Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The road to nowhere

Victoria and I spent three days last week in the lovely seaside fishing village of Aldeburgh.

(lovely picture of the town here)

If Aldeburgh is, indeed, in the middle of nowhere (and of course, it isn't really - the nearby town of Southwold is a popular destination and Ipswich itself is not so far away - but it feels like it to a city boy whose journey from Brighton to London, even, is peppered constantly with large towns and only the thinnest slices of countryside), it is at least noticably civilised. A polite way of saying we only heard two regional accents all the time we were there (in the Co-Op and the newsagent, oddly, rather than the neo-Hampstead minimalist furniture store). The journey, which was hardly direct, was a bit more colourful.

Obviously, if you drive you simply get in at Brighton, admire the scenery and roll in at the Cross Keys Inn, Aldeburgh, a couple of hours later, but by train the journey is much more complicated. We had to go from Brighton to East Croydon, then to London Bridge, then to Bank, then to Liverpool Street, then up to Ipswich, and on to Saxmundham, a small town about eight miles away from Aldeburgh.

As the photo above should show, Aldeburgh is a very pretty, unspoilt little town. A fishing village for hundreds of years, it was home to the poet George Crabbe and the composer Benjamin Britten, whose opera Peter Grimes was inspired by the former. Like lots of villages in the area, Aldeburgh has had much of its land reclaimed by the sea in the last five hundred years (Slaughden, where Crabbe was born, is now entirely under water), losing 5 or 6 streets to the North Sea. The Mote House, which stands on the village's long and beautiful beach, was once at the town centre. There have been more recent changes too, if not architecturally. The village has become popular with well-to-do Londoners in seach of a rural retreat, with the unfortunate consequence that during the winter much of the town is empty and the shops closed down. But it's a fascinating place.

Saxmundham, on the other hand, a small market town with not an awful lot going for it bar a Somerfield Supermarket and a train station, bears all the hallmarks of The League of Gentlemen. Well, possibly, I'm being cruel. But walking through the town on our way to the bus-stop (the last section of the journey, thankfully) we were comprehensively stared at and examined by all the locals, as if the heavy bags on our shoulders did not adequately explain that we were merely tourists passing through. The only people there who did not seem to notice our presence were the gang of kids skateboarding around by the bus shelter.

Everywhere teenage boys relish this carnival of failure, the endless, endless attempts to successfully master that manouvre from pavement to bench, or tarmac to curve. I had not a hundredth of that patience when I was a teenager - my skateboarding fad lasted less than a week. In Brighton at the tail end of last summer I asked Vic why she thought boys put themselves through it so much. Before she answered we noticed the gaggle of exceptionally pretty teenage girls coyly watching, and then I understood, maybe. But the boys in Saxmundham were only being watched by us, so I didn't understand it after all.

Perhaps it was the shortage of anything else to do except board the train to Ipswich (or the bus to Aldeburgh). All the shop windows were amazing, like the inverse version of Stephen King's Needful Things - all useless. One shop window carried a sign which asked for participants in the forthcoming series of Wife Swap, an advert I have never seen anywhere else. So that's how they recruit their country bumpkins! Pity the poor metropolitan who ends up here with one of Saxmundham's gurning husbands. Another was full of sponge mini-footballs adorned with the flags of Europe and an obviously fake botched attempt at the Euro 2004 logo. Why had the proprieter taken on these monstrosities? Where had he bought them? We did not wonder that the boys played instead with skateboards.

Better and stranger than this was the shop window in Leisten, which we passed through on the bus (and which was, amazingly, even weirder) - the usual clutter of end-of-line products and tat and, sitting proudly in the middle, a large black gollywog. There is a gollywog in The League of Gentlemen, isn't there? I'm not imagining it?