The Talbot Trail of Sudbury

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The literary links of our East Anglian towns have long interested me and I have written about the 101 Dalmatian topped bollards commemorating the Sudbury stopover made by the dogs in Dodie Smiths famous book here. I already knew that this handsome bronze could be found by the railings of St Peters church and that the town has staged festivals celebrating the book but what I didn’t know was that it is part of the Talbot Trail, a series of bronze sculptures that depict the towns history which are mounted on red painted bollards at significant locations around the town.

Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury.Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk,’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square.They had hoped they’d meet some dogs and hear if any news of the puppies had come at the Twilight Barking, but not as much as a cat was stirring. While they were drinking at the fountain, church clocks began to strike midnight..” (From 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith)

Named after the Talbot, a breed of hunting dog that features on the town coat of arms, or to be more specific, the dog owned by the notorious Simon of Sudbury, the head of the Talbot appears sometimes in red, sometimes in black. This early breed of hunting dog is thought to have been brought to England with William the Conqueror and to have links with what we now know as the modern beagle and bloodhound.

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Borough status was granted to Sudbury in 1558, rewarding its loyalty to Mary the First against the claims of Lady Jane Grey and the design originated from the coat of arms of the Theobald family who Simon was a scion of (although the arms origin is disputed by some who claim it originated from the Sudberry family). Simon of Sudbury went on to become Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury before being killed by rebels in the Peasants Revolt 1381. His legacy to the town was in the form of a college for priests which was located on what is now the site of the old Walnuttree Hospital which itself went on to become the location of the local workhouse. And his head, but more on that later.

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Sudburys Tourist Information can be found inside its library on Market Hill and the Heritage Museum at the side of the town hall, prominently placed on Market Hill and built by Thomas Ginn between 1826/27 in the Greek classical style, also supplies Talbot Trail guides. The idea is to obtain a booklet from the tourist offices and then mark off the bronzes as you proceed around the town, returning to get your stamp of completion when you have seen them all. The town hall houses a general display and information about the towns past and the town gaol provides inspiration for the first bronze marker. Sadly a few of the bronzes have been stolen (presumably by scrap metal thieves) and it is to be hoped that they will be replaced by resin replicas if not another bronze.

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The Town Hall and museum itself has an interesting history in their original role as gateway to the Sudbury Courtroom of Assizes and the good sized Victorian doorway that forms the entrance was once its gateway, located on the appropriately named Gaol Lane. Placed in the basement, the gaol was used to hold prisoners on their way to and from the court although the diminution of arrests for debt resulted in its decline and less cases to provide an amusing morning or afternoons entertainment for the landed gentry of the region. The site of the original gaol, before the Town Hall was built, was at 25 Friars St and was called a ‘miserable little prison’ by James Niell writing in the Gentlemans Magazine- a blue plaque marks its site.

Going on from Pongo’s bronze head which is number two, we move onto an historical icon rather less benign; Boudicca or Bodicea, The Queen of the Iceni who history indicates is likely to have gained the support of the Trinovante at Sudbury in AD 44 on her way to attack and overthrow the Roman garrison at Colchester and burn the entire town to the ground. Sudbury is thought to have been a Trinovante stronghold in those days and the Trinovante tribes supported the Iceni, ‘next door’ so to speak. However controversy again rears its head with some locals claiming that Boudicca never actually made it as far as Sudbury and decided instead to stop on the other side of the river Stour and go on to Colchester. It is believed that she reached the tiny village of Newton, site of a well dating back to Roman times which belongs to one of the households there and is known as ‘Boudiccas well.’

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When Boudicca and her warriors were on their way to attack Colchester, a local legend says that this was a resting place for them, hence its name. Roman writers also record an unpleasant episode involving Boudicca and her Iceni tribe which saw her whipped and her two daughters raped in an attempt to subdue her opposition to them. Boudiccas revenge was bloody and dramatic- her tribe united with the Trinovantes, attacking and almost driving the Romans from the whole country. One of the battles is believed to have been near Haverhill, some fifteen miles from Sudbury.

Charles Dickens’ famous association with Suffolk, inspiring so much of his work, includes Sudbury and is represented by bronze No 4 which depicts ‘Rotten Row,’ set in the imaginary town of Eetanswill in his book, The Pickwick Papers, which was, in part, written whilst he was a guest at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds. Written in 1836, the ‘Rotten Borough’ was thought to be inspired by Sudburys long history of electoral and political corruption where, in one election, a wealthy Sudbury parliamentary candidate was accused of spending over ten thousand pounds in bribing local voters. A character in the story, The Honourable Samuel Slumkey has an electoral agent that is said to be based upon a Sudbury solicitor called George William Andrews who Dickens would have encountered during his reporting.

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Small town politics have always been hotbeds of gossip, intrigue and double crossing and this remains the case today- maybe in Sudbury, maybe not- and has inspired all manner of authors and writers alongside Dickens. In 1835 Dickens was covering East Anglian election meetings for the Morning Chronicle and after condemning Chelmsford as “the dullest and most stupid place on earth” in a letter to fellow journalist Thomas Beard, came away with no better impression of Sudbury or, to be fair, most of our other regional towns. Some steps had been taken to combat some electoral abuse in the form of the Great Reform Act of 1832, addressing the “rotten boroughs”  which all too often sent MPs to Parliament despite having very small populations, but until 1870 little legislation of any great effect came into play and, in the 1840’s, Sudbury ended up disenfranchised as a named seat because of its rotten practices.

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Sudbury had its own version of Mo Farah in the form of the ‘Running Boy’ when, in April 1879, a young apprentice by the name of James Bigmore ran alongside the Norwich coach, all the way from Sudbury to Norwich, a distance of 60 miles in 6 hours and bronze No5 depicts this remarkable (if bonkers) feat of endurance, although the contemporary and dreadful service offered by Greater Anglia rail between London-Norwich today might mean locals adopt the example of James and start running it because it would probably be as swift. The story was reported in the Ipswich Journal as a race undertaken for a bet or wager:

“James Bigmore, the Suffolk Pedestrian started on Monday the 1st, at Sudbury to go 50 miles in nine hours, on a half mile piece of ground, which he performed in eight hours and 50 minutes.” (Ipswich Journal:  March 6th 1824).

Nearby Boxford had its pub and lion owning Wall of Death artiste in the form of Tornado Smith but Sudbury can boast the Great Blondin, subject of bronze No 6 and a trapeze artist who, in 1872, visited the town and, on a rope suspended across the yard behind the Anchor Pub in Friars St, demonstrated his prowess by pushing a Sudbury resident along a rope slung across the gap, in a wheelbarrow. The Suffolk Chronicle failed to report on this visit but did excitedly report on his visit to Ipswich, reminding readers of the artistes various feats of balance:

“On the 16th July, he again crossed Niagara, wheeling a wheelbarrow.  On the 5th August he crossed again, turning somersaults and performing extraordinary gymnastics on the rope.  On the 19th August he performed the unprecedented feat of carrying a man across the Niagara River on his back, thousands of spectators looking on, and momentarily expecting the death of one or both of the daring men.  On the 27th August he went over as a Siberian Slave in shackles.   On the 2nd September he crossed at night, and stood on his head amid a blaze of fireworks…the last performance at Niagara was given before H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.   On this occasion, Blondin put the climax to all his other achievements by crossing the rope on stilts.” (Suffolk Chronicle:  May 24th 1873)

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Born Jean Francois Gravelot in Northern France, the Great Blondin became obsessed with crossing Niagara Falls, succeeding in Feb 1859 on a rope measuring some 1,100 foot long and 3 inches in diameter. He even performed high wire at the Crystal Palace pushing his five year old daughter in a little wheelbarrow. He went on to cross Niagara eight more times, was easily the most famous artiste in his speciality  and died aged 73.

Bronze No 7 needs little introduction, being a memorial to one of Sudburys most (if not the) famous sons- Thomas Gainsborough, born in the town and previous owner of the eponymous house in the eponymous street, now a museum.  Scion of a weaving family also involved with the wool trade, both industries being closely associated with Sudbury, at the age of thirteen Gainsborough went to London to study art in 1740, training under the engraver Hubert Gravelot and eventually becaming associated with William Hogarth and his school of painting.  This bronze shows Thomas and his wife Margaret and is located not too far from Gainsborough House, the museum and well worth a visit to see his work.

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Vital to the prosperity and livelihood of the town was its proximity to its river, the Stour which provided a navigable connection to the sea and a way of transporting the products of regional industries- farming, bricks, wool among many. A river with two names, the pronounciation of which causes much good hearted debate, it can be pronounced Stower (rhyming with myrrh) or Stour (rhyming with hour). I am not going to disclose which I favour. Bronze No 8 depicts the river transport so crucial to the wellbeing of Sudbury.

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During the reign of Queen Anne in 1705, Parliament passed an act which made the River Stour navigable from Sudbury, Suffolk to Manningtree, Essex, making it one of the country’s earliest statutory rights of navigation. Sadly many of the locks have now disappeared rendering the waterway navigable only by lighter craft along the entire length. The journey from Sudbury to the estuary normally took around 2 days, with an overnight stop halfway at Horkesley where bunkhouses offering refreshments were provided. Goods, particularly bricks were taken down river via pairs of horse drawn barges and brought other goods back and were often featured in John Constable’s paintings. In 1914 the entire Sudbury fleet of around 20 lighters was scuttled in the Ballingdon Cut part of the river because of the fears of invasion at the start of the First World War.

Nowadays there are companies offering pleasure craft rides along the river, Sudbury Rowing Club operates from premises behind the Quay Theatre and the latter itself offers visitors the chance to see an exquisitely restored granary in a glorious setting. The river and water meadows are famously depicted by Constable and are one of the regions best walks with miles of beautiful views and safe, well maintained pathways.

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Sadly dancing bears remain one of the more reprehensible ‘tourist attractions’ in some countries but thankfully Britain has moved on from this ‘entertainment’ although back in the day, Sudbury saw its fair share of visiting bears and traveling showmen who trained their captive bears to dance at the end of a chain connected to a ring through the animals nose. In the 19th century and before the establishment of zoos, travelling menageries or single travelling showmen reached the height of their popularity, partly because overseas trade encouraged a marketplace for animals but also because publicity glorified the experiences of explorers and travellers and created a public hungry to see living creatures in the flesh.

Brought  by Victorian showmen to entertain the locals, the muzzled bears were housed down the passage beside 54 Church Street before and after their ‘performance’, near to where the showmen lodged in cheap accommodation at the rear. Bronze No 9 depicts two of the bears and is much admired by children brought up on a literary diet of bears treated considerably more amiably than those in our Victorian past.

Although I used to live in Clare, with the motte of the famous Clare Castle at the bottom of my garden, Amecia, the daughter of the Earl of Gloucester in the 12th century who married  into the powerful De Clare family and brought her wealth to Sudbury, was unknown to me.  Bronze No 10 commemorates her and her founding of a hospital by Ballingdon Bridge, itself thought to have been constructed with stone from northern France, a legacy of her family heritage. Originally a Norman family, the De Clares took their name from Clare in Suffolk where their first castle, and the seat of their barony, was located. The family went on to hold huge estates across Wales, Ireland, and twenty two English counties by the 13th century with a descendant, Gilbert, going on to become one of the twenty five barons involved in the administration of the Magna Carta in 1215.

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Sudbury had come into the possession of the de Clare family through the marriage of Amicia Gloucester to Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford, around 1182; the couple were described as relatively generous Lords of the Manor but it was vital that the town, bursting at its seams, be allowed to expand. But in 1314 the last of the male line of the family died out with the death of young, childless Gilbert at Bannockburn. It took some time to sort out the estate but after being divided between Richards sisters, Sudbury became the property of Elizabeth De Burgh who set about endowing and expanding the town via a new trading centre incorporating the field which was the site of the annual trading fair:s a field we know now as Market Hill. Amicia also granted grazing rights to the Hospital of Saint John for four cows and twenty sheep on Kings Mere (now Kings Marsh) and Portmanscroft (now Freemans Common).

Amicia and the family of the De Clares were great founders of religious houses and no less than sixteen monasteries were established by them. Amicia endowed the Hospital of the Knights of Saint John at Jerusalem, near Ballingdon bridge, with the tolls charged by bridge users and the rents of nearby houses. The Monasticon Anglicanum (1654), refers to a hospital situated in the messuage of Saint Sepulchre which was also endowed by the Clare family. There were three hospitals  in the town: St Sepulchre’s, the Knight Hospitallers near Ballingdon bridge (the site now known as HospitalYard) and John Colney’s leper hospital dedicated to Saint Leonard and situated near St Bartholomew’s Priory and Chapel on the Melford Road. Human skeletons and remains of foundations of buildings have been found near and on the site of the church and during the excavation of a cellar in School St, the street adjoining Stour Street in 1800, many intact skeletons were disinterred.

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The De Clare family are also closely associated with the common lands that surround Sudbury, especially its water meadows and subject of bronze No 11, depicting lands that have been continuously grazed for over a thousand years: a topic close to my heart because my own daughter is eligible to be made a Freewoman of Sudbury although, at time of writing, she has yet to take it up. in 1260, Richard De Clare gave the pastures to the burgesses of Sudbury for a rent of up to 40 shillings a year, and to this day Freemen and women recieve their share of this rent alongside their own grazing rights. Historically, they would have been the only people of the town to have a parliamentary vote and although the role now is purely honorary, they still work hard to preserve the traditions. The grazing of cattle is central to the management of this delicate and beautiful eco system because their continual grazing keeps the land at a specific point in its succession, creating an open pasture land and the frequent flooding that occurs from the neary Stour keeps the grass lush because of silt deposition, providing a great diet for the cows that dine out there.

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Another of Sudbury’s famous events was the Peasants Revolt of 1381 which saw the head of Simon of Sudbury separated from his body after angry poor locals rebelled against the imposition of a Poll Tax of 15p, to go to the King and support the war with France. As Chancellor, gaining support for this was Simons job and it didn’t go down too well. Bronze No 12 commemorates this. An event that has its roots in the aftermath of The Black Death of 1348-9 that wiped out a third of the population, the resulting crucial shortage of labour meant that surviving labour forces were able to exploit the situation as for the first time competitive wages were on offer. The government sought to control this with a ruling in 1351 that saw rents and wages fixed in an attempt to control this labour/wages situation but it was unsuccessful as were attempts by subsequent governments. Labourers were understandably miffed at this measure designed to prevent them from earning more than basic wages for their work and were clearly not going to give up without a fight. When you consider that the King had to pawn his own jewels to the City of London as a surety for a loan of £5,000 to fund the war with France, you can see how both sides were fighting a cause neither could afford to lose.

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Research shows that local women were instrumental in this protest and the leader of the group that arrested Simon and dragged him to the executioners block was a woman called Johanna Ferrour. The poll tax was deemed to be much harder on married women who were taxed separately from their husbands, regardless of their employment status or income, and their pole position (sorry) in the protests against the Poll Tax was explained by this. As for Simon, he was beheaded near to the Tower of London but his head, complete with axe marks, resides in a vault in Sudbury’s St Gregorys Church, something that seems rather unchristian in my opinion and making his image the subject of unlucky bronze No 13 – a clear case of art imitating life.

The final bronze in the Talbot Trail depicts ‘Kemps Jig’, danced famously by William Kemp who, instead of running to Norwich from London as the famous Running Boy did, decided to dance from London to Norwich in 1599. His partner was a milkmaid from Sudbury who got cold (dancing) feet in Long Melford and rather sensibly gave up there. When you consider the likelihood of infected blisters and the lack of antibiotics, she appears to be one very sensible women (if not much fun), although getting up at dawn to milk herds of cows would dampen anyones dancing ardour.

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More commonly referred to as Will Kemp, he was an English actor and dancer who specialised in comic roles including being an original player in Shakespearean early dramas. He may have been associated with the role of Falstaff  and became one of a core of five actor-shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men alongside Shakespeare and Richard Burbage. To counter claims of falsehood after his dancing marathon he published an account of the event, referred to as ‘The Nine Daies Wonder,’ with its wager that he could achieve it in less than ten days. Which he won. (Thank goodness because the sum of £100 on the table was a ruinous amount to lose in those days.) Kemp also inspired a tune titled ‘Kemps Jig,’ which became well known during the times of the Renaissance and was arranged specifically for lute players.

Kemps account went on to be sold by the west door of Saint Pauls Church in 1600 and was described as thus in the epigrath, addressed to Mistris Anne Fitton, Mayde of Honour to the most sacred Mayde Royall Queene Elizabeth:

“Containing the pleasure, paines and kinde entertainment of William Kemp between London and that Citty in his late Morrice.

Wherein is somewhat set downe worth note; to reproove the slaunders spred of him: many things merry, nothing hurtfull.

Written by himselfe to satisfie his friends.”

William Kemp / Amaranth Press
William Kemp / Amaranth Press

If you’ve worked up an appetite after walking the trail then Sudbury has a variety of good places to eat, some actually on the trail. Along Friars Street is the Rude Strawberry which provides home made snacks and small meals alongside high quality teas and coffees. Ingredients are locally sourced where possible. Slightly out of town in Borehamgate Precinct is the hub of all things chocolate,  Marimba whose Hot Chocolate Melts are made from flakes of real chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Ecuador. Gainsborough Street has the CoffeeHouse and the Waggon & Horses Pub on Acton Square is very close to St Gregorys Church and the beautiful Croft with the river Stour flowing nearby. Finally, should you be craving a properly handmade burger with all the trimmings, then Shakes N Baps is for you, right by Belle Vue Park.

Sudburys Talbot Trail pdf can be downloaded from here.

Living On The Edge, a local blog has also visited the Talbot Trail.

 

 

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