Times takes on a different shape in East Anglia for Blackadder star Helen Atkinson-Wood
PUBLISHED: 16:00 16 July 2017 | UPDATED: 08:57 17 July 2017
Blackadder The Third star Helen Atkinson-Wood shares her passion for the Suffolk coast, her love for the region’s creative talent and her fear of fellow East Anglian resident artist Maggi Hambling.
Time takes on a different shape when Helen’s in East Anglia; instead of snatching quick coffees or lunches with friends they swim in the sea, enjoy a beach picnic, cycle around the lanes or walk out on the marshes.
“I treasure that quality of time, there’s just more of it. That big sky and beautiful sunrise is so irresistible, especially at this time of year when you want to get out on horseback - it’s a beautiful county to ride in - before all the horseflies come out or you want to get out and swim in the North Sea - and that’s before breakfast.”
The actress and comedian has a passion for the sea; it’s why she’s had a home on the coast for about 20 years, although she’s been coming to the county for the best part of her adult life. Her first-ever visit was to Aldeburgh when her family read about the Wentworth Hotel, the town’s “brilliant” independent cinema and its wonderful scenery.
East Anglia’s the opposite to Cheshire, where she grew up; and London, where she now lives.
“Where else can you travel out of London for two-and-a-half hours and find somewhere so exquisitely beautiful, so quintessentially English and is coastal? I love the sea and swim in it pretty much every day but not through the winter. I swim from about Easter through to the end of October then leave it to the hardcore,” says Helen, who was doing just that at Southwold during last week’s thunderstorm.
She gets a real sense of the region’s proximity to Europe, feeling as if she could swim her way over there. “I treasure being European... we’re making such a hash of this whole idea of leaving Europe, it’s an utter shambles... ”
She remains particularly fond of Aldeburgh and is “utterly devoted” to The Lighthouse Restaurant.
“The quality of local food is second to none. My favourite pubs are The Lord Nelson in Southwold, The Eels Foot in Eastbridge and The Anchor in Walberswick. It starts with what you can pull out of the sea and off the land and they all really make the best of it. I like the fact there are lots of independent shops all over East Anglia which I champion,” says the Blackadder The Third star, who’s a particular fan of Halesworth.
“From Andy at the shoe repair shop to Remnants; where else in the world can you get a button sewed on for someone like me who can’t sew? And, of course, Horse and Garden because I have a horse in Suffolk. These are rare things in London because we live in such a disposable society...”
This area was meant to be a respite from her working life but it hasn’t worked out that way for the regular church-goer, who attends services in Blythburgh and Walberswick.
“I really never intend to do anything other than swim in the sea, do some painting, ride my horse, make some chutney while I’m here but then you get swept up into doing something. The art world is very much one of my great loves of (being here),” says Helen, who studied fine art at the The Ruskin School of Art and has staged several exhibitions.
During her time at Oxford University she was even tutored by painter and sculptor Maggi Hambling, a fellow Suffolk resident. Although when it came to preparing for the celebrity version of TV series Watercolour Challenge she turned to Walberswick’s Chris and Wendy Sinclair who taught her all she needed to know.
“I thought blimey, I love painting. I’d forgotten how much. Maybe one day I wouldn’t mind sitting in on a Maggi painting class again, although she’s incredibly scary and not many people frighten me by the way!” she laughs.
“There are so many prolific working artists, so much creative talent in East Anglia; which brings me to the theatre... I ended up doing a pantomime in Norwich, I’d never thought of doing a pantomime in my life but that was fabulous fun,” says Helen, a patron of the Ink Festival which is already looking for East Anglian writers to showcase next year.
She’s also a champion of Ipswich-based theatre company Red Rose Chain, in rehearsals for As You Like at Jimmy’s Farm, July 26-August 27.
“Oh my goodness, the quality of work they do, it’s really breathtaking. What [artistic director] Joanna Carrick does is so inventive and creative and uses the best of Suffolk - that fabulous forest.
“Did you see The Importance of Being Earnest where she was playing Lady Bracknell? It was a tour-de-force. I felt as if I was seeing a well-worn play for the first time and I’ve see that play so many times. That’s what they do every single time... she’s an absolute inspiration.”
When Helen was invited to be a patron of the Ink Festival she thought “this isn’t what I came to Suffolk to do” but she couldn’t resist.
“Now I find myself throwing everything at it each time April comes around,” she laughs when I suggest London’s becoming the respite from her work in East Anglia. “Of course Julia Sowerbutts [Ink’s artistic director] in the same way as Joanna is an absolute force of nature, an absolute powerhouse of inventiveness so it’s irresistible. If I know anything about theatre, plays, writing... I want to pass it on.”
Helen, looking forward to returning to Latitude Festival at Henham Park again this year, is very much a half glass full person. Her lists of complaints are few.
“One is Sizewell, enough said,” says Helen, currently touring UK festivals including Henley and Glastonbury with the theatre group Radio Active, which started as a long-running, award-winning radio series then became the TV show KYTV.
“The other is multi-national shops. I campaign quite hard in Southwold... we already have some fabulous coffee shops, why do we need Costa? We already have Chapmans, why do we need WH Smiths? We had a wet fish shop, an electrician in the centre of Southwold... we’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg, it’s so short-sighted.
“I’ll tell you what I also really dislike,” she adds as an afterthought. “The railway system, it beggars belief.”