Friday, 25 April 2008

Britain's 'Atlantis' - Dunwich, Suffolk

I passed through Dunwich a few years ago, on a trip home from Norwich to London, when time allowed and the scenic, coastal route seemed preferable to the A11. I didn't linger much beyond a bite to eat and a pint of Adnams by the fire at the Ship Inn, as there's not a lot to see here in this sleepy coastal village.

However, shortly afterwards, I was amazed to discover that in Medieval times, Dunwich, which has now has a population of around 120, used to be one of Britain's most prosperous towns - in the 14th century, it rivalled London in size. As I looked back on my first trip here, and remembered the rather desolate main street (the only street?!) this seemed frankly laughable.

You see, Dunwich of old - the capital of East Anglia, major trading and fishing centre and one time centre of the English wool trade - now lies deep below the North Sea.

So, this time round, I decided to get to the bottom of this very watery, hidden treasure and the village museum (above), transformed in the 70's from a beautiful old cottage, is a fantastic treasure trove of information.

The helpful chap manning the displays tells me that during the 13th and 14th centuries, this part of East Anglia was battered by heavy storms and coastal erosion.

In January 1286, a violent storm shook the whole of England for five long days, during which, one million tons of sand and shingle were deposited in Dunwich Harbour. With no mechanical means to remove the debris, this effectively spelled the end for Dunwich and, as the sea continued to erode the soft cliffs away, the town was gradually abandonned.

In all, eight churches, two monastries, two hospitals and hundreds of other buildings were lost to the sea. Legend has it that if you stand on the beach and listen carefully, you can still hear the sound of church bells from the lost churches tolling beneath the grey sea.

I decided I couldn't leave without putting this to the test. I bought some fish and chips from the Flora Tea Rooms (the stuff of more Dunwich legend) and went and sat on the shingle beach expecting a requiem of underwater bell ringing. However being more foodie than campanologist, I was completely engrossed in my skate and chips, and I can't claim to have heard anything much above the wind whipping around my chip paper.

Dunwich Museum
St James' Street
IP17 3EA

Tel: 01728 648794
Opening times: Daily 11.30am - 4.30pm, April to October.

Flora Tea Rooms
The Beach Carpark

Tel: 01728 648433
(Closed in winter)

Friday, 18 April 2008

Constable Country

The twisting lanes and snug villages in the Dedham Vale on the Essex / Suffolk border are so ridiculously easy on the eye that I can feel myself turning into a dreaded Sunday Afternoon Driver – the sort that drive at half the national speed limit in order to ‘drink it all in’.

This little corner of Essex retains a sleepy, chocolate box charm and assuming it’s changed little in two hundred years, it's not hard to see why John Constable, one of Britain's best loved artists rarely strayed far from his Essex birthplace. "I should paint my own places best" he wrote to a friend in 1821.

His most famous work, The Hay Wain (above, which was voted the second best painting in Britain in 2005*), depicts a view across the river near Flatford Mill, which was owned by his father, a wealthy corn merchant.

Keen to immerse myself in all this spectacular scenery, I decided to follow the National Trust’s 7 mile walk from Manningtree to Flatford, via Dedham - which passes through open fields and woodland and weaves across the bridges and sluice gates of the River Stour.

As I made my way along the tranquil but well-trodden route, the tall oak and beech trees, now flushed with vivid green, the lush meadows and the iridescent river water arranged themselves into countless wonderful compositions - just ripe for painting.

In fact around each corner there seemed to be a familiar tableau - and as Willy Lott's white painted cottage came into view, my heart leapt slightly with a feeling like I'd been there before.

This called for a pit stop - a few moments to appreciate one of Britain's most famous and idyllic pastoral scenes. The hay wain and its heavy horses are now long gone but the mill pond and cottage remain unscathed by their enduring celebrity.

Later, in the National Trust's beautiful river-side tea room, I decided that I would buy a sketch book and some pencils at the very next opportunity. Now seems like the perfect time to attempt a stirring of the hitherto unrealised promise I showed as an artist (at primary school).

* What was Britain's no. 1 greatest painting? JMW Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Colchester: Britain's oldest recorded town

I can't say I'd ever thought of Essex as a hotbed of any cultural or historical exuberance. Although Colchester famously claims to be Britain's oldest town, which is not a bad start.

According to records, the town's existence was first referred to (albeit in passing) in AD77 by Pliny the Elder - when its Celtic name was Camulodunon. Pliny was a Roman author and naturalist who compiled the encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia in AD77- four volumes of observations of the natural world. Unfortunately, his curiosity for nature finally got the better of him when he went in for a closer look at the erupting Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. His body was later found interred under the ashes.

This is also Constable Country, of course - but more on that shortly...

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Big Ben's Big Anniversary

The hour has come! And I thought it worth mentioning, as I set off on my travels from London Town, that the bell inside London's iconic clock tower - Big Ben - is celebrating its 150th anniversary today.
I spent almost four years working in Westminster, so I'm very familiar with the sight and sound of the clock tower but (maybe it's just me ) I was surprised to learn that this piece of gothic extravagance is actually Victorian.

A fire destroyed most of the Palace of Westiminster in 1834 and shortly afterwards Victorian architect Charles Barry was awarded the contract to create a new palace. His redesign incorporated sections of the palace that had survived the fire, such as Westminster Hall which dates back to the eleventh century. It also included the magnificent gothic clock tower.

The original bell was cast in Stockton on Tees, but on testing, it cracked and the damage was irrepairable. Whitechapel Bell Foundry recast the old bell, and a sales ledger from 1858 records that the invoice was charged at £572 (this amount took into account credit given for the metal which came from the old bell).
On 31 May 1859, the 13 1/2 ton bell chimed for the first time inside Parliament's world famous clock tower.

Established over four hundred years ago in 1570, Whitechapel Bell Foundry, is now one of only two bell makers left in Britain. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the foundry is listed as the UK's oldest manufacturing company.

Its fascinating history spans the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the murderous reign of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in the late 1800's. During years of conflict, the foundry was set to work making cannon and, in the second world war, aluminium parts for submarines.

This hidden treasure, still nestled in London's East End, continues to cast its world famous bells Monday to Friday. You can visit the museum and shop but the foundry's popular guided tours (which can only take place on Saturdays for health and safety reasons) are booked up until next year!

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry
32/34 Whitechapel Road
London E1 1DY
Tel: 020 7247 2599

Shop and museum opening hours:
Monday to Friday 9.00am to 4.15pm
Foundry tours must be pre-booked (Bookings for 2009 will be taken from 1 September 2008.)

Palace of Westminster
London SW1A 0AA

UK residents can tour the Houses of Parliament throughout the year, free of charge, although they must be arranged through their local MP. Overseas visitors may only take a tour during the Summer Opening.
The clock tower is not open to the general public although, UK residents with a 'special interest' can arrange a visit to the top of the tower through their local MP.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

The Hidden Treasures Tour Toolkit

I've been set an amazing challenge. To travel around the UK for RoadTour, unearthing Britain's hidden treasures, for our corporate delectation.

After several weeks of preparation and planning, I'm all set to start my quest. I've drawn up a Tour Toolkit and you can follow my travels over the next few months by watching this very space:


My Campervan (and co-treasure hunter) who I will be attempting to steer up hill and down dale - will also provide me with an occasional bed for the night and ample office space

My mobile phone and the means to keep it juiced up

A veritable library of history, travel and guide books which I've collected over the years (for a moment like this.)

My RoadTour Sat Nav which includes a handy guide to UK pubs, inns and audio info on 600 heritage sites

Roadmaps (for back up)

Laptop + GPRS thing which gives me speedy www connection and digi-cam to record all unearthed treasure

Membership passes for National Trust / English Heritage / Historic Scotland / Cadw /AA (all of which i plan to put to good use - with the exception of the latter)

My address book so that I can look up all the friends and family I've not seen for years and hopefully take advantage of their hospitality and local knowledge

Open road, here I come...!