Winter walking in Suffolk

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Photo by Helen Schofield

November is past its midpoint and sitting here at five pm with the nighttime already pressing against the windows, it is hard to imagine that in just over a month, the winter darkness reaches its zenith and will start to ebb. By now we have nearly forgotten the long summer nights when sleep can prove elusive in a light room, with the thickest of window coverings struggling to keep out those rays sharp enough to find the small gaps between curtains and the edge of the window.

Despite the increasing lack of street lights in towns and cities, none of us in the western world will ever experience the dark skies of our ancestors. That blackness as thick as felt, lit only by stars and the wash of the moon, encouraged us to adopt the diurnal rhythms of the natural world, even when we learned how to push back against the night with light and fire.

Ickworth Park
Ickworth Park

We have more than our share of crepuscular days when it seems the sky barely makes it past the grey of first light and the moisture in the air is omnipresent and oppressive so the urge to give in and hibernate is understandable. However on those days when our skies are larkspur blue and the air snaps with cold, that is the time to get out and enjoy East Anglia at its most beautiful. Living near the countryside provides us with ample opportunity to defy the impending hours of darkness with hundreds of square miles of outdoor space to explore: nature reserves, country lanes, footpaths and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Whether you choose to be on horseback, on foot or enjoy these from the window of a car, doesn’t matter- the views are there for the taking and they are free.

Clare in winter
Clare in winter

The postcard perfect images of a landscape under a blanket of snow appear to be more elusive now, sadly. That blueish early morning light behind the curtains disorientates us at first until we realise what has caused it, making us scramble out of bed shouting: “Its snowed, it’s snowing.” but this happens less and less. The traditional ways of an East Anglian winter; sledging and snowball fights, skating on the fens and walking to school down lanes banked with snow seem far back in the past as warmer winters result in months going by with hardly a flurry.  As a teenager I recall hitchhiking from Bury St Edmunds to Sudbury in the early eighties during a near white out and these blizzard conditions weren’t a rarity. The only vehicle on the road was a snow plough whose operator took pity on me, stopped and gave me a lift all the way even though he was only going as far as the Alpheton turn off. Winters seemed harder then with’bigger’ weather that conversely didn’t trigger the closure of schools and roads: trains continued running even when they ran so slowly that they appeared to have turned into snow ploughs themselves, pushing drifts of the white stuff in front of them as they trundled along the Sudbury to Bures branch line.

Like many rural areas all over the country, the downside of snow is that it can bring chaos to the narrow local roads making them impassable but on a fine clear day, there are parts of Suffolk and Norfolk which actually become more accessible in the Winter because the seasonal restrictions on open access land are lifted. From November to February, the Brecks and Suffolks eastern fringes are opened up for walkers and are at their best, populated by the sere white barked birch, needled clumps of gorse and springy broom and patchworked by the faded purples and pinks of heathers. Protected miniature ecosystems flourish among the dark pine lines along the horizon and along the deliberately uncultivated field margins. Goldcrests and siskins, lapwings, crossbills, turtle dove, firecrests and woodcock all live and feed here alongside the ever present muntjac and roe deer. The Brecklands (meaning ‘broken lands’) are the largest lowland forest in the UK and span nearly 1,000 kilometres of sandy flinty soil providing a home to over 28% of the UK’s rarest species including the Stone Curlew, saved from a miserable decline by the concerted efforts of the regions farmers supported by the RSPB and several EU fiscally protective measures.

Needham Lake
Needham Lake

Alternatively, drive out to our coastline or the wetlands and river estuaries to see stilt-legged wading birds such as godwits and avocets in reserves such as the RSPB’s Minsmere or Lackford Lakes near Bury St Edmunds, managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. The latter is home to many cormorants, silhouetted against the branches of the trees- living Japanese paintings as they hold out their black wings and warm themselves in the winter sun. Clumsy Egyptian geese putter about by the lake side, tearing up and eating the grass and churning it into a muddy slipway. On the river Stour, keep the binoculars handy to spot flocks of Brent Geese (their clamouring will give them away), the red breasted mergnasers and long tailed ducks and as you approach its estuary, white fronted geese, goldeneyes and snow buntings, peeping away. In Mid Suffolk is Needham Lake, quite compact and very easy to get around if you have young children or have ambulation problems. It is also near to the River Gipping, the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket and Needham Market itself if you want to go for a drink or meal afterwards. The path is firm going beside the river and ventures past Wildwood (a community woodland) and fields of sheep up to Alder Carr Farm and its excellent farm shop.

Stunning & sere, the South Suffolk Coastal Pathway at Iken
Stunning & sere, the South Suffolk Coastal Pathway at Iken

Iken Cliffs (Landranger grid reference: TM399561) has wonderful views across the River Alde and is a lovely site to enjoy nature and views that extend for miles. The mud flats and salt marshes are important feeding grounds and migration sites for waders and wildfowl with shelduck, redshank and avocets all common visitors. When you’ve finished your picnic, it’s a short walk to the internationally renowned Snape Maltings or charming Iken Church. or take the Iken road, 2 miles south of Snape and you can then access the South Suffolk Coastal Pathway for a more ‘serious’ walk along some of the most stunning coastal scenery in Europe.

Across the water meadows to the roofs of Sudbury
Across the water meadows to the roofs of Sudbury- photo by permission Darren Guiheen

As the new year beds in, rooks begin to nest again, rising and falling in dizzying spirals and columns against a background of arable land, edged by lines of tall trees, home for centuries to these birds. Starlings too, murmurate across the skies at dusk, their screeches felt rather than heard. Lackford Lakes is one of the best places to see this awe inspiring sight and has reported starling gatherings of over 800 birds. This is also the place to enjoy the sundowner barks of the many deer that populate the woods and copses nearby. Or drive out to the lanes around Bures and Arger Fen and enjoy views from some of Suffolk’s highest ground where birds wheel and swoop down valleysides and deep cuts. Arger Fen is one of Britain’s most beautiful bluebell woods with steep woodland trails landscaped with fallen trees and steps cut into the earth underneath a canopy of mixed broadleaf and coniferous trees but it is just as lovely in the Winter months. The surrounding fen meadows provide panoramic views over the entire Stour Valley and a bucolic place to escape to.

Clare Castle Country Park
Clare Castle Country Park

River walks along the Stour can be taken from a number of picturesque locations and several of them also follow parts of the old railway line from Clare to Sudbury, via Long Melford and Lavenham plus the beauty of Clare Castle Country Park and its circular walk. The Valley Trail comprises a wide and compacted path suitable for sturdy pushchairs and some wheelchair users taking you past woodlands, field footpaths, railway line trails and along river paths.

Alternatively start in Sudbury or Bures and walk along the Stour, taking in Bures, Little Cornard, Henny and Lamarsh. This section is about ten miles or you can start off at Bures Hamlet and walk its winding roads through valley cuts, taking the five mile route from Bures Hamlet, Lamarsh and Alphamstone, circling back again to end up from whence you came. There are regular buses from Sudbury to Bures (the Colchester-Bury St Eds route) so you don’t have to walk its entirety. The Sudbury water meadows (the oldest grazed land in England) make a lovely place to visit in the Winter when the bare trees allow an even more sweeping view from one side of the valley to another and herons, egrets and kingfishers dip in and out of sight.

The Stour in Winter
The Stour in Winter by Cheryse Caba

The Long Melford to Sudbury ‘Three Mills Walk’ follows the old Great Eastern Railway line via Borley Mill, Brundon Mill and Sudbury Mill which is now a hotel. Brundon Mill is the site of the lovely swan feed, where hundreds of the birds make their home on the Mill Pond with the bridge over it making a stopping off point to visit and feed them. This walks also takes you through Melford Country Park before you arrive at the meadows (5.5 miles approx) and you can then continue on the twelve mile Gainsborough Trail that covers the whole Sudbury area including the three and a half mile Meadow Walk. We love the Three Mills Walk with its grassy paths and dinky bridges and kissing gates (all designed for wheelchair users) which kids love scrambling through and over. You can follow any of the meadow paths, keeping your eye out for cattle which graze the common lands, or simply keep to the Stour Valley Path, a firmer route alongside the River Stour. If you want to keep it town based, yet be near the river then wander over to The Croft in Sudbury which offers an old boating lake, the ‘washing machine water’ aka Weir, a cow which is great for picnics in warmer weather and the old bridge populated by generations of ducks kept fat by generations of locals.

If you enjoy your walks punctuated by a pint of beer or pub meal then Suffolk has a plethora of routes that are near to, or go past some of our loveliest and most welcoming hostelries. Lackford Lakes, and Culford are all near to the Woolpack Inn at Fornham St Martin with a view of the church and a walled garden should it be warm enough to sit outside. You can wander down to the nearby Suffolk Golf Club and follow the walk along the river, all the way to Lackford Lakes and West Stow. The Newmarket Ridge is the highest point of Suffolk, formed of the north-eastern extreme of the Southern England Cretaceous chalk formation that stretches from Dorset to Dover. Near to the tiny hamlet of Rede, you might want to take on the ten or so miles of the walk that starts and ends in the hamlet and walk through the villages of Brockley Green, Hawkedon, Somerton, climb the highest point of the ridge at Great Wood Hill then finish up in the Plough pub. Stoke up those energy levels with a meal and a drink by the fire. Lastly, why not amble through one of our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which happens to have two great inns at either end of the walk Start at the venerable old smugglers haunt, The Ship at Dunwich and end at a 17thcentury coaching inn – the Westleton Crown. This Inn to Inn walk sounds a perfect way to work off the beer and food you will no doubt consume.

Lackford Lakes
Lackford Lakes

The villages of Groton and Boxford provide ample pub punctuated walks and we like this one, devised by Cyril Francis in Suffolk Mag. Starting and ending at Boxford’s Fleece Inn, a mixture of field pathways and country lanes takes you through Groton, birthplace of John Winthrop, founder of Boston and first governor of Massachusetts and you will pass a mulberry tree reputed to have been planted by members of his family, back in 1550. Boxford also has the White Hart, once home to publican George Smith who used to keep a pet lion that roamed the street of the village, tame and well known to the locals. The lioness formed part of George’s stunts and rode on the handlebars of his Indian Scout bike as a cub, graduating to a sidecar once fully grown. She is buried under what is now the pubs car park.

Brandon Country Park
Brandon Country Park

Woodland walks can be found near the village of Lawshall where you will find the local Frithy and Golden woods, the former an ancient woodland of mixed broadleaf and near to the public footpath that takes you around the estate of Cobham Hall, built in 1574. The footpath goes around Lawshall past the Hall, returning to the village where a drink awaits you at The Swan pub. Not so far from Lawshall is Bradfield St George with its woods administrated by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and criss crossed with trails and there are numerous pubs nearby including The Manger at Bradfield Combust on the main Sudbury-Bury St Edmunds road (A134). We are big fans of Brandon Country Park with its mix of woodlands, parks and manicured Edwardian arboretum planted with monkey puzzle trees, copper beeches and false acacias-the latters fern like open tracery is such a contrast to the prehistoric chunkiness of the monkey puzzle. This park comes into its own in the autumn with fiery leaf colours and under planted heathers coming into bloom. Take your pick from different walks, some on firm paths which lead you around the walled gardens, lake, mausoleum, play area for kids and a cafe to revive you with hot drinks on a cold day.

Like Brandon Country Park, the National Trust owned Ickworth Park also offers a range of walking from manicured formal gardens to woodlands, pastures, meadows and stumperies with, of course, that amazing Italianate rotunda crowning the view from afar. We absolutely love the way the copper toned leaves pile up against the wire retaining fences, the views across the fields to Bury St Edmunds, the vineyards and kitchen gardens and tiny, recessed bat cave in the formal gardens. It is perfect for families with children because you can give them their head and let them run then come back to the more sedate part of the grounds when they have calmed. Wrap up warm because those north and east facing meadows catch quite a breeze and enjoy this amazing park, ending up in the cafe for a warm cup of tea.

ickworth 039
Ickworth in the Autumn and Winter

Discover Suffolk provides a pdf of easy walking trails across the county for wheelchair and pushchair users and most of the trails are low-level walks on firm ground with occasional gentle slopes. Alton Water has an 8 mile looped path along the lake allowing walkers to see it from many different perspectives and enjoy the wildlife that makes the lake their home. From  ducks, geese and swans to the barn owls that swoop low at dusk in search of food, this is a great family destination with toilet and changing facilities nearby.

In the north east of the county can be found the Beccles Marsh Trails on the edge of historic Beccles, a series of paths among grazing marshes with the River Waveney flowing through them. There is an information centre and cafe at the Quay, a toilet plus free parking. The Blue Walk across Beccles Marsh has been designed as an easy access trail, with a combination of tarmac paths and natural, hard surfaces with benches placed at intervals along its length. Part of the walk follows the ancient Angles Way, a long distance footpath that follows the course of the River Waveney from its source at Knettishall Heath Country Park to the North Sea near Lowestoft. The marshes themselves are nature reserves in miniature with grazing lands crisscrossed by a network or hand dug dykes to manage the variations in water levels.

Thornham Walks
Thornham Walks

Another handy and multi use walk is the Thornham Walks between Diss and Stowmarket, twelve miles of trails that criss cross landscaped parkland. There is a restored walled garden planted with fruit trees and herbaceous borders, a bird hide, folly and pet cemetery which is always intriguing for children, especially when they read some of the more unusual pet names carved on the gravestones. Look out for the nuttery and aviary populated by raucous Asian pheasants, providing more entertainment for the smalls. All trails are well marked, easily navigable by pushchair and wheelchairs and the pathways are exceptionally well surfaced. The Forge Café  and Old Coach House Café serve excellent food, drinks and snacks and there is a shop, parking and toilets.

Wolves Wood near Hadleigh is the opposite of Thornham Woods in that it does not have all the amenities but what it does boast is a fine and noble history as one of the few remnants of the ancient woodland that used to cover East Anglia and a name that enthralls children. The RSPB manages it using the traditional method of coppicing (a special way of cutting the trees to let light in), which means that the wood has a wide variety of birds, plants and mammals.  Visit early on a fine clear morning to hear the chorus of up to 20 species of bird, including the rich, musical song of the nightingale. We strongly advise you to wear wellington boots as the woods can be muddy, even in the open access car park.

Beccles trails
Beccles trails

These are just a tiny percentage of the thousands of miles of walks to be found in the county of Suffolk. We’d love to hear of your favourites so please do post them below and we can add them to this feature for others to discover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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