231: Ringsfield & Beccles

OS Explorer map 231, Southwold & Bungay: Halesworth & Kessingland – I own this map, but had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post Wednesday 8th January 2020.

I visited this map area while on a day trip from Cambridge, for the purpose of visiting Ringsfield Hall, a venue where I was organising an event to take place a couple of months later. The event in question was the annual retreat of Effective Altruism Cambridge – the previous year’s retreat was featured in my West Lexham post, so click over to there if you’d like to hear more aobut what that is! That previous year, I was just an attendee; but this time around, I was organising the thing, so I wanted to get a good sense of the spaces that’d be available to us for when we were arranging sessions and so on. (In the end, we later cancelled this retreat, which had been planned for the inauspicious dates of 13th-16th March 2020, on just one day’s notice, due to the impending coronvarius pandemic. Oh well!)

It was a very last-minute plan to visit on this day – I’d emailed the venue’s administrator on the Monday asking to visit sometime in the next few weeks, and found out on the Tuesday that Wednesday would be the best time for me to visit. I therefore did some hasty rearranging on Tuesday afternoon to be able to come at that time. At the time, I worked 3.5 days per week in my primary job at techspert.io, having Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons off from that job to work on my other commitments. I was therefore already free Wednesday afternoon – which was why I’d suggested it as one possible time, not really expecting them to pick the Wednesday so close at hand! – and when suggesting it I originally planned to drive over after my morning’s work.

Ringsfield Hall, the reason for this trip (photo from the Hall’s website)

However, it’s a 1h50 drive from Cambridge to Ringsfield, though, and I didn’t particularly want to do nearly 4 hours of driving in one afternoon. I much prefer taking the train – I love rail travel: not only is it just a much more enjoyable experience, you can do things while travelling, whether that’s something productive or relaxing. Driving, by contrast, is just faintly draining and not very fun (at least for me). Going on a new bit of railway also gives me, little nerd that I am, to enjoy looking up fun facts about the line I’m on. It takes 2h50 at minimum to get to Beccles, the nearest station, on the train, so I initially disappointedly rejected this, and resigned myself to driving.

However, on the bus home from work on Tuesday afternoon, a fact struck me – I currently didn’t have any car insurance for complicated reasons, [1] and was having to buy temporary insurance every time I wanted to make a trip. That £20 or so for a day’s insurance, plus the £30 in petrol or so, would make driving significantly more expensive than the £10.90 round-trip train for this trip, even with a taxi to the Hall factored in. The trains would be much more pleasant if I could take the whole day, and have some time to do other work while away, as well as to explore the places I was passing through – the 3-mile walk between Beccles and Ringsfield looked nice too, and it’d be nice to have time to do that in one direction. I therefore sent a very last-minute message to ask my my manager whether I could take the next morning off, working Friday afternoon to make up for it and fortunately he said yes. I then let the one person I managed at the time know, and the plan was made!

The railway station in Beccles

I left home around 0750, and missed my intended 0847 train to Ipswich by 2 minutes due to having to go back from the bus stop to get my phone charging pack, and consequently getting the next bus 10 minutes later. (My battery does normally last all day, but I was afraid that if I used my phone for OS maps while walking a lot, or watched television on the train, that might not be the case.) No matter, though – I sat in Caffè Nero by the railway station for an hour with a free chai latte [2] doing some work (not work for my main job), and got the 0947 instead. I changed in Ipswich to the East Suffolk line, and arrived in Beccles around half past twelve.

St Michael’s Church, Beccles, with its detached bell tower

From the station I walked the short distance into the centre of town, and first stopped to admire the church, which does rather dominate the place. St Michael’s in Beccles is immediately unusual because of the location of its bell tower – it’s detached, standing a little way to the south of the church itself, which Wikipedia claims is due to the west end of the church being too close to a sudden cliff to put it in the usual position. This certainly seems reasonable to me – the ground does slope rather downward before dropping off entirely to the street some 20 feet below at that end, with the slope continuing down sharply to the river Waveney.

Looking down towards the river Waveney – which you can just see: look for the boat in the middle of the frame – from the churchyard of St Michael’s, Beccles

I had a wander around inside, which was pleasant – there were some builders at work who greeted me cheerfully, before looking around the outside of the bell tower (you can go up it at times, but it was closed), and then moving on in search of lunch.

Inside the church

Beccles as a town was a really nice place – an odd mixture of very posh little shops and very not-posh little shops, with very few chains. It does well out of tourists coming to the Norfolk Broads, I believe, and is much nicer than the rather grim place I was expecting it to be after friend Millicent slandered it to me. After a short circuit of the town, I settled down with a cheese ploughman’s sandwich, a vegan sausage roll and some orange juice in Greggs, booked a taxi to take me over to Ringsfield, and did a little work before the taxi arrived.

A map of the walk from Ringsfield Hall to Beccles. Map from OS Maps online.

The driver I got was very chatty; apparently I “already knew the area better than her” since I’d looked at an OS map to plan out my walk back from Ringsfield to Beccles. Asking whether she had any bigger vehicles, as they might be useful for getting people to and from the station when on the retreat I was here to plan, I found out that she did have one – but this was recently down from two, as the other had recently been destroyed in a collision with, unfortunately, an uninsured driver.

Diagram showing the places I visited and which map areas they’re in

Now, it was only upon reaching Ringsfield Hall that I actually entered the map area for this post. Beccles is in Explorer OL40, which I visited on my trip to Norwich a few months previously, and even Ringsfield village is in the overlap between OL40 and 231. Ringsfield Hall, though, nearly a mile to the southwest of the village, is in area 231 proper.

Upon reaching Ringsfield, I was soon met by the site manager and given a full tour. The house was very full of workspeople and cleaners – apparently they were cleaning up after a New Year group – but I still got to see in every room, take lots of photographs and get a good sense of what the spaces were like for when we’d be planning sessions later on. There were also several very useful seeming outbuildings, which was a bonus. A very useful 15 minutes!

Walking from Ringsfield Hall towards Ringsfield village

The plan after this was to walk the 3 miles or so back to Beccles, and so I duly did. It was quite a pleasant walk – a wide track to begin with, and then a footpath through fields before being on pavement for the last mile to the station. While I was walking, I changed my plan for the rest of the day a little: I’d been intending to return to Beccles town and find a café to do a couple of hours’ more work in, before getting on the trains back to Cambridge at perhaps around 6pm.

However, I wouldn’t really feel comfortable sitting at my laptop in a fancy café, and didn’t really want to go back to Greggs. I therefore decided to get straight on the train, and do my work at one of the stations where I’d break my journey – either Ipswich on one possible route, or Lowestoft or Norwich on the other. Both directions had a train leaving at around the same time – Beccles is the location of the passing loop on the otherwise single-track East Suffolk Line, so this happens a lot – both would take around the same amount of travel time back to Cambridge, so I decided to take the route I hadn’t arrived on, and go to Lowestoft.

The Class 156 next to its much more photogenic replacement, the clas 755, at Lowestoft

I arrived at Beccles’s station with two minutes to spare for my train (the next would be in an hour), and was in Lowestoft 20 minutes later. Mildly disappointingly, this time I was on a slightly grim Class 156 Super Sprinter, unlike the very exciting and fancy shiny new Class 755s that I’d ridden from Cambridge to Ipswich and Ipswich to Beccles. The 755s are amazing – they’re generally very fancy on the inside, with lots of space, cool LCD displays all over the place, WiFi, plug sockets at each very nice seat. They also have a short central power car containing their engines (they’re diesel-electric bi-modes), rather than having all this machinery under the floor. This has manifold benefits: the passenger cars are quieter, and the floors can be lower (and so the ceilings higher) than most British trains, both giving a nice feeling of spaciousness, and allowing entirely level boarding between the platform and the train – better for disabled access, and generally making things easier for anyone with luggage, pushchairs, creaky joints and so on!

It was getting darker by the time I arrived in Lowestoft, and I was fairly tired, so I didn’t explore much, and instead briefly looked around in Waterstones (and bought a map! Explorer 210: Newmarket and Haverhill) before settling in Starbucks to do some work. (It had always been the plan to get a fair bit of work done on this trip – as I was going to be at my job all day on Friday, I needed to be at least somewhat productive on my non-main-job work this day, to make up for losing Friday afternoon.)

At approaching 6pm, it was closing, so I looked up train times to make my way home. Bad news, however: there were cancellations on the routes to Cambridge from both Ipswich and Norwich, making the earliest I could get in to Cambridge station 2236, via Norwich.

I inform my housemates I won’t be home until late – we had a friend visiting that evening, so I’d be missing them entirely, rather than just missing dinner as I’d originally planned.

So that’s what it had to be! I made the disappointing choice to have dinner in McDonalds; a veggie wrap and chips – it was the one place close to the train station that was open, and where I’d feel comfortable having my laptop out. As I walked in, I managed to somehow startle a couple of teenage girls who were at a table – one shrieked, I looked at them, and they kept hiding below the level of the half-wall whenever I looked in their direction after that. I got on the train to Norwich soon, and thanks to some tip-top Googling from Vesper (who was in Germany at the time), I was able to spend my hour and a half there in a late-opening café before my 2115 train.

The River Wensum in Norwich that night

It was a really good day! I left early, but not early enough to be tiring; I saw three different towns, one of which I’d never been to before, had a nice walk, got a lot of work done, and got to go on 5 different trains – I just got a lot in to that day, and it felt pleasantly fulfilling. It was slightly past 11pm when I got back to my house, feeling satisfied.

[1] The reasons for this were as follows. (Of course I was going to explain in full – I do love footnotes!) Until shortly before this trip, I had car insurance not only on my own car, Hilda the Fiat Doblo, but also my parents’ people carrier, Margaret the Toyota Previa (who has previously featured on this blog, for example in my Newark post. The reason for this is that Margaret has 7 seats to Hilda’s five, so I sometimes borrow her for larger group trips like that one.

However, at the time of this trip, I was approaching 25 years old, being born in January 1995. 25 years is the threshold above which some car insurance companies will offer “Drive other cars” (DOC) cover, either as a standard part of their fully comprehensive policies, or as an add-on or higher-tier benefit – DOC cover meaning that one is covered to drive anyone else’s car as well as your own, as long as you have the owner’s permission (and a few other conditions). The cover is only third-party (i.e. in the event of a collision between vehicles or something, the insurance will pay out for the damage to the person you crash into and their car, but not for the damage to the car you’re driving.), so there’s still risk, as if you crash your friend’s car your insurance won’t pay out for fixing it – but at least you’re covered and legal to drive it.

DOC cover was useful to me, because it would mean that I wouldn’t have to be insured on both Hilda and Margaret; instead I could just be insured on Hilda and drive Margaret under DOC, taking the risk of the third-party cover (Margaret’s not worth much anyway, she’s over 15 years old): much cheaper.

However, my multi-car policy expired in late December, a month or so before my birthday. It wasn’t possible, my insurer told me, to upgrade to DOC cover after my 25th birthday; it’d have to wait for my next renewal in December 2020 – so for a whole ‘nother year I’d have had to pay for multi-car insurance. No, said I, that will not do. So I opted out of my renewal, deciding just to have no insurance for a month, and buy insurance again after my 25th birthday, when I’d need only one policy and save a lot of money. For the intervening month, I’d just have to not drive, or if I needed to drive, buy temporary insurance for each journey. And that is what I did!

It wasn’t even particularly hard – I drive pretty rarely anyway, my regular commute at the time being by bus (and now at the time of posting, by train). I don’t really like driving. It’s okay, it’s not like very actively unpleasant; it’s reasonably often the best way to get from A to B, cars can go where trains and buses don’t, and for groups larger than 1 it’s usually cheaper too – for these reasons I did used to drive fairly often, especially when going on holiday with groups. I’d also usually drive when going to my parents’ house in Northamptonshire, because Cambridge to Northampton is 1h20 by car and, at least until the Central section of East West Rail is done in a decade or so, 2h30 by train via London.

However, driving is somewhat draining, especially on long journeys or when you have to do it again and again. And I don’t like the way that you can’t do anything while driving. Well, you can listen to podcasts and audio stories – and I do – or converse with your passengers if you have them, but that’s about it. On a train or a bus, you can do something productive, or you can do something fun, or you can do nothing, and relax. Driving can never be a rest, at least not to me; but a bus or train ride can be. I was very happy in May 2019, when my employer moved offices from a village outside Cambridge – to which I commuted by car – to a central office where I could switch to a bus commute. It’s a little slower, but much nicer!

As a coda to the above, I mostly wrote this footnote (and this post) in January 2020 shortly after this trip; however I’m editing and posting it in September 2021 (it having taken me that long to get this far through my blog backlog). In December 2020, my car Hilda finally gave up, having a problem with some engine part called a “head gasket”, which would have cost far too much to fix to be worth it. I decided at that time not to replace her at all, and just live without a car for at least a while – if I ended up disliking it I could always get one again, and it’s easy and cheap enough to rent cars by the week, day, or hour these days if I need one occasionally. It seems likely that I will get a car again someday, but for the moment, I’m quite enjoying being without one!

[2] At work we had this employee perks scheme called Perkbox, whereby you get access to various retail discounts and things, but also, importantly, a voucher for a free drink at Caffè Nero every week, and a free cinema ticket voucher up to once a month!

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