In search of secret Suffolk

When Robert Leader went in search of secret Suffolk for a series of features about his home county, he realised he had stumbled upon everything he needed for a fascinating book.

When Robert Leader went in search of secret Suffolk for a series of features about his home county, he realised he had stumbled upon everything he needed for a fascinating book. He spoke to ANGI KENNEDY.

Robert Leader has journeyed the world, both as a merchant seaman and as a tireless traveller. But he has kept to the boundaries of his home county for his new book, In Search of Secret Suffolk.

The book has been four years in the making and comprises a wide and varied selection of photo feature articles that he has written for a Suffolk magazine.

He covers aspects like the castles of Suffolk, its abbeys and guildhalls, as well as plenty of exploratory wandering through the valleys and history of Suffolk's major rivers.

Together, the articles form a guidebook with a bit of a difference.

"There are things in there that residents of Suffolk will know about their area, but I hope there are some little bits too that they might not be aware of," said Mr Leader, who was brought up in Brandon but has lived in Bury St Edmunds since 1979.

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He calls himself a Suffolk homing pigeon because despite his lifetime's thirst for travel he has always returned to the county.

"I was 17 when I joined the merchant navy and I went round the world with them. But I left because I was seeing a lot of sky and sea through a porthole but not getting to feel the atmosphere of the countries we were visiting or getting a deeper understanding of the people."

He fulfilled his longings by twice undertaking the overland trip to India and the Far East, and has crossed Africa from Tunis to Capetown by Land Rover.

He has also found time to run his own painting and decorating business and take a degree in philosophy.

Under other pen names he has published thriller and adventure novels exploring the world of crime, espionage and terrorism.

But the In Search of Secret Suffolk book provided him with another "lovely journey" of discovery and renewed delights for as he explored the Suffolk countryside, towns and villages. "It was a combination of learning, exploring and researching as well as using my own knowledge."

Perhaps his favourite work has been on the rivers of Suffolk. "The rivers vary so much," he said. "Sometimes it is quiet and peaceful as you walk beside a river in the Suffolk countryside. Then sometimes it can be extremely busy, like along the Orwell. It is always changing.

"And the heritage aspects along the rivers tell such a story too. Before the advent of the modern roads, the rivers where main routes of the county and so much is related to them and has grown up along them."

For some time he had been writing features about the area then, as he explained: "It suddenly dawned on me that put them all together and I had a comprehensive picture of the county".

The resulting book, which is published by Thorogood, makes interesting reading for visitors to Suffolk as well as for those who live in East Anglia.

Here are a few of Robert Leader's thoughts on just a few of the places in or close to our area:

Ickworth House - "One of the brightest jewels of the National Trust, an Italiante marvel with its immense rotunda soaring high above the elegant, palatial wings curving away on either side.

"Set in magnificent parkland where sheep graze under mighty oaks, the grounds contain many fine walks, a small breeze-rippled lake, a summerhouse, a vineyard, a private family church, and a deer park where haughty stags parade before their harems.

"The house itself is a treasure store of beautiful sculptures, paintings and objects' d'art too numerous to list. If the Vikings were still raiding East Anglia, then Ickworth House would have to be one of their first targets for superlative plunder."

Eye Church and Guildhall - "The magnificent, flint-panelled Church of St Peter and St Paul which towers over its elegant neighbour, the black and white timbered 15th century guildhall.

The Eye Guildhall was built in the late 16th century and carefully restored in 1875. An original carving of the Archangel Gabriel can still be seen on one of its wooden corner posts.

"There is a village atmosphere to this lovely small town, but a town it definitely is with an imposing town hall to prove it."

Bungay Castle and Framlingham Castle - "The Norman castles were the strongholds which the Barons could hold for or against their King, or from which to sally forth to fight for their King, or against him, or against each other, depending upon their current ambitions and inclinations.

"The central characters in Suffolk were undoubtedly the powerful Bigods who held their castles at Bungay and Framlingham.

"Suffolk's castles are now obsolete as the stone-age rock throwing that defended the first besieged hilltop, but they and the towns and villages they dominate are still well worth a visit at any time. They are a solid link with the great, and infamous, names and deeds of the past and a feast for the imagination. And if you are lucky enough to catch one of the living history displays so much the better."

Beccles - "Another fine market town, dating back to around 960 AD, and Bungay's slightly larger neighbour.

"Dominating the centre of the town is the great, grey square block of the 14th century bell tower of St Michael and All Angels, where the tower stands separate from the church with its magnificently ornate south porch.

"There are wide greens along the river and here at busy Beccles Quay where swans float serenely between the moored yachts and motor boats, the holidaymaker's Waveney begins.

"The railways spread their ever-widening networks of tracks to both Beccles and Bungay in the mid-19th century. It was the beginning of the end of the glorious heydays of the Waveney as a commercial river. The railways and then the equally remorseless expansion of the roads and motor traffic gradually took the cargoes away from the sailing barges and the wherries.

"However, in recent years the Waveney has been re-born again with the advent of the modern leisure industry. From Beccles onward the river is broad and deep, prime cruising water filled with chugging power boats and bright yacht sails of red, white and blue."

Somerleyton Village Green - "The river loops north to take the charming little village of Somerleyton and the red and white towers of splendid Somerleyton Hall into its loose Suffolk embrace.

"The village is a large, neat green flanked by lovely thatched and timbered cottages, while the hall is a lavish Victorian Christmas cake built in Anglo-Italian style.

"There are 12 acres of beautiful gardens surrounding the hall, a glory of colours in summer, and the highlight is of course its famous yew hedge maze, an ideal place to lose yourself if you have an hour or two to spare."

Walberswick Harbour - "The walk along the river at Walberswick is still one of the most picturesque strolls in Suffolk, an ever-changing vista of charmingly rickety boat landings and jetties stretching out from the mud banks, with the river filled with both pleasure and working boats."

In Search of Secret Suffolk is 184 pages of fascinating reading, illustrated with more than 100 of Mr Leader's own photographs. The book is on sale now at major newsagents and booksellers, priced £9.99.

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