Prince William allegedly used to tell his little friends at playschool that ‘my Daddy is a King and will get his knights to kill you” and whilst nobody should take this anecdote as a fond endorsement of the royal family (republican here), it is funny. This anecdote reminds me of my own children’s pride at having had a thirteenth century castle ruin at the bottom of their garden- or a 70 foot motte anyway- when we lived in Clare during the mid-nineties after moving to Suffolk from London. Classmates would be invited home by my daughter to see this (ruined) wonder and would then be bitterly disappointed that I would not let them climb up this vertiginous bramble tangled hill of rock and clay. Towering over our long narrow garden, the motte did not come equipped with knights, living Ladies or any of the accoutrements of power. Instead, we had various tales of ghostly grey ladies walking their eternal and lonely route along the pathway named Ladies Walk plus a battalion of locals who, on New Years Eve, would climb the nettle-infested motte in the pitch darkness and set off fireworks from its top, accompanied by hokey power anthems played on a portable stereo.
My daughter’s bedroom overlooked the motte and I would look up from the garden to see her little face pressed against the window, keeping watch for ghosts but really not wanting to see any. Sitting in our garden on fine days could prove challenging due to the constant ant-like trail of tourists climbing up and down the motte who would stand and gaze out over the undeniably beautiful vista of Clare rooftops stretching past the church and get their breath back. Unfortunately our garden also formed part of this view and, if the tourists were particularly amiable, we’d have to wave back at each and every one of them as they hailed us, as we sat on our lawn. (In the photo above, our garden is just in view at the front left, its pink pargeted rear aspect partly obscured by the tree branches.)
The little Suffolk wool town of Clare can be found midway between Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, in the west of the county. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, it’s name is said to come from the clear water of the river Stour that flows through the town and past the Clare Antiques & Interiors warehouse, the country park and on on past the Augustinian Friars Priory (founded 1248) which is still used as a centre for retreat and also hosts regular craft fairs.
Popular with families because of its good schools and amenities- a library, several doctors surgeries, restaurants, plenty of pubs, the Nethergate Brewery, parks and playing fields, four churches, independent shops and a thriving social calendar including a well supported Christmas lights display and events, fireworks and New Years Eve parties, the town has a lively and friendly air. Unlike some other small towns, the older people here seem cared about with several social enterprises devoted to maintaining mobility and independence (CLASP is one). Here are ten reasons to live, love (and visit) this engaging little town-
(1) There is plenty of green space-
From the famous Clare Country Park with its flat grass parkland where the inner and outer baileys once were to the nuttery, greens, common lands given to the town by Katharine of Aragon and country walks, you won’t need to go far to remind yourself that you are in deepest rural Suffolk. Clare Castle and its surrounding country park was developed under Norman lords seeking a powerful statement of wealth and fortification. It includes the inner and outer baileys, a former railway line (the old Bury St Eds to Sudbury branch line) and station and is a draw for tourists alongside its daily use by locals. Footpaths and walks along the River Stour lead onto the Railway Walk and the Clare Circular Walk which passes through the town, taking you further afield onto the Stour Valley Path (the Bury to Clare Walk). In the park, lakes and streams run through woodlands and there are plenty of benches to sit on and enjoy the duck feeding. A well maintained adventure playground, wide tarmac paths and the platform of the disused railway station provide children with plenty to explore. St Edmundsbury Council organise activities such as den building and outdoor skills- check out West Suffolk Diary for details.
Clare Nuttery is owned by Clare Town Council, forming part of the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley Countryside Project. Boundary hedging provides shelter for the many trees and indigenous plants that have been added and winding paths take you past the pond, connecting both glades and creating a lovely place to walk the dog, play or picnic. Opening under the national open gardens scheme, Richmond House in Nethergate St is well worth a visit too with its scented wall garden, Mediterranean planting, pleached Hornbeam trees and parterre alongside woodland informal planting. The National Gardens Scheme website has details of its open days.
(2) Visit Ancient House Museum and the churches-
With its intricate pargetting, Grade I listing and location next to the imposing church, Clare Ancient House is both pretty and architecturally important. The West wing, on the High Street, is believed to date from the 14th century, and the more heavily decorated East wing may have been built in 1473, the date which appears in the plasterwork of the house. First established as a museum in 1979, it was revamped and then reopened in 1999. The Ancient House tells the story of the people of Clare, the ennobled and the not so.
Alison Krohn, a resident of Clare has spent over 10 years studying the histories of Clare people who were killed in action in both World Wars and the database can be found here, just around the corner from the war memorial in the town square. The exhibits are modest and low key, ranging from Iron Age and pre-Roman through to Victorian and later. They number clothing, tools, coins and everyday domestic items. There is no wheelchair access. A town trail has been developed too-look out for the fifteen information panels on five posts around Clare, beginning in the car park of Clare Country Park and brochures can be obtained from the museum or downloaded. The church of St. Peter and Paul is one of the largest and most beautiful churches in East Anglia, built during a time of great regional prosperity- the medieval wool trade, and is a lovely example of the gothic architecture, popularised then. As you enter into the porch set into the South Aisle, take a look up as above it the 18th century sundial says ‘Go about your business’ referring to the time when parish business would be undertaken there. Clare also has a United Reform church, a Baptist church and the chapel at its Priory.
(3) Shop antiques and vintage instead of Ikea-
From the glory days of ‘Lovejoy’ in the eighties when Suffolk’s villages and towns were filled with an eclectic range of antique dealers and shops to the shocking paucity nowadays caused in the main by the rise of Ebay, the rise in business rates and rents and the low cost goods and chattels sold by discount retailers, Clare still manages to hold its own. Several well established businesses in the town continue to offer high quality sourced antiques, owned by dealers who know their stuff. They have had to diversify of course: a lot of the stock is ‘retro or ‘vintage’ as opposed to solid antique but they offer a wide choice in lovely surroundings. The Clare Antiques Warehouse down by the country park is four floors of a converted mill, stuffed with goods from over 500 dealers. From vintage quilts, retro kitchen and homeware and clothing to collectible books and bona fide antique furniture, every price point is covered. My friend’s little daughter was captivated by the packs of vintage striped paper candy bags sold by the fifty for a few pounds and I once snapped up an emerald silk satin 40’s evening gown made with a couture level attention to detail. If you want the real deal leather ‘gentleman’s chair, some antique bed linens or a pair of burr olive ash chests, this is the place to come. The location is beautiful too.
Market Hill Antiques is a smaller shop with a carefully curated selection of items and they specialise in Art Deco and Clarice Cliff. Antiques auctioning in the town has a long history over hundreds of years and many of us locals have fond memories of helping out in our youth, lifting items up as the auctioneer ratcheted up the sales. Clare Auction is based in the town hall and is a trove for people prepared to keep their eyes sharp and requirements flexible. Viewings are usually the Friday evening before a Saturday sale. This is the place I snapped up a complete set of fifties kitchen cupboards and dressers before they became retro fabulous and a solid pine art floor to ceiling cupboard for not very much. If you dedicate yourself to the pursuit of excellent vintage clothing and accessories, then 20th Century Fashion in the old Trinders building near the Antiques Warehouse is, to me, what an beech and oak forest in Alba is to a truffle hound. Not only will you find well kept pre-owned clothing, you can also find niche and serious books on fashion and costume, textiles and haberdashery, jewellery from Hermes and Chanel, Celine clothing and Roger Vivier shoes (!) at affordable prices. The Eye of Time also sells shoes, bags and collectibles alongside putting on various cabaret events in the old town hall. Whilst on this subject, I still lament the long gone ‘Granny’s Attic’ – a tiny tiny vintage goods shop next to a holiday cottage near the turn off to the library. Selling high end new make up that the owner obtained from a friend in the industry and a jumble of household and kitchen paraphernalia (Victorian steak mallets, scales with original weights and lovely silverware), a Saturday afternoon rummage in here was always guaranteed to yield treasure.
(4) You can still buy books here-
A town with its own independent book shop is a rare thing these days, especially in Suffolk which has seen them decimated by the online book trade and the end of the net book agreement. These days, they have to adopt the commercial spirit of the age- diversification, and often become all singing, all dancing coffee and food selling emporiums. That is why we must treasure Harris & Harris because this pretty little book shop is, pretty much, all about THE book-albeit with a few literary related gift items and handmade pottery by Jean Knowles too. With a mix of new and pre-loved books on two floors, a great ordering service and an owner who knows her stuff, the range is intelligent, clearly well thought out and deserves to be appreciated so please go there and support it by actually, um, buying or ordering a book. Seriously though, by the time you have paid Amazon’s £2:80 postage and packing, you haven’t saved that much so buying from Amazon is less of a bargain than you think and once they have driven book shops out of business they’ll put their prices way up. <End of rant>
(5) They were brewing artisanal beers before everyone else got in on the act-
Established in Clare High Street by by Dick Burge and Ian Hornsey back in 1986, Nethergate Brewery is now an internationally renowned brewer of fine ales, porters and blondes and the 2012 winner of the Good Pub Guide Brewery of the Year award. Sold from their little shop in the nearby village of Pentlow (68 different Belgium and American beers plus other products) as well as many pubs nationally, their beers have long perfumed the town in all their stages of brewing and are redolent with the flavours they use- coriander, lemon and ginger. Coming soon will be Old Growler ice cream and chocolate, infused with their most famous ale. Alongside the brewery, you can also find the quaint little off licence shop ‘The Jug and Bottle’ selling all manner of libations from an old and tiny premises.
(6) Clare is all about independent shopping rather than being a clone-town-
Independent shops come and go but Clare has always had a nucleus of shops that serve locals as well as tourists and visitors. With a farm shop, fresh bread from the deli, the Co-op and a butcher, post office inside the newsagents and a pharmacy next door, plus a fantastic ironmongers and plenty of gift stores, locals and those without transport are able to grocery shop locally. If you are looking to buy art from knowledgeable dealers, the Sea Pictures Gallery on Well Lane stocks original, contemporary maritime related art from artists across the UK, with particular emphasis on East Anglian artists, all in a pretty Georgian building. Over the road, Hudgies the iron mongers has been in continuous business since 1835 with a welcome and service as warm as the stove which heats the store alongside a huge range of products. Blue Dog is one of the pastel pretty shops along the High Street, beautifully stocked with carefully chosen gifts and accessories- bags and jewellery, home wares plus my favourite Steam Cream and nearby is Number One Deli and Cafe, on the corner of the High Street in the old post office building specialising in Suffolk ham and cheese and seller of lovely ice cream from a doorway cart in the warmer months. Another gift store, Hares Tail, offers a changing stock of garden gifts plus patio and conservatory accessories.
Humphries Butchers on the Market Hill have been offering meat reared and slaughtered to the highest welfare standards (they have their own slaughter house) decades before the rest of the UK caught on. Find their own sausages, Suffolk black bacon, local game and Sutton Hoo chickens, freshly made pies and pastries plus pate, cheese, a full range of deli goods and local eggs. There is no website, sadly. Fruit and vegetables are available from the farm shop on Market Hill,, an open fronted store near the butchers and look out for Turners Fish Van making its weekly visit on the market Hill every Friday. The independent pharmacy in this age of Superdrug and Boots (pay your taxes, Boots!) grows ever more elusive but the Clare Pharmacy remains in business, on the site of the old bakers with a fully qualified pharmacist and a good range of toiletries and gifts alongside the usual products. Should you wish to seek alternative medicine, Naturally You offers Reiki, cranial sacral therapy, accupuncture and stop smoking treatments alongside various products and foods.
(7) Retreat to Clare Priory or simply walk around it
The grounds of Clare Priory can be reached via a footbridge over the river Stour in the country park and make pleasant walking. The priory itself was built in the 14th century, although extensively remodelled and has a shrine, housed in one of the oldest parts of the priory. This shrine contains a relief of the Mother of Good Counsel by the well-known religious artist, Mother Concordia OSB, and is based on the original fresco at Genazzano near Rome. The house contains a number of original features, including the Little Cloister with the Shrine, the vaulted porch, and impressive stone and stained glass work throughout the house. Guests on retreat are welcome to stay in the accommodations for a suggested contribution – £45 per person per overnight stay, £10 day visit, £12 day visit (with soup & roll lunch), or £15 day visit (with full lunch – Mon-Fri only) although the priory will accept what retreaters can offer- nobody is excluded on the basis of fiscal misfortune. There is also a full programme of courses such as Mindfulness and spirituality, meditation and yoga based activities.
(8) Eat and drink-
From pubs that offer full meals to tiny cafes and restaurants, Clare has a number of great establishments offering variety and quality. Cafe Clare and Number One Delicatessen and Cafe are good choices. A family run business set in a teeny tiny 14th century house near to the country park, Cafe Clare serves food and drinks across two floors and a courtyard garden- cream teas, Pudding Club evenings, local ingredients and children’s menu’s plus a soup and salad bar means this little place punches well above its weight. Number One deli & cafe serves light meals and fresh ground coffee all day from the deli or their coffee trike that pedals around the town in the daytime. Supper evenings are timed to coincide with local events (such as the auctions) or are themed. These require advance booking. Our recommendation? If its too lovely a day to sit inside, why not ask the deli or one of the cafes to make up a picnic lunch, accompanied by a retro bottle of Suffolk lemonade and an ice cream?
(9) A choice of pubs and hotels-
Where so many towns and villages have seen all their pubs closed from lack of custom, Clare continues to support quite a few of them. From the prominent Bell Hotel on Market Hill as you round the corner into the town from the direction of Sudbury, to the Cock Inn along Callis Street, Bury St Edmunds bound. there are pubs to suit all tastes, serving good beer and food. The Bell Hotel is a fifteen bedroomed half-timbered Tudor style coaching inn dating back to the 16th century and originally a Coaching Inn. A refurbishment in 2013 retained these features whilst bringing comfort levels up to date whether you want a drink in the bar, sitt in a fireside chair or eat a meal in the Tudor restaurant, garden room or the lounge area. With its large beer gardens and rambling bars, the Cock Inn is a good choice for families, serving food (allergies and special diets catered for) and Adnams beer. The Globe offers sports TV and some live music and The Swan boasts ownership of the oldest pub sign in England going back to the 13th century. Real fires, real ale, cask ales, freshly prepared food and a take out menu of pizza and pasta keep this pub a popular choice. Special menu’s and themed evenings are a pre-bookable option. Accommodation can also be found at the Ship Stores in Callis Street and at the Red House, a Georgian home with large gardens and highly regarded breakfasts.
(10) Plenty of sports facilities-
Clare Park Lake golf course is just outside the town along Stoke Road has been described as the prettiest and friendliest golf course in Suffolk and comprises a 9 hole, par 3 parkland course landscaped around the natural beauty of the river Stour with tree shaded lakes and woodlands nearby. Relaxed but still challenging, the course takes around one and a half hours to play and is not members only. Course and carp fishing can be enjoyed at Hermitage Fisheries for NRA licence holders and day permits are set at £7 per day in 2014. One of the many circular and country trails passes through the lakes of the Hermitage: this region offers beautiful walking for the whole family- routes are not challenging (no mountains in Clare!) and late Spring sees the Suffolk Walking Festival with many of its events focusing upon this region. The Clare Lions junior football club enjoys the use of extensive football pitches on the playing fields on the outskirts of the town and play three teams across local leagues whilst the Clare Carpet Bowls Club enjoys playing in the stunning surroundings of the country park where their headquarters are based. Should you develop a sports injury, physiotherapy is available from Clare Physiotherapy based in the town centre. The nearby village of Stoke by Clare is home to an equestrian centre offering tuition, part or full time livery and a floodlit indoor arena and a tennis club. We have mentioned the abundance of green spaces and easy access to the surrounding countryside already but it needs to be said that the country park is a superb place to power walk, jog or run. We have also seen people geocaching there too.
St Edmundsbury Borough Council (for info about the Country Park and other public spaces)