The strange tale of Borley Rectory

 

borley

Standing in its elevated postion above the Stour valley and easily visible to those living on the far side, the church at Borley sits on a plot of land, an isolated and incongruous green wadi of grassy lawns, ivy-festooned oaks and a churchyard decorated with yew topiary. Surrounded by the brown and buff clays of the Suffolk farmland which falls away to the main A134 Bury to Sudbury road, the brilliant verdancy and manicured grounds stand in stark contrast. The church itself is mostly built in the Romanesque/Early English style of the late 12th and early 13th centuries with some fussier Victorian refurnishing  and the churchyard is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The name of the village, Borley, is a compound of the Saxon words “Bap” and “Ley”- “Boar’s Pasture.” There were, and still are, a number of pig farms nearby and my paternal grandfather once farmed one of them.

By Steve Foster
By Steve Foster

Even in summer, chill nor’-easterlies sweep across the valley whilst a pure easterly wind will bring with it, cold and dry air from Scandinavia. These winds scour the fields, sending up eddies of loam-dust and pushing trees into a distorted and angular shape, braced against the onslaught. We see regular if small tornadoes here. These clay fields do not play host to pre- nineteenth century homes generally because until then, homes in East Anglia tended to be built upon exposed seams of gravel that run through the valleys like dry riverbeds. You will not find older towns built upon the great clay plains that dominate this landscape but as the population grew, people had no choice- the clay had to be built upon.

it is difficult to approach Borley in a neutral frame of mind if you know anything about its past. Whether you believe in ghosts and manifestations or not, everything is couched in the stories that are famous worldwide and the villagers know this and they do not want you there. Even the ever present wind that buffets you in this exposed place seems to carry with it a timbre of notoriety. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the famous Victorian ghost hunter Harry Price knew this and in an instructional booklet given out to his investigators, he cautioned against ascribing psychic qualities to natural things “..It is very important that the greatest effort should be made to ascertain whether such manifestations are due to normal causes such as rats, small boys, the villagers, the wind, wood shrinking, the Death Watch Beetle, farm animals nosing the doors etc., trees brushing against the windows, birds in the chimney stack or between double walls..”

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The town of Sudbury can be seen on the horizon

Even this list of earthly causes has a suitably gothic feel: death-watch beetles and rats; the fluttering of birds doomed to die trapped in walls and the shrinkage of ancient wood that has tightened and relaxed against itself over time. These are the noises that have scared humans witless over the centuries and often defy logical explanation when it is night-time or we are worked up into a state of nervous agitation as Marianne, wife of the vicar Lionel Foyster, and resident of the reputedly haunted rectory well knew. “There were occasions when we frightened each other, if you know what I mean. We talked about things and we would get ourselves nervous and excited, and then even if the house creaked you imagined things were coming.” When you discover that Marianne and her rector husband played host to playwright George Bernard Shaw; T. E. Lawrence, the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”; Sir Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England and Bernard Spilsbury, the Home Office criminal forensic scientist during Easter 1935 for a seance at the rectory, it becomes clear that bumps in the night aren’t something that only the gullible fall prey to.

Louis Mayerling, writer of the book ‘We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory’ in 2000 admits that despite the many pranks he claims to have played on ghosthunter and paranormal investigator Harry Price (which the Foysters were allegedly in on), there was one incident that he could not explain and which frightened George Bernard Shaw so much he refused to stay the night. He recounts, “the kitchen bells clanged as one and a brilliant silver-blue light seemed to implode around us from the walls and the ceilings.” Mayerling’s previous attempts at creating eerie sounds and noises in the rectory had shown him that it was not possible to make all the bells sound at once. He was also unable to explain what had caused the lightning-like flash around them which actually blinded him although he eventually recovered sight in one of his eyes. Mayerling confesses in his book that memory of the experience still “set my spine to tingling.” Marianne Foyster went on to claim that many of the ‘spontaneous’ fires were the work of vagrants who broke into the house and gained access through the four outside doors and cellar entrance. These were apparently not secured during Price’s investigations.

Newspaper report of the hauntings
Newspaper report of the hauntings

Asides from putative deliberate pranks and faked hauntings, there are also the sounds that all houses make but especially those of a badly built Victorian edifice which attempts to defy or ignore the elements instead of mitigating them. Borley rectory was typical of the dwellings that cling to the exposed valleysides of East Anglia; draughty, ranging and cold and in the winter, its rooms would only have been heated if they were regularly inhabited and its interiors were barely protected from the worst of the weather battering the outside. The rectory had no insulation, draughty windows, bare floors of wooden planking and very poorly located north-facing windows that received the full strength of those vicious northeasterlies. Having lived in some very old houses with their peculiar micro-climates, I can attest to sudden vortexes of frigid air that shake keys from locks and cause doors to slam on the other side of the building. At night these houses talk. As the warmth of the day is chased out of a house by the dusk, Victorian wooden floorboards push against each other then shrink back like an overly modest maiden aunt. Tightly-laid boards creak around the skirting and sound like sharp footsteps around the room edges. The cold, dank and frequently wet climate in South Suffolk created in its Victorian house builders a hatred of chinks and cracks: floors were tightly-laid and joiners laboured under tighter tolerances to construct doors with securely tacked panels and window frames with no give. Their work was emblematic of the Victorian values of restraint, creating homes that were buttoned-up and doughty in their defence against excess. As a result, when the humidity rose, the panels increased their width and chafed noisily against their constraints. The sounds resembles a tap on the door.

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The mention of the death watch beetle may have significance too. Like all bugs, it can generate odd noises that carry over spectacular distances but the drilling of this beetle, sonorous and creepy as it is, becomes amplified by its preferred medium-rotting wood- which possesses its own set of characteristics. It loses a lot of strength as it rots and the slow collapse of its internal structure causes creaking and groaning. The former plumber at Borley rectory himself confirmed the presence of rot behind a courtyard window and that the sound carried unusually was corroborated by one of Harry Price’s observers, Major Douglas-Home, who, in 1943, wrote in a statement that that the footsteps of the cottage occupants were clearly audible inside the rectory or sounded as if they were actually footfalls from the rectory corridor. In fact, the sound came from people walking across the courtyard at the time. The cottage was very close to the rectory and its occupants often played in the courtyard attached to the rectory. He remarked, “Owing to the shape of the courtyard & the position of cottage, every sound made at cottage was magnified at least 5 times in the main house—I verified this—even voices spoken outside the pantry by cottage were strongly heard in the Base [the rectory library] and other rooms’. The metal skeleton of a building are not silent either and speak of its construction with fluctuating temperatures causing the truss rods and brackets to expand and contract and place stress on the building as a whole. Strange noises amplify under a phenomenon akin to ventriloquism as metal rods send their protests far away from the original source and their sum is far more than their parts.

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We recently drove to Borley to have a look around which is when some of these photographs were taken. It has been several decades since our last visit and we were disconcerted by how difficult it was to look around; the atmosphere was one of hostility despite the warmth of the early spring day and sun splashed graveyard with its pots of primroses, placed on graves and growing wild alongside ancient gravestones tumbled and piled at the back of the plot. We met another older couple standing by the gate who reported being shouted at by locals despite the fact that all they were doing was sitting in the churchyard admiring the view. Funnily enough this couple knew nothing of the villages past and were bemused by this behaviour. We used to visit Borley as teenagers and I daresay we were regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the locals who appear extremely unwelcoming to visitors, no matter their age or demeamour. The church is locked, its car park is chained shut and there are no attempts to provide tourist information or offer safe spaces to leave cars.

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I understand the desire for privacy but consider the amounts of tourists worldwide that visit Long Melford, Lavenham and even Polstead, (the latter with its own gruesome past). All of these villages possess fascinating histories and are evolved in the way they manage tourists  so I cannot help wondering if the attitude of Borley residents is actually exacerbating the problem they have with occasional anti social behaviour. Make visitors welcome, develop a small tourist industry which promotes what you want to promote (it need not be unmanageable), plough the income back into community projects and you will actually discourage anti social activity because this thrives on a place being deserted and dissasociated from its legacy. The stories do attract overnight campers who haunt the churchyard, sleeping (and drinking) against the graves and the proximate houses must get tired of this. But again, this occurs because of a lack of engagement with tourists, not because of. And the stories attached to this tiny village and its church are world-famous and could be an excellent source of parish revenue.

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The burned down rectory

I’m not going to explore the likelihood or not of the hauntings being real when the attendant story, that of their exploration by Harry Price and the subsequent Borley ‘industry’ that grew up around them is much more interesting. Harry Price was one of England’s most famous ghost hunters, dedicated to his mission to investigate suspected hauntings and with the potential to expose the fraud that might lie behind them. Since the early 1920’s when news of the suspected haunting at Borley first became public knowledge via a 1928 story in the Daily Mirror sent in by the then owner Guy Eric Smith, the burned out remains of this rectory and its graveyard and grounds in a small village near Sudbury in Suffolk has captured the imagination of the public to become arguably, one of the most, if not the most famous of all national ghost stories. It is a tale full of gothic tropes- nuns, ghostly writings and fierce fires with strange figures seen in the flames. Pure Vincent Price.

Harry Price by William Hope
Harry Price by William Hope

Borley Rectory was built in 1863 for the Reverend Henry Bull on the site of an ancient monastery.The ghost of a sorrowful nun who strolled along the so called “Nun’s Walk” was already well known locally at the time, believed to be a disobedient sister from the nearby nunnery at Bures who had fallen in love with a monk from the Borley Monastery.  We’d perhaps expect more ghostly monks to infest the grounds but by all accounts because of the prior existence of this monastery, it is the nun who dominates. The two had tried to elope and upon their capture, the monk was executed and the nun bricked up alive in the cellars of the monastic building. The family weren’t too bothered by her presence but their guests began to be startled by the nun appearing to peer at them through the windows of the new rectory and servants rarely stayed long. When Henry’s son Harry took over the rectory the visitations were reported to have increased with a ghostly coach and horses seen racing up the rectory drive. Other villagers have pointed out that a Mrs Yelloly of Cavendish Hall was a cousin of the Bull family and was conveyed on her social visits by an old-fashioned black horse-drawn coach at the time. The olfactory hauntings were said to include a strong smell of lavender which pervaded the halls and rooms of the rectory but a nearby lavender processing factory on the outskirts of Long Melford is the more likely source of such odours. Stafford Allen went on to become Bush Boake Allen, one of Englands most prolific producer of herb and spice preparations and scented the air for miles around.

Marianne Foyster
Marianne Foyster

The Revd Eric Smith and his wife arrived at the rectory in 1927 and they invited well-known psychic researcher, Harry Price, to visit, setting off nexplicable poltergeist activity where belongings were broken and stones thrown at the family and Harry Price. The Smiths only lasted two years before they moved, to be replaced by the Revd Lionel Foyster and his family whereupon the ghostly presences increased their activities. The resident ghost appeared to hold a penchant for the rector’s wife, Marianne, displaying its ardour in a bizarre manner- hurling objects at her and leaving messages scrawled all over the walls. Witnesses claimed to have seen these appear in from of their eyes, although most of the writing was illegible and unintelligible. According to Roger Clarke, writer of “A Natural History of Ghosts; 500 Years of Hunting for Proof’, the handwriting of the ‘otherworldly messages’ matched Marianne Foysters.

Fox among the pigeons...and the graves....
Fox among the pigeons…and the graves….

Finally the family decided have the Rectory exorcised and life quietened for a while afterwards but the manifestations eventually returned in a variety of new ways with inexplicable music emanating from the nearby Church and servant bells ringing by themselves, communion wine turning into ink and “something horrid” attacking one of their children. The family left and successive Rectors refused to live in the rectory and who would have blamed them?

The spectral scribbles
The spectral scribbles

Upon his return in 1937 with a large team of investigators, Harry Price recorded a number of phenomena, the most chilling occurring during a seance where a ‘communicant’ claimed that the the rectory would catch fire in the hallway that night and burn down. This second spirit identified himself as ‘Sunex Amures’ and warned that a nun’s body would be discovered in the ruins. Nothing happened until exactly eleven months later when the rectory burned down after an oil lamp fell over in the hall during the occupation of the property by Captain Gregson. The insurance company were not convinced with his explanation for the fire and it was thought as fraudulent. Locals were still claiming to have seen a nuns face peering from an upstairs window and ghostly figures cavorting around. When Price returned yet again in 1943, he discovered the jawbone of a young woman and gave it a Christian burial in an attempt to bring peace to the site. The bones were interred at nearby Liston Church by Rev. AC Henning.

Interior of Borley Church. Image by foxearth.org
Interior of Borley Church. Image by foxearth.org

Despite the fact that I am no stranger to Borley Church, it was only on my last visit there that I was struck by its position overlooking the south Suffolk valley (although the village is in Essex) and how this might have affected those looking at it from the fields directly opposite. Despite the evidence of fakery, many remain convinced that the place is haunted and that these spectral occurrences are mainly malevolent in nature. What must it have been like to see the church standing sentinel over the valley all those years ago, one of the taller and more imposing structures in the area with such an attendant reputation, contrary to everything a church and its rectory should stand for? We have always seen a church and its grounds as sanctuary since medieval times, dating back to King Ethelbert’s rule in 600AD although this privilege was finally brough to an end in 1723 but perversely the church as site of malevolent happenings is a popular filmic trope (The Omen) and not everyone sees it as a place of shelter. Researching local attitudes to the events at the church and rectory at the time would be a fascinating area of study; not so much the opinions and feelings of the Borley villagers but those of people living nearby and in homes and farms that had a direct view of the church standing silently over them.

Plan of the rectory
Plan of the rectory

Much of what happened may never be made public because it concerns the private spheres of those who were involved and what is known is an intriguing blend of observation, assumption, self delusion and pseudo science of its time. There is convincing evidence for both camps; the believers and the sceptical and if you believe in the old adage “from extremes comes moderation” then you might agree that much remains ‘not proven’ which is not the same as disproven. There has been a resurgence of interest in the Borley story over the last few years and if your interest has been piqued, Neil Spring’s book ‘The Ghost Hunters’ tells the story of the rectory and Harry Price via the character, Sarah Grey, one of the new assistants taken on to explore the hauntings. Sarah says: “I knew of Borley Rectory, too, before I visited it with Harry – supposedly the most haunted house in England. I knew there was no such thing as phantoms; the many witnesses must be mad, or lying. I knew I could visit Borley Rectory without fear, return without harm. These are the things I thought I knew. I now understand the true meaning of terror.” A new animated documentary film called ‘Borley Rectory is also currently in production. Noir-ish is style, the director Ashley Thorpe describes it as a ‘love letter to another age of horror’ after reading about Borley Rectory as a child in the Usborne Book of Ghosts.

Borley: a still from the upcoming film
Borley: a still from the upcoming film

 

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So what would you include in a scratch ‘n sniff guide to Suffolk?

 

Hawkedon by Rosemary Jessopp
Hawkedon by Rosemary Jessopp

I recently contributed to a BBC Radio Suffolk feature about the recent launch, by the York tourist board, of what is claimed to be the UKs first scratch-and-sniff travel guide designed to attract visitors with a real time evocation of the scent of the county, The guidebook is a sensory journey across all aspects of regional life, from the centre of the city to its wildest and most isolated places.

We know how important smell is in the formation of sense memory as Kate McMullen, head of Visit York, says: “Countless scientific studies prove that the human sense of smell is one of the key facets in forming strong memories. We commissioned this scented guidebook to give potential newcomers to York a fun flavour of the many lasting memories that a trip to our historic city could provide.”

Produced with the input of a team of scent “engineers” who analysed a range of smells before recreating them in a laboratory in a process identical to that found in the perfumery industry, the smells were then turned into a printing varnish and applied to the photographs on the pages. A good old scratch will release the scent.

There’s the spooky sulphurous smell associated with one of the city’s smelliest ghosts and an evocation of coal, steam and oil from the Victorian railways (“a nostalgic infusion of coal, steam, engine oil and iron”); an olfactory reminder of its antique shops ( “a musty infusion of leather, old books, gold, silver, wood and dust”) and the smells of horses galloping to the finish line at York Racecourse ( horse hair, hoof oil, grass and fruit punch). Visitors are reminded of the time when the air was enriched by an aroma of chocolate, mint and vanilla as the great chocolate making families of Terry’s and Rowntree worked their magic. The scent of loose leaf tea and cream cakes from Betty’s of Harrogate and strong Yorkshire cheeses such as Wensleydale and Swaledale rounds off the culinary tribute.

It might be the UK’s first odiferous guidebook but it isn’t the first worldwide as that honour belongs to New York City which chose to commemorate sewer steam, hot dogs and pizza alongside the garbage that, no doubt, the latter two scents make up a goodly amount of.

By Cheryse Caba
By Cheryse Caba

So, asked BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Mark Murphy on his mid morning show, “if we were to do the same here in Suffolk, what smells would you include?” Many of the respondents displayed those well known Suffolk traits of pragmatism and practicality, mentioning traffic smells and the salt, fish and industry of local ports, whilst others waxed lyrical.  Here’s some of the most interesting replies sent to me when I canvassed some suggestions, accompanied by a bit of background information.


(1) “Fields of oil seed rape and freshly cut wheat and corn on country runs” says Labour’s parliamentary candidate, Jane Basham when I ask her for her favourite Suffolk smells. The rolling fields of the county grow dense with the smoke blue of borage, acid yellow froth of rape plants and acres of cereal crops. As late summer approaches, the scent of hot straw baled and left in the fields settles low in the air and towards the end of the day, the sun gets low on the horizon and its rays catch the dusty straw motes as they hover in a thick, golden light. The only sound is of crickets hiding in the verges and the bells of the great wool churches of Sudbury, Lavenham and Long Melford as they call the failthful of South Suffolk to prayer.

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Some of the loveliest walks can be found in Jane’s constituency along the South Suffolk valley on the north and south sides of the river Stour. The north and east sides take you from the south side of Long Melford to the north side of Sudbury and onwards through both Little and Great Cornard to Bures. The steep lanes that rise up sharply from Bures Road are thickly hedgerowed and climb to the high points of the county at Arger Fen, surrounded by fields of crops and patched by thickets of mixed broadleaf trees and shrubs. The A134 Rodbridge Corner to Borley road takes you past Long Melford Country Park which borders the Stour and lies to the south and west side of the river from Ridgewell in the west. Rodbridge Corner was once the site of a Roman villa, a vestige of the nearby Roman settlement which once underlaid nearby Long Melford. Continue to Borley, site of the notorious rectory hauntings or travel onwards to Foxearth, Bulmer and Twinstead, ending up on the outskirts of Mount Bures which abuts the county of Essex. The views around Foxearth and up to Borley are panoramic because this is a gentle and undulating landscape, in part due to the clay plateau upon which Foxearth is perched at its western end.

The tree cover is minimal affording walkers a good view of the entire valley and the signposts are engraved with intriguing place names. Don’t be fooled by the French sounding names of the hamlets of Belchamp Otten, Belchamp St Paul and Belchamp Walter. Yes, the modern form  of ‘bel champs’ means ‘beautiful field’ in French but they are actually Old English placenames that refer to ‘the settlement on the baulk or ridge’.

The landscape is loam and chalky clay, a leftover from the great Anglian glaciation, fully fertile and edged by well maintained hedgerows of elm and hawthorn, field maples, oak and ash. Ancient holly bushes loom deep in woodlands thick with cherry, oak and hornbeam. Roadside plantings of old limes cast dappled shade and drip honeydew and sooty ash from the many ants that grow fat on sap whilst modern shelterbelt plantings of alder girdle horse paddocks.The roads and pathways bisect and skirt clusters of hamlets and villages with their mixture of Medieval, Jacobean, Victorian and Georgian architecture: colour washed, buff local brick or tar pitched; beamed, thatched or red clay tiled roofs and estates of solid brick built to house a post war population.

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Around Long Melford

(2) The scent of hemp and algae covered rusting metal- the great ropes and  clanking chains of our Suffolk shipbuilding industry” reminds Edward Miller of our watery history. Suffolk, more than most other counties, has a shifting and permeable boundary, subject to the vagaries of time, tide, wind and water along its coastline. The watery fimbrels of creeks and rivers piled on the pressure for invading forces and made navigating the county so very challenging in times past. Crossed by five estuaries with diverse terrain and features, the Suffolk coast is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and its watery nature has made road building virtually impossible, protecting it from the thoughtless development that other coastlines have been subjected to. From drained marshes, managed reedbeds and deep creeks filled with dark waters to shingle beaches, striated cliffs, heathlands full of tumbled bushes of gorse and forests that march right up to the waves, the landscape is at its best chartered by boat or on foot.

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The intriguingly named Johnny All Alone Creek is one such place, halfway along the river Stour and surrounded by nothing more than grazing marsh to the west and a stretch of shingle beach to the east. Walkers along the Stour/Orwell long distance path which follows the river wall are few; river crafts here are far more prevalent in a landscape pockmarked with brackish rindles and mud flats which are home to avocets, godwits and curlews which stalk the waters and scoop up beakfuls of tiny shrimp.

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Explore Pin Mill between the rivers Orwell and Stour where both estuaries run relatively straight between deep wooded cuts or travel to Woodbridge on the river Deben with its gently curved trajectory which nonetheless requires its sides banking to keep the rising tide from the surrounding farmland. Then there’s the river Waveney and the two other northern estuaries, the Blyth and Alde, with a mild rise to their valley slopes and less assertive flood defences or the river Stour between Mistley and Flatford Mill. Pleasure craft, working fishing boats and the old hulking Thames barges can be seen marooned at Pin Mill during low tide. Winds catch the gorse and pine which grows along the bluffs rising up from the river and carries their scent down to the boatyards where it mingles with estuarine mud and salt, the iodine of the seaweed encrusted rills and gullies and bloody iron tang of the chains as thick as your arm, tethering the crafts to the shore. Jane Watson is another fan of the sealubber scent of Woodbridge from her years spent living there: “that salty sea water from Woodbridge…I love it.”

Run by Des Pawson, one of the world’s leading authorities on knots and sailors’ ropework and a researcher and historian on the subject, the Museum of knots and sailors ropework is one of those niche museums that is both labour of love and repository of centuries of skills and knowledge. As Des says, “Rope and knots are my life and have been since I was a boy” and alongside his business ‘Footrope Knots’ which sells handmade knotted items, Des is determined to ensure that Suffolk rope making is not consigned to the footnotes of history.

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Shipbuilding may sound romantic but it is an industry darkened by sweat and graft and marked by waves of immigration and importation, resentment and assimilation. By the 13th century the industry was flourishing in the county town of Ipswich and by the late 16th century, sailmaking was hugely profitable too although the latter declined as the 17th century waned. Timber and iron came here from the Nordic north and chandleries acquired their hemp for ropes from Latvia. Dockers greeted the import of coal and iron from other parts of the UK and waved goodbye to holds packed full of goods made from this iron. By 1842 a wet dock had been constructed although Ipswich was no longer an international port of importance but this domestic to-ing and fro-ing kept the place alive. Down river, Woodbridge too had been a centre for boat building, rope and sail making since the Middle Ages: both Edward III and Sir Francis Drake had commissioned the construction of fighting ships in the town.

The establishment of Woodbridge’s Custom House followed the increased prosperity that followed the religious settlements under Elizabeth I and the wool trade saw local merchants in Hadleigh, Sudbury and surrounding villages grow rich. The tensions that arrived with Dutch refugees and the competition they posed to local labour forces have strong parallels with present times as the county sees the arrival of migrant workers from Poland and Eastern Europe. They settled across South Essex (Colchesters Dutch quarter bears witness to their aesthetic input) and Suffolk and then, in the 19th century, competition from the northern English factories with their cheaper mass produced yarn and cloth saw the end of boom times for Ipswich and other ports although the silk weaving industry in Sudbury benefited from companies moving out of Spitalfields in East London.

By Rhodie Ike
By Rhodie Ike

Now, with the increasing importance of the leisure and tourist industry and the consequential redevelopment of the marina at Ipswich and Woodbridge’s Tide Mill, we are seeing new life breathed into our old Suffolk ports alongside the huge importance of Felixstowe, just down the coast which is one of Europe’s most important commercial ports and never fails to remind locals of its presence: “the malted smell that drifts from Felixstowe docks when the winds in the right direction”. The spectacle of humongous cargo ships steered into port by floodlit tugs and pilot boats whilst crowds gather at Languard and Shotley to watch is something that particularly delights children.

Ipswich Marina
Ipswich Marina

(3) “The smell of fish and chips in Aldeburgh”; “the smell of the sea” are among the most frequently cited smells of Suffolk and definitely some of the ones that stir up the most nostalgia and longing. The Aldeburgh fish and chip shop is one of the most famous takeaways in the UK, scene of queues down the street and conveniently next door to a well regarded pub with benches out front so you can sit and drink an ale with your chips. There’s a sister restaurant, The Golden Galleon, with a plaster mermaid at its prow and sit down space inside.

Fact is, fish and chips by the sea is an example of food in context, eaten just steps away from one of the best store cupboards in the world- the North Sea. Tidy rows of black pitched and weatherboarded huts along the shingle beach chalk up details of the daily catch on blackboards; sole, lots of crab, skate, plaice and decent lobster with shells tinted hypoxic blue. The fish comes twice daily and locals buy what arrives, eschewing an over reliance on the pre planned shopping list.

Yes, we’ve probably had our fill of food blogs and articles from over excited out of town food writers who are excited by ‘local colour’ and an interminable wait in a chip shop queue, punctuated by swigs from a mini bottle of champagne. Rapturous prose follows their route along the seafront alleyways down to the water where they eat their meal straight from the paper. I’m not going to tell you how the air sizzles with iodine-like inhaling an oyster- nor go on about the pleasure of licking salt and vinegar from your fingers in a brisk on shore wind because I will sound like one of them. Also, contrary to received knowledge, this isn’t the best fish and chip shop in Suffolk but it is really good nonetheless; fish from the neighbourhood cooked in fresh bubbling hot oil. It is Mark Murphy’s quintessential Suffolk smell and he knows what he is talking about, I reckon.

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(4) The sickly sweet nostril prickling scent of scorched sugar from candy floss and sugar beet: the latter is transported to the British Sugar factory on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds. Belching great gouts of steam into the sky and visible for miles around, the factory acts as sentinel, telling locals that they are home- it is the steam, as garden designer Janey Auchincloss points out, that they have the association with. Despite the appalled reaction of nature writer Roger Deakin, many locals are pretty tolerant of the factory, smells and all, and manage to live alongside it: “sugar beet: not lovely, not awful” as Jane Watson says. Deakin really was pretty hard on the sugar beet factory, in part because back in the 80s, toxic effluent was leaked into the river Lark and sugar is a particularly malevolent contaminant, deoxygenating water by encouraging a massive overgrowth of bacteria. Interestingly this is one of the reasons why people with diabetes who have poor blood sugar control may also struggle with lingering bacterial infections, especially of the skin.

Anyway, Deakin reminds us that lorry drivers refer to Bury St Edmunds as ‘sugar city’ and finds it easy to see the factory as a “giant conspiracy against the nations health…it looks at its most satanic at night, when clouds of evil smelling smoke and steam billow like candyfloss out of e forest of steam chimneys and high tech ducting, floodlit in lurid pink and orange.” He continues…“The place looks like a missile launching site…with a system of deodorising mist sprays…perfuming the evil smeling air…a gleaming new spinney conceals vast lagoons full of rotting beet sludge” then ends by referring to “a pot pourri of perfume and stench [which] assails the puzzled nostrils of the traveller.”

Sugar beet steam obscures Tayfen meadows in the town By John Goldsmith
Sugar beet steam obscures Tayfen meadows in the town By John Goldsmith

The thing is, although residents in Bury St Edmunds know not to open their windows when the wind blows in a certain direction or when the pits are being cleaned, I haven’t encountered anyone who vehemently objects to the smell; indeed most people were fairly pragmatic about it, recognising that this is a place that employs not only a significant amount of local people in the factory, but also in the surrounding farms and their associated agriculture. The smell is sweet with a weird vegetal note, reminiscent of the smell of decaying old rhubarb leaves as you dig them back in, exposing fresh growth at the crown of the plant or a potato grown soft and rotten at the back of the vegetable bin. Anyway, we all need to remind ourselves that before the sugar beet began to yield its sweetness, there existed, within the sugar industry, a practice that was responsible for far more unpleasantness than a bad smell.

In an address to the Oxford Symposium on Food, Cathy K Kaufman talks of the initial dream that the sugar beet would render slave produced cane sugar obsolete. Some 19th century American abolitionists saw the root as the ultimate weapon against a cruel system which enabled the southern states to undercut prices through the use of human slaves. As was said in National Era, the options for refining sugar needed toshow that the sweet may be obtained without the bitter, and that there is no necessary connection between bondage and Muscovadoes.” Those early dreams of ending the plantation system via sugar beet sugar came to nothing at that point as commercial production only became viable in 1870 after the American Civil War had done away with the Confederacy and the slavery which was its social and economic foundations.

Sugar beet factory viewed from Barton Mills by Andrew Ridley
Sugar beet factory viewed from Barton Mills by Andrew Ridley

Previously the post Enlightenment and early industrialization periods saw huge demand for sugared hot drinks which caused prices to skyrocket. Initially sugar sweetened tea, coffee and chocolate remained costly luxuries for the wealthy in the 16th and 17th centuries but over the next 200 years, these libations became more democratically available and by the 19th century, the British, French and American working classes routinely drank coffee and tea. The sweetening came from tropical sugar cane from Asian and other colonial outposts. Hence slavery and, of course, the great wealth which it generated in the United Kingdom. The battles between various colonial empires meant that imported supplies of sugar were vulnerable to all manner of economic and political vagaries- a simple shipwreck of a vessel loaded with cane was a potential disaster- so European scientists started experimenting with the extraction of sugar from a variety of plants, via an edict from Napoleon to cease reliance on imports of British sugar cane. Eventually they began to be successful and cane sugar started to lose its monopoly.

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As for that other sugary scent….the bags of bum pink candy floss festooned from kiosks along our seaside promenades are in rude contrast to all that Arthur Ransome seaside stuff and those burned sugar whiskers, spun as you wait at fairgrounds, are the focus of much nostalgia from those of us d’une certain age. From the fairs of our childhood on the ‘Rec’ in Great Cornard to the arrival of those brightly painted trucks on Long Melford Green in the shadow of its great church, candyfloss and the other fairground smells never fail to evoke the sheer excitement of the this gaudy extravaganza coming to town- or trips to the sea. As Pauline said, “candyfloss was something that mum could afford- we were a family of five kids- and I loved the fact that it lodged in the corners of your mouth. I’d sit in the back of the car, travelling home and still be able to taste it hours later. That is, perhaps in hindsight, NOT a good thing for teeth!”

The waltzers always had a dangerous looking youth spinning them; sporting a gold hoop in his ear, a wicked grin and super tight jeans, he would leap onto the fast moving cakewalk and spin the car. His attentions were fuelled by our flirtatious screams and plenty of backward glances as we staggered around dressed in our best clothes because the fair coming to the town warranted a full day of Getting Ready in the seventies. Our hair would stick to the thick cherry flavoured Bonnie Bell lipgloss we wore: we left contrails of Charlie and Jovan Musk oil in our wake and made a deafening racket in our wooden heeled platformed sandals. Our teenage flirtations made us feel, as Margaret Atwood says in the Handmaids Tale, “like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.”


(5) The washing machine water was my grandfathers name for the weir at the Croft in Sudbury and he told gruesome tales to rival the Brothers Grimm of a current strong enough to suck a child down and hold them permanently in the embrace of the green jellified ribbons of river weed. This was a most effective way of keeping a curious child from getting too close and even now, decades later, as I walk the towpath I hear his voice.

Any scratch n sniff book of Suffolk would have to include the odour of fast moving river water ; dank, notes of ozone and muddy mildew that hunker over the flood meadows on a misty morning. Walking along the river, it is possible to identify the point at which its sluggishness, marked only by the dents made by the weight of pond skaters and the occasional fish burp, change into a sudden tugging then a brown watery rush to the weir. The weight of the water pushes it through the grille and flushes it through pondscum and decaying water lily leaves trapped in the iron bars. It churns over a ledge into the cow pond a few feet below then spreads out into a shallow basin whose muddy margins are tromped down into a mess of hoof prints. Hovering over the towpath is an aerosol mist of scent warning walkers of the weir well before the waterway does.

The Stour is well used by ‘wild swimmers’ and there are some murmerings about starting a campaign to redevelop the neglected Victorian swimming pond near the Croft which was closed in 1937 after an outbreak of Diptheria. Pictured below, in 1923, the pool came with changing rooms and the surrounding fields made it a perfect place for stretching out with a book in the sun.

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The ornamental stone steps and rusting foot ladders still remain, close to the footbridge where ducks gather. Walking along the river from the meadows on Melford Road to the Mill Hotel. I can imagine the rope swings that would have hung low over the water and local kids jumping from the bridge on a hot summers day. The water is silky and brown and slow moving here and the frogs eye view is of nothing but fields and the tree line.

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The Sudbury Museums site tells of the affection American airmen posted nearby had for the town and its river during the Second World War. “Americans had fallen into the swing of Sudbury life and few Sudbury homes were lacking in American friends. At Sudbury the meadows are broad and green, and the river flows close to the edge of the old buildings that spring up from its eastern bank. You can walk down to the river across the green in front of St. Gregory’s church, cross a little bridge and sit on a bench under the plane trees, and look out across the meadows to the fields that rise beyond them, and the line of tall trees crowning them. You cannot get much closer to the heart of England anywhere.”

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“You would never have known that there was a war being fought on this island and elsewhere in the world. Or that this was the twentieth, and not the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Not until you looked across the meadow again, and saw, white and ugly under a copse of willows, like one monstrous overgrown white mushroom, a concrete pillbox.”  Although the swimming pond closed before their arrival, local GIs did swim in the river and afterwards they would saunter through the town, damp trunks bundled into a towel and go for a coffee at the cafe in Station Road (later known as The Bongo).  Run by Basil Gates, it had a very popular snooker table at its rear.


(6) Oil paints squeezed onto a palette; that sharp and rich chemical scent as the knife scrapes through represents Suffolk’s great artistic legacy eau d’atelier maybe?  Imagine how the studios of Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, Cedric Morris, Maggie Hambling and other great painters smell: a melange of turpentine fumes soaked into rags and wooden floors; of freshly shaved pencils, primed canvas and crushed stubs of charcoal scattered on floors; clove oil as thinner, cigarette smoke and sweat and old bottles of solvent with their layers of greenish sediment…and not all the scents are harshly ‘chemical’ either. Leonardo Da Vinci apparently used oil of lavender to regenerate a dry canvas and the Early Dutch painters ( Hubert Van Eyck, Rembrandt) added great sweeps of it across their entire canvas as a diluent. After the 14th century spike lavender became the artistic fashion and added another olfactory layer to a scene already replete with them and the work of the artist themselves.

Suffolk provides inspiration for many artists and its literal and metaphorical depictions can be seen on the walls of some of the worlds most important galleries. To walk the Stour valley and the Suffolk coast between Southwold and Aldeburgh is to see the county through the eyes of its greatest artists and to gaze upon an iris is to experience what inspired Cedric Morris (Hambling was a protogeé) who painted in the garden of his Higham Farm home and at Benton End, near Hadleigh.

Listening to Maggi Hambling talk about painting in oils is a visceral experience in itself where she describes oil paints as “very sexy stuff… which you have to love to work with.” Hambling discovers new things in oil all the time and has to juggle the weird telescoping of artistic time where an oil painting can take forever to make then requires bringing together in one moment. “ Things happen that have never happened before when you paint… Oil paint has a great life force of its own.” 

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough
Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough

The fact that art is about commingling of all five senses should not be forgotten either, despite the focus on scent. Get up close to a Constable, Hambling or Gainsborough and there’s the studio right in front of you, saturating the canvas with aroma but there’s so much more too. Constable paints Suffolk hay and Suffolk punches and Suffolk fields. Gainsborough painted portraits and landscapes and you can smell the blue of the sky and the starch of the blue dress that Mrs Andrews wore in her eponymous portrait. There is a sense of self embedded in the art and that self is built from terroir- the land and people- and the spirit of each piece springs from this. You can smell the salt spray and wild grey fury of the North Sea in Hamblings’ wave paintings too. and you can hear it all: great gouts of water smashing the sea wall, each wave different: made up of rivers of silver, turquoise and gold and the darker grey of its trough. In that same interview, Hambling talks of other oil painters and the way their work transcends time: “Oil painting can make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being made. Somebody looking at it can feel, with a late Titian or with a Rothko or a Van Gogh, as if they are there with the work being created in front of them. That’s something oil paint can do. So, yes, I suppose all these marks are energetic. They jump about. It’s all physical,” but equally, she could be talking about her work too.

Lovejoy filming in Clare from Sarah Barrington
Lovejoy filming in Clare from Sarah Barrington

(7) The smell of old books, of antique filled barns and tiny shops and our great libraries- old things”. Suffolk used to be the county of antique shops and book shops, both new and antiquarian, and whilst this might no longer be the case, this past casts long shadows over the present. Our library service has also endured cuts although at the time of writing it has prevailed, with branches in the smallest of towns and a mobile library which reaches the tiniest of hamlets. The libraries of my childhood are no more though as nowadays the stock is replenished more often and you do not see tatty books. I mourn the loss of those stiff pieces of cardboard tucked inside each book and the heavy ink stamp which friendly librarians allowed me to do myself. Upstairs in Sudbury library was a reference section with a giant atlas with its many maps telling of the worlds crops and rivers, the modern political boundaries and olden days when half the world was coloured pink. The inks smelled sharp and medicinal and they left smudges on the pads of my fingers. There is a wonderful quote by Ray Bradbury, “Every book has its smell. A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. A really old book smells like ancient Egypt.” which says it far better than I could. So where does that smell of old books come from? A paper surface acts as a magnet to dust particulates, all three sides of the book will preserve these as long as they are not cleaned. When you open an old book, the deposited particulates are stirred up and pushed up towards your nose because of the currents of air.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Matija Strlic of University College London described it as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.” Hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) comprise this scent, from the paper, inks, bindings and adhesives alongside the skin oils from readers. These all break down over time. Benzaldehydes lend hints of almond and vanillin imbues the pages with a powerful emotional resonance as vanilla is associated with babyhood. The sweetness of toluene and ethyl benzene and floral notes from 2-ethyl hexanol add to this olfactory soup.

Sltrlic led a study published in Analytical Chemistry in 2009 that found 15 VOCs which break down more rapidly than others and this may assist librarians and conservators on identifying those books most vulnerable to degradation. What can be done about the degradation in book and antique shop numbers and library services is a point of debate. Lovejoy did much to promote the county of Suffolk as an antiques filled haven and there is much talk of a new series which is currently being written.

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Lovejoy filming in Clare- from Sarah Barrington

The BBC show ran between 1986 and 1994 and starred actor Ian McShane in the lead role as a roguish antiques dealer with around 15 million viewers regularly watching his iwheeling and dealing in Clare, Long Melford, Cavendish and Lavenham, giving the region its name of Lovejoy Country. There has been rumours that Tony Jordan, creator of TV hit Life on Mars, is developing a remake with his company Red Planet Pictures and will use the original Lovejoy novels as a basis for a new series. But where will Lovejoy wheel and deal now? The growth of online auction sites such as EBAY and rising business rates and rents has led to the demise of many of our antiques centres although Long Melford and Clare still have some; the latter has a thriving auction room too as does Bury St Edmunds. When Lovejoy first filmed, Long Melford had over twenty antiques shops and this number has more than halved over the last fifteen years meaning that Lovejoy may have to branch out. Clare resident Sarah Barrington, owner of a gift store in the town called Blue Dog was not living in the town when Lovejoy filmed but sent the images shown above of the original series filming nearby.