The culture of our county

IN the fourth of his series looking at what makes Suffolk so special, PAUL GEATER looks at the history and culture of the county that can claim to be the oldest in England.

By Paul Geater

IN the fourth of his series looking at what makes Suffolk so special, PAUL GEATER looks at the history and culture of the county that can claim to be the oldest in England.

HISTORY was always my favourite subject at school.

And discovering more about the past has remained an interest for me as I've become more historic myself!

At school the importance of Suffolk was never stressed as much as perhaps it should have been.

We learned that Mary I was staying in Framlingham castle when she heard that her half-brother Edward VI had died and she travelled to London to seize the throne.

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The castle remains one of the best-preserved in England, and the view from the top of the battlements is one of the best in the whole county.

Suffolk's other claim to fame, of course, is that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was born and brought up in Ipswich.

His role as Henry VIII's chief minister ensured the town's place in history - although no two historians seem able to agree on whether he was a hero or a villain!

Apart from that the county never seemed to be at the forefront of English history. It's only been later that I have discovered how wrong this was.

Part of the reason for this was that for many people English history starts in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings - and in truth Suffolk's most important period was during the Anglo-Saxon colonisation of the the country during what is now called the Dark Ages.

Ipswich - or Gipeswic - was the first English town to be established by the invaders from what is now Germany.

And the county's Anglo-Saxon past is best illustrated at Sutton Hoo just outside Woodbridge where the world-famous burial ship was discovered as the clouds of war were gathering in 1939.

Since the new visitor centre there opened over the last few years, I've found out much more about the county's remarkable ancient history - and why it really can claim to be the cradle of English culture.

But to get a real hands-on experience of Anglo-Saxon culture, a possibly better place to start is the rebuilt village at West Stow between Bury and Mildenhall.

Back in the 1970s it was decided to use ancient foundations discovered there as a basis to reconstruct and early village. It is fascinating - and gives a really good idea of how our ancestors lived.

We may talk about the good old days, but given the choice of sharing a wooden hut with a herd of pigs or having the convenience of multi-channel TV, I know which I would choose!

Suffolk is dotted by wonderful parish churches which reflect the county's massive wealth during the middle ages thanks to the wool trade and commercial links with the continent.

Long Melford and Lavenham churches leap to the top of most people's lists of impressive buildings - but the churches at Blythburgh, Framlingham, and East Bergholt, with its unique bellcage, are wonderful in their own way.

Suffolk is also home to some of the finest stately homes in the country - from traditional mansions like Melford Hall and Glemham Hall to the grandeur of the county's finest estate, Ickworth near Bury St Edmunds.

Ickworth is wonderful. It is as bonkers as the Hervey family who had it built in the late 18th century and who lived there until the death of the seventh Marquis of Bristol in 1999 after years of drug abuse.

In a sense the house - which has been owned by the National Trust for more than 50 years - has only just been completed as the West Wing was never completed until a year ago when it was turned into a restaurant and conference centre.

The park is wonderful to stroll around - and sometime this year I'm determined to load my bike into the car and try out the cycle paths that have been created around it.

SUFFOLK has a rich musical and artistic cultural heritage.

World famous artists John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough made their names in the south of the county.

Constable Country is now known worldwide and brings hoards of tourists to Flatford and Dedham Vale which straddles the county boundary with Essex.

Gainsborough made his name as a portrait painter, and although he originally came from Sudbury his initial fame came while he was living and working in Ipswich.

But while these 18th century artists are undoubtedly Suffolk's most famous, my own favourites are from an altogether more modern era.

Leonard Squirrell painted some of the finest images of Ipswich and Suffolk during the first three quarters of the 20th century.

Many of these were for railway posters - and while that increased the attraction for me, it's not the only reason I love the images.

And a particular favourite of mine is an oil painting by Richard Berridge of Ipswich Cornhill in 1935 showing a trolleybus and people rushing about in the years before the war - a numbered copy sits above the mantlepiece of my home!

SAY Suffolk and music and you'll find a real divide among the population.

For many people, Suffolk's musical heritage means the work of Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh Foundation, and a form of classical music that has a style of its own.

What Britten and his partner Peter Pears brought to the county with the development of Snape Maltings is a wonderful heritage.

The music, however, I'm not so sure about. As a child I took part in a school's production of Noye's Fludde, based on the story of Noah, which involved scores of youngsters.

During the rehearsals we were visited several times by Britten himself - these visits attracted adoration by the teachers in charge of the production, but we just got on with singing away.

As I grew up I came to realise that while the music Britten wrote for youngsters - like that operetta and his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra - was very easy to listen to, many of his other works were little more than a tuneless noise.

Recently I read someone take issue with the description of Britten as the finest English composer since Purcell. “I wouldn't describe him as the best musician to come out of Lowestoft for the last 100 years - that honour belongs to Justin Hawkins of The Darkness.”

I wish I'd have thought of that line - over the last ten years two of Britain's biggest musical acts have come from this county.

Sadly both the Darkness and Charlie Simpson's Busted are no more. However I certainly wouldn't bet against a Darkness reunion once the band members find it necessary to inject more cash into their bank balance.

If they do, you'll find me in thew queue for tickets for their tour visit to The Regent - or Portman Road.

Suffolk's music scene has really taken off in recent years with concerts at the Regent and Corn Exchange in Ipswich and now regular outdoor shows at Portman Road and the town's parks.

There are great outdoor shows at High Lodge near Brandon and at Newmarket . . . and last year saw the first Latitude Festival at Lord Stradbroke's Henham Estate.

Already plans are underway for this year's event as it seems set to carve out its own slot on Britain's festival calendar.