Beccles is the largest town in the Waveney area, at the southernmost point of the Broads, just six miles east of Bungay and on the buff of the Suffolk bank of the River Waveney.
Beccles, meaning "river pasture", is an ancient market town once home to Saxons and Vikings. The market was once the major supplier of herring (up to 60,000 a year) to the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds.
The streets and lanes are peppered with fine Georgian town houses although many of the older buildings were destroyed by fires in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The parish church of St Michael was built in the second half of the 14th century by the Abbot of Bury. Its tower stands separate, built in the 16th century, rising almost 100 feet and containing a peal of bells. An unusual feature of the north façade is an outside pulpit taking the form of a small balcony. The priest could enter the pulpit from inside the church and preach to lepers, who were not allowed inside. There are clock faces on three sides of the tower but not on the side facing the river. Local legend stipulates that this is because the builders didn’t want to give their neighbours from Norfolk anything, not even the time. Admiral Nelson’s father was rector of this church and his parents were married here.
Leaving the church and travelling south down New Market and Ballygate you will reach an excellent museum, the Beccles and District Museum. Housed in a beautiful Dutch-style gabled building it houses a fine collection of 19th century toys and costumes and memorabilia from the sailing wherries.
Opposite the Museum there are paths that lead down to the river and the quay and a series of landing stages. It’s a wonderful place for a walk or a boat trip. Yachts and pleasure boats line the river bank where once, at the height of Beccles's trading importance stood wherries which transported goods from seaports to inland towns.
If you wish to visit the area where the famous Beccles smuggler John Key once lived, then journey south down the London Road (reached by turning left off Ballygate) until you find Wash Lane. His house was adjacent to a large barn, and both buildings had numerous places for hiding contraband. The buildings were standing in 1931, but described as being in dilapidated condition. Smugglers' Lane, now Wash Lane, was an artery along which contraband moved into the town from the coast and from landing points at Barnby and Worlingham on the River Waveney. Contraband also came in along the road from Covehithe, and possibly Benacre, which was a favourite landing spot for the Hadleigh gang.
Key played a prominent part in Beccles smuggling, and left behind a number of anecdotes. In one of them, revenue officers met up with Key at Brampton Church six miles from his home as he was returning from a run. Key spurred his horse onward, but near the Duke of Malborough Inn, Weston, one of the officers shot John's horse from under him. Key completed the journey on foot, arriving just before the King's men. To his delight, he found a horse very similar to the one he'd been riding grazing contentedly near his home, so he hurriedly locked it into the stable and donned his nightclothes on top of his working garments. When he heard the inevitable knock on the door, he was able to lean out the window and shout innocently enough,
'Wha' d' ye want?' When the revenue men replied 'where's your horse...didn't we shoot him less than half an hour ago?'
John directed them to the stable, thus providing himself with an apparently waterproof alibi. Despite his ingenuity (or perhaps because of it) Key's stay in Beccles ended badly: in 1745, smugglers dragged him from his bed, believing that he had informed on them. They stripped and beat him, then tied him naked to a horse and rode off. A reward of £50 for information elicited no response, and the man was never seen again.
Just outside the town lies Roos Hall, a lofty Elizabethan fragment where Queen Elizabeth I stayed when she visited Beccles to present the town's charter (depicted in the town sign). One of the Hall's owners was Sir John Suckling (later to become Controller of the Household to James I). His descendants included Lord Nelson.
Like any great hall, Roos has its own ghost, a headless coachman who is said to appear on Christmas Eve.