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GEOFF BARTON: A rich seedbed for great thinkers

A Personal View
A Personal View

Let’s be honest: the A14 trunk road is hard to love. Living here in Suffolk, we can’t avoid it. It’s as inescapable as it is unpredictable. Sometimes it delivers us to our destination with the unerring precision promised by the satnav or our online journey planner.

Other times, getting from A to B might as well be undertaken in a Tardis: we just hope we’ll arrive before the next General Election.

It’s a road that defines East Anglia, slicing west to east, and reaffirming in the minds of some people that those of us who choose to live here are somehow stranded in the back of beyond.

When I first moved to Suffolk, now more than 18 years ago, colleagues at my previous school in Yorkshire would ask where I was going. ‘Suffolk,’ I’d say. Their eyes would flicker, their foreheads furrow slightly. Then, with increasing inevitability, they’d say ‘Where’s that exactly?’

In the minds of some people we Suffolk-dwellers are perceived as being precariously perched on the eastern edge of England ready to topple like another Dunwich gravestone into the murky North Sea.

Little do they know the charms, the culture, the vibrancy and the growing ambition of the county in which we live.

That’s why I’m so pleased to welcome Suffolk’s forthcoming Festival of Ideas.

We already have a well-established and much-admired festival of music and the arts. Under the skilful direction of director Nick Wells, the Bury Festival continues to serve as a powerhouse of professional performers and community events, celebrating world and classical music in a host of memorable venues.

For almost 30 years the Festival has reminded people beyond Suffolk – and those of us who live here – of our proud musical heritage and our passion for the arts.

Now it’s time to put thinking on the map, to show that people in this part of the world also like to engage with big ideas – in particular, the urgency of taking responsibility for our beautiful planet, of curating for future generations a global homestead that is sustainable, well-tended and looked after.

Whatever the broader perception, our part of the world has long been a rich seedbed for people who have gone on to change the world with their ideas. In the first century, the queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudica, famously led an uprising against the mighty Roman Empire. St Edmund of course gave his life as first king of East Anglia and martyr. Henry VIII’s influential statesman, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, hailed from Ipswich. Seventeenth century revolutionary Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon. The first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole came from Norfolk. From Thetford hailed the radical thinker and early pamphleteer Thomas Paine.

And it’s not all about men. Britain’s first female physician, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was raised on the Suffolk coast. The early suffragist Dame Millicent Fawcett was born in Aldeburgh. Edith Cavell, the courageous First World War nurse and humanitarian, came from the outskirts of Norwich.

So under our big East Anglian skies many of history’s great thinkers took their first steps and grew into people who would redefine the world.

That long and troublesome road the A14 doesn’t mean our region hasn’t also been at the heart of big ideas. Explorers like Howard Carter would discover the tomb of Tutankhamen. East Anglia nourished creative people like Thomas Gainsborough and Benjamin Britten, economists like John Maynard Keynes, scientists like Stephen Hawking and engineers like James Dyson.

Now Suffolk’s first-ever Festival of Ideas will give an opportunity to engage with the significant concepts of our day, with politics, environmental issues and our future. There are big media names – Owen Jones and George Monbiot – plus debates, films, discussions, talks and even walks. All are designed to show that ideas matter.

However long the A14 might take for us to get here, the Festival of Ideas reminds us that Suffolk is definitely a place for thinking about and for thinking in.

For more on the festival, visit https://suffolkfestivalofideas.wordpress.com

-- Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds