For many years Beccles and Bungay, two adjacent towns just over the border of Norfolk into Suffolk, mirrored each other to a remarkable degree. Both had access to wherry traffic along the river Waveney; both had important printing businesses (Richard Clay in Bungay and Clowes in Beccles); both had ancient Grammar Schools, and each had a railway station. In the last century however their fortunes began to diverge. The staithe at Bungay closed when the lock on the upper reaches of the Waveney at Geldeston went out of use, cutting Bungay off from the rest of the Broads. On the contrary Beccles still has a thriving quay, and although commercial traffic ended many years ago, pleasure boats are more popular than ever. So there is still leisure navigation to Beccles (and a mile or two beyond) from the rest of the Broads, but at Bungay only canoes now use the river. The Waveney Valley railway line from Beccles to Bungay and on to the main line to London was first made goods only in 1952, and then severed in two. The line from Beccles stopped at Bungay and the line from Tivetshall ended at Harleston; finally the whole track was lifted. Meanwhile Beccles retains its passenger trains from Lowestoft to Ipswich – indeed the recent reintroduction of a second platform at Beccles has doubled the number of trains the East Suffolk line can take to one every hour.
Beccles has an unusual church with a campanile – the term means a detached bell tower. This is probably because the main body of the church is very near to a steep hill or cliff down to the river, and a tower in the traditional place would not be possible. The tower is a majestic structure, impressively built of freestone. Beccles church is where the parents of Horatio Nelson were married in 1749. The bride’s family came from Woodton in South Norfolk, not many miles away, and the groom the Reverend Edmund Nelson had been curate in Beccles before his marriage. His more famous living was at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where young Horace spent his earliest years. His father suggested that Horatio was a more suitable name for grown-up.
I am nothing like as familiar with Beccles I am with Bungay, where I was a schoolboy for five years. Moreover I lived on the Bungay Road, and the town seemed just a short drive away. Beccles was altogether more of an adventure, taking us along the Lowestoft Road instead, and that was a road that we seldom travelled. I always went to the secondhand bookshop in Hungate when I went to Beccles; there is still a bookshop there but it appears to specialise in new books now. It was just along this street where Mr Sergeant the optician had one of his shops. He was based in Great Yarmouth and he was the man who bought my father’s practice in Norwich when he retired in 1972.
The late David Frost’s father moved to Beccles to take up the position of Methodist minister in the late 1950’s and his widow was still living in the town at the time of David’s marriage in 1983. Davis Frost’s wife was a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, the premier aristocrat in the land, whose title can be traced back at least to the fifteenth century. David Frost was a little less elevated but could trace his ancestors back to a family of Hugenot refugees who arrived in England in the seventeenth century, to escape persecution as Protestants by the Catholic French under Louis XIV. By a strange irony the Catholic Howard family (the Dukes of Norfolk) also had to endure persecution, in their case by the Protestant English (particularly the under Tudors). Luckily such religious antagonism is now a thing of the past, as is proved by marriage of these two people.
On April 3rd 1786 Parson Woodforde set off with his nephew and servant Briton on an excursion to Southwold. Naturally they went on horseback (the only alternative would have been a private carriage, and they were not grand enough for that). From Weston Longville they went through Norwich and Bungay to Beccles “and there we supped and slept at a very good large Inn, the Kings Head”. There they had a supper of some of the finest Colchester Oysters he had ever eaten. So delicious were they that they had them again for breakfast with bread and butter. He gave a generous tip of 17 pence (one shilling and 5 pence) to the servants. The Kings Head in New Market has recently been refurbished and reopened after lying derelict for two years. The Kings Head is a Georgian building, but its predecessor dated back to at least the 16th century.
On Saturday 6 September 1980 we drove to Beccles with my canoe on its trailer, and parked by the yacht station; it cost 20p. The use of the slipway was free however so we took advantage of it to launch the canoe Red Squirrel. Some boys were fishing from the quay and had apparently caught a fish, judging by their excitement. We paddled upstream; it was just after 3 o’clock and my sister Tig and I were out on the water for about a hour. The bank of the river Waveney is lined with attractive houses with gardens running right down to the water’s edge. We paddled past the last house where the reeds begin and then returned.