A ticket to ride Rene's Love Bus

THE passenger on the front seat is very happy, judging by the excited Yorkshire tones untrammelled by nearly six decades in Suffolk. “That's made my day, that has,” smiles Irene Hannatt.

THE passenger on the front seat is very happy, judging by the excited Yorkshire tones untrammelled by nearly six decades in Suffolk. “That's made my day, that has,” smiles Irene Hannatt. The bus has just trundled past the house where she lived for 50-odd years. It's a genuine trip down Memory Lane.

We're on the east Suffolk backroads, breathing in as we squeeze past tractors, trailers and bailers between Hollesley and Capel St Andrew on Gemini Travel's new-for-this-summer Tales & Tours jaunt.

Irene - or Rene, to her friends - has been invited out for the day by Woodbridge neighbours Pat and Cyril. This being a hop-on, hop-off tour, they'll break their journey with lunch at The Oyster Inn at Butley.

As Irene explains how she came to East Anglia and brought up nine children, Gemini boss Ed Nicholls quips: “We should have you giving the tour today! I don't think I'm needed!”

More about Rene later.

The day begins at Woodbridge station at 10.25am. We collect another passenger behind Budgens; wearing walking boots, and carrying a rucksack, map and - most importantly - Jaffa cakes, he clearly means business, and will get off for a stroll at Orford.

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On towards Melton and the interesting facts flow freely. The first tale from Ed, who alternates tour-guide duties with Pete Jennings, is about George Carlow. The 18th Century non-conformist religious dissenter is buried in the former grounds of the Bull Hotel in Woodbridge. He left money to buy bread for the poor of the parish - a tradition that continues today.

Ed explains that Carlow issued a curse: he'd come back and haunt anyone who removed his bones and reburied them in consecrated ground.

The town, he adds, was also home to Oliver Cromwell's skull at one time. In 1661, Cromwell's body was exhumed at Westminster Abbey and he was given a posthumous execution, after which his body was hung in chains. His severed head was put on a pole outside Westminster Abbey until 1685, while his body was tossed into a pit.

The skull is reckoned to have had a number of owners, ending up in 1953 with a Woodbridge vicar. Folklore suggested it was a bringer of bad luck, and in 1960 it was buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge - which Cromwell had attended.

Just a couple of miles into the tour and we get a couple of ghost stories: the Horse and Groom pub at Melton is said to host the ghost of a lady in a white dress, and an other-worldly cat that is wont to lie on beds. At Wilford Bridge, meanwhile, the shape of a boat containing the body of a young man can apparently be seen at dawn and dusk. It's said his girlfriend died of consumption and he then set off in the boat to drown.

The bus calls at Sutton Hoo - plenty of story material there - and then heads along the B1083 parallel with the River Deben: an area that was a hive for smugglers in the 15th and 16th Centuries, says Ed.

At Bawdsey, set into the wall of a white house that used to be the post office, there's the only surviving Edward VIII-era Ludlow-style letterbox in the country (Ludlow being a Birmingham manufacturer).

At the end of the road, Bawdsey Manor has plenty of history to talk about, including its role in the development of radar.

The facts come thick and fast: how the village church was wrecked by a firework prank, for instance, and how the church houses a memorial to Edith Cavell. During the First World War the Norfolk-born nurse helped hundreds of soldiers escape to the safety of the Netherlands from occupied Belgium. She was arrested and shot by firing squad.

Edith never lived in Suffolk, but her father was born in the county - good enough reason for a local memorial.

We're not far from Shingle Street - which brings to mind those intriguing theories about the wartime incident in which bodies of men in British and German military uniforms were said to have been washed up, amid tales of the sea being on fire.

Was it a failed (but credible) German invasion - some of the Nazi troops wearing British uniform - that the authorities here wanted to hush up in order to keep morale high? Was it a training exercise that went tragically wrong, killing many of our own forces? Or was it simply a case of Chinese whispers putting together rumour, hearsay and exaggeration, and manufacturing a myth from minor events?

This is a surreal corner of Suffolk, and there are few places as quirky as Hollesley - dominated by its open prison facilities and signs by the road that read “Out of bounds”. (For offenders, presumably, rather than civilians just visiting in Monopoly board fashion.) “This is the only place we don't stop to pick up passengers,” laughs Ed.

He regales us with an anecdote about how, when he used to be a local football referee, he once handled a game between wardens and police. It was - how shall we say? - interesting . . .

Then it's Rene's big moment as we pass the cottage that holds so many memories for her. As this tour is all about tales, we can't alight before she's told us hers.

She met Basil, her husband to be, in her native Yorkshire when she was a teenager. It was a Saturday night in 1941 and he was a soldier stationed locally. Rene was waiting to enter the local picture-house when she spied him. “I said to my friend 'Ooh, have you seen Blondie? I'm going to marry him!” she would, too.

When she turned 18, Rene was keen to join the forces, but her dad wasn't having any of it. So she became a land girl in Kent. Sadly, the war kept the sweethearts apart: Basil, whose family came from Butley in Suffolk, spent the campaign in various deserts - serving as a gunner in the Royal Artillery at El Alamein in Egypt, Tunisia and Italy, and not getting leave for years.

Love overcame, however, and Basil later popped the question. Things were done properly in those days, and he followed etiquette by writing in advance to his beloved's parents to gain their permission and blessing.

The couple married on Boxing Day, 1945. Rene was 20. The following September they came to the Butley area for good and would enjoy a marriage lasting about 52 years. Basil spent 36 years working as a pigman for Sir Peter Greenwell's estate.

Sadly, he had to be admitted to Papworth Hospital for a triple heart bypass operation nearly eight years ago, but never came home.

With three of her daughters and one son living in Woodbridge, Rene moved to the town herself following her husband's death. She's got 22 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren, with another two on the way.

Basil, she says, was “a lovely man. He was the love of my life”.

The wheels keep turning and we turn right towards Orford. In the distance are the tall masts on the ness - the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe, home to flora and fauna of international importance, and another of those eerie east Suffolk places dripping in atmosphere.

Its role as a key nature reserve sits incongruously with its long history as a site for military testing. During the Second World War, and up until the late 1950s, it hosted numerous firing experiments gauging the strength of aircraft and plane components.

The curious “pagoda” buildings are a reminder of its secret cold war role in the development of the atomic bomb. Purpose-built facilities were used to test the components of nuclear weapons by replicating the stresses they might face: heat and cold, shaking and banging, G-forces and so on.

It's said that no nuclear material was ever bought to Orford Ness, though high explosive did feature. An accidental explosion was always a risk, so the huge underground facilities were designed to absorb energy and limit the damage to the outside world.

After Orford - where Ed tells the passengers about the legend of the merman - we wend our way to Tangham Forest Centre, where there's oodles of storytelling material thanks to the alleged UFO landing in December, 1980. Back via Sutton Hoo and on to Woodbridge.

It's been an entertaining and informative two-and-a-half hours - a taste of local folklore and history, and with some human interest thrown in at no extra charge, thanks to Irene!

Tales & Tours operates every Sunday, and the August bank holiday, until October 29

The coach leaves Woodbridge rail station at 10.25am, 1.25pm and 4.25pm on its circular route

These times tie in with connecting trains and buses from and to Ipswich

There are numerous stops en route where passengers can get on and off

The whole tour takes about two-and-a-half hours

Fares: Adults £5, children £4, family ticket (two adults, two children) £15

Suffolk pensioners with a valid bus pass travel free. Other OAPs £3

The tour is run by Gemini Travel and is supported by Suffolk ACRE and Suffolk Coasts & Heaths

You can get a full timetable from: 01473 462721 and www.geminighosts.co.uk/tt or email tours@geminiofipswich.co.uk

Gemini also conducts monthly ghost tour walks in Ipswich - started in 1997 after Ed Nicholls's imagination was caught by one in Derby

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