved by those who like to mess about in boats. Beccles Quay is where dedicated boating folk can pick up supplies, get a proper wash and empty the chemical loo.
In 1981, sleepy Beccles was rudely woken by a tornado, one of the 104 twisters waltzing across England and Wales and the largest recorded tornado outbreak in European history. But East Anglia isn’t Oklahoma. Hardly a roof tile was lifted and the town dropped back off to sleep. It’s been dozing ever since. After another slow wander, we found ourselves parked in a pretty beer garden to bask in the warmth and imbibe the tranquillity. I confess I got a little tiddly. Must’ve been heatstroke. Hiccup!
Manolis, our obliging landlord at the Eleonas Country Village, organised an ancient treat for our last day on Crete. Our evening flight gave us plenty of time for a two-centre Minoan tour – the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and Knossos, the jewel in the Minoan crown.
The cool and well-appointed museum brings together archaeological finds from all over Crete, covering over 5,500 years of the island’s rich and varied history. Unsurprisingly, pride of place is given to the draw-dropping treasures of the Minoans. Let the pictures speak for themselves.
Next stop the palace complex at Knossos, one of the most famous archaeological sites in all of Greece, if not the world. The terms ‘Knossos’ and ‘Minoan’ are lifted straight from Greek legend – King Minos and the labyrinth he used to imprison his son, the bull-headed minotaur. Nobody knows what the ancient Cretans actually called themselves, but judging by the artefacts and frescos, they were obsessed with their bulls.
Experts still squabble over the historical record but there is general agreement that Knossos eventually became the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilisation and culture. The first palace complex was established around 4,000 years ago (with traces going back a further 4,000 years) and abandoned at some time towards the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1380–1100 BCE). That’s seriously old.
Knossos today is overrun by visitors and we just added to the number wandering around the site on raised walkways to help preserve the delicate ruins beneath their feet. What people see is a partial reconstruction as imagined by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who did most of the digging in the last century. Purists dismiss his confection as fanciful at best. Authentic or not, for the average punter, the site is spectacular and evocative in a way unmatched by many other ancient sites. We all queued up patiently to see the ‘Throne Room’. And who wouldn’t?
It was one of those warm and overcast days threatening thunderstorms that saw us at Sculthorpe Mill near the pint-sized market town of Fakenham, about 25 miles north-west of Norwich. The mill sits astride the River Wensum and there’s been a watermill on the site since the time of the Domesday Book of 1086. These days they’re pulling pints rather than grinding corn. Outside, the grounds were trickling and luscious – at this time of year, Norfolk simply glows with bounty, even when the sun struggles to poke through. Inside, the mill was as quiet as a silent order. A little background music on a low setting would have lifted the mood a notch or two.
We were in attendance for the annual general meeting with Jo Parfitt, my partner in crime and the force of nature that is Summertime Publishing. Jo brought her delicious mother along for a light bite too. Lunch was nice and we quickly whistled through the agenda to get to the gossip. By any-other-business, the sun decided to put in a late appearance and we couldn’t resist a few snaps sitting on the old mill pond wall.
After lunch, Jo dropped us in Fakenham to catch our bus back to Norwich. Fakenham was once described as ‘the most boring place on Earth’ in a travel guide. Although the quote was actually taken out of context, it’s rather stuck. Fake news for Fakenham? Perhaps, but despite a few pretty buildings, it did have a one-cow-town feel to it. Sad but true.
While we’re away lotus-eating on Crete, supping and splashing about, here are a few random snaps of Norwich, ‘a fine city’ according to the civic slogan – to remind us that, as Dorothy said in Oz, there’s no place like home. As dedicated friends of Dorothy, we are in full agreement.
On the second day of our London jolly, we were planning to take in the view from the Shard, until we realised it was thirty quid a piece. So it was enough to see the tallest building in the European Union (not for much longer, of course) from the window of our hotel room. Instead we opted for a slow stroll through the City to the Museum of London. Well, it was free.
Along the way we crossed the Millennium Bridge, skirted around the magnificent St Paul’s, walked beneath Temple Bar and took a snap of Channel Four’s First Dates restaurant.
The Square Mile may be a throbbing epicentre of money and modernity, but the street plan is distinctly medieval and there was a surprise up every alley.
The Museum of London is one of my favourites – quirky, informative and well worth the free entrance!
After a couple of hours travelling from pre-history to the filthy lucre, the West End beckoned and we jumped on a bus to Soho, our spiritual home.
Late lunch was a bowl of Thai at the Tuk Tuk Noodle Bar on Old Compton Street – delicious and still ridiculously cheap – followed by a happy hour or two with the brethren outside the Duke of Wellington. As the warming sun began to set, we headed back to Bankside for an early evening cuddle.
And so ended a glorious few days in the big metropolis. As writer and clergyman Donald Lupton said of London in 1632,
‘…she swarms with all ages, natures, sexes, callings… she seems to be a glutton, for she desires always to be full.’
Amen to that.
When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.
Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.
I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…
You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.
Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.
It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.
A bitter east wind blew us into Strangers’ Hall with its unassuming entrance on Charing Cross. That’s Charing Cross in Norwich not its more celebrated twin in Central London from where all distances from the city are measured.
Home to wealthy merchants, sheriffs and mayors during Norwich’s textile heyday, Strangers’ Hall is so called in recognition of the ‘strangers’ – asylum-seeking weavers from the Low Countries who helped make Norwich rich during the Tudor period. It was a time when the English weren’t quite so mean to economic migrants – or at least understood their value. Tucked behind the busy street, the lovingly preserved building dates right back to 1320 and is a hotchpotch of inter-linked rooms dressed to impress like a period drama – Tudor, Stuart, Georgian and Victorian. You half expect Dames Judi, Maggie and Penelope to wander through in bonnets and bodices. It’s a great way to keep out of the cold and a bargain at just a fiver.
Here are a few momentos.
Liam likes his old bowls.
And his arty through the looking glass pics.