East Anglia’s literary landmarks: days out for book lovers on the Greater Anglia network
Since the birth of the novel, East Anglia has inspired a whole host of great writers. For some great days out, perfect for book lovers, take a book tour through the ages
“I am still reeling with delight at the soaring majesty of Norfolk,” enthused Sir John Betjeman in a letter, following his tour of the county in the 1970s. The poet – who’d previously reminisced about a childhood trip to the Broads in a poem entitled Norfolk – was no doubt struck by the wide skies, bird-filled marshes and dramatic coastline.
He wasn’t the only one. Such a wild and mysterious landscape has made East Anglia into a fine breeding ground for writers, from medieval theologians to today’s vibrant talent emerging from the creative writing course at the University
of East Anglia (UEA). The region has long been a source of inspiration, indeed the 19th-century novelist H. Rider Haggard couldn’t have summed it up better when he said his favourite place in London was Liverpool Street Station.
East Anglia’s literary history began in Norwich, that fine old city where Lady Julian, a 14th-century religious hermit, lived with her cat in a cell at the side of St Julian’s church, giving out solace to the plague-distressed populous from a small window. What sustained her was her faith, and she wrote an accessible account of her visions called Revelations of Divine Love (1395) – the earliest book in the English language known to have been written by a woman – which continues to attract pilgrims from across the world to the church off Rouen Road.
Julian’s near contemporary was Margery Kempe of King’s Lynn – a wife and mother but also a mystic. Despite being illiterate, she dictated the first ever autobiography in English. The old port of Lynn, as Margery knew it, can still be glimpsed in the renovated centre of the town where old churches, Hanseatic warehouses and the ornate Guildhall are on view.
Through the heart of Kings Lynn runs that slow, cold river, the Great Ouse. From the founding of the University in 1209, to the coming of the railway in the 1800s, undergraduates often made their way to Cambridge via the Ouse, and the picturesque streets of King’s Lynn would have been one of the first sights to welcome them to the county. Those fine old Cambridge colleges have been the training ground of a long list of famous writers and poets, and East Anglia is where they looked for stimulation. Members of the Bloomsbury group – a small band of intellectuals including Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Maynard Keynes – discovered the orchard at Grantchester a few miles away and made it an intimate meeting place where they discussed their ideas. Rupert Brooke, of course, immortalised the village and vicarage in verse.
For a slice of this bygone era (and cake), The Orchard Tea Garden is open daily. As is the church from where James Runcie’s post-war clergyman, Sydney Chambers, cycles out to solve all those Grantchester mysteries. Undoubtedly, fictional sleuths have opened up the eastern counties to wider audiences. The Cambridge mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers took her detective Lord Peter Wimsey out into The Fens for The Nine Tailors (1934); while PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh inherits a windmill on the Norfolk coast, and Alan Hunter’s Inspector George Gently is based in East Anglia.
For politically active Daniel Defoe, the crime drama was more often in real life than on the page. After a stint in prison he moved to Essex to run a tile-making business and, after writing the adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), he created the ‘memoir’ Moll Flanders (1722). Moll is abandoned as a child in Colchester, a town outside which Defoe actually leased a house shortly after publishing the novel.
In the 1930s another political writer, Eric Blair, ensconced himself with his parents at Southwold to compose Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). He adopted the name of the local river, thus becoming George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984. You can take a ferry from Southwold across the river to the little fishing village of Walberswick. Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me (2014) tells of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s troubled sojourn there during World War I.
Another literary heavyweight, Charles Dickens, evidently found this edgy coastal atmosphere just the right setting for Mr Peggotty, who lived in his upturned boat on the Yarmouth dunes in the harrowing early scenes of David Copperfield (1850). Yarmouth has further claim to fame as birthplace of Anna Sewell, author of the children’s classic Black Beauty (1877). Her family home, a tiny black and white Tudor house on Church Plain, is squeezed tightly between its neighbours – her name is over the door. Anna had a difficult life, suffering – probably in equal quantities – from a lame ankle and a domineering mother, Mary, who was herself the author of moral tales for children.
During the same period but in a more fashionable circle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle played golf on the Cromer links. While he was there, Conan Doyle was told about the Norfolk legend of a ghostly dog called Black Shuck. He put the idea together with the castellated Cromer Hall and it became The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).
The Norfolk coastline inspired others, too. Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas swung by for a working holiday at Felbrigg, where Wilde is said to have started writing Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893). PG Wodehouse’s stay with the LeStrange family at Hunstanton Hall gave him characters for some of his Bertie Wooster stories. And not far away, LP Hartley penned The Go-Between (1953), a disturbing tale of class, sex and betrayal based in Norfolk. These were also the themes of a more recent work, The Remains of the Day (1989) by UEA graduate Kazuo Ishiguro. Last year Ishiguro was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, which reflects high credit to the UEA’s Creative Writing course that launched him.
More than 500 years since Lady Julian took up her pen, Norwich gained another literary great – fantasy writer Philip Pullman was born in the city in 1946. His trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) features several references to East Anglia – the Fen-country of Eastern Anglia appears as a place in Lyra’s world.
Formerly a UNESCO City of Literature, Norwich will host the new National Centre for Writing, which opens this summer with Margaret Atwood as patron. A fitting tribute to a region deep in narratives where, whatever your destination, there is likely to be a writer nearby – watching.
Book early for advance fares from only £10 one-way. For more information and train tickets, visit greateranglia.co.uk
The write stuff:
Local authors, poets and playwrights share their inspirational spots
Heidi Williamson, poet
“Each year a group of writing friends and I go to a retreat at Ditchingham. The countryside around there is peaceful and beautiful – you can see for miles across the fields. Walking the lanes and woodland clears writing space in my head. It’s wonderful for mulling on ideas and lines.”
Rory Clements, author
“For inspiration, or simply to soothe my soul, I go to Heydon. It’s a village where you can believe the last hundred years never happened. Visit Salle Church, a huge edifice stranded in the middle of nowhere, on a day when the tower is open (only once a year unfortunately) and you’ll have the best view in Norfolk; and Oxburgh Hall, quite simply the most beautiful castle in England.”
Rebecca Goss, poet
“I grew up in Suffolk, and returned to live in the county in 2013. One of the first places I revisited was Arger Fen, near Bures. I used to live very close to that wild wood and it is redolent with childhood memories. Although it has lost some of the ‘wildness’ I remember (conservation needs must) I walked beside those ancient trees that day, holding my young daughter’s hand as she retraced my steps, our eyes drawn upwards to seek the birds we could hear, and felt myself connecting to
East Anglia again. A poem came
Mary Chapman, children’s author
“Sometimes a place inspires me by chance. I didn’t go to the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse (Museum of Norfolk Life) with the intention of seeking inspiration. But the exhibits and the building itself evoked a strong sense of the people who once lived there. I began to wonder what it would have been like for a mother and children to arrive at the workhouse door one winter’s night in the late 1830s, to be greeted by an unsympathetic porter. Gressenhall
was the place that inspired me to
Rachel Hore, author
“The muddy harbour at the mouth of the River Blyth at Southwold in Suffolk has appeared in several of my novels. I love the jumble of fishing and sailing boats tied to wooden jetties along the banks, the sheds where fresh fish are offered for sale, the families waiting in the salty breeze for the rowing boat ferry across to Walberswick. It’s always busy with children fishing for tiny sludge coloured crabs, old fishermen repairing nets, day-trippers and dogs. I sit on a wall or on a bench outside the pub with a notebook to sketch out ideas for characters.”
Mike Elliston, playwright
“I was brought up in Thetford and, although I’ve not lived there for several years, I frequently visit. My favourite spot is Two Mile Bottom in Thetford Forest – it can be so still, walking amongst its tall, pine-scented trees and veering off path, through the bracken. It’s a place I can easily lose myself, clear my head and let inspiration take hold.”
Hit the books
Literary events across the network this spring
Essex Book Festival
With more than 100 events across 40 venues, the 2018 Essex Book Festival promises an eclectic mix of writers, performers and broadcasters. Essex singer-songwriter Billy Bragg will launch the Festival at Anglia Ruskin University on 28 February. March, essexbookfestival.org.uk
UEA Spring 2018 Literary Festival
To mark its 25th anniversary, the UEA Spring Literary Festival has a thrilling line-up. Stephen Fry will be joined by Madeline Miller, Jesmyn Ward and alumni Christie Watson and Emma Healey, plus many more. 14 February to 16 May, uea.ac.uk/litfest/home
Enjoy 20 new short plays at INK Festival 2018, The Cut Halesworth. As well as ‘The Famous Five’ written especially for INK by Richard Curtis, Esther Freud and Libby Purves, the festival welcomes special guest Tim Bentinck, from radio soap The Archers.
7–8 April, inkfestival.org
Cambridge Literary Festival
Experience the likes of Chris Boland, Ruby Wax, Lucy Worsley and Harry Hill and this spring’s Cambridge Literary Festival, as well as Guardian parliamentary sketch writer John Crace and many more. 12–15 April, cambridgeliterary