Have you ever had a week off work with nothing planned? I found myself in this position last Sunday and I was eager to do something. Normally I would consult the artificial intelligence of several websites to build up a dream holiday abroad. This time, however, I closed the laptop and decided on an English road trip instead.
The decision meant that it was not the destination, but rather the journey that mattered and the experiences, particularly one unexpected encounter in a church, along the way. It was this particular journey that reminded me of the richness of human experience that you cannot always get online.
Admittedly, a two-night luxury spa break at the Elizabethan-style Dunstan Hall hotel in Norwich, Norfolk, provided the backdrop for my getaway from South East London. After booking it over the phone, I loaded the Qashqai, my beloved new ride that borrows its name from the nomadic Iranian tribe, and we began our off-beat migration to the East of England via the coast.
The journey started with an escape from suburbia towards Dartford in Kent. After a few miles on the A2, the Dartford Tunnel swallowed us for about a mile before bringing us onto the M11 towards the Essex countryside. With the smoking factories of Dartford fading into the background, a busy motorway took us past Chelmsford county.
After leaving Essex we headed through Ipswich in Suffolk. The dual carriageways turned into single, winding lanes, displaying the openness and freedom of the countryside. Overhanging trees on either side of the country lanes met each other in the middle of the road, their intertwining branches embracing for a stunning stretch that lasted for miles. The Coral’s Eyes like Pearls played over the radio. The song’s healing lyrics “can’t you see I was falling, now my trouble seems far away from me”, together with the peaceful serenity of my surroundings, brought various pent up emotions to the surface. In that moment I felt a sense of letting go of wanting things to be different than they are in the mind. A temporary relief from feelings of sadness from the illness of a family member, of regret from chances not taken and from things left unsaid and feelings unexpressed. With this cathartic part of the journey I felt the pressure valve beginning to softly loosen. I recalled the same feelings of hope and serenity when travelling on a similar stretch of road in Cornwall with a dear friend exactly a year ago. This reminded me of the difference a year can make – things change – and it was this Suffolk road that brought with it the peace and tranquility needed to reflect on personal growth and to be thankful for present moments.
The road continued to meander into the busy sea side town of Aldeburgh, where the only available parking was at a yacht club outside of the centre of the action. After parking The Nomad near the river estuary, I skipped towards the pebble beach.
While walking steadily on the pebbles, I met Amy and Nick, who enlightened me about Aldeburgh and its charms. The fish and chip shop is a popular gem, they said, explaining the long line of people queuing outside. They described the Ship Inn at Blaxhall as lively and fun. Amy plays harmonica and the squeezebox there on Thursdays and gave me her number in case I fancied a night of live music. Shopping is also an authentic experience and a carnival was about to kick off. There warmth was welcoming and made me feel at home.
I left Amy and Nick and decided to explore the high street first. A mile of shops selling everything from locally produced clothing, to jewellery, trinkets and antiques ran parallel to the sea front. I wandered into a shop selling birthday gifts and ornaments and bought a build-from-scratch model toy plane with decorative paints for my nephew. Next door, a local drinks store lured visitors in with a free gin tasting.
With the after taste of dry gin in my mouth, whose notes of juniper, sweet orange and hibiscus awoke an appetite, I ventured towards the comforting aroma of a local bakery. While enjoying a sausage roll outside I noticed that the Baptist church of Aldeburgh was showcasing the paintings of Ipswich-based Theronda Hoffman. The bright colours on the samples of her work outside caught my eye and enticed me into the church.
After a few minutes of gazing at the emerald jewellery for sale at the entrance, I was distracted by an accent that stood out from the local dialect. “Ag shame, you are so welcome here!” beamed the South African-born Hoffman in response to some visitors who had travelled all the way from Newcastle for the day to see her work. The brightly dressed Hoffman described how zesty seaside towns such as Aldeburgh provide as an endless source of inspiration for her paintings, which are a quirky combination of local landscapes and diverse colours from her native city of George, on the Garden route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
I walked through the church, taking in her work. Sitting on the pews and hanging on the walls were paintings of Aldeburgh street-life, houses and sea-fronts, some of them enriched with pastels and a mixture of bright and soft tones. More paintings of coastal towns adorned the walls.
I was halfway down the aisle and near the sanctuary, when Hoffman asked me what brought me to Suffolk. I told her that I am a financial writer by day and in my spare time I like to blog about my experiences, including this one. She reminded me of the creativity and quirkiness of South Africans and our affinity for taking the experiences of our surroundings and blending this with the diversity of where we are from, the Rainbow Nation.
To illustrate her point, she showed me her painting of the beach with a distant Aldeburgh town in the background. In the foreground, a Zebra with colourful stripes stood on the shore, completing a fun combination of Anglo-African art. Given my interest in writing beckoned me to take a closer look at the Zebra. Printed on its stomach in small letters were the words: “The art to recognizing yourself, just be yourself.” With these words I felt the importance and value of being unique and remembered how Hoffman herself stood out from the locals but also complimented them.
After buying two “Zebra on the Beach” print cushion cases for my living room, I left the church and headed back to The Nomad, which by this stage was covered in midges from the river estuary. We left Aldeburgh and headed on another country road, which traversed a patch work quilt of green and grain fields on either side of the road and through more forest towards Norwich.
After gliding in fifth gear for most of the way, with Muse’s ‘Something human’ playing fittingly in the background, I arrived at Dunstan Hall. I sat outside with a complimentary glass of champagne and reflected on the journey. It reminded me that while advances in technology and AI make it easier for us to pick where to go on holiday, it’s always the experiences along the way and roads less travelled that unmark our humanism, creativity and capacity for innovation that machines cannot copy.
My road trip playlist on Spotify:
Norfolk-ing way! East by South East Road trip songs
 The Qashqa’i people, composed of Turks, Lurs, Kurds, Arabs, Persians, and Gypsies, traditionally practiced a mixed economy of nomadic pastoralism, cultivation, and weaving. Their long seasonal migrations of 350 miles between lowland winter and highland summer pastures in the southern Zagros Mountains took them by Shiraz, southern Iran’s major city and a market for Qashqa’i produce.