Cycling Along River Deben

The Dig – Suffolk Cyclists’ Review

We watched The Dig on Netflix last weekend after hearing positive comments from friends.  It portrays the people who discovered the incredible Anglo-Saxon treasures buried at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Here we give it our Suffolk Cyclists’ review.

The first commendation was that the local accent was portrayed convincingly. Both by Ralph Fiennes (playing Basil Brown) and especially by his on-screen wife Monica Dolan impressed my friend, a true Suffolk boy .  This is notable as generally Suffolk appears to be somewhere between Somerset and Gloucestershire in the minds of most directors and actors.  The other recommendation was about the landscape and the sense of big sky you get in Suffolk.  Having watched it, we agreed with the comment on accents and the atmosphere created. Ralph Fiennes portrayal of a Suffolk-old-boy was impressive, considering he normally portrays the university types his character battled in the film. 

Bike Ride

A talking point after the film for us was the ride of young Robert Pretty to Basil Brown’s home.  According to Wikipedia this would have been Rickinghall near Diss.  The film inspired me to ride from Woodbridge to Rickinghall as the first of a number of rides to celebrate Basil Brown. It is a ride of 30 miles with over 900ft of climbing.  The boy did arrive exhausted but the fact he arrived at all was impressive for the 8-10 year old he appeared to be.  Navigation would have also been a challenge without a map or even a list of villages to aim for. It’s very much a cross country route, even today the signs aren’t more than a village or 2 ahead.  He is shown as stopping in Diss: quite out of his way, unless he took the train to Diss from Melton or Woodbridge, but that would have had less dramatic tension! So the boy had an excellent sense of direction as well great stamina!

The Dig – Suffolk Cyclists’ Review ****

Our Suffolk Cyclists’ review of The Dig is a well worth watching 4 stars. It is beautifully crafted and captures the beauty of the location and Suffolk well. Bikes and everyday cycling feature prominently, highlighting Suffolk as a great family cycling destination. The acting is delightful, particularly the rarely-heard accent. The combination of delicate discovery and pending destruction of war is well conveyed. It is an entertaining story about a determined lady land owner and the humble man she employed.  History nearly forgot Basil Brown but he is now widely recognised for his great skill in discovering and meticulously excavating a world-class archaeological site.

We also couldn’t help noticing some other nerdy pedantry points, but they are very minor.

Location

It’s obvious the film makers went to great lengths to capture the landscape but the opening scene jarred.  In it, Basil Brown crosses a river by ferry on his way to Sutton Hoo.  However, the burial site is very close to Wilford Bridge which was clearly in existence well before the 1930’s. To me it looks like they used Butley Ferry for this shot (it’s still running for pedestrians and bikes). Its only a few miles away on another river.

By contrast, on the Deben, there is a significant (for Suffolk) hill from the river to the burial mounds, as noted in this ride to Rendlesham forest.  This is what makes the location of the ship burial so remarkable – King Raedwald’s mourners pulled an enormous (88ft, 27m) wooden ship uphill to a height of about 100 ft (over 30m on the OS map). It not quite as impressive an effort as Stonehenge, but they worked hard to put their king at the top of that hill!

Shingle tidal beach with boats on River Deben
Waldringfield looking upstream on the Deben towards Sutton Hoo; the land rises significantly from the river

The railway was shown as local, the station at Melton, just over Wilford Bridge, is under 1.5 miles (2km) away. Sutton Hoo isn’t that far from modernity then or now. Rather than the remote setting shown, the burial site is also more or less opposite Woodbridge on the Deben, The excellent visitors centre with incredible replicas of the helmet, sword and other finds is easily accessible if you would like to visit.

Soil & Rain

Another minor gripe was the colour and texture of the soil: far too loamy. Off-road cyclists know it is very sandy in that part of Suffolk with very little organic matter to make it stick together once below a very thin topsoil.  The area is pock-marked with sand-pits for the local building trade.  Rather than rich, brown and sticky shown in the film I think it would have been the colour of the beach at Waldringfield, just downstream on the river Deben: reddy-brown sand.

Finally, while being picky, the excavations happened in the late spring and summer. Yes is does rain in East Anglia but not generally very much and even when forecasters predict heavy rain, its pretty light and very rarely bounces off the ground as shown in the film. If you are thinking of coming to Suffolk on holiday rest assured it is not like Manchester or the West Country! Nor is everyone as picky as me!! But there are some more interesting points on the archaeology and the direction Basil Brown cycled on this blog by Prof. Howard M. R. Williams.

Don’t let these gripes put you off; it is a great family film. If the film inspires you to explore the area, take a look at this route from Woodbridge to Rickinghall, the first of a number of routes inspired by Basil Brown.

Main pic from The Dig on Netflix

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