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Lowestoft was like Las Vegas growing up says theatre critic Libby Purves

PUBLISHED: 12:00 29 July 2017 | UPDATED: 17:36 29 July 2017

Radio presenter, author, theatre critic and journalist Libby Purvis. Photo: BBC

Radio presenter, author, theatre critic and journalist Libby Purvis. Photo: BBC


Lowestoft like Las Vegas? That’s how British radio presenter, journalist, theatre critic and author Libby Purves remembers it growing up. She talks about why Manningtree Station Buffet is one of her favourite places and watching perfect sunsets in Hunstanton.

The sun sets in Hunstanton. Photo: Matthew UsherThe sun sets in Hunstanton. Photo: Matthew Usher

People sometimes thing rural areas are a bit out of touch with the big wide world but that’s not the case says Libby. While there’s that tradition of working the land and the sea, there have always been interesting people, artists, writers and thinkers here too.

“You don’t ever feel you’re living in some weird Joanna Trollope novel,” she laughs, “where it’s all tinkle your bike bell and ‘good morning Vicar’.”

A professional theatre critic for many years, she’s impressed with the drama on offer across East Anglia.

“The Ink Festival is the most brilliant thing... I’m going to write something for it next year. Things like the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh Music, the wonderful music of Snape, all the events at The Cut in Halesworth, Eastern Angles touring productions.”

Libby's husband Paul Heiney, filming for Secret Rivers. Photo: ContributedLibby's husband Paul Heiney, filming for Secret Rivers. Photo: Contributed

Her father was a consul general in the diplomatic service so her childhood was spent all over the place. Suffolk has always been home though and she was delighted to move back 35 years ago.

“Paul (Heiney, her husband and broadcaster) wasn’t a Suffolk boy but he fell completely in love with this part of the world when he was working with John Parker at Swingletree Stables in Diss learning carriage driving for a programme called In at The Deep End,” says the radio presenter, who spent several years at Walberswick Village School when her father was posted to Angola as families weren’t allowed to go.

“His job was mainly filming all over the world so it didn’t really matter where he started from. I was bringing up the children and writing mainly at home or going to London once a week to do a Radio 4 programme midweek so it worked out very well living here full-time.”

She has particularly fond memories of Lowestoft, likening it to Las Vegas when she was a child.

“It was so glamorous, to be allowed to go on the bus on your own and go to Tuttles Department Store. It was like Grace Brothers on the telly wasn’t it? The glamour of going to a Wimpy bar when you’re at Walberswick Village School... it was great excitement. We rode around on our bikes. I like cycling around on the sandlings, the heath and back lanes. I still recognise some of the bumps in the road,” she laughs. “A lot of the plants have grown up.”

A regular traveller to London, she loves the Manningtree Station Buffet. “It’s the most sociable place I know, there appear to be people who hang out there all day long. I feel I’m a citizen of the Manningtree Station Buffet.”

There’s much that appeals to Libby; partly due to growing up here and the years she and Paul spent working on his horse-drawn experimental organic farm where Suffolk Punches replaced tractors. They’ve both always felt nicely bedded into the community.

She likes the wide open skies of Suffolk and Norfolk, the geese flying, being met by a mass of stars and the moon unencumbered by streetlights after a long drive home from a job in the early hours; that we’re sufficiently far from the capital.

“You can get the idea the whole country is like your city whereas actually there are real and ordinary complicated interesting lives going on in all sorts of different places. It helps a little bit to not be a Londoner any more, to be standing a bit outside that sometimes.”

Libby loves Norfolk too.

“We have a lot of trips up there. Paul made a lovely set of television programmes on the secret rivers of East Anglia where he went canoeing along various strange ditches,” she laughs. “I was always rather fond of Hunstanton because you can see the sunset over the sea; it’s the only place in East Anglia you can watch a sunset over the sea because its facing backwards into The Wash.”

Libby and Paul are keen sailors, although they don’t do much of it on the east coast because there are so many sandbanks.

“I swim in the sea but I find you know where you are with rocks, they don’t go moving around. I like sailing in the deep waters down west but that’s because I’m a bit of a coward. But I like sailing on the River Alde in dinghies. As a child I used to canoe up the creek to Dunwich.”

She also has a less than completely affectionate relationship with the A12, especially after Latitude when it’s gummed up. She also finds parking at Manningtree scary due to the lack of spaces; always arriving very early so she doesn’t miss her train.

“It’s like your family and friends - the region has its quirks and you put up with them. There’s a lot of political things that irritate the hell out of me, the example is a town like Southwold where there are a lot of quite small businesses that have been there for ages whose business rates have shot up in a way which is completely unreasonable.

“That’s because of holiday homes costing an arm and a leg - or several legs actually. The incredibly stupid prices in some more fashionable towns like Aldeburgh, Southwold, Walberswick and so on. Ridiculous. It’s almost impossible to get anybody from outside to get a grip on this and realise how very bad it is.”

Libby’s not one of those people who hate it when the tourists descend. Quite the opposite.

“You see people beaming at things which to you are just the bushes or the heath you see every day; then you realise you’re lucky.”

The University of East Anglia’s motto is do different; she thinks there’s a lot of that about Suffolk too.

“It’s full of people who have chosen a way of life and a neighbourhood rather than a restless, forever mobile career. People don’t take anything that seriously... all these celebrities who live and come and work down here and Suffolk doesn’t run after them going ‘how wonderful’. They go ‘oh you’re back are you?’”

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