Disgraceful behaviour in Beccles:

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I happened to be in Beccles recently, a smallish town in Suffolk, UK, not far from the limit of navigation on the river Waveney. Beccles is a lovely old market town with winding streets and buildings of brick and flint, painted render, whole and half-timbered oak frame, the hallmarks of this part of England.

Beccles is just the sort of romantically twee place people managed to build centuries ago before the invention of planning control; the sort of place beloved by many who live in today’s rigidly regimented, planned-to-death urban streets and avenues. I’m tempted to believe that if only we could be left alone, free of the little Hitlers of modern Town Planning, we might again build what suits us instead of what suits them. (Please forgive my italics: I get overwrought sometimes, being a second generation survivor of my father’s run-ins with Town Planning.)

Image: Church tower

The church in the town centre has a peculiar detached tower.

At the heart of Beccles is a quaint town square and a large boat dyke. Situated at the quieter southern end of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads rivers system, from the boating visitor’s viewpoint it seems a friendly, welcoming place, with all the facilities of civilisation including water hoses at the staithe (WT*? Water hoses? Okay, most tourists don’t care much about water hoses, but trust me they’re vital to visitors by boat). With pubs, restaurants, shops and banks Beccles is often the highlight of a Broads holiday.

You can easily find out about Beccles on the interwebz (start with the links at the end of this post) so instead of regurgitating other people’s stuff I’ll tell you a couple of personal tales about this favourite of Broadland towns.

Tales from the Riverbank

Image: Collage of photos.

The 1947 crew (collage of photos courtesy of UD)

My mother told a tale of Beccles. She visited there in 1947 on a three-boat family holiday. In the hopeful, forward looking spirit of those post war times when rationing was still in force, the holiday party were in high spirits when the combined crews spent the evening at a certain pub in Beccles town centre. Pubs in those days didn’t have jukeboxes, much less broadband or giant screen TV showing the footy. If you wanted entertainment you had to make your own.

Image: The Bear and Bells.

The Bear and Bells in Old Market, where mum played piano, unless…

My mother, being a pianist, was encouraged to play the pub’s piano which she did to such effect that the landlord begged her to return and play again the next night. His takings had soared, so he said.

Image: The Swan House.

…it was at The Swan House. Or maybe…

My uncle says he remembers the incident very clearly but as the party visited so many pubs that night he can’t now remember which pub had the piano, which must go to show what a good night out it was.

Image: The King's Head.

…it was at The King’s Head.

But my abiding personal memory of Beccles is the day we moored there when I was a teenager. Our boat, the Amethyst (or maybe it was the Knave of Hearts?) was moored stern-to in the boat dyke and after our evening meal my would-be brother-in-law, no doubt keen to impress his girlfriend’s parents, volunteered to do the washing up. The skipper (father) detailed the most junior member of the crew, an archetypal moody, monosyllabic teenager (me), to dry.

Image: The boat dyke at Beccles

The boat dyke at Beccles, now called Beccles Quay.

We toiled at the galley sink which was right in the stern under an open port that looked out across the staithe, a spread of neatly mown grass under the dappled shade of trees. Families picnicked on the grass. Children played under the trees. Ducks and geese roamed freely, unafraid, hoovering up scraps from the picnics. Across the dyke a great crested grebe, among the shyest of Broadland birds, glided silently through the shadows under the bank, shunning human contact, its cute black and white striped Everton Mint chicks hitching a lift on its back. An elderly gentleman sauntered along the staithe in the balmy summer evening, leaning on his walking stick, looking at boats and enjoying the pleasures of a peaceful evening stroll, lost perhaps in his fading memories.

Right outside our boat was a sort of hoarding with a poster advertising some event in the town. I was just thinking there could hardly be a more peaceful impression of pastoral contentment and all right in the world than the happy scene at Beccles that evening, when the old gentleman bent to read some small print on the poster and delivered the most enormous, resounding, trouser-ripping thunderblast imaginable, right outside our open port.

Sound carries across water. The report rumbled around the boat moorings like distant thunder. Heads bobbed up from surprised holidaymakers, eyes shaded in search of a blackening sky but finding only cloudless blue.

Crestfallen, my brother-in-law and I stopped dead in our dishwashing and looked at each other accusingly. Then the truth dawned. The old gentleman strolled off to continue his evening walk without a word. Vic, quicker than me to recover his wits, poked his head out of the port. “COME BACK HERE AND EXPLAIN YOURSELF,” he bellowed indignantly across the staithe. All went quiet. The picnicking families stared in bewilderment. Mothers gathered their children close. People began to chunter about morons spoiling the evening peace and quiet.

The culprit appeared to be as deaf as he was flatulent, and continued his stroll unperturbed. As the startled ducks resumed their quacking my brother-in-law quietly closed the port and we slunk back to our shipboard duties. The elderly gent who caused all the trouble got away with it entirely.

Later, our sense of shame appeased by an hour’s perspective and the wine bottle uncorked, our whole crew fell about laughing. I imagine the pubs of Beccles were awash with chatter about the incident that evening.

As Michael Green says in The Art of Coarse Sailing*, I do like Beccles.

[* first published by Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) 1962. Sadly out of print. At time of writing one vendor is offering a copy on Amazon for £350]

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All photos copyright C.Beddingfield except as indicated. If you want to borrow for your own blog please include a clear link back to charlesbeddingfield.com

3 Thoughts on “Disgraceful behaviour in Beccles:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading that, seems to me the older one gets the more wind one has so it’s probably good to go a little deaf. Love the pics of 1947 too. Happy days hey!

  2. N. Johnston on June 11, 2015 at 10:23 pm said:

    In the midst of packing to move we checked your blog page … and oh! how we enjoyed your Broads stories … more please!!! By the way, how much is it worth that we can recite whole sections of The Art of Coarse Sailing from memory? The don’t write happy books like that any more!!! Best Wishes…

    A.N. and U.D.

  3. Charles on June 12, 2015 at 3:17 pm said:

    So glad you enjoyed the Beccles article, Jen & A.N.. I checked Amazon recently and found a hardback copy of The Art of Coarse Sailing offered for £350. I nearly fell off my chair. But then, my copy is a battered old paperback and I wouldn’t sell it even for that amount. Extra marks to anyone who quotes their favourite passage from TAOCS in the comments below. I don’t think we’ll get sued for copyright infringement if it’s not too long and it might even prod the rights holder to re-issue it, maybe in e-book.

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