TRAVEL / In the light of a sheltering sky: A Writer's Britain: The towering mountains and high tundra of East Anglia can be seen only in its huge skies. Continuing our series, Rachel Cusk takes a straight line north to the edge of the world

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The Independent Culture
I GREW UP hearing people tell me that East Anglia had the biggest sky. For a long time the meaning of this boast, if boast it was, eluded me. Having just come to terms with gravity, infinity and the world's roundness, I was not about to accept big skies without thorough questioning. The explanation, it appeared, was that East Anglia is flat: flatter than a bad joke, flatter than a party nobody comes to; so flat, in fact, that the sky has no choice but to go on and on, showing a bit more leg to compensate for the lack of hills, vales, mountains, skyscrapers or other horizontal excitement.

Now, of course, sentiment and familiarity make me defend its flatness hotly; but even without the advocacy of the past I would like to believe that it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. In summer the region blossoms like a paper flower in a Japanese water garden. In winter it is as desolate as the North Sea, into which it protrudes. It used, apparently, to be heavily forested, but arable farming has shaved its cheeks. Now its seasons are planted and harvested in the fields, furrowed with brown claw-marks in winter, rippling like the surface of water in summer wind. In places the fields are flat as an empty plate, over which the sky fits like a huge glass dome. Sometimes one can see in the sky the dimensions lacking in the land, the towering mountains and high tundra of cloud, the sloping beams and rivers of sunlight. The East Anglian sky is as expressive as a human face, a map of moods.

I spent most of my late childhood and adolescence in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, whose eponymous saint's murder is hideously, if amusingly, described in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The chronicles record that Edmund's head, which had unfortunately been severed from his body and mislaid in a forest, cried out until the locals were able to find it. His parts reassembled and laid to rest, his appearance was recorded as most appealing, owing to the scar on his neck which resembled a red ribbon tied around his throat.

Bury St Edmunds is similarly attractive, an elegant market town at whose outskirts the chimneys of the sugar-beet factory fume and puff like giant cigars. Occasionally an unfavourable wind will send the smell of burning beets wafting through its charming streets, and if you find yourself anywhere near the Greene King brewery at such a time the symphonic stench is guaranteed to knock you flat. With its Norman ruins, abbey and cathedral, the smallest pub in Britain, the largest roller-skating rink in Europe, and a Georgian theatre so tiny that if the playwright's mother were the only person there a full house would be ensured, Bury St Edmunds is the jewel in a county crown studded with radiant villages.

At Lavenham one can see a Tudor village perfectly preserved, and at Long Melford visit a mansion supposed to be haunted by an entire Roman legion. Ickworth House, described by the National Trust as an 'eccentric rotunda', which in fact resembles a large breast protruding from flat-chested fields, is the happy home of the Marquess of Bristol, whose deeds keep the local newspapers afloat. Robert Louis Stevenson, meanwhile, is rumoured to have thought up Treasure Island while gazing from a window in nearby Cockfield, and Thomas Carlyle to have written books in the village of Troston. At Great Livermere one can take the desolate walk past the glassy mere, which I remember froze so quickly one winter that the ice formed around the necks of diving ducks, leaving their stiff upturned bottoms in the air.

When I was younger, my brothers, sister and I would frequently be crammed into the back of the car among a regalia of beach towels and picnic baskets, and taken on a journey. Seen on a map, this journey resembles that of an explorer in an uncharted country: a straight line followed north until it reaches the ocean's brink. But in those days the discoveries outside the car were no competition for the chaos within it, the back-seat rebellion boiling over into scuffles, the threats of sickness as the car twisted and turned, the moaning as the possibility of arrival seemed more and more remote with every passing moment; and eventually the eruption into blazing sunshine and fresh, salty air, the gold brow of beaches bristling at their borders with spiky grass above the great glass eye of the sea, and the flatness which made it seem like the world's edge.

The journey was in fact a relatively short one, the hour or so it takes to get from Suffolk to the Norfolk coast. I recently made it again, this time in my own car with my own choice of companion, and found that although my eyes were now better trained, the force of memory still gave it an incomparable beauty that had me swooning in my seat while my friend drove appreciatively but steadily on.

Suffolk's county line lies only a few miles to the north of Bury St Edmunds, but in order to cross it one must first endure the border-town chic of Thetford. Thetford was, I believe, a Roman settlement, but the Romans are long gone and it has now become what is known as an 'overspill' town: a mug held beneath cups which runneth over, in whose prefabricated depths urban excesses are left to cool.

For a small place Thetford has a big shadow, a vast forest surrounding it on all sides with the air of something prohibiting escape. When I was younger we used often to go to Thetford Chase and would thrill at the ease of getting lost there, for it is as identical to itself as a hall of mirrors. Only the bare felled trees, which lay huge and misshapen on the forest floor like fallen dinosaurs, were recognisable for their differences. The road tunnelling through the forest is as smooth as a river, but there is something menacing in the surge of trees on either side. People drive very quickly along it, worried by its elasticity; for sometimes, particularly when it's dark, it goes on for hours. At other times it seems a mere flash of green on the way to somewhere else. On the map the forest appears surprisingly small, like a riddle.

Its darkness lends the light into which one emerges an exceptional brightness, and once in Norfolk the journey seems really to have begun. As we headed north from Mundford, we caught sight of what looked like the battlements of a tiny castle hidden behind some trees near the road. We turned the car up a small track that appeared to lead to it and came to a house in whose garden sat an extraordinary church. Contrary to appearances, which suggested that the church was being kept as some kind of pet, we soon discovered that we had come upon the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in the village of Cranwich.

Cranwich was nowhere to be seen, but the church more than compensated for its loss: a historical patchwork spanning a thousand years. A pre-Christian site, a pre-Conquest tower, a knotted Celtic symbol, post-Conquest battlements and medieval roof timbers: everyone had been there and some presumably still remained, kept in the unusual circular graveyard at the front.

This southern part of Norfolk possesses something of the miniature quality that typifies certain aspects of the English countryside. It is curved, gentler and more verdant than the rest of East Anglia. Its roads are green lanes which unroll like spools of thread over rounded fields and through villages. At the sound of a car, a pheasant will occasionally run shrieking across the road and disappear into a hedgerow. We drove on to Oxborough Hall, a small but stately home which resembles a scaled-down Hampton Court. As we circled the moat, we caught sight of a boy's face through one of the diamond-paned windows. We lingered, hoping he would invite us in. He didn't.

We continued to Swaffham, a place I remembered only as a half-way point where our estimated time of arrival could be demanded and an ice-cream was not out of the question. This time Swaffham struck me as rather menacing, with a name like a nasty sore. I soon realised that its shadowy aspect did not lie in its appearance - for it is an old red-brick market town in the best East Anglian tradition - but in its continuing sense of purpose. We ruminated on this while watching an auction in the market square, where old men in flat caps gathered around a warbling auctioneer and inspected the pedigree of various lawnmowers whose lowing engines could be heard all around the town.

Castle Acre is a few miles north of Swaffham and remains fixed in my memory for the steep slopes on the sides of its castle's dry moat and fortified hill. These were, and probably still are, perfect for rolling down with incredible velocity. The castle, a Norman ruin, has become embedded in a small village mindful of its own charms, but from its crumbling ramparts one can see an extraordinarily uninterrupted swathe of land, a king-of-all-you-survey view which is so conducive to historical memory that it could almost be a ghost simulated by the castle to complement itself.

Going on from Castle Acre, things begin to change. The land becomes flatter and emptier as it curves up to meet the sea, all fringe, edge and protrusion. Its remoteness and solitude are strangely sudden, the comfortable conurbations of the south snapped back like a bounding dog reaching the full stretch of its lead. The coastal shelf is uncluttered and bleakly beautiful, and the things that stand on it - small churches with round towers, windmills, rows of stone cottages with puffing chimneys - acquire a luminous singularity. The roads are no more than veins threaded between villages and down towards the sea. The villages are named in groups, like families or dreaded dinner guests - the Burnhams, the Creakes - and the memory of local hero Lord Nelson lives on outside every pub where his sentinel image waves on a placard in the wind.

In summer, north Norfolk flowers with a blowsy, rough beauty, its blue-green savannahs rolling lazily into the sea, its beaches hazy and glittering with heat-shimmers. I have always preferred it in the desolation of winter, when its planes are not clothed in the undulations of long grass and laden trees or its roads filled with summer guests. It is a fierce place then, stripped of ornament, staring starkly north as thunderous moods sweep in from the sea and over the sky. The belt of marsh between land and water makes a curious, shifting clay, forming shallow inland harbours where boats remain lodged in curling banks of mud when the tide is out. Narrow tentacles of land meander out across the marshes towards the sea.

We stopped at Brancaster, where my mother once gamely offered to help push my father's car from the mud; her position directly behind the spinning back wheel as well as her peach- coloured clothing made the offer an unfortunate one. The beach at Brancaster is a long, brazen smile of sand, so gently inclining that the sea washes over it in glassy foamless sheets. This time blasts of icy wind rushed in after it, and the sand grass on top of the dunes was pinned back like sleeked hair. The sky began to blacken and soon we were beaten off the beach with stinging ears and numb faces.

Holkham, a few miles along the coast road, has a gentler prospect: an enormous bowl of beach is lined with a fur of pine trees through which one must take a scented walk to reach the sand. Sometimes it is a mire of water and mud punctuated by eerie driftwood sculptures; at other times it dries and hardens with a vast mosaic of shells and curling piles of sandworms. We skirted the fringes of the beach in the disappearing light, and as the shadows deepened it began to take on a lunar aspect, the dunes forming dusty blue craters as the sun sank into the darkening sea. We turned back and made it to the car just as night fell.

At night it is impossibly dark and empty, as if the land itself were sleeping. It is a thick, impenetrable darkness, heavy and salty like the bottom of the sea. On our way back it began to snow and we were glad we had seen it before it turned white, like the hair of an old man.-

TRAVEL NOTES

WALKS AND PLACES TO VISIT: Theatre Royal, Westgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Built in 1819 by William Wilkins, this rare example of a late Georgian theatre is also the third oldest working theatre in the country. For information, tel: 0284 769505.

Peddar's Way, a national trail, was built by the Romans after the suppression of Queen Boudicca's revolt of AD 61 and runs for 95 miles along the Norfolk ridge from Knettishall Heath in Suffolk through the forests and ancient sites of Breckland in the heart of rural Norfolk. Reaching the coast at Hunstanton it continues eastwards to Cromer, passing along beaches and over cliff tops through an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Swaffham, with its triangular market place and hammerbeam roofed medieval church of St Peter and St Paul is one of the many ancient towns on Peddar's Way. Just to its north lies Castle Acre, with ruins of a Cluniac priory (c1090) and hill-top remains of a Norman castle.

Near Burnham Market are Creake Abbey, dating from the 13th century, and Burnham Norton Friary, founded in 1241, which has two storeys of flushwork panelling and 14th-century moulding. Blakeney Point on the north Norfolk coast is three and a half miles of sand and shingle spit, with a seal colony, and is summer home for a dozen species of seabird, including common and sandwich tern, oystercatcher and ringed plover. Access: on foot from Cley Beach or by boat from Morston and Blakeney.

Brancaster's 2,000 acres of beach with four and a half miles of tidal foreshore, sand dunes and saltmarsh includes the site of the Roman fort of Bransdunum.

HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS: *Theobolds Restaurant, 68 High Street, Ixworth, Suffolk, tel: 0359 31707. Real log fires, good food and outstanding wine. Approx pounds 20 a head.

*Manor Hotel, Blakeney, nr Holt, Norfolk, tel: 0263 740376. A 17th-century farmhouse with superb views of salt marshes and the harbour inlet. Simple, spotless bedrooms - pounds 68 double.

PUBS AND INNS: *Pickerel Inn, High Street, Ixworth, Suffolk, tel: 0359 30398.

*The Lord Nelson, Burnham Market, King's Lynn, Norfolk, tel: 0328 738321. Delicious food. Rooms - pounds 30 double.

*Boar Inn, Great Ryburgh, nr Fakenham, Norfolk, tel: 0328 78212. Beamed bedrooms and cottagey atmosphere - pounds 32.80 double.

The Nutshell, The Traverse, Bury St Edmunds, is the smallest pub anywhere in the country,

tel: 0284 764867.

*Listed in Egon Ronay Guides.

FURTHER INFORMATION: East Anglia Tourist Board, Toppesfield Hall, Hadleigh, Suffolk IP7 5DN, tel: 0473 822922. Isobel Hunt

(Photographs and map omitted)

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