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Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Seen from the Norfolk bank of the river Waveney, Beccles rises over the landscape like a great ship, its bridge and funnel formed by the church and bell-tower of St Michael's
Where is Beccles?
Beccles is on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, 18 miles away from Norwich. It is close to the main A143 and A146 routes to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and can be reached by train, via the Lowestoft-Ipswich east-coast line.
Beccles stands on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, a jewel of a town threaded onto the glistening reaches of the River Waveney.
As such, it is the southernmost town on the Broads and annually attracts thousands of holidaymakers who arrive by boat.
But visitors also come by road, Beccles being just a stone's throw from the main A143 and A146 routes to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, and by train, via the Lowestoft-Ipswich east coast line.
From whichever direction people approach, their first glimpse of the town is invariably dominated by the 97ft high bell tower standing slightly apart from the main body of St Michael's parish church.
In this grand church in 1749 Catherine Suckling married the Reverend Edward Nelson, and their son Horatio went on to become one of England's most famous sea-faring heroes.
Beneath it small squares and thoroughfares, liberally lined with shops and rich in architectural merit, help give the town much of its charm. Many of Beccles' buildings are in the Georgian style.
Visit on a Friday and the busy streets take on an even more active and colourful character as stallholders gather for a weekly mart in the appropriately named New Market. Early closing is on a Wednesday, but many of the larger shops stay open and there is always plenty to see around the town and its close environs.
The first weekend in August brings the annual Beccles regatta carnival, a traditional event dating back some 200 years, and the town - approximate population 11,000 - has a fascinating museum housed in the Grade I listed former Sir John Leman School in Ballygate.
On the outskirts, Beccles Marsh Trail is popular with walkers, is well signposted and is home to a wide range of interesting plants and animals.
The town's tourist information office is at Beccles Quay, telephone 01502 713196.
Beccles is thought to date back well beyond 960, when its name was first mentioned in the granting of its manor to St Edmundsbury monastery by King Eadwig.
Some say the name means "pasture by the stream" but a former historian, the late Shelley Rix, thought it derived from the Anglo-Saxon "clisson", meaning an enclosure.
William the Conqueror's 1086 Domesday survey lists Beccles as having one church and 24 acres of glebe land, with the Abbot of Edmundsbury paying rent to the crown of 60,000 herrings.
Huge shoals of fish must have entered the Waveney estuary, at the time a wide expanse of water stretching back from Great Yarmouth, for Beccles to meet such demands.
Eventually this estuary silted up, dooming the herring fishery but leading to the creation of marshland which, wisely ditched and drained by successive abbots, boosted the Beccles estate to 1,400 acres by the reign of Richard II.
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries a prominent merchant, William Rede, acting for a Beccles guild, gained a grant of the fen from the king with 120 raised by members. But claims of fraud and frequent brawls followed the transaction, as Rede's administration fell foul of local opinion.
To restore order Beccles surrendered its rights to Queen Elizabeth I, who in 1584 granted the town a charter under which it was run by a Port Reeve, steward and burgesses in a system kept until 1835.
That year's Municipal Corporation Act placed administration in the hands of a mayor, four aldermen and 12 councillors until, in 1974, Beccles lost its borough status and was incorporated into Waveney District Council. Today a town council, with an elected mayor but limited powers, oversees local issues.
Beccles is said to be home to several ghosts, some of which live within the grounds of the 16th-century Roos Hall, one of England's most well-known haunted places.
A phantom coach and four horses, driven by a headless man, is said to clatter through the gardens at Roos on Christmas Eve.
There is an oak tree there that stands on the site of a gibbet where many local criminals were once hanged.
Not only is the spot haunted by these victims, but it is said that if anyone is brave enough to walk round the tree six times, the Devil himself will appear. There are marks on one of the walls inside Roos Hall which are always referred to as the Devil's footprints.