The treasures on our doorstep

GORDON Brown's banging about finding ways to make us all feel British. Perhaps he should nip down to the nearest bookshop and buy a couple of tomes that spotlight some of the things that make our land what it is: long-established customs, regional food, and iconic buildings.

GORDON Brown's banging about finding ways to make us all feel British. Perhaps he should nip down to the nearest bookshop and buy a couple of tomes that spotlight some of the things that make our land what it is: long-established customs, regional food, and iconic buildings.

In one, The English Year, Steve Roud takes the reader on a day-by-day, month-by-month jaunt through the nation's festivals and customs. If you ever wanted to know the full SP about Christmas stockings or pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the answers lie between the covers.

Sub-divide further and there are the local fixtures that give corners of England their particular flavour: the Maldon Mud Race, for instance, and Jankyn Smith's charitable efforts in west Suffolk.

Then there's another book called The Taste of Britain, which focuses on our palates and stomachs - honouring such regional fare as the D'Arcy Spice Apple from Essex and red herring from Lowestoft.

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The roots of many of our customs seem to lie in our inns and pubs, points out Steve Roud, a local studies librarian in London. The Mad Maldon Mud Race, which takes place as we welcome in the new year, is a 400-yard dash across the River Blackwater at low tide.

He points out that it started as a pub dare in the 1970s and annually raises thousands of pounds for charity. The 2005 dash/slog was “enjoyed” by 180 entrants, many in fancy dress, and drew about 6,000 spectators.

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Just up the coast, on the third Thursday in May, comes the kichel-throwing at Harwich. “The throwing of coins by newly elected mayors , for people to 'scramble for', is a fairly regular motif across the country, but at Harwich they throw 'kichels' instead,” writes Steve.

“These are small torpedo-shaped, spiced fruit buns, which are made specially by a local baker, and are eagerly sought by the waiting children. The throwing takes place about midday, from the window of the council chamber, in the guildhall.”

In Suffolk, Jankyn Smith's (sometimes Smyth) Charity is remembered on June 29. The Bury St Edmunds benefactor, who built the town's guildhall, died in 1481. But he laid plans to make sure his reputation endured. He wanted a requiem mass to be said on the anniversary of his death, with the service attended by local officials and the residents of the almshouses he had founded.

“After the mass, the participants would be treated to cakes and ale,” says Steve Roud. “He could not have known, of course, that the Reformation was just around the corner, when masses for the dead would be abolished.

“Fortunately, the Bury officials substituted sermons for the masses and it continues to this day, attended by civic dignitaries and schoolchildren. It is said to be the oldest-endowed service in England, and usually takes place on the Thursday before June 29.”

St Edmundsbury Borough Council says Jankyn Smyth, or John Smith, was elected alderman at least seven times - an important role that linked the town and the powerful abbey. “He would become well known even to future generations of Bury people because he was the first, if not the greatest, of the benefactors of the town,” says the authority.

Early September is synonymous with Colchester and oysters, when the season traditionally opens and then runs through to the spring.

Steve Roud explains: “The River Colne and neighbouring estuaries on the Essex coast have been famous for oysters since Roman times and maybe even before. The industry of commercial oyster-growing needs to be carefully organised in order to avoid a local free-for-all, and this was recognised in the first municipal charter granted to the town of Colchester by Richard I in 1189, by which the corporation owns the fisheries, which are then rented out.”

In September the mayor, along with members and officials of the corporation, sail out to dredge the first oysters of the season. “The charter is read out and the company partakes of gin and gingerbread - nobody knows why - and samples the fresh oysters. They also send a loyal message to the Queen.”

The town holds its annual Oyster Feast later in the autumn.

“Commercial oyster fishing is now concentrated in the Mersea Island area, due south of Colchester” and the native oysters are highly thought of abroad.

Meanwhile, Laura Mason and Catherine Brown's book The Taste of Britain is a compendium of the local produce that forms our gastronomic heritage: from Lovage cordial to Shetland lamb and Cornish clotted cream.

In our part of the island there's the D'Arcy Spice Apple: a late-season dessert apple whose colour is described as yellowish-green to gold, with brick-red flush. The flavour is “hot, spicy, reminiscent of nutmeg”.

The first D'Arcy Spice tree was found in the gardens of Tolleshunt D'Arcy Hall, near Tiptree, in the late 1700s, says the book, and the apple is traditionally picked on Guy Fawkes's Day.

Over in the west of Suffolk can be found the Newmarket sausage, said to have originated in the 1880s.

“There are various claims to the original coarse-cut, pork-based sausage with a secret spicing mix,” suggests the book. “One maker, Grant Powter, uses a recipe invented by his great-grandfather, William Harper, who was apprenticed to a butcher in Newmarket in the 1880s. The company of Musk's say that their recipe was evolved by James Musk in 1884. Whatever the truth, the sausages are now firmly established.”

Suffolk hams - cured and smoked and weighing between 6.3 and 8kg - were in 1838 spoken of highly by a contributor to the Magazine of Domestic Economy, who thought the county made the best in England.

“The cure was similar to that used today,” say Mason and Brown. “First the hams were rubbed with plain salt and left for a short time; then a pickle was composed of salt, saltpetre, coarse brown sugar, strong old beer and spices. These were boiled together until thick and syrupy and rubbed into the hams, which then lay for five weeks, after which they were dried and smoked.”

Sea salt has been part of Maldon life for hundreds of years. In the Domesday Book of 1086, says The Taste of Britain, 45 salt pans are listed in the Maldon area - used to extract salt on the salt marshes and tidal inlets.

“In the Middle Ages, salt was extracted by boiling sea-water in 'leddes' (lead pans). References to these are found in wills of the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, Mrs Glasse (1747) mentioned salt from 'Malding' in Essex as a large, clear salt which gave meat a fine flavour.

“The present company grew from a salt works established in 1823; it became the Maldon Crystal Salt Company in the 1880s.”

Maldon salt has a soft and flaky texture, with a flavour said to be clean, sharp “and free from bitterness”. Only the Maldon Crystal Salt Company produces the particular pyramid-shaped crystal.

The humble parsnip is part of the East Anglian history of root vegetable cultivation - a tradition that probably started with the influx of Dutch religious immigrants who plied their trade as gardeners in the 16th Century, suggest the authors.

“Since the eighteenth century, farmers and gardeners in East Anglia have cultivated turnips, swedes, beets, parsnips and carrots for both local and national consumption, and vegetables are much used in the diet of local people. There is a certain symmetry between the East Anglian supply of human needs and the development of an animal husbandry based on winter-feeding with roots.”

The region's areas of free-draining, sandy soils are easy to work and lend themselves to long, straight-rooted crops such as parsnips and carrots.

Then there are smoked sprats; landed in late autumn. The Taste of Britain cites 18th Century work by the novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe that “speaks of sprats being cured in Southwold and Dunwich by being made red, as herrings were at Yarmouth.

“The author of The Art and Mystery of Curing, Preserving and Potting (1864) gives two methods for curing sprats, including a method for 'redding' which he called 'Aldeburgh smoked sprats' (Aldeburgh being one of the towns at which the fish were landed).

“Later, Law's Grocer's Manual remarked that sprats 'are found in immense shoals on many parts of our coasts during the latter part of the year . . . often remarkably abundant, especially off the coast of Suffolk, Essex and Kent. They are often cleaned and cured by being soaked in brine and finally dried, or smoked, for sale in small bundles of 30, or put in small wooden boxes.'

“The men at Brightlingsea both smoked the sprats for the home market and packed them in barrels with salt and spices for export to Holland.”

EAST Anglia's attractions are all too easily overlooked when people put together “best of” lists. Fortunately, an English Heritage publication called The English Buildings Book, avoids falling into the trap.

As one would expect, churches such as Saints Peter and Paul in Lavenham - “one of the largest parish churches in England” - and Holy Trinity at Blythburgh are included. In the latter, carved bench-ends feature icons “from the medieval vocabulary of morality - figures representing the deadly sins, a man in the stocks, and people going about the business of rural work, from ploughing to hay making”.

The weatherboarding on houses in Burnham-on-Crouch is featured - reasons for its popularity including the fact it required less skill to apply than plastering, and could avoid tax on bricks - and there are pictures of medieval buildings in Coggeshall and Lavenham.

Sparrowe's House in Ipswich, better known to locals as the Ancient House, is mentioned in dispatches for the dazzling plasterwork that turned a building with 15th Century origins into an ostentatious townhouse. No other building has such lively exterior plasterwork, or so much of it, say authors Philip Wilkinson and Peter Ashley.

It features royal arms, shepherdesses, mythological figures, reliefs representing the continents - Africa sits on a crocodile.

“It is as if the tradition of pargetting, local to eastern England, has decided to take on the world. In the process, this decorative technique has been taken to its logical conclusion - and beyond.”

Moderne-style designs of houses at the model seaside village of Thorpeness are celebrated as “one small example of how a local builder can pick up influences and run with them”. Meanwhile, the 16th Century Guildhall at Lavenham has “a rare example of a surviving shop shutter”.

Adnam's curved wine shop frontage in Southwold is lauded as one of Britain's most outstanding examples of an early 19th Century display window, “its beautifully hand-made appearance far superior to the usual offerings of today's shop-fitting industry”.

Down the coast at Aldeburgh, a clothing shop's arcade windows in the main street catch the eye for “the minimal architecture, with large plate-glass panels and thin glazing bars . . . relieved by the Art Deco stained glass in the upper portion of the window, the part known as the transom light”.

A short stroll away towards the sea is Aldeburgh's Moot Hall, built in the first half of the 16th Century as a dual-purpose building: the ground floor originally an open area for market stalls and the upper room used for centuries by the town council.

“It seems to sum up what Suffolk vernacular architecture is all about,” the authors feel. “There is not much good stone available locally, so Suffolk builders became skilled in three techniques. First, they made good use of East Anglian flint, often making chequerboard patterns with large, square stones. Second, they were expert carpenters, and their timber frames were often finely carved. Third, they used brick well, as in the Moot Hall's chimneys and the brick noggin between the timbers.”

Out in the countryside, next to the River Gipping, the authors appreciate weatherboarded Baylham Mill. “Apart from the sheer beauty of its white-painted walls, the mill's most notable feature is the extra-large, two-storey lucam above the entrance. With this simple piece of machinery, sacks of grain could be hoisted directly off a cart in the street and hauled up to the bin floor. No sacks needed to be unloaded and carted into the mill, as was the case with a mill with an internal sack hoist.”

The former Courtauld's mill in Halstead, which also makes effective use of weatherboarding, “demonstrates (a) distinctive way in which an early factory building can be attractive from the outside - even if it housed a noisy and unpleasant working environment”.

After air travel expanded and lost its sense of romance, airports got large and soulless, argue Wilkinson and Ashley, “with a confusion of signs, endless walks, and tawdry shopping areas”.

Norman Foster's design of Stansted Airport combated this by creating “one vast room, with a high roof held up on posts and struts, that seemed to recalls the sheds of early aviation but was ultra-modern at the same time”.

The books

The English Year, published by Penguin at £30. ISBN 978-0-140-51554-1

The Taste of Britain, published by Harper Press at £25. ISBN 978-0-00-724132-3

The English Buildings Book, published by English Heritage at £35. ISBN 1-85074-969-8

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