Some folk Suffolk

Continuing the exploration of the British Isles, this year for our anniversary I took my lovely wife to the equally lovely Hadleigh in Suffolk. To get there we travelled south from Northamptonshire, anti-clockwise around the M25 and across the bottom of Essex towards Clacton-by-Sea before heading north towards Walton-on-the-Naze before heading Northwest to Hadleigh. We also visited Ipswich and Felixstowe.

Clacton-by-Sea out of season is, as should be expected, quiet. A typical British seaside resort town with formal gardens, a pier, amusements and former guest houses and hotels along the promenade and a once grand, now deteriorating due to lack of investment, town inland. The pier was undergoing refurbishment so access was only permitted into the large newly regenerated pier amusement hall but one can see how the area once was very popular with seaside visitors from London who now gentrify places like Southwold to the north or further afield like Cornwall.

Being by the seaside is enough to make anyone hungry and the urge to binge on Fish and Chips at the seaside is akin to the urge to binge on chocolate at Easter. Sadly, with it being out of season and not being Yorkshire, most of the good fish and chip restaurants were either closed for the winter or just in hiding. So after failing to find a recommended fish and chip restaurant in Frinton-on-Sea, we headed futher up the coast towards Walton-on-the-Naze. We stopped at Yates’ Fish and Chips in Walton-on-the-Naze who do a splendid fish and chip dinner (I highly reccomend them)

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Medium Cod and Chips @ Yates’ Walton-on-the-Naze

Walton is a polar opposite to Clacton. Yes, like Clacton, it is run down but there is less of a seaside feel to the place despite having the finest collection of beach huts and the second longest pier I’ve ever seen.

Again, being out of season meant that few people were around and the fairground rides that were in operation on the pier played their hauntingly merry jingles to the ghosts of former holiday makers and anyone who would listen. Aside from this, the pier was eerie. The sea was uncannily still, the light unusual for the time of year. The afternoon sun making vivid colours of blue, orange and purple in the cloud base and far away the echos of shipping and road traffic almost inperceptable.

Hadleigh is a gem of an English town. It is a former coaching, market and strip town, as in it is laid along a long High Street and, at some point in its history, provided a welcome overnight stop off for horse-drawn coaches bound for other destinations like Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds or Lavenham or much further afield. Moreover, it provided an ideal location for a market place for Lavenham wool merchants, Ipswich traders and other travelling mendicants to vend their wares.

Indeed, casual reference sources claim that Hadleigh once was home to well over twenty inns, evidence of which is clear from the architecture and names of houses along the High Street. Furthermore, the wealth generated from the coaching inns, the market and the local industry is clear from the surviving buildings in the area, a selection of which you can view below.

 

 

Of course, Hadleigh is a small town and despite having a great selection of eateries, there is little to entertain for a sustained period of a long weekend, so we also explored a few local places too.

Ipswich was the first. Taking advantage of the park and ride we soon found ourselves on the bustling streets of Ipswich. A delightful port town in which the keen eye can distinguish the signs of a seafaring history. From the locations where there would have been huge warehouses along the harbour side, to the numerous hidden churches and chapels and buildings that scream wealthy merchants lived here, Ipswich is a lovely place.

After stopping at Casablanca, a Morroccan restaurant, for a splendid lunch and headed  to Felixstowe for our third seaside fix of the weekend.

Felixstowe is not, in my mind, one of the first places that come to mind when someone says “Seaside” to me, however if you said “container port” I’d probably think immediately of Felixstowe. However, the suffolk tourist board are obviously trying to do a service to Felixstowe and get people to disregard the militaristic and logistical past and re-embrace the seaside there once more.

First point of call was the former fort at Landguard Point. Former MOD land  littered with the remains of concrete gun placements, bunkers and radar points. From there one can watch the huge container ships enter and depart the neighbouring port of Felixstowe. For a logistics nerd its kind of interesting watching the huge cranes pick up a container like one might pick up a matchbox and drop it on a precarious looking stack of containers on board a ship.  For a history nerd, it is equally interesting seeing how much value the port held for Britain through history and why it was so well protected from Napoleon and Hitler.

The seaside though, not what I had in mind. Much flatter than Clacton and, obviously as a result, much more weather beaten, the seafront at Felixstowe is more akin to Rhyl than Scarborough on the Seaside scale. The buildings and seafront goings on set further back from the beach than at Clacton and the pier looking a little more practical than its cousin at Walton-on-the-Naze.

Sunday came and we began our return journey, stopping at Lavenham along the way. Lavenham was once a bustling town of wool merchants but later reduced to village status as fortunes leaked elsewhere. But that is not to say wealth did not leave Lavenham.  Evidence of a market place, a guildhall and coaching inns show that before bus loads of tourists were the norm, the village was very prosperous throughout the following centuries. Indeed, it appears that many of the old wooden framed houses are now holiday lets aimed at those foreign tourists who think all villages across the whole of the UK look like Lavenham.

Finally our route home took us through Bury St Edmunds. Redevelopment has given the town a Milton Keynes feel but once past the modern eyesore of the Debenhams district, one can find the more picturesque and traditional sights.

In the heart of Bury St Edmunds lies the ruins of a priory.  The scale of the priory ruins just show how wealthy the church had become before Henry VIII had his hissy fit and formed his own. Moreover,  it appears that there are houses built into the walls of the ruins and indeed, to me at least, the walls themselves look quite old, almost Roman in places.

Its when you see history like this juxtaposed against the history of other places you begin to form a different appreciation of events. Over Christmas, Mrs Gnomepants and I went to  Cartegena in Columbia where we visited the Inquisition Palace and learned about what was going on elsewhere in the world just before good old Henry threw his toys out of his pram.  In both the New and Old World, Inquisitors were torturing those who didn’t agree with Papal policy. I’d not really connected the dots before but now think that maybe our jolly polyamorous monarch had other reasons for forming his own church than those taught to us by historians.

Trendy

At the weekend the wife, an out-of-town friend and I nipped out to the lovely town of Royal Leamington Spa for a mooch around the Peace Festival.

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Leamington Peace Festival 2015

The Leamington Spa Peace Festival, for those who don’t know, is an annual rain causing event held in the Pump Room Gardens and features all manner of new age nonsense such as yogurt weaving, kaftan liberation, tofu swallowing and vagina floating.

The food sold there is mostly vegetarian to vegan on the omnivore spectrum. Free range falafel chocolate bars, organic gravel soaps, crunchy compost on a stick and fair trade mong bean ice creams abound. That kind of thing.

As well as hearing local folk bands and pan pipes, it’s also a good opportunity to see the latest trends of the anathematic capitalist hippies are pushing onto today’s youth. For example, stove pipe hats seem to be entering a renaissance, gong showering is breaking into the wavy world of healing and knotted dyed rags are this year’s rad hair fashion (again).

An aging hipster
An aging hipster

With hipsters now denying their own existence in a Schrodingeresque fashion (you’re either a cool cat in a box or not, depending on who is observing you), goths morphing into the less threatening emo collective and  neo-nerd-geeks becoming vogue thanks to Big Bang Theory the time is right for a new collective. One that is so trendy and beyond cool that it is off the spectrum entirely, but one whose emergence will be unobserved until it has spread to a point where it becomes commonplace.

Of course it’s not just teenagers and infantilised twenteenies trying to be trendy. While beards may no longer be the fashion and half-mast trousers and arse showing waistlines have gone the back into the wardrobe for several years, the smart Sunday shirt wearing, middle class middle age organic free range grass eating daddies of the world appear to be taking their midlife crisis to the high street. Quitting their well-paid, high stress jobs and opening cafés using the stylistic ideals of designer hipsters to influence their décor.

At least, that’s how it appears from my visit to the overly trendy café, Bread and Butter on Regent Street in Leamington Spa. In what appears to be a former butcher’s shop a couple of doors down from the fishmongers, Bread and Butter just oozes huge blobs of “I’ve been to that London and seen how the well to do spend their leisure time”. I was reluctant to go in but guests take precedence and so began an experience I am about to recount.

Stepping through the door, it is difficult to see what’s going on due to the low level lighting. Windows provide free light and white tiled walls help reflect it around the important areas mostly to the till area which is sat on a thick wooden counter.

Autumn leaves artistically strewn near garden furniture

Garden furniture, the crap type that rotund people will find difficult to sit on comfortably or safely, are the choice of the day, enhanced only by artistically and purposefully strewn autumnal leaves on the floor. These, it has been debated, appear to be swept up of an evening, sieved to remove dust and detritus before being replaced after the floor has been mopped, cleaned and dried. Wankery.

Menus come in the form of a sheet of A4, minimalistic in choice, as per instructions from Blumenthal and Ramsay, but in a way that is limiting to the consumer.  Old favourites ruined by the addition of wankery. A bacon club sandwich with wanky bread and avocado. Wanky salad, served with wank. Poncey toasties with cheese and a selection of teas that would ordinarily cost you about 30p to make yourself in a mug sold at the exorbitant price of £2 for a mingy scale model cup.

I had the “slow roasted” pork  bap which came garnished with stale musty tasting crackling. This was obviously a new definition of “slow roasted” as to me, slow roasting means that the meat is succulent and melt in the mouth. I’ve chewed shoes less tough. Supposedly reasonably priced at £6.70.

During my years of eating out and writing about my experiences in the food world I’ve always said that you can’t make a restaurant or café trendy and popular by charging a lot of money for a small portion of food. Sure, you’ll get some tossers who think “Hey! This is so trendy and cool I’m going to come here every day because £6 for a stale pork butty is the lifestyle I want to lead”. But these people, like the hipsters they gave birth to, are dying out.

IMG_1026Although a greasy spoon café has its place, I’m not calling for that, I’m calling for some balance. Wankery has had its day back in the noughties when we found it ironic and amusing. Wankery today is just a road to disaster and mockery. Just as sticking the words “Organic” and “Free range” before every item on your menu is passé so is bringing the outside in, tiny portions and over pricing. The people you think you’re appealing to have grown out of this kind of approach and, much in the same way as faux-Victoriana and retro tea rooms have faded from popularity, so will wankery in décor. If it isn’t naturally worthy of brown leaves being tastefully placed on the floor, then don’t do it.

As we left and made our way back to the car, I observed corduroy trouser, gingham shirt wearing, late thirty something middle class graphic designer dad with his stay at home on an allowance yummy mummy  what lunches and writes crap fiction wife pushing  their child-with-a-neo-trad-name-like-Edna in its free range organically padded for their own safety comfort five wheeler monster stroller making their way into the café. Exactly the kind of clientele the café is trying to attract.

Would I go again? No I wouldn’t.

Thaal

So, I don’t know, you’re pootling up the M1/A1 from the south heading towards Leeds; Maybe you’re just wandering like Kane; Perhaps you are skydiving over the South Yorkshire Countryside; You could be like Hiro from Heroes and teleported; Or maybe you just wake up naked, cold, lonely and confused after a large drinking session with your best friend Induviae Equus; either way, you find yourself in Darfield, South Yorkshire, hungry and feeling like a good curry. I know. It happens to me all the time.

Like the other day, there I was minding my own, tootling along the A635 into Barnsley while trying to avoid road works and there it was. Set back from the road was a white building with a bold black and red logo announcing itself as THAAL. Darfield is hardly a place where you’d expect to see a fine restaurant so it kind of threw me. So, as it was the wedding anniversary today, I thought I’d treat Mrs Gnomepants to a slap up nosh in Thaal.

And a bloody good choice it was as well…Service – bloody excellent; Food – Out of this world; even the decor and the price were damn bloody good. Between us, 4 diet cokes, 4 popadums and a pickle tray, a garlic naan, a peshwari naan, thaal special rice, a murgh makhoni (chicken with fruit and nuts in a mild sauce) [for me] and a murgi tarkari (for Mrs G) came to about £35. The meal was splendid, the sauces perfect, the meat cut and cooked to perfection. Just the right amount of creaminess, just the right amount of spices. Flavours of garlic and fenugreek not too harsh and delightful melt in the mouth naans. A truly splendid repast.

So there you are, some how stuck in or passing through or near to Darfield without a clue what to do….get yourself to the Thaal restaurant (don’t use the number on the website though cos that’s for one in Brovvaton or Brotherton as anyone normal would call it) and dine in the finest Indian this side of the M1/A1/M18 triangle. You too can be a fat bastard like me.