Olive Mudie- Cooke: a candidate for our twenty pound note?

In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie- Cooke
In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie- Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

A recent pledge by the Bank of England to put a British female visual artist on the new twenty pound note may run into sand according to historical scholars who cite the relatively low number of qualifying women as a reason. This follows criticism of the bank after the 2013 selection process which replaced Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill. A petition of more than 35 thousand signatures was received by the bank in protest, prompting a  volte face decision by the banks governor, Mark Carney to put Jane Austen on ten pound notes from 2017.

Recently. Professor Lynda Nead, Pevsner chair of history of art at Birbeck said in an interview with The Guardian that “Visual arts seem to particularly lag behind when it comes to women, compared with other cultural pursuits like writing” and with the rule that no living artist may be nominated, presumably to avoid taking precedence over the very much alive Queen, this, in her opinion, limits the field even further with the resulting disqualification of artists such as Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor Wood and Barbara Hepworth.

In the past, female authors were able to publish under male pseudonyms which helped to overcome some of the gender prohibitions to gaining an audience in the first place. Historically, female artists in other creative fields such as visual arts have been less able to take advantage of anonymity because it would have been necessary to exhibit publically and in ones own name in order to access patrons and acquire a reputation which would positively enhance sales.

There have been calls for the Bank of England to drop its specification that the person must be dead which would open up the field hugely, giving access to such artists as painter Cecily Brown, the taxidermist Polly Morgan, the mixed media artist Zarina Bhimji or Suffolk’s ‘own’ Maggie Hambling. However  I believe that should the selection committee think a little, they will find a wealth of British women working across art and often in ways that surprisingly chime very much with modern digital media despite their having been long dead.

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a sobering thought for many of us and especially a late baby boomer like me, born to parents who clearly remembered it but the artist who I have nominated for commemoration on the twenty pound note lived and worked during the Great War- the First World War. The terrifyingly brave and gender atypical work that artist Olive Mudie-Cooke produced should be more widely celebrated.

The Great War marked a sea change in the way that women artists were regarded. Although only four of the 51 artists commissioned for the official war art scheme by the British government in 1916 were female (and one dropped out and three had their work rejected), the then brand new Imperial War Museum stepped in with its own commission. The museum engaged nine women artists in recording war work as it applied to women and, although they were not given access to the battlefields and theatre of war as men were, Olive Mudie-Cooke ended up extremely close to the frontline. Although the scheme was initially started for propaganda purposes, it soon grew beyond this, exploring many aspects of the Great War and offering an alternative narrative that provided a useful counterpoint to the sanitised and jingoistic governmental utterances.

After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells left
After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3087)

 Olive Mudie-Cooke was a Londoner, born to a carpet merchant father and was one of only a handful of official war artists. The younger of two daughters born to Henry Cooke and his wife Beatrice, Olive created a series of watercolour images that depicted the Great War in all its banal, terrible and hidden glory. Mudie-Cooke served as an ambulance driver, visiting battlefields whose names are burned into our brain: the Somme, Polekappelle, and worked for the Red Cross as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Driver (VAD), steering ambulances across France and Italy aged just twenty six. She was no slouch in the educational stakes either: fluent in French, Italian and German, she sometimes worked as an interpreter for the Red Cross too although, at that time, female artists tended to come from socially and economically advantaged backgrounds, hence the language education and private income that funded her adventures.

In 1919,  the Women’s Work Sub-Committee of the newly formed Imperial War Museum noticed Mudie-Cooke’s work and acquired a number of her paintings for its own collection, still in its early stages. This purchase included her most famous picture, In an Ambulance: a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient  (seen aboveand in 1920 the British Red Cross commissioned her to return to France. Once there Mudie-Cooke documented the activities of the Voluntary Aid Detachment units who were still providing care and relief and produced work which spoke of the damage war inflicted upon communities, the smashed buildings and shattered lives, the latter made explicit by her haunting depictions of women tending the graves of their dead.
Vad convoy unloading an ambulance train at night
Vad convoy unloading an ambulance train at night © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3089)

Before her official commission, Olive produced much of her work between 1916-18. She first went to France as a Red Cross ambulance driver in 1916 and through her chalky drawings and, at times, murky watercolours, we saw the shadow side of war: the injured man desperate for a cigarette and the woman helping him. There’s a halo of light as she cups her hands around the flame and they lean towards each other and  we are drawn into an intimate moment of connection between two strangers that harks back to the Lady with the Lamp of another time, another war.

Similar pools of light falls on the ground between two ambulances drawn up alongside a barracks as injured soldiers await evacuation- they are men stripped of identity as they lie in serried ranks, painted into the canvas border. We aren’t meant to know who they are and the crepuscular tones preserve their facelessness.  Olive is a master of this, the contrasts between light and dark, between what we know and are allowed to know and in ‘A VAD Convoy Unloading an Ambulance Train at Night After the Battle of the Somme’ the murky browns of the watercolour bear the aesthetic hallmarks of an old sepia photograph, found hidden in an attic and brought into the light of the day as opposed to the painting it actually is.

Large tank burn out.
Burnt out tank -Art.IWM ART 5398

Her work comes complete with a psychological zoom lens: an ambulance skids and founders on an icy Italian mountain side and the rescuers are now in need of assistance. She isolates barbed wire on the canvas, coldly silvered and metallic in dimmed light as it encircles a battlefield which contains its own subterranean dangers. There are scenes that haunt: two tanks injured in battle themselves after engaging the enemy on the Western Front in 1917, part of a war action near Poelkapelle which left these armoured behamoths helpless and worse than useless and a blot on a landscape which once contained only silky shifting fields of corn.

Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke
Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5395)

Mudie-Cooke and women like her also helped paved the way for others to follow a similar career path: those women health professionals who work across war zones and regions experiencing humanitarian crisis and women who are soldiers are there in no small part because Mudie-Cooke showed it could be done. Most importantly though, Mudie-Cooke’s art was one of the forerunners to modern war photography and in its style and content, predicted the era of citizen photo journalism as millions of people become recorders of their own narrative, armed with smartphones instead of a sketchpad although artists are still commissioned to record war via the paintbrush as once did Mudie-Cooke.

Etaples British Military Cemetery a view through a few trees across the large field of crosses of the British military cemetery at Etaples
Etaples British Military Cemetery a view through a few trees across the large field of crosses of the British military cemetery at Etaples

To discern and edit is where true artistry resides though and unlike most, Olive knew what to leave out; many of her most admired works are master classes in composition. Although her work was essentially documental- and there was pressure to succumb to the propaganda machine- she adhered to a professional ethos that still exists among photo journalism despite the craze for gonzo journalism which at its worst, becomes a clumsy ego driven exercise. Olive became a silent storyteller but a not altogether passive one- she alone chose what to portray and her emotional presence pushes up through the layers of water colour and charcoal.

Mudie-Cooke returned to England for a short period before returning to France in 1925 where she took her life. Was she another casualty of war like so many before and after her? If so, in this respect she is also of her time and ours too which has seen wave after wave of psychologically harmed men and women return from conflict. Mudie-Cooke deserves to be honoured.

British military cemetery in Etaples by Olive Mudie-Cooke

Nominate your choice of artist here

Olive Mudie- Cooke collections at The Imperial War Museum

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Ten reasons to visit….Sudbury

Sudbury by Jane Mortlock
Sudbury by Jane Mortlock

Just over an hour away from London via train, Sudbury has enjoyed the ebb and flow of commercial and cultural success over the centuries: it is another one of those East Anglian towns that has punched well above its weight. The town lies in the valley of the Stour, a river that conveyed power and influence upon the town bedded inside its sinuous curves. Its waterways transported the fruits of local labours in the wool and brick trades to regional ports and its beauty and rural industry was captured on canvas by three scions of Sudbury: Constable, Earee and Gainsborough. Nowadays, life is slightly more sedate after centuries of lively history which saw bears dancing in the streets and political corruption as one of the rotten boroughs. There have ben peasant revolts which lost Simon of Sudbury his head, and a Zeppelin attack on the town when a German bomber most likely mistook the glow from nearby lime pit kilns for a much larger town and dropped his payload on 8000 residents during the First World War.

By Darren Guiheen
By Darren Guiheen

The Telegraph newspaper recently reported that ‘Sleepy Sudbury’, in Suffolk, was the only postcode outside the M25 to enter the top ten new millionaire property hotspots last year. Outstripping the country’s frenetic average house price rises in 2014, this report conveniently ignored the fact that most house sales in Sudbury during the last year were terraced properties which sold for an average price of £160,531 with semi and detached properties selling in the £200,970 to £280,936 range. However it made a good story which got a lot of locals talking about the potential merits of an influx of oligarchs searching for million pound properties to live in for just two weeks of each tax year.

Paul Earee, (1888-1968),
Paul Earee, (1888-1968), “The Bend of the River”, “Reflections” and “The Mere”

Sudbury benefits from a semi direct line to London’s Liverpool Street station with the journey (changing at Marks Tey) taking approximately eighty minutes, a short enough time to make the commute a viable (and livable) option. The route from Sudbury to Marks Tey is attractive too, trundling along the Gainsborough Line with sweeping views of the river valley, the surprisingly steep valley sides and super long 32 arch Chappel viaduct which crosses the Colne Valleynd is thought to be the second-largest brick-built structure in England after Battersea Power Station. Those bricks were fired in Sudbury and sailed down river by lighter from which they were transferred at Mistley quay into sailing barges for the journey along the coast to London. Other commuters are served by hourly buses to regional larger towns although they do tend to end fairly early in the evening. Shift workers needing to return to Sudbury from Bury St Eds or Ipswich might struggle to make the trip via public transport.

Cross St by Jane Mortlock
Cross St by Jane Mortlock

Lovely meadow walks with well maintained trails, a lively converted granary theatre and plenty of independent shops, decent pubs and schools all make the town an attractive proposition to live in. There’s a mix of housing stock from well preserved Tudor and Georgian houses to streets of tidy Victorian brick cottages and larger villas, all ringed by modern developments. Prices tend to be a little lower than the aforementioned larger towns. Tourism is increasingly well catered to with informative tourist centres in the library and the calendar of local festivals and events is well promoted by local business and travel organisations. So, if you are thinking of taking a trip, here’s ten reasons to visit (or move to) Sudbury and we’d be delighted to hear about any more we might have overlooked.

Market Hill and the Black Boy pub.
Market Hill and the Black Boy pub.

(1) Its expert silk weaving history and the chance to buy beautiful fabrics: Originating in China many centuries ago, Sudbury has become a world reknowned centre for silk weaving and is home to four established firms- Vanners, Stephen Walters & Sons, Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company and the Humphries Weaving Company (established 200 years ago in the town). The town has also been a centre for cloth manufacture since the 14th century. Originally Sudburians wove woollen broadcloth then turned to lighter fabric with the decline of the wool trade which, in its time, brought great wealth to the town as well as to Lavenham, Glemsford, Long Melford and Hadleigh. The fine churches built all over South Suffolk are testimony to the great fortunes of a fortunate few families who endowed the county with these magnificent edifices.

Vanners silks by Keith Evans
Vanners silks by Keith Evans

Huguenots from Spitalfields in East London moved to Sudbury to escape magistrate imposition of a fair (and lesser) wage around the late 17th century: skilled textile workers were happy to work in Sudbury for a higher than usual wage which was still less than bosses would have to pay in London. By 1844 there were four silk manufacturers and some 600 silk looms in Sudbury with some of these set up in the workers homes, allowing women especially to work and manage their domestic responsibilities. Walk around the town, along Batt Hall in Ballingdon, Station Road near the bus station, East and Cross Streets and Melford Road backing onto the water meadows and you will see the traditional three story weavers cottages lining the narrow pavements, one window back and front per floor. With ground floor living space and top floor bedrooms, the middle floor served as working area with those large windows letting in plenty of light onto the looms which would have been set up in the centre of the floor at right angles to the window so the light fell across the warp. If manufacturers preferred to retain close proximity to their workers, they established small weaving centres, known as silk manufactories where managers could centralise training and supervise quality. The building which is now a Dental Emporium on Acton Square was one as was 47 Gainsborough Street next to the Gainsborough Museum.

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Weavers Piece commemorates the town’s silk and wool trade

Weavers Piece is a small outside exhibition in the heart of the towns old weaving quarter and it tells the story of the silk weaving history via an enclosed garden with story panels and bronze sculptures and comes complete with fake grazing sheep. Set in Siam Place, it is close to good local pubs, the Croft and town centre and those of you intrigued by the history of evocative road names will be kepy busy: Scalders Way (once the site of the ducking stool), Duckpit Lane and Gooseberry Row were all close by. Siam weavers were once known for making damask like silk cloth for the Royal Court and with an estimated 110 metric tons of Chinese silk entering the town each year, Sudbury claims to be the silk capital of England with Gainsborough Silk Weaving holding the Royal Warrant as Official Supplier of Furnishing Fabric to HM Queen Elizabeth II whilst Stephen Walters was commissioned to made silk for the wedding dresses of both the Princess Royal and Princess Diana. Humphires have worked with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Gardiner Museum, Boston. All the companies make fabrics for some of the best designers in the world and supply many historic homes and national trust properties, replicating ancient patterns and techniques, often using a blend of state of the art computerised techniques and old as time weaving skills. They are incredibly skilled at what they do and guardians of skills that are hard won over time.

Image from Stephen Walters
Image from Stephen Walters

Two of the firms run factory shops on site where members of the public can buy high quality fabrics at pretty decent prices and alhough these premises aren’t all that glamorous from the outside, they are absolute treasure troves for those of you who want excellent quality fabrics at a less than rarified price. Stephen Walters also offers customers the chance to consult their large historical archive and reference studio and their creative and technical designers can also interpret the customers own artwork to produce something bespoke. Vanners sell furnishing and couture silks alongside an tiemaking and cufflink department. Should you want more advice on what to do with your fabrics or seek more alternatives then Amor Interiors on Friars Street offers expert advice as does Lingards Fabrics on King Street, one of the towns original haberdasheries- this is a tardis of a shop with everything the dressmaker could desire. (2) The glorious meadows and river- 10994924_1613175725586732_6351588392254855197_n As befits a place with a famous and accessible river wending its way through the town, Sudbury offers a plethora of ways to get up close and personal with the water, whether you are seeking something sporty or a more gentle and contemplative activity. The river Stour and meadows are a stunning location for a walk offering strolls of different lengths from end to end or circular with the chance to stop off in the town at multiple points- you are never far away from somewhere to eat and drink or a scenic place to sit and rest tired legs. The swan feed at nearby Brundon is hugely popular with families; there’s a bridge overlooking the home of swans of all ages who live on the millpond and a walk runs past which will take you along a path edged with deep hedgerows of cow parsley which occasionally part to offer views of the meadows and valley sides. The water at Brundon Mill and the nearby river runs thick with chub, roach, and carp plus shoals of dace.

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The boating pond at the Croft

The Melford to Sudbury Valley Walk takes you from Melford Hall to Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, walking along part of the old Gt. Eastern Long Melford to Sudbury railway line closed by Beeching back in the day. The route passes three old water mills along the route. The Croft in the town centre is a popular local beauty spot with lawns down to the water and bridge where generations of locals have fed the ducks. There’s an old boating lake, plenty of paths and the water meadows to play on or picnic and the towpath takes you to the Mill Hotel near St Gregory’s Church where cream teas or a pint awaits walkers. Go inside the hotel and check out the mummified cat interred in the wall centuries ago as protection against witches and evil spirits. Continue along the river walk or meadows and you will pass a tiny lane leading onto Cross Street on your left, reached via a bridge. Called Noahs Ark Lane, the name reflects its width- dairy cows and other grazing animals could only pass two by two en route to the common lands where they grazed in the spring and summer. Want to cycle? The River Walk runs alongside the old railway track and Sudbury is at the apex of signposted Millenium networks of South Suffolk Cycle Routes: both Route A and the two Loops to Lavenham (A1) and Bures (A2) begin in the town. Cycles can be hired here and from Cool Pedals near the station.

Noahs Ark Lane is one of the lovely routes down to the river from Sudbury town centre
Noahs Ark Lane is one of the lovely routes down to the river from Sudbury town centre

Another lovely walk is along Kone Vale (peculiarly named after a pre-war Egg Packing Station on the site) which hugs the river bank to the left of Ballingdon Bridge as you leave the town in the direction of Ballingdon Hill.  Not too far away from here on the hill lies a canal from the Stour that serviced Allens brickyards and most of the bricks made here ended up constructing Liverpool Street Station, the museums in South Kensington and the Albert Hall.  Suffolk has no decent supply of building stone but was rich in oak forests until the Tudor period and its brick industry provided less wealthy residents with an affordable building material. Consider this history and how it shaped this part of Sudbury as you walk along the lines of willows that edge the river, passing playing fields, stiles, meadows (Kone Vales) and farmland. Keep on and you’ll end up on the Stour Valley Path and eventually arrive at Henny Church and the tiny villages of Henny and Middleton.

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Ladies Bridge

If boating and canoeing is your thing, then Sudbury Canoe Club at the Quay Theatre offers tuition and the chance to enjoy river running and exhilarating white water kayaking with tuition by qualified BCU coaches.The River Stour Boating provides 25 mile trips along the Stour via Canadian canoe from the town through Dedham Vale towards Manningtree where the Stour estuary commences. Reaching countryside not always accessible on foot, there is the chance to watch otters and kingfishers, buzzards and water voles in their natural habitat and the chance to sail past Quay Cut to Lady Island and the old Ladies Bridge. The Stour Trust is happy for visitors to launch their own light craft from their private slipway by The Granary at the Quay Theatre but you will need to purchase a permit to use the river from The Environment Agency.

Stour walk by Oxyman/Geographic
Stour walk by Oxyman/Geographic

The River Stour Boat Trips offers trips crewed by fully trained volunteers between Sudbury, Gt Cornard and Gt Henny and trips between Stratford St Mary, Flatford and Dedham. They welcome new trainees who will be given full training in basic boat handling and safe lock operation. The boats can be hired for wedding trips along the river too and each September, this twenty four mile stretch of the River Stour hosts hundreds of canoe and small boat enthusiasts in a weekend event called Sudbury To The Sea, which finishes at Cattawade.

Rosette electric boat on the Stour by Oxyman
Rosette electric boat on the Stour by Oxyman

The river is also popular with anglers and offers good coarse fishing. A fishing permit and advice can be bought from Sudbury Angling Centre, 40 North Street, 01787 312118 and more advice is available here.

(3) Museums: Gainsborough’s House and Museum / Sudbury Heritage Centre

ooded Landscape with Herdsman Seated by Thomas Gainsborough, image courtesy of Gainsborough’s House Museum, Gainsborough Street, Sudbury, Suffolk.
ooded Landscape with Herdsman Seated by Thomas Gainsborough, image courtesy of Gainsborough’s House Museum, Gainsborough Street, Sudbury, Suffolk.

Son of Sudbury and commemorated for all time on its Market Hill via a statue, Thomas Gainsborough once lived and painted here on the street that now bears his name and is the location of his once home and now museum. Exploring his life and art, the museum stages regular exhibitions alongside its permanent exhibits and is a much loved place for all local school children to visit and benefit from a lively learning programme. Born in 1727, Gainsborough lived in Sudbury until around 1740 when, as a young teenager, he was sent to London to pursue a career as an artist, returning to the town in the spring of 1749 where he painted his celebrated Mr and Mrs Andrews (c.1750, National Gallery, London).  Despite moves to Ipswich, Bath and London, he never lost the influence of his native town and county with his work providing us with an invaluable record of  the ways by which agricultural technology impacted upon his beloved Suffolk topography. He was no chocolate box painter either; his keen eye was the result of a rigorous training both observational and practical. ‘Nature was his teacher, and the woods of Suffolk his academy,’ noted an obituary after his death in 1788. Yes, most of the landscapes Gainsborough painted were imaginary and not literal depictions but they are very much inspired by the stunning countryside nearby and his painting of Cornard Wood now hangs in the National Gallery. 2 The museum opened in 1961 and has a beautifully planted garden open for visiting and is designed around a large Mulberry tree which dates back to the early 1600s.  James the First ruled then and he encouraged the nascent silk producing industry by urging people to plant the tree that nourishes the silkworm which, in turn, went on to nourish the economic growth of Sudbury itself. Plants and seeds from the garden are on sale at the museum shop. Past exhibitions have included ‘contemporary East Anglian artists’;  ‘Silk Squalor and Scandal: Hogarth Prints’ and there’s also an open access print workshop. Children and students pay just £2 entry whilst under 5’s go free. Family tickets are available and there is a cafe too.

Thomas Gainsborough on Market Hill in front of St Peters Church
Thomas Gainsborough on Market Hill in front of St Peters Church

Sudburys Heritage Centre carries a permanent display that depicts the history of the town from its earliest, ancient days to current times and is located behind the Town Hall in Gaol Lane. The website houses Sudbury’s historic photo archive too and this can also be viewed online at the centre. (4) The Talbot Trail 1509942_1584032485167723_8680468889126441547_n With its links to both the quirkier aspects of the towns past and the more well known, the Talbot Trail is a great way to become acquainted with Sudbury history and get some exercise too. Taking you on a circular walk around the streets of Sudbury using a leaflet available from the tourist centre in the library, children will especially enjoy looking out for the bronze sculpture topped red bollards that depict particular events. Sadly, some of the bronzes have been half inched and it is to be hoped that they will one day be replaced.  The trail takes its name from a breed of hunting dog that appears on the Sudbury coat of arms and a dog once favoured by Simon of Sudbury and one of the bronzes commemorates another famous dog: Pongo from Dodie Smith’s 101 dalmatians which had a scene set in the town. Others are of dancing bears, skulls in churches and the Great Blondin, a famous trapeze artist who once visited. Upon completion of the the trail, take the leaflet back to the library to get it stamped and take the opportunity to explore this enormous building, once Sudbury’s Corn Hall and now home to the library. The Tourist Information Centre also sells an official town trail booklet by the Sudbury Society which is more adult orientated and explains the history of many of the towns historical buildings. The centre is super helpful, staffed by very knowledgeable staff and full of books, leaflets and guides to East Anglia. (5) There’s curious tales and ghost stories a plenty To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘age has not withered Sudbury, nor custom defied her infinite ghostly variety” and with a town so old and set in a landscape equally as venerable, the tales of hauntings and spooky happenings are many. With a history dating back to Anglo Saxon times, the town plays hostess to a haunted mill, a stamping ghost, the skull of a man with an eponymous moniker and a poor mummified cat alongside its close proximity to Borley Rectory, one of the worlds most notorious sites for ghosts and ghost hunters. Locals have also spoken of hauntings at the site of the former workhouse which quite frankly is unsurprising: the history and fact of its existence of the latter should serve as a haunting to us all if nothing else. The nearby Crofton House was once used as a 25 bed children’s home and in recent times has been a private home. Andy Simpson, who used to live there told us “It’s the big house on the corner at the top of the croft which used to be a childrens home and a very cruel one. There’s two ghosts in the kitchen, one in the back corridor, and three upstairs. It is now a hostel for the homeless.”

The old priory in Friars St, as it once might have looked
The old priory in Friars St, as it once might have looked

In addition to the ‘big’, more famous tales of hauntings, locals also talk of a ghostly presence lurking upstairs in the old Savory & Moore chemists (now the Edinburgh Woollen Mill) which former employee Debbie Smith describes: “All the staff saw shadows at certain times going past the canteen door. The canteen was a former kitchen in the original house. A corridor ran outside the door to a former front door which can still be seen up in the wall if you stand outside the post office and look up. A toilet was at the end of the corridor by the door, and we often saw a shadow heading down the corridor. Thinking someone had gone down to the loo and not came back we check they were ok, only to find no one there. A frequent occurrence!” Then there’s the ghost of a monk that has been seen walking across Friars Street down by the old Ship and Star pub which has now been converted into a private home: the Priory Gateway is still along this street with the original priory grounds accessible via nearby Church St. Finally Helen Bigden adds her experiences to the oft related belief that the old Angel Inn in Friars St (near to the old priory site) was haunted by the ghost of an old man:. “An old man with a long grey beard used to sit by the window, probably waiting for someone to buy him a pint – but I never saw him. Upstairs was the ‘Lady in Grey’. I stayed there one night and heard footsteps going backwards and forwards outside the bedroom but when I opened the door no-one was there!”

Borley Church
Borley Church

Two miles NW of Sudbury, the demolition in 1944 of the infamous haunted rectory and its association with Victorian ghost hunter Harry Price has not deterred people from making the journey to the tiny hamlet of Borley. Price’s reports about the incidents (or not as the case may be) have long intrigued us and there is soon to be a stop motion animation film directed by Ashley Thorpe, starring Reece Shearsmith. The story of Borley has all the best spectral tropes: carriage drivers and nuns, theatening ghost graffiti on the walls, graveyards and poltergeist activity.

The Mill Hotel, home of a mummified cat by David Hawgood
The Mill Hotel, home of a mummified cat by David Hawgood

Bizarre in many ways and harder to understand to modern folk was the 17th century habit of interring live cats in walls to protect against the antics of local witches and Sudbury’s Mill Hotel contains a prized and famous example of this phenomena, safely preserved for all time behind glass. The mill has been converted into a hotel, bar and restaurant and its restored waterwheel is also encased in glass, a beautiful feature of this well known building on the water meadows which is believed to be the modern incarnation of a mill that has stood here for over a thousand years. A ghostly apparition of a woman has been seen wandering the older 19th century parts of the existing mill, believed to be the spectral remains of a sad drowning incident beneath the water wheel. Her appearance has spooked many an employee and cleaning staff have been known to refuse to work alone in some parts of the hotel.

The Mill Hotel's mummified cat
The Mill Hotel’s mummified cat

The snarling skeleton of the mummified cat was found when the water mill was converted into the hotel, its remains discovered by builders, regarded as rubbish and thrown in the trash. The Mill Hotel subsequently caught fire and after this was extinguished, the cat was retrieved from the bin and peace prevailed. Inexplicably the cat was sold to a local shop later on whereupon the shop caught fire and eventually the cat was returned to the hotel where it remains to this day. Just as well really because during its absence, the road outside the Mill exploded, the person who moved the cat had an accident and the hotel managers offices were flooded. Although fires during building work are common and riverside properties prone to flooding, many locals remain convinced of the supernatural powers of this skeletal feline.

St Gregory's Church
St Gregory’s Church

The rather incongruous setting of St Gregory’s church is home to the skull of Simon of Sudbury whose story is also told via the Talbot Trail. In brief, Simon of Sudbury was seized by insurgents after they stormed the Tower of London. Simon was dragged to Tower Hill and publicly beheaded. Sudbury, was Chancellor of Salisbury and Bishop of London before being made the archbishop in 1375 and became deeply unpopular with the rebellious peasants because of his role in introducing the third poll tax. Not on show to the public, the skull is kept in the vestry of the church although forensic scientists recently recreated Simon’s facial features to complete a series of 3-D bronze-resin casts of his head. These casts were revealed on 15th September 2011 in St Gregory’s church, 630 years after Simon’s death. Unsurprisingly, the ghostly apparition of Archbishop Simon has been seen walking inside St. Gregory’s Church: several locals have heard unexplained footsteps in the dead of night.

A stained glass window at St Andrews church in Wormingford marks the dragon
A stained glass window at St Andrews church in Wormingford marks the dragon

The nearby villages of Wormingford and Little Cornard have their own bizarre folklore-tales of giant murderous worms and of dragons that fight to the death on opposing hills that form some of the highest points in the south of the county where it borders Essex. Battles raged centuries ago and Romans camped on the hills of Little Cornard and Bures, ranged against invasion on high ground that afforded them the views stretching for miles across the Stour valley. In 1449, a chronicle kept in Canterbury cathedral tells of a battle waged between two fire breathing dragons: a Suffolk dragon with scaly black skin curled around the summit of Kedington Hill and a reddish spotted creature from Essex guarding Ballingdon Hill where the steep climb towards Halstead and the Essex lands begins. Unfortunately for Suffolk, they lost although both dragons retreated to their own hills “to the admiration of many beholding them” according to the chronicle. There are many accounts of dragons, including one which terrorised Bures and the hamlet of Wormingford which acquired its name from tales of dragons; ‘worm’ meaning serpent or dragon. The first tale relates the escape of a crocodile from Richard I’s menagerie in the Tower of London and cause of much damage in Wormingford before being killed by Sir George Marney. The second, written in 1405 by John de Trokelowe, a monk, told of a dragon who threatened Richard Waldegrave’s territory near Sudbury but fled into the Mere when pursued, hence ‘Worm-in-ford. The walk to Bures and Wormingford along the river valley is one of the loveliest around and it is easy to catch one of the hourly buses that run between Sudbury and Bures should you not fancy a return journey on foot.

Swans on the Brundon mill pond, near to the haunted Brundon Hall
Swans on the Brundon mill pond, near to the haunted Brundon Hall

A little further on in the opposite direction and near to the swan feed, is the grade II* listed Brundon Hall which has another water mill nearby and a ghost story of its own in the form of an apparition of a woman dressed in blue satin, who stamped three times on a blue slab set into the floor of the hall near to its great staircase. Seen by two young boys, they watched in fright as she melted through a solid doorway and, after relating their experience, were told that this spectre had not only been seen before but was connected to an ‘unpleasant event’ of which the family declined to speak of further. Wind forward in time as the new owners of the hall renovate the building and encounter an underground vault which had been concealed by the blue slab the apparition had stamped upon. Upon exploring it, they found some very disturbing contents..a couple of skeletons guarding a large stash of gold coins. One of the skeletons wore a gold bracelet whilst the other had gold spurs near its feet. Nearby could be seen a goblet containing what some believed was dried blood and a collection of children skulls and bones inside a recess set into the wall. (6) Pubs music and eating out

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Rear of the Bay Horse showing its pub gardens

It might not be the most picturesque of Suffolk pubs (although its gardens have sweeping views of the beautiful water meadows) and it certainly isn’t in a romantic country location but I love the Bay Horse on Sudbury’s Melford Road because of the generosity of welcome there. With brilliant live music on a Sunday afternoon plus free, yes FREE, food such as great steaming hot bowls of chilli and soup with salad, bread and coleslaw, this is one of our favourite places to see blues, a bit of bluegrass and indie where the musicians know how to play. Don’t expect glamorous interior design but do turn up if you like friendliness, a sense of being among real Sudbury folk and decent music. Dogs welcome too. Sudbury’s pubs in general are raising their game after the loss of a couple of legendary taverns over the years. (Anyone remember The Anchor and music at The Ship & Star with its very own dragon in the form of a highly strung landlady?) Now we have the Brewery Tap on East Street, run by local micro brewery Mauldons instead of one of the large conglomerates. J.C. Mauldon & Sons were local brewers from 1793, once based at the White Horse Brewery until 1958 when they were taken over and closed down by Greene King. Brewing returned to the town in 1992 when Peter Mauldon set-up a brewery in his family name once again and is now located in Churchfield Rd. The Brewery Tap serves Mauldons own Black Adder stout alongside German Pils and Japanese lagers, Aspalls Suffolk ciders and a wide variety of Scottish malt whisky. (Bunnahabain, Bruichladdich, Aberlour & Oban Lagavulin and Talisker are just some of them.) Food wise there’s proper salt beef and smoked gammon baps, pork pies and homemade scotch eggs plus a Breakfast club where a bookable full English with the papers is currently £6,50.

The Waggon & Horses by oxyman
The Waggon & Horses by oxyman

With favourable online reviews, a lovely location very close to the Croft and river but only minutes from the town centre, the Waggon and Horses self describes itself as “a pub with a restaurant” with a full range of bar food and snacks, proper meals (wood pigeon, mac & cheese, plaice with anchovy butter and purple sprouting, cheese burgers) and drinks in milk bottles with straws for the kids. There’s cute layered puddings in mason jars, a partially covered outside space, live music and special meal deals plus dogs are allowed. Now owned by the local Nethergate Brewery, the pub is the site of the now defunct Phoenix Brewery of Grimwade & Co which was based there until 1920. It gained its name when it arose from the ashes of a fire in 1890. Also nearby is the Weavers Piece outdoor exhibition space.

Belchamp otten's Red Lion
Belchamp otten’s Red Lion

If you are able to travel a few miles out of Sudbury, the tiny hamlet of Belchamp Otten is home to the Red Lion, a typically rural Suffolk pub on a winding lane side which offers a great welcome to the many cyclists and walkers that haunt this part of the county. (It’s close to Borley too.) Located on the Essex/ Suffolk border which itself winds around Sudbury, there are log fires, real ales and a menu of good pub food which isn’t adventuruous but is well cooked. There’s regular live music, mini beer festivals but to be honest the views over endless fields and hedgerow edged lanes are so stellar, they are enough in themselves.

The Angel
The Angel

Back to Sudbury and you’ll find The Angel, an old coaching inn down near the cricket ground and Quay Theatre, scene of alleged hauntings in the past and with a gorgeous setting, refurbished dining room and rear garden. The menu is mainly European, ingredient wise. There’s clam tagliatelle and ox tail and local pigeon alongside snacks and bar food.  This is the place to come when the cricket stretches out into the low light of a summer evening; to refresh yourself with a pint, a glass of wine or some ice cream then get back to the action next door. Opening in late May 2015 is the Rare Cow Steakhouse overlooking the river and by the Ballingdon Bridge and, based on its existing excellent restaurants, is shaping up to be another good place for a burger in this neck of the woods. Sadly, my favourite place to eat burgers (and better than all the London based burger purveyors raved over by metrocentric critics) Shakes n Baps has recently closed. They plan to return in another guise so keep an eye out for them. For younger folk, Eden’s 45 club on Gainsborough Street has an upstairs cafe bar serving affordable alcohol free cocktails and there’s a Screenzone bar downstairs. Run by Eden’s Project, the youth clubs have an underlying Christian ethos and aims to offer an alternative to hanging about on the streets with structured activities such as youth football. There’s a CaféZone, free Internet access, a pool table and games consoles and a garden too. Unfortunately there is no wheelchair access at the Sudbury base.

The Rude Strawberry tarts- image from their Facebook page
The Rude Strawberry tarts- image from their Facebook page

Eating out is well catered for in the town with a decent proportion of independent cafes and restaurants although the chains are marching in. We love the Rude Strawberry in Friars Street, a quirky cafe in an old building serving proper hand made food. Local means Weston’s bread and free range eggs from Little Cornard, pate from Seasonal Suffolk in Boxted, Glemsford honey and pork from Assington. Herbs and veg are grown in season and cakes are scratch made just like everything else (including a divine looking Swedish apple, plum and cinnamon cake). Veggies and wheat avoiders are catered for generously and there’s gluten free bread. Happy hour breakfasts for less than five quid are not to be missed and they treat breastfeeding parents extremely well -they don’t just tolerate them.

Marimba chocolate
Marimba chocolate

Packed whenever we’ve visited and most definitely on Market Days (Sat/Thurs) Huffers on King Street has been there for quite some years now and in a long narrow building that seems to go on forever (there’s a dinky little patio garden too), waitresses bustle about serving up the large menu of freshly cooked cafe classics. If you like good hot chocolate, candies and freshly made filled chocolates then around the corner in the (admittedly brutalist and unattractive concrete) Borehamgate Precinct is Marimba. Two premises, one for aforementioned candies and chocs and the other (opposite) serves drinks and snacks in a small cafe with a few outside seats too. I had an onion and cheese toastie last week which was less than four quid, hot and decently made and sat reading the free papers listening to locals chat to the staff. They do hot chocolate melts packed with a whopping 40g of single origin real chocolate flakes in blends of dark, milk and white and although the views outside aren’t stellar,  it doesn’t matter so much when you are filling your chops with chocolate. Afterwards, if you can still go a little more in the candy department, cross the precinct to buy more of them from a shop rammed with tall jars filled to the brim with old fashioned sherbert pips and pontefract cakes, chocolate limes, tablet and barley sugars and my favourite, banana toffees to take out in striped paper bags. Sudbury used to have two perfect sweet shops: Dollies was opposite Borehamgate Precinct and served the starving hordes of kids streaming out of the open air swimming pool and park, Belle Vue, over the road. We’d stand dripping and wrapped in towels as they slowly weighed our candy before hurtling back to the pool and the iodine brown hygenic foot bath we all had to walk through. When I was older I’d buy cigarettes individually from Dollies- a lot of us Sudbury reprobates did. Then, at the bottom of Market Hill at the junction with Gainsborough St was Saunders which, like Dollies, also sold pipe tobacco and cigs. The wooden shop fittings with their glass topped cases were impregnated with the scents of cherry pipe tobacco and old Suffolk uncles sporting tweed  jacketsand Tattershall check shirts in brown and cream stood around shooting the breeze as they bought their weeks supply of baccie.In town for the cattle and pig market which used to take place once a week, they did all their socialising in one dizzy rush before retreating to their farms in the deepest countryside. (7) Belle Vue Park and Cornard Country Park- Cornard Mere

Belle Vue Park by Oxyman
Belle Vue Park by Oxyman

Built in the grand Victorian style when money and space was no object, Belle Vue park  lies at the southern entrance to the town, straddling the Colchester roads and abutting the former maternity hospital, St Leonards. Edged by dark woodlands that are springy underfoot from decades of dropped pine needles, there are formal landscaped gardens surounding Belle Vue House like an ornate petticoat and winding paths encourage visitors past aviaries of Asiatic pheasants, finches and fluffy white chickens. Time has not wrought a lot of change apart from the much lamented closure of the open air lido and swimming pool. The present 19th Century Belle Vue House near its entrance was used as a Red Cross hospital during World War One and later on as the Stour Valley Old People’s Centre although its future is now under review after the council mooted a potential sale. Belle Vue hasn’t been preserved in aspic though. There’s a skate park inside and BMX track just outside the entrance, a fair sized kids playground with tornado swings, toddler area and large sandpit and there’s also basketball and tennis courts and a trim trail alongside a huge expanse of grass for picnics and lunch hour sunbathing. Baby change and loos, a light bites cabin for ice creams, drinks and sweets and fitness equipment for adults completes the picture. In the Summer, the park plays host to Party in the Park, a large and free spectacular with music and other attractions. It is to be hoped that the council will be able to work with locals to enhance this part of town and attract more visitors to the park which it, at present, rather easy to miss by those who do not know it exists.

Cornard Mere
Cornard Mere

Cornard Mere is a mixture of open fen, scrub and woodland off Bures Road on Blackhouse Lane and is only a mile from Sudbury. Close to the River Stour, there’s nesting sites for reed bunting, sedge and reed warbler and in autumn swallows and sand martins use it as a pit stop on their journey back to Africa. Large noctule bats can also be spotted hunting on summer evenings. The park is kept as an old style country meadow with an annual hay harvest and a large number of wild flowers grow naturally. With woods and cornflower and poppy speckled fields to explore and a picnic place to enable you to just sit and enjoy the countryside, it is popular with families. Shawlands Wood in Gt Cornard is another local beauty spot, found near to Maldon Court on Shawlands Avenue. The southern boundary is opposite to the junction of Poplar Road and the bank continues from here to The Pot Kilns. Covering 20 acres, the woods are home to slowworms, long-winged conehead bush crickets, common blue butterflies, bullfinches, three types of orchid and ploughman’s spikenard.

(8) The Quay Theatre

The Quay Theatre by Dave Gruar
The Quay Theatre by Dave Gruar

The 700 feet of Cretaceous chalk that Sudbury is bedded on played its part in the development of theatrical limelights before the advent of electricity although Sudbury’s tiny theatre, The Quay, and the building that is home to it did not come into existence as a theatre until much later on. Comverted from a granary and with a quietly lovely setting on the banks of the river Stour, this little theatre and bar is something Sudburyians are rightly proud of, attracting decent acts such as Alexei Sayle, Dr Feelgood and Germaine Greer. Converted from what was the towns last industrial building on its riverside, the granary, this is also where the River Stour Trust operates its passenger electric powered boats from. Its proximity to the Cricket, Bowls and Canoe Clubs and an attractive pitstop for those walking the river trails has turned what could have been a neglected and ancillary part of the town into a hub of activity. Also home to Sudbury Dramatic Society and Sudbury Musical Society, the theatre has an eclectic programme for all ages: film nights, talks, classes, open acoustic music evenings and the more traditional touring plays and shows are presented in an incredibly warm and cosy setting with exposed brick walls and a bar with views over the river and flood meadows. You don’t have to be booked into an event to use the bar either and quite a few locals use it as a convivial place to unwind during their lunch break or after work. Such an old setting isn’t without a tale or two either with local director Michael Mann telling us about a few encounters he had there: “About 15 years ago one of the bar staff at the Quay Theatre had locked up the building, stood in the car park to make sure no lights had been left on, and saw a face at the top window. He went back in and did a search but found no-one, and if anyone was left in there it would have set off the alarm. Then, five years ago after the final performance of a play I’d directed, the stage manager was finishing clearing up when she saw a figure like a silhouette move from the wing to the stage. She went to check and there was no-one there. Finally, on the last night of Calender Girls as the interval was ending, I went down the corridor that leads to the wing to go back into the packed auditorium, and the door opened on its own for me. I walked through and watched as the door closed behind me. I didn’t thank them for fear of the audience thinking I was talking to myself.” (9) Farmers markets and food

Fresh fruit and veg at Sudbury Market
Fresh fruit and veg at the Market

Like most towns, Sudbury has experienced the effects of larger supermarkets and no longer has the North Street greengrocers and fishmongers that many of us remember from our childhood: our parents chose from fish draped over the marble slabs, icy fresh and sold out by lunchtime and lifted fruit and veg to be weighed from the cardboard and wooden boxes that sprinkled feet with East Anglian soil. The shop assistants would name check local farms and farmers as they went about bagging up our five pounds of potatoes, picked that morning from Woodhall or Chilton. Sudbury does have a great farmers market in St Peters church on the last Friday of each month though, conveniently housed in the towns deconsecrated epicentre. With over 30 local producers including Burwells fish, locally shot game, stacks of jams and chutneys, vegetables and batch pies plus a cafe manned by the Sudbury based charity, The Bridge Project serving drinks, scones and more, the market is managed by Suffolk Market Events with the brilliant award winning Justine Paul at its helm. Suffolk Farmers Market, her ‘baby’ has seen towns and villages transformed as they welcome growers and providers from a 50 mile radius of each market (fishermen have a 100 mile radius limit). At Sudbury Farmers Market (like all of her markets), stalls are operated by someone directly involved in the production of the goods ensuring customers get to establish a relationship with their food and the people who produce it. They are experts through and through and what happens, as a result, is a market filled with the buzz of people connecting. There is also a bi weekly market on the Hill (Thurs/ Sat) with a few stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, a cheesemonger, butchers and local game purveyor. Many of these traders have been coming here since before I was born and well deserve your custom and, like the farmers market, they are all about relationships built over time: talk to them and discover a wealth of local stories and history. When I visit the cheese stall they still remember my grandfather, a loyal customer, and they always refer to him as ‘chief’ because that is how he addressed them. This is where I go to remember him and hear stories about his custom. I hope the Sudbury market increases its size as locals realise the value of shopping at independent stores and companies.

Taste of Sudbury Festival
Taste of Sudbury Festival

Taste of Sudbury stages a well regarded food and drink festival in the town (14th June this year) with cookery demos next to St Peters and exhibitors ranging from Stowmarket based Artisan Marshmallows, tamales from Smokin Hot Tamales (!), the amazing curry packs from Rafi’s Spice box (more of which below) and Bowers beef. Rafi’s Spicebox is the kind of place I would still visit even when I lived in London with access to prime Indian ingredients because their curry packs are such a clever and time saving idea- and they are uber good quality. Originally taking inspiration from the spice boxes used to store ingredients in, founder Rafi created kits of freshly prepared spices, herbs and ingredients that just need stock or other ingredients added to make amazing family meals. From the well known bhunas and masalas to the Goan Xuacutti with coconut and tomatoes, butternut squash sambhars and Gujarati green beans and potatoes, there’s not just curry mixes but packs of mini poppadoms, dried onion bhaji mix and shelves of other products. We particularly love the tiny bags of onion bhaji mix which make cool gifts for food lovers and have been known to end up in Christmas stockings chez us.

Smokin' Hot Tamales will be at Taste of Sudbury
Smokin’ Hot Tamales will be at Taste of Sudbury

Another blast from my past is Wheldons pick your own fruit farms in nearby Gt Cornard, a place I visited frequently with my grandparents to pick punnets of the best strawberries and currants followed by pears and apples as they ripened on the tree. The farm shed also sold primrose yellow Jersey and Guernsey cream to open up there and then and dip the strawberries into- we’d sit in the car with the doors open on a summers day and pick out strawberries with juice stained fingers still scented with from the straw the strawberry beds were mulched in.  The sun hot berries would wear a hat of cream so thick it failed to slide off even when the berry was tipped upside down. Wheldon’s is still here, larger and more swish, 70 years or more since it first opened, and they now grow and sell a variety of veg including asparagus, peas and pumpkins alongside a stock of honey and ice cream, pickles, local meat and juices. Come here on a searingly hot day with a hat and sunblock and enjoy a day picked right out of the pages of H.E Bates’ ‘The Darling Buds of May’. It’s heaven and a perfect thing to do with the kids.

Wheldons
Wheldons

(10) Sports a-plenty- A.F.C. Sudbury is an English semi-professional football club from Sudbury, Suffolk. The club was formed in 1999 by the merger of Sudbury Town and Sudbury Wanderers, the process giving rise to the name Amalgamated Football Club Sudbury.With teams and activities starting from the under 7s and a women’s team, the Brundon Lane grounds are close to the water meadows and river and stage a variety of social events and fund raisers.

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The Cricket Club/courtesy Cricket Club

The cricket club at the junction of Quay Lane and Friars St is located in a lovely old part of the town, very close to the Quay Theatre, the bowling and rowing clubs and several pubs and cafes. The club was founded in 1787 and is the oldest sports club in the town. History tells us that cricket teams have been in evidence in Suffolk from at least 1743, although the sport is known to have existed in a basic form elsewhere in the country as early as 1550. The gentlemanly reputation of the sport was put to the test most severely in 1865  when a July match between Sudbury and Tendring Park on the Mill Common was interrupted by rebellious town freemen who protested against the matches location on their grazing lands. The match was moved to a field at Brundon Hall and the freemen condemned as a disgrace to the town by the borough councillors, who, in times past, have been no slouches themselves in the disgrace stakes. The thwack of ball on willow is set against a backdrop of church spires, old stone walls and a beautifully kept lawn: the archetypal trad English setting. There’s a club house lively social events and a full programme of junior and adult coaching and team activities alongside a Friday evening women’s team. The club hosts Cricket Week at the end of July too. Screen_Shot_2011-10-24_at_19.25.30 Also proximate to the water meadows is the Kingfisher Leisure centre with large pool, a kids ‘Kingfisher’ play centre, gym and ball sports facilities. The Little Kingfisher centre offers ‘JustPlay’ sessions for kids with disabilities and their siblings are invited to accompany them to these. Full and exclusive access to the soft play area is guaranteed. There are a lot of clubs to choose from: archery, rollerhockey, Stagecoach drama, karate, football boot camp and more alongside grass pitches, gymnasium and trampoline facilities. A mile down the road at Great Cornard, there is a public outdoor swimming pool  at the leisure centre there. I’m not going to tell you about our teenage years spent skinny dipping there at night, silently climbing the fence to enjoy a swim lit only by moonlight and the few street lamps that existed then. Don’t do this now.

Gt Cornard open air pool
Gt Cornard open air pool