I am shivering, not so much because of the cool air which is pushing up from the sea, ahead of the sunset but more from my realisation that seventy five years ago other people probably sat right where I am now and listened to what I am listening to. It’s 10pm on the Fourth of July and I’m on a pebbled beach at Bawdsey Island looking out across the waters of the River Deben which separate me from the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry across the mouth of the estuary. There’s an American tribute band playing ‘In the Mood’ inside the boat club and the voices, laughter and pops of champagne corks are carried across on the breeze. Time has telescoped in the most peculiar and unexpected way and I don’t quite know what to make of this.
Felixstowe Ferry was vulnerable to German Luftwaffe pilots seeking to unload a cargo of undropped bombs before their flight back across the North Sea and the blackouts imposed on this hamlet, huddled at the edge of East Anglia, probably ruled out too much partying. However I like to imagine the locals and temporary residents dancing to music and enjoying the relief from war, responsibility and the heavy burden of hyper vigilance. In the near darkness, I see memory ghosts of laughing girls stumbling along the pebbles, bending down to remove strappy sandals and precious rationed stockings which they ball up and carry. They dance and chatter amidst the smell of American tobacco and caulked boats with fishy cargoes on the ebb of the English landmass as it merges with estuarine waters, the North Sea and a blacked out horizon.
To my right, the skies are brindled with pinks and violets, the undersides of the lambs tails clouds tinged with amber. On the left where the River Deben splays into the sea, we watch as a tidal bore of darkness approaches, barrelling down the estuary and pushing at the still light over the beach which has now developed a silvery caul. In front of me, the light begins to peter out and the shoreline to my right becomes banded by grey- the sea, the shingle and the sky-as the Deben estuarine tide continues its exhaustive task of transporting the heft of stones, polished to a dull shine, dumping them onto an ever growing offshore shingle bank.
The sky seems to bulge inland and towards us. Out to sea, it is all blue: French navy and saxe, indigo, midnight and then, a nothingness settles lit up only by the perimeter lights of a cargo ship bound for the international port.. I feel like I am suspended in space: the lights of the boat club across the river and a chink of light from the porthole of a cruiser are the only things anchoring us as we sit on the pebbles and even they shift beneath us. Watching the night rush in left us a little breathless. Neither of us had seen a night seemingly as tardy and pressured for time and had the breeze aped Alice’s white rabbit and whispered “I’m late, I’m late” we would have accepted this with equanimity.
Our trip here was spontaneous, we’d forgotten that the Fourth of July is a date of some significance, especially here in East Anglia where American GI’s came in and our women married out. We were driven out of our Bury St Edmunds home by the torpid heat, a whole weeks worth of it, which had evicted the residual coolness from the stolid rows of Victorian brick. Our house was gasping for breath and the whole town was so still in that strange yellow, layered heat that we could stand it no more. We grabbed our bags and made a dash for the edge of East Anglia.
Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Ransholt are surprisingly easy and quick to drive to from Bury, straight down the A14 and a turn off to drive through the undulating roads around Woodbridge, Coddenham, and Alderton. The air remained close and still but the patchworked greens, acid jazz yellows and buffs of the fields flash by and a stray breeze lifts the hair from the back of my neck when we stop to buy some eggs. There are lanes marking the edges of pre-enclosure strips, ancient bridlepaths and sand clotted foorpaths hinting at a sea hiding over the next hill. I want to play the game we played as children- who can see the sea first- although in this case, we approach an estuary. The underlying Red Crag rock gives the earth a brick dusty hue, not dissimilar to the red of the Georgian deep south as we climbed the hilled sharp turn off towards Ramsholt. The Ramsholt Arms and a drink was our destination before a late afternoon walk along the shore of the River Deben, a route hugging the pines and saltmarshes of the coastal walk that passes in front of the pub.
The view from the inn’s carpark which crests the slope down to the waters and beer garden is a shock if you get the timing and the light right. Go there late afternoon on a hazy summer day and the water appears, blindingly metallic, shimmering like the steel of a razor blade through the ink dark woods. The anchored boats appear black against the water and the only relief from this binary watercolour is the neon orange of the buoys and flags woven through the halyards. The Strand borders a sandy, pebbly beach and beyond, a muddy strip beside the lazy waters where children happily mudlarked in the sun. There’s old sharks teeth to be found in the Red Crag, wizened corals and echinoids and shells a plenty from the exposed London clay which lines the shallow basin of the estuary.
As the tide turns, it gives up a hundred yards of glistening mudflats, pockmarked by the beak marks of oyster catchers and redshank and patterned with dragons teeth arrangements of old wooden sea defences: the groynes have rotted away to piles of semi carbonised sticks, slimy with seaweed and encrusted with barnacles, their rough triangle shapes a grim nod to the Anglo Saxon past. There’s sea lavender and purslane along the edges along with the saltmarsh and squeaky jelly like samphire – the Deben estuary possesses a beautiful and luminous bleakness from its quirky plants to the blank yawn of the estuary at dusk.
The Ramsholt Arms was once called the Ferry House because of the eponymous ferry which used to run to Kirton Creek and is now no more. The village was also the first landing on the north side of the River Deben after Bawdsey, making it strategically and economically important to the region. It waved off heavy cargoes of local brick from the many yards which lay along the rivers Deben, Stour and Orwell and it shipped coprolite (fossilised dinosaur dung, used for fertiliser). Barge quays once lined the banks which seem stunningly empty and haunted by comparitive inactivity now, apart from the flipped collar jollity of the weekending boat people. The village is more boat than house now.
The parish church of All Saints, one of 38 Suffolk round tower churches presides over a startling view which stretches from the Martlesham Research Tower at one end to the Martello Towers of Felixstowe Ferry out towards the North Sea and the sodium lights of the cargo port emerge in the distance as the sun sets. The round tower was built of flint, brick and the septaria from the river bed, notably from an area known locally as ‘the Rocks’, a place where anchors would foul regularly. The round tower appears as square from a distance but as you get closer, its oval shape appears, a seemingly magical feat which is also achieved by Beyton’s church, another round and buttressed tower.
The church may well have had an important function as a look out with its all seeing position over a part of the UK which was deemed to be both vulnerable and strategically important with its multiplicity of river conduits and dank, hidden creeks: a highly permeable coastline. Watery landscapes have always attracted plotters and maleficence although the unfamiliar invader might well meet their match at the hands of the sunken, hidden rills and deep channels which snake through the gorse and reeds that edge the coastal pathway and Strand. There’s a sunken lane which also snakes its way to the church, hidden deep between tall banks which burst forth in poppies, grasses, cow parsley and nettles in the spring: a precious reminder of a time when these lanes were more common: sadly most of them have been allowed to sink back into the landscape or have been turned into roads, proper.
The church stands eight feet or so above you as you climb and steps cut into the banks of the lane provide access to the beautiful churchyard. The whole place is ethereal, other wordly yet strangely pragmatic, and inside the church, a chart dating back to 1287 seems to indicate its function as a useful seamark, helping to keep watch against Viking invaders during the time of the Saxons. The burial site of a rather important Saxon, replete with golden wordly goods and precious stones, is, after all, only a few miles inland at Sutton Hoo and although the Ramsholt parishioners weren’t buried with such riches, they chose to be buried facing that glorious view which is the greatest jewel of all- the north of the church which looks away from the river has hardly any graves.
Moving on to Bawdsey, a place which we’d never visited but gazed upon on many an occasion from the opposite shores, the light was fast fading. The Bawdsey Peninsula is home to Bawdsey Manor, a top secret RAF research establishment purchased by the RAF in 1936 where the Chain Home (CH) RDF (radar) system was developed during the fraught war time years. From Bawdsey, a chain of radar stations ran around the south coast to defend Britain during World War II and the Transmitter Block Museum tells the story of radar, and how Bawdsey helped win the Battle of Britain (For opening call 07821 162 879) . This part of the Suffolk coastline came under special measures during the war and only ‘essential personnel’ were afforded access-even the ferry was closed to the public during WW2 after managing to survive from the 12th century, although it is open now and a very popular and atmospheric way of travelling between Felixstowe and the Bawdsey Peninsula.
The vulnerability of the region to attack and spies is underscored by the 1943 bombing of the church which saw it totally destroyed. St. Nicholas’s Church was built in 1954 on the site. When war was declared against Germany in September 1939, fears of a possible commando raid on the group led to the development activities being relocated and, in 1940, the British Army staged a training landing against Bawdsey, having warned the station’s officers that the attack would be taking place. However, an administrative oversight meant that the sentries were not warned and when they spotted rubber dinghies approaching the beach area, they released gas-filled barrels and set them alight with tracer fire from the cliff-top machine-gun posts. As the sun rose over Bawdsey Beach the next morning, the sentries “found the beach covered with dozens of charred bodies” that they at first thought were Germans dressed as Army soldiers. The story was declared secret until 2014, but was leaked in 1992.
Bawdsey Beach has a seasonal cafe, raised above the beach and beach front road which peters out in front of three 30’s arts and crafts style houses (one of which can be rented for holidays). The pebbled shore extends out to sea, divided by groynes until you reach the North Sea where super tankers and cargo ships are escorted into Felixstowe, one of the largest cargo ports in Europe. Lining the road in front of the sand were VW campers and children warmed themselves by barbecues, scrooched down below the groynes as they ate and watched the sun set. You travel back in time here, in part because for so long Bawdsey was closed off, protected from people and civilian development and in part because there simply is nowhere else to go. This is the end point, a still point and it orders you to stop and retrace mentally as well as literally. Bawdsey is Enid Blyton. It is Arthur Ransome and Glenn Miller and Shine on Harvey Moon. You expect the locals to wear thick khaki cotton, to have their hair set in pin curls and wear tea dresses, hair in a victory roll. When a sleek and modern BMW purrs along the sea front, it jars.
Felixstowe Ferry is gruffer, from its black pitch fishermens huts to the tangle of utilitarian fishing nets and buoys which lace the gangways and cement walkways bordering the quay. MR James set Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad on the nearby golf course, there’s the stately warning of the martello towers ( this bastion of defence is one of five built on the coast between Felixstowe and Aldeburgh designed to protect us from the wrath of Napoleon) and the embarkation point of the ferry taking you over to Bawdsey. If the ferryman isn’t within sight, locals will advise you to raise the bat and wave it to alert him. There’s fish to be hauled in and sold from boats, huts and ad hoc shops and several places to eat from the Boathouse cafe to the Ferryboat Inn originally built in the 15th century as a home for the harbourmaster, facing the heath. The boatyard itself started up in the late twenties and made its own wartime contributions too- it used to build quite a lot of boats for the Royal Navy, including motor boats that were useful modes of getting about during those war years where Glenn Miller and his band provided respite from the business of trying to survive.
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.
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..”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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, theMuseum 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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.”
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 to“show 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
(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.
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.
Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).
The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.
Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.
There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.
Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.
Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.
MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.
James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.
He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.
Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’
Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book, Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif. Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’
Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.
Laying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.
The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.
This traditional dried fruit and almond filled pastry was eaten all over Suffolk and Essex and takes just a few minutes to make. Mentioned by Chaucer and part of a town ritual for the last four hundred years, it deserves to be eaten more widely.
Wandering around Saffron Walden some fifteen years ago I came across a trove of old cookery books in one of the second hand bookshops the town used to be known for, and now sadly closed down alongside many others. One of the books I bought contained a wealth of old East Anglian recipes including an intriguing one which mentioned the ‘Bury St Edmunds Kitchel.’ Unfortunately a lot of the pages were missing and I only read half of the story, then I lent the book out and never got it back. Then more time passed and apart from the occasional impulse to do some further research into this mysterious pastry that bore the name of the town I had moved to, life got in the way and the Kitchel remained unbaked and unknown.
Last week, whilst ambling through the lanes and highways of t’internet I came across it again and although my hope that it had a closer link to my part of Suffolk was dashed (It is linked more closely to the Essex town of Harwich, if anything), there is still enough evidence that it was baked and eaten pretty widely throughout the Suffolk with specific links to the seaside town of Aldeburgh. Alas, I can find no trace of that mysterious Bury St Edmunds link and it remains a mystery as to why the book was so adamant about this.
The God’s Kitchel is based on that tried and tested combination of pastry and dried fruit that served as efficient fuel delivery system for hard working bodies and a way of getting through the lean period between November and late March when little fresh fruit was on the market. Back then, the stores were not full of imported green beans from Kenya and satsumas from southern Spain.
Households would preserve the fruits that they could grow, those apples, cherries and plums from their own trees, but the dried fruit we associate with mince pies and Christmas puddings- sultanas, dried peel and raisins, was comparatively expensive and beyond the reach of many households. During the medieval period, foreign exploration led to the trading of exotic spices and dried fruits which could survive the many months a sea journey could take but their rarity and expense caused them to used in foods made for feasts on high days and holidays; at least for ordinary families anyway. Back then, like the mince pie, they were made with meat and served as a useful way of using up this preserved meat over the winter months. Over time, the meat was gradually omitted from the kitchel in the same way it ceased to be included in mince pies, although traditional mincemeat still contains suet, the fat that protects the kidneys of an animal.
Back then, many towns and regions had their own very specific feast day foods of which the kitchel was one- it is a close relative to the godcake made and handed out in Coventry; the only other place with a ceremony similar to that of Harwich and Aldeburgh. It has been suggested that the kitchels original triangular shape was a reference to the Holy Trinity, as are the three cuts in the top, and this very same religious symbolism (like the original crib shape of the mince pie) might have resulted in their ban from sale during the period of the Commonwealth in seventeenth century England.
Edward Moor, in a dictionary of Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) describes the kitchel as “a flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.” By triangular, he means more of a cornet shape, like a triangular apple turnover.
The kitchel was even mentioned as far back as 1386 when Chaucer cites it in his Summoners Tale:
“Give us a bushell whete, malte, or rice, A God’s kichel, or a trippe of cheese,”
and the 15th century ecclesiastical court servants of Chaucer clearly considered the kitchel a worthy enough and acceptable recompense for the saving of a soul or its delivery from penance. Evidence then that a cake that appears, to our modern palates as fairly modest, was actually a great and infrequent treat for the 15th century person.
The origins of ‘the word kitchel’ are obscure and therefore suggestive of an ancient lineage (way back to the 11th century at the very least) although the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘kichel’ (and offers an alternative spelling of cicel) as a ‘small cake’. A connection with the German for cake- ‘Kuche’- is suggested as is the Yiddish ‘kikhl’ which commonly refers to a small sugary cookie. In Anglo Saxon, ‘cicel’ is both a ‘morsel’ or ‘little mouthful’ but is also linked to ‘circle’ too. The Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838) supposes that the origin is Anglo-Saxon although there is no specific reference to cake so unless anyone can further advise, one has to assume that the Germanic origins are the most likely ones. Or are they?
Locals in Harwich, Aldeburgh and other East Anglian towns say that kitchels also known as ‘Catch Alls’ because of the tradition where the cakes were thrown to the crowds by the mayor each year (and more on this later) to symbolise the showering of his blessings upon the town. Believed to date back to the Norman conquest, a 1905 guidebook describes this practice as ‘a curious custom, many many hundreds of years old.‘ In Aldeburgh, ‘kitchels’ are baked and sold on New Year’s Eve and monumental amounts of bad luck is foretold for those who do not order at least one ‘kichel’ for each member of the family. As F A Qutt says in his book, ‘The County Coast,’ the kitchel “must be eaten before midnight or the worst of ill luck was predicted for folks who failed to partake of these cakes and even now, it is said, there is no one in the town so daring as to nibble a crumb of them after the new year had dawned.”
Back in 1935, the local newspaper of Harwich and Dovercourt describes the town ceremony as a ‘good custom for godfathers and godmothers every time their godchildren asked them for a blessing to give them a cake which was a ‘gods kitchel’ and cites the saying ‘ask me a blessing and I will give you a kitchel’ as a common one.
Going back to the Harwich ceremony, the ringing of the bell from the town crier, followed by a speech, “Catch a kitchel, if you can!” signifies the start of their being thrown from the Guildhall window in a ceremony that is now held on the third Thursday in May around noon at St. Nicholas’ Church. In the next town, staff at the Cabin Bakery, Dovercourt, begin baking the 400 kitchels in the early hours, ready for delivery to the Guildhall and local schools – unlike centuries before, every child who wants one will get a kitchel. The town clerk and staff sit in the grade one listed Guildhall and wrap each one individually.
Symbolising the spreading of goodwill amongst the poor of the town by the newly elected mayor who walks through the streets back to the Guildhall from Church Street, resplendent in bicorne hat, mayoral chain and scarlet frock coat with black pantaloons worn underneath, it is thought to be a development from the tradition, at the beginning of the year, whereby godparents would present theur godchildren with a cake along with their blessing for the new year ahead. The children of Harwich however, accompany the mayor back to the guildhall and await his appearance at the window, hands outstretched, waiting to catch the kitchels.
Some recipes for Gods Kitchels specify shortcrust pastry and others use puff. I have tried both and much prefer the latter which gives it a lightness that balances out the dried fruit and ground almond contents. I have seen versions with added rum or brandy which you, of course, are most welcome to do too but I have kept my version as close to the original as possible although I use bought pastry, fresh from the chiller cabinet. The brand I buy is all butter which puffs up admirably. Despite the dried fruit, the sweetness quotient isn’t that high (sugar wasn’t that cheap back in the day) so you might want to add a little extra sugar. Or do what we do and serve it custard or with a dollop of double cream, sweetened with a little icing sugar.
Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ Gas mark 6. Grease a large baking sheet.
Melt the butter over low heat in a decent sized heavy bottom pan and add the currants, spice and peel along with the ground almonds and stir them well, ensuring they are all incorporated. Set the mixture aside and allow to cool.
Divide the puff pastry into half, roll each half into two evenly sized oblongs and place one of them carefully onto the greased baking sheet. Spread the dried fruit mixture evenly over the pastry base, ensuring you leave a margin around all four edges. Moisten the edges with some milk then lift the second sheet of pastry carefully over the top. Seal the edges by crimping (you might have an excess which is fine to cut off with a sharp knife before you crimp and seal.
Mark the pastry lightly into squares with a very sharp knife. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until puffed up and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting through the outlines knife marks into squares. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar (I like golden) and serve.
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year and is a time for everyone to pause and remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Commemorated each year in Bury St Edmunds where a service in the Abbey Gardens at the existing Holocaust Memorial sees dignitaries and civic leaders join locals for a moment of quiet reflection and memorial, this years ceremony (2015) will be marked by the unveiling of a one and a half metre teardrop sculpture which will form a centrepiece to a new Peace Garden. The Memorial Garden Trust, a registered charity, has raised more than £11,000 for the project in the Abbey Gardens.
Rob Lock from the trust said:
“In addition to providing a more dignified setting for the annual holocaust service the Peace Garden is also designed to commemorate the murder of 57 Jews in our town on Palm Sunday, 19 March 1190. It is an event in our town’s history that the trust felt needed to be publicly acknowledged.
“The teardrop is a natural and universal symbol of pity and persecution, of human suffering and sorrow. It is made from polished stainless steel; its mirrored surface reflects back to us the role we all must play in opposing humanity’s inhumanity.”
The Peace Garden, which is being installed by Urban Forestry, also includes 57 cobble stones – one for each of the victims of the 1190 massacre. There will also be two stone benches as seating for quiet reflection. The trust was formed by local residents and is supported by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, and members of Suffolk’s Jewish Community.
St Edmundsbury Borough Cabinet Member for Leisure, Culture and Heritage, Cllr Sarah Stamp said:
“The teardrop memorial is a very poignant symbol. Although this is an area that forces us to think about the worst acts carried out by mankind, the trust has also raised the funds and created a cultural space that they should feel proud of.”
Back then Hatter Street was recognised as the Jewish quarter of the town and referred to as Heathenmans Street. It was claimed that Moyses Hall could have been their synagogue but this has now been disputed, largely because it would have been next to what was then the medieval pig market. It is more likely that the higher ground along Hatter Street between numbers 25-26 served as the synagogues location, a case strengthened by the evidence of a well beneath the basement, necessary for ritual bathing and washing. Other claims for Moyses Hall is that its name is a derivative of ‘Moses’ and that it was built by wealthy Jewish merchants of the town. However, ‘Moses’ and ‘Moyses’ are both common Suffolk names.
By the 1190’s, the Jewish population in England numbered approximately some 2,500 people and until this time they enjoyed relative freedom of movement, the right to own real estate and access to education when compared to the Jewish people who lived in mainland Europe. However all was not rosy, In 1189, they were taxed at a much higher rate than the rest of England to finance the Third Crusade. Jews might have comprised less that 0.25% of the English population but they provided 8% of the total income of the royal treasury. This financial contribution did not render them beloved of the people though and the pro Christian ideology of the Crusades engendered an anti Semitic rhetoric.
In 1181, a dispute broke out between William the Sacristan (Sexton) of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds and his associate Samson. Alongside the local townspeople, the Jews sided with William but unfortunately, it was Samson who came to power the next year as Abbot. In 1190, after the Coronation riots, Samson demanded that the Jewish people in the town should be placed under his authority rather than the Kings and when they refused, they were expelled under guard.
This was set among a nationwide background of disempowerment for Jews. In the same year, King Henry II enacted the “Assize of Arms”, ordering that all weapons owned by Jews should be confiscated on the grounds that their protection came from the King and therefore they would not have any reason for owning arms. The weapons were turned over to the King’s forces, leaving them with little defence and protection when riots broke out less then ten years later.
The 1189 coronation of Richard the Lionheart saw further state sanctification of their persecution when Baldwin who was the Archibishop of Canterbury, persuaded Richard to not accept gifts from Jewish dignitaries, and further, to banish them from the palace which was interpreted by the watching crowds to mean the King favoured persecution. That same day, a pogrom against the Jews in London occurred and again, the next day. Reluctant to get involved in protecting them at the start of his reign, Richard did not enact a severe punishment of the rioters which saw the civil unrest spread to Norwich, Lincoln and Bury St Edmunds alongside other towns.
The church and locals seized on every opportunity to justify their prejudices. When Saint Robert of Bury, a young choirboy from the abbey was found murdered (crucified), allegedly on Good Friday, his death was blamed on the town’s Jewish community. Robert was buried in the Abbey church and in his Chronicle, Jocelyn of Brakelond, a monk in the Abbey during Samsons rule, even attributed miracles to him. Rumours based on the belief that the Jews had gained their wealth through sacrificial murders began to percolate through the town and their community became the focus of much anti semitic feelings. Regionally, the Jews of Norwich were accused of torturing a Christian child named William, using his blood for the Passover Seder, then killing and burying him and despite the entreaties of Pope Innocent IVs to ignore such ridiculousness, the image of Jews being dangerous to Christians became the dominant one.
After nine more years, anti semitic feelings had increased and it has been suggested that the catalyst to the massacre may have been a ‘vanquish the infidels’ type sermon, preached in the abbey church at a time when anti Jewish sentiments were even more heightened, it being Lent. The abbey was no longer a reliable place of sanctuary for them but Samson is recorded as claiming the Abbey was not the Kings property and therefore these ‘Jews were not Saint Edmunds men.’
On Palm Sunday, the 19th March, a group of Christian Crusaders rampaged through Bury St Edmunds and killed 57 Jews followed by the obtaining of a writ by Abbot Samson, leader of the monastery, to have the survivors expelled. Previously the monastery had sheltered Jews when there was a threat of a pogrom but recently the monastery had gone into debt to Jews and therefore took advantage of the opportunity to escape having to repay those debts. Much building work had taken place in the Abbey and some major debts had accrued under Abbot Hugh, despite the churches moral teachings against usury. The offer of consecrated vestments and other articles as security against the debt gives clues about their extent and the pressure upon the monastery to do everything it could to expunge them.
Six months after the massacre of the Jews, Jocelin recorded in his Chronicle that Samson’s expelling of the remaining Jews showed that he was a ‘man of great virtue’, an expulsion that was granted after he appealed to the King for permission to do so in October 1190. On July 1290, King Edward the First ordered their expulsion from the whole country, making England the first country to do so. There is some disagreement as to how many were forced to leave- either 4000 or 16,000 which is some difference- and their return was not officially sanctioned until the 17th century, some 350 years later.
This event is relatively unknown in the town and wider annals of regional history and the translation of Jocelyns Chronicle that is stored in our Records Office itself omits the event. The opening of the Peace Garden, coming at a time when Jewish people all over the world face renewed persecution alongside other faiths and creeds, could not be more timely and significant. When the Holocaust happened, we did it to our own people-NOT a group of people living separately as ‘others.’ Europe placed them in a ghetto, they did not ghettoise themselves. The Holocaust destroyed a living and vibrant part of our European culture- music, art, economics, politics, the sciences and left a gaping hole, a rent or whatever ugly image you wish to use which has yet to fill in. And when it does, the scar will still be there and we should continue to remember. There is no such thing as the ‘past. ‘
The literary links of our East Anglian towns have long interested me and I have written about the 101 Dalmatian topped bollards commemorating the Sudbury stopover made by the dogs in Dodie Smiths famous book here. I already knew that this handsome bronze could be found by the railings of St Peters church and that the town has staged festivals celebrating the book but what I didn’t know was that it is part of the Talbot Trail, a series of bronze sculptures that depict the towns history which are mounted on red painted bollards at significant locations around the town.
Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury.Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk,’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square.They had hoped they’d meet some dogs and hear if any news of the puppies had come at the Twilight Barking, but not as much as a cat was stirring. While they were drinking at the fountain, church clocks began to strike midnight..”(From 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith)
Named after the Talbot, a breed of hunting dog that features on the town coat of arms, or to be more specific, the dog owned by the notorious Simon of Sudbury, the head of the Talbot appears sometimes in red, sometimes in black. This early breed of hunting dog is thought to have been brought to England with William the Conqueror and to have links with what we now know as the modern beagle and bloodhound.
Borough status was granted to Sudbury in 1558, rewarding its loyalty to Mary the First against the claims of Lady Jane Grey and the design originated from the coat of arms of the Theobald family who Simon was a scion of (although the arms origin is disputed by some who claim it originated from the Sudberry family). Simon of Sudbury went on to become Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury before being killed by rebels in the Peasants Revolt 1381. His legacy to the town was in the form of a college for priests which was located on what is now the site of the old Walnuttree Hospital which itself went on to become the location of the local workhouse. And his head, but more on that later.
Sudburys Tourist Information can be found inside its library on Market Hill and the Heritage Museum at the side of the town hall, prominently placed on Market Hill and built by Thomas Ginn between 1826/27 in the Greek classical style, also supplies Talbot Trail guides. The idea is to obtain a booklet from the tourist offices and then mark off the bronzes as you proceed around the town, returning to get your stamp of completion when you have seen them all. The town hall houses a general display and information about the towns past and the town gaol provides inspiration for the first bronze marker. Sadly a few of the bronzes have been stolen (presumably by scrap metal thieves) and it is to be hoped that they will be replaced by resin replicas if not another bronze.
The Town Hall and museum itself has an interesting history in their original role as gateway to the Sudbury Courtroom of Assizes and the good sized Victorian doorway that forms the entrance was once its gateway, located on the appropriately named Gaol Lane. Placed in the basement, the gaol was used to hold prisoners on their way to and from the court although the diminution of arrests for debt resulted in its decline and less cases to provide an amusing morning or afternoons entertainment for the landed gentry of the region. The site of the original gaol, before the Town Hall was built, was at 25 Friars St and was called a ‘miserable little prison’ by James Niell writing in the Gentlemans Magazine- a blue plaque marks its site.
Going on from Pongo’s bronze head which is number two, we move onto an historical icon rather less benign; Boudicca or Bodicea, The Queen of the Iceni who history indicates is likely to have gained the support of the Trinovante at Sudbury in AD 44 on her way to attack and overthrow the Roman garrison at Colchester and burn the entire town to the ground. Sudbury is thought to have been a Trinovante stronghold in those days and the Trinovante tribes supported the Iceni, ‘next door’ so to speak. However controversy again rears its head with some locals claiming that Boudicca never actually made it as far as Sudbury and decided instead to stop on the other side of the river Stour and go on to Colchester. It is believed that she reached the tiny village of Newton, site of a well dating back to Roman times which belongs to one of the households there and is known as ‘Boudiccas well.’
When Boudicca and her warriors were on their way to attack Colchester, a local legend says that this was a resting place for them, hence its name. Roman writers also record an unpleasant episode involving Boudicca and her Iceni tribe which saw her whipped and her two daughters raped in an attempt to subdue her opposition to them. Boudiccas revenge was bloody and dramatic- her tribe united with the Trinovantes, attacking and almost driving the Romans from the whole country. One of the battles is believed to have been near Haverhill, some fifteen miles from Sudbury.
Charles Dickens’ famous association with Suffolk, inspiring so much of his work, includes Sudbury and is represented by bronze No 4 which depicts ‘Rotten Row,’ set in the imaginary town of Eetanswill in his book, The Pickwick Papers, which was, in part, written whilst he was a guest at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds. Written in 1836, the ‘Rotten Borough’ was thought to be inspired by Sudburys long history of electoral and political corruption where, in one election, a wealthy Sudbury parliamentary candidate was accused of spending over ten thousand pounds in bribing local voters. A character in the story, The Honourable Samuel Slumkey has an electoral agent that is said to be based upon a Sudbury solicitor called George William Andrews who Dickens would have encountered during his reporting.
Small town politics have always been hotbeds of gossip, intrigue and double crossing and this remains the case today- maybe in Sudbury, maybe not- and has inspired all manner of authors and writers alongside Dickens. In 1835 Dickens was covering East Anglian election meetings for the Morning Chronicle and after condemning Chelmsford as “the dullest and most stupid place on earth” in a letter to fellow journalist Thomas Beard, came away with no better impression of Sudbury or, to be fair, most of our other regional towns. Some steps had been taken to combat some electoral abuse in the form of the Great Reform Act of 1832, addressing the “rotten boroughs” which all too often sent MPs to Parliament despite having very small populations, but until 1870 little legislation of any great effect came into play and, in the 1840’s, Sudbury ended up disenfranchised as a named seat because of its rotten practices.
Sudbury had its own version of Mo Farah in the form of the ‘Running Boy’ when, in April 1879, a young apprentice by the name of James Bigmore ran alongside the Norwich coach, all the way from Sudbury to Norwich, a distance of 60 miles in 6 hours and bronze No5 depicts this remarkable (if bonkers) feat of endurance, although the contemporary and dreadful service offered by Greater Anglia rail between London-Norwich today might mean locals adopt the example of James and start running it because it would probably be as swift. The story was reported in the Ipswich Journal as a race undertaken for a bet or wager:
“James Bigmore, the Suffolk Pedestrian started on Monday the 1st, at Sudbury to go 50 miles in nine hours, on a half mile piece of ground, which he performed in eight hours and 50 minutes.” (Ipswich Journal: March 6th 1824).
Nearby Boxford had its pub and lion owning Wall of Death artiste in the form of Tornado Smith but Sudbury can boast the Great Blondin, subject of bronze No 6 and a trapeze artist who, in 1872, visited the town and, on a rope suspended across the yard behind the Anchor Pub in Friars St, demonstrated his prowess by pushing a Sudbury resident along a rope slung across the gap, in a wheelbarrow. The Suffolk Chronicle failed to report on this visit but did excitedly report on his visit to Ipswich, reminding readers of the artistes various feats of balance:
“On the 16th July, he again crossed Niagara, wheeling a wheelbarrow. On the 5th August he crossed again, turning somersaults and performing extraordinary gymnastics on the rope. On the 19th August he performed the unprecedented feat of carrying a man across the Niagara River on his back, thousands of spectators looking on, and momentarily expecting the death of one or both of the daring men. On the 27th August he went over as a Siberian Slave in shackles. On the 2nd September he crossed at night, and stood on his head amid a blaze of fireworks…the last performance at Niagara was given before H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. On this occasion, Blondin put the climax to all his other achievements by crossing the rope on stilts.” (Suffolk Chronicle: May 24th 1873)
Born Jean Francois Gravelot in Northern France, the Great Blondin became obsessed with crossing Niagara Falls, succeeding in Feb 1859 on a rope measuring some 1,100 foot long and 3 inches in diameter. He even performed high wire at the Crystal Palace pushing his five year old daughter in a little wheelbarrow. He went on to cross Niagara eight more times, was easily the most famous artiste in his speciality and died aged 73.
Bronze No 7 needs little introduction, being a memorial to one of Sudburys most (if not the) famous sons- Thomas Gainsborough, born in the town and previous owner of the eponymous house in the eponymous street, now a museum. Scion of a weaving family also involved with the wool trade, both industries being closely associated with Sudbury, at the age of thirteen Gainsborough went to London to study art in 1740, training under the engraver Hubert Gravelot and eventually becaming associated with William Hogarth and his school of painting. This bronze shows Thomas and his wife Margaret and is located not too far from Gainsborough House, the museum and well worth a visit to see his work.
Vital to the prosperity and livelihood of the town was its proximity to its river, the Stour which provided a navigable connection to the sea and a way of transporting the products of regional industries- farming, bricks, wool among many. A river with two names, the pronounciation of which causes much good hearted debate, it can be pronounced Stower (rhyming with myrrh) or Stour (rhyming with hour). I am not going to disclose which I favour. Bronze No 8 depicts the river transport so crucial to the wellbeing of Sudbury.
During the reign of Queen Anne in 1705, Parliament passed an act which made the River Stour navigable from Sudbury, Suffolk to Manningtree, Essex, making it one of the country’s earliest statutory rights of navigation. Sadly many of the locks have now disappeared rendering the waterway navigable only by lighter craft along the entire length. The journey from Sudbury to the estuary normally took around 2 days, with an overnight stop halfway at Horkesley where bunkhouses offering refreshments were provided. Goods, particularly bricks were taken down river via pairs of horse drawn barges and brought other goods back and were often featured in John Constable’s paintings. In 1914 the entire Sudbury fleet of around 20 lighters was scuttled in the Ballingdon Cut part of the river because of the fears of invasion at the start of the First World War.
Nowadays there are companies offering pleasure craft rides along the river, Sudbury Rowing Club operates from premises behind the Quay Theatre and the latter itself offers visitors the chance to see an exquisitely restored granary in a glorious setting. The river and water meadows are famously depicted by Constable and are one of the regions best walks with miles of beautiful views and safe, well maintained pathways.
Sadly dancing bears remain one of the more reprehensible ‘tourist attractions’ in some countries but thankfully Britain has moved on from this ‘entertainment’ although back in the day, Sudbury saw its fair share of visiting bears and traveling showmen who trained their captive bears to dance at the end of a chain connected to a ring through the animals nose. In the 19th century and before the establishment of zoos, travelling menageries or single travelling showmen reached the height of their popularity, partly because overseas trade encouraged a marketplace for animals but also because publicity glorified the experiences of explorers and travellers and created a public hungry to see living creatures in the flesh.
Brought by Victorian showmen to entertain the locals, the muzzled bears were housed down the passage beside 54 Church Street before and after their ‘performance’, near to where the showmen lodged in cheap accommodation at the rear. Bronze No 9 depicts two of the bears and is much admired by children brought up on a literary diet of bears treated considerably more amiably than those in our Victorian past.
Although I used to live in Clare, with the motte of the famous Clare Castle at the bottom of my garden, Amecia, the daughter of the Earl of Gloucester in the 12th century who married into the powerful De Clare family and brought her wealth to Sudbury, was unknown to me. Bronze No 10 commemorates her and her founding of a hospital by Ballingdon Bridge, itself thought to have been constructed with stone from northern France, a legacy of her family heritage. Originally a Norman family, the De Clares took their name from Clare in Suffolk where their first castle, and the seat of their barony, was located. The family went on to hold huge estates across Wales, Ireland, and twenty two English counties by the 13th century with a descendant, Gilbert, going on to becomeone of the twenty five barons involved in the administration of the Magna Carta in 1215.
Sudbury had come into the possession of the de Clare family through the marriage of Amicia Gloucester to Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford, around 1182; the couple were described as relatively generous Lords of the Manor but it was vital that the town, bursting at its seams, be allowed to expand. But in 1314 the last of the male line of the family died out with the death of young, childless Gilbert at Bannockburn. It took some time to sort out the estate but after being divided between Richards sisters, Sudbury became the property of Elizabeth De Burgh who set about endowing and expanding the town via a new trading centre incorporating the field which was the site of the annual trading fair:s a field we know now as Market Hill. Amicia also granted grazing rights to the Hospital of Saint John for four cows and twenty sheep on Kings Mere (now Kings Marsh) and Portmanscroft (now Freemans Common).
Amicia and the family of the De Clares were great founders of religious houses and no less than sixteen monasteries were established by them. Amicia endowed the Hospital of the Knights of Saint John at Jerusalem, near Ballingdon bridge, with the tolls charged by bridge users and the rents of nearby houses. The Monasticon Anglicanum (1654), refers to a hospital situated in the messuage of Saint Sepulchre which was also endowed by the Clare family. There were three hospitals in the town: St Sepulchre’s, the Knight Hospitallers near Ballingdon bridge (the site now known as HospitalYard) and John Colney’s leper hospital dedicated to Saint Leonard and situated near St Bartholomew’s Priory and Chapel on the Melford Road. Human skeletons and remains of foundations of buildings have been found near and on the site of the church and during the excavation of a cellar in School St, the street adjoining Stour Street in 1800, many intact skeletons were disinterred.
The De Clare family are also closely associated with the common lands that surround Sudbury, especially its water meadows and subject of bronze No 11, depicting lands that have been continuously grazed for over a thousand years: a topic close to my heart because my own daughter is eligible to be made a Freewoman of Sudbury although, at time of writing, she has yet to take it up. in 1260, Richard De Clare gave the pastures to the burgesses of Sudbury for a rent of up to 40 shillings a year, and to this day Freemen and women recieve their share of this rent alongside their own grazing rights. Historically, they would have been the only people of the town to have a parliamentary vote and although the role now is purely honorary, they still work hard to preserve the traditions. The grazing of cattle is central to the management of this delicate and beautiful eco system because their continual grazing keeps the land at a specific point in its succession, creating an open pasture land and the frequent flooding that occurs from the neary Stour keeps the grass lush because of silt deposition, providing a great diet for the cows that dine out there.
Another of Sudbury’s famous events was the Peasants Revolt of 1381 which saw the head of Simon of Sudbury separated from his body after angry poor locals rebelled against the imposition of a Poll Tax of 15p, to go to the King and support the war with France. As Chancellor, gaining support for this was Simons job and it didn’t go down too well. Bronze No 12 commemorates this. An event that has its roots in the aftermath of The Black Death of 1348-9 that wiped out a third of the population, the resulting crucial shortage of labour meant that surviving labour forces were able to exploit the situation as for the first time competitive wages were on offer. The government sought to control this with a ruling in 1351 that saw rents and wages fixed in an attempt to control this labour/wages situation but it was unsuccessful as were attempts by subsequent governments. Labourers were understandably miffed at this measure designed to prevent them from earning more than basic wages for their work and were clearly not going to give up without a fight. When you consider that the King had to pawn his own jewels to the City of London as a surety for a loan of £5,000 to fund the war with France, you can see how both sides were fighting a cause neither could afford to lose.
Research shows that local women were instrumental in this protest and the leader of the group that arrested Simon and dragged him to the executioners block was a woman called Johanna Ferrour. The poll tax was deemed to be much harder on married women who were taxed separately from their husbands, regardless of their employment status or income, and their pole position (sorry) in the protests against the Poll Tax was explained by this. As for Simon, he was beheaded near to the Tower of London but his head, complete with axe marks, resides in a vault in Sudbury’s St Gregorys Church, something that seems rather unchristian in my opinion and making his image the subject of unlucky bronze No 13 – a clear case of art imitating life.
The final bronze in the Talbot Trail depicts ‘Kemps Jig’, danced famously by William Kemp who, instead of running to Norwich from London as the famous Running Boy did, decided to dance from London to Norwich in 1599. His partner was a milkmaid from Sudbury who got cold (dancing) feet in Long Melford and rather sensibly gave up there. When you consider the likelihood of infected blisters and the lack of antibiotics, she appears to be one very sensible women (if not much fun), although getting up at dawn to milk herds of cows would dampen anyones dancing ardour.
More commonly referred to as Will Kemp, he was an English actor and dancer who specialised in comic roles including being an original player in Shakespearean early dramas. He may have been associated with the role of Falstaff and became one of a core of five actor-shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men alongside Shakespeare and Richard Burbage. To counter claims of falsehood after his dancing marathon he published an account of the event, referred to as ‘The Nine Daies Wonder,’ with its wager that he could achieve it in less than ten days. Which he won. (Thank goodness because the sum of £100 on the table was a ruinous amount to lose in those days.) Kemp also inspired a tune titled ‘Kemps Jig,’ which became well known during the times of the Renaissance and was arranged specifically for lute players.
Kemps account went on to be sold by the west door of Saint Pauls Church in 1600 and was described as thus in the epigrath, addressed to Mistris Anne Fitton, Mayde of Honour to the most sacred Mayde Royall Queene Elizabeth:
“Containing the pleasure, paines and kinde entertainment of William Kemp between London and that Citty in his late Morrice.
Wherein is somewhat set downe worth note; to reproove the slaunders spred of him: many things merry, nothing hurtfull.
Written by himselfe to satisfie his friends.”
If you’ve worked up an appetite after walking the trail then Sudbury has a variety of good places to eat, some actually on the trail. Along Friars Street is the Rude Strawberry which provides home made snacks and small meals alongside high quality teas and coffees. Ingredients are locally sourced where possible. Slightly out of town in Borehamgate Precinct is the hub of all things chocolate, Marimba whose Hot Chocolate Melts are made from flakes of real chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Ecuador. Gainsborough Street has the CoffeeHouse and the Waggon & Horses Pub on Acton Square is very close to St Gregorys Church and the beautiful Croft with the river Stour flowing nearby. Finally, should you be craving a properly handmade burger with all the trimmings, then Shakes N Baps is for you, right by Belle Vue Park.
Sudburys Talbot Trail pdf can be downloaded from here.
As a small girl, one of my favourite push-me-pull-me activities was to terrify myself by avidly reading ghost stories (I read ‘The Shining’ aged eleven) and I coped with their scariness by telling myself that they were imaginary events with no existence outside the minds of their authors. One evening I was staying at a friends house and picked up her fathers copy of ‘Haunted England’, devouring it from cover to cover, huddled up in a black leather office chair that swiveled round and round. As I got further into the book, I grew more and more preoccupied with ensuring the chair faced the (now open) office door in that drafty cranny filled Edwardian house. A room that had always been as familiar to me as those of my own family house became filled with strange noises and unpredictable shadows and from that moment on I could no longer regard ghostly tales as entertainment nor see my everyday spaces in the same way. The thought that ghosts might be real and they might live near me was just too much.
Still, this did not stop me from going on a ‘camping trip’ to the grounds of the notorious Borley Rectory aged sixteen or so, although I was fortified and dulled, sensate wise, by copious amounts of cider sold to us via the off licence at the back of a local pub. (Things were laxer then.) I eventually passed out from sheer fright and drunkenness half in and half out of the tent, only to awaken hours later covered in dew and miniature cobwebs from the money spiders that infested the grounds. I haven’t been back since and despite the fact that I don’t think I saw anything from any world other than my own, I remain thoroughly spooked by the worry about what it would have meant to me and my spiritual standpoint had I seen ‘anything.’
The two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk possess a subtle spookiness: of mists drifting across the flatness of the Fens and the Broads, of a strange and porous landscape, bordered by a coast that is continually beleagered by the elements, arranging itself in a new form after each winter. A landscape of graphic linear horizons under wide skies contrasts with this sense of impermeability, rendering us more receptive to stories of ghosts and strange creatures themselves slipping through the semi permeable membrane of time itself. Told by cottage fires to children to scare them away from danger and in pubs and public gatherings over the centuries, the stories serve many purposes as well as that of entertainment. The very real dangers faced by our ancestors and the risks remain a familiar fact of life for inhabitants of this watery landscape- we may not face wolves and marauders in boats from the far north, but we do have floods and tides, land erosion and loss of habitat. We are vulnerable and somehow we have to find a way of managing the feelings this engenders.
It is not hard to conjure up the ghosts of the invaders and settlers who left their burial mounds, hidden treasures, caves and ringed settlements of huts, circled against fresh invaders. They arrived during times of war to defend us and left us their airfields and castles, whilst others built churches, cathedrals and monasteries to commemorate and celebrate their gods. The ancient towns and cities bear rings of concentric history from medieval grids and the black and white of the Tudors to the narrow alleys, grand squares and almshouse courtyards of their Victorian periods. To walk around the region is to slide from century to century and it is not hard to imagine that others, from times past, walk alongside you too. Here are their tales, some more well known, others less so.
(1) Borley Rectory, ghost hunters and artifice-
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, 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.
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. 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.
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. 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?
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. 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. Locals claimed 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. Locals still report supernatural happenings in the graveyard and the place has cemented its reputation as a spooky place to visit, regardless of whether these events happened or not.
If you are interested in Borley and its history, 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.
(2) Newmarket gypsy boys grave-
In times gone by, a crossroads wasn’t merely a place where four routes intersected but was actually accorded a religious and spiritual meaning and people who committed suicide were sometimes buried nearby. Until the late sixties, suicide was treated as a crime ‘the murder of oneself’ and the families of suicides were not granted permission to bury them on consecrated ground. This is where the term ‘committed suicide’ originally comes from and refers to the commission of an unlawful act. Families would seek some form of religious meaning in burial by selecting a crossroads as the burial site of their loved one so they could be buried near what they saw as the shape of a cross in the road.
Drive in either direction on the B1506 near Newmarket and Moulton and you will reach a crossroads caused by an intersection with the B1085. Nearby is the unmarked grave where Joseph, a young lad from a traveler family, took his own life in the 17th Century and was subsequently buried. It is believed that some sheep from a flock he was herding went astray one day and, believing he’d be accused of their theft and knowing he would not get a fair trial in a society prejudiced against gypsies, took his own life rather than be hung for something he did not do. This is believed to be his grave and gypsy families erected a cross there in the seventies. In his book “Paranormal Suffolk,” the author Christopher Reeve says: “cyclists are mysteriously forced by some strange unseen power to dismount as they near the spot.” and local riders have long reported their mounts shying away or refusing to go close. Conversely there is also a well established tradition of race goers visiting the grave for good luck too. The belief is that if any flowers should appear on the grave during Derby week, then a horse from the Newmarket stables will win and the colour of the graveside flowers will foretell those of the silks of the winning jockeys.
(3) Tales of Norwich from ‘The Man in Black’-
Book yourselves on a Norwich Ghost Walk and you wil get two hours of ambulant history and ghostly tales as you tramp the streets of this atmospheric city with the ‘Man in Black’, a lugubrious Victorian historian and tour guide. Our favourite location, Fye Bridge is a 13th century structure rebuilt in 1829 and the site of a medieval ducking stool used to ‘test’ for witches. Should the poor women survive her ducking, she would then immolated on a wooden pyre, surrounded by baying crowds. Locals report multiple sighting of the ghosts of these witches, all of them carrying their own faggots –the piles of wood on which they would later be burned: a particularly sadistic executioners touch. The ghost walk uses local actors to simulate scenes from the past such as the ‘Faggot Witch’ who curses you and shakes her sticks as you pass.
Nearby Magdalen Street has been described as one of the most ‘haunted places in Britain’ with No19 infested by ghostly footsteps echoing through the empty parts of the building, cold spots and drafts, and a shadowy figure on its stairs, maybe as a result of a nineteenth century murder committed in the building. Staff at the Adam and Eve pub report a sighting of a ghostly hand holding a head in the car park, the terrifying sensation of somebody running hands through their hair and odd noises. Lord Sheffield, who died at the inn in 1549 is believed to be the culprit here.
The aptly named part of Norwich known as Tombland is the site of the Grey Lady hauntings, believed to be the earthly manifestation of a very unhappy and inadvertent victim of the plague. When the disease killed the occupants of the nearby Augustine Steward building, the house was boarded up for several weeks to prevent people entering or leaving but sadly a young girl in the house had survived the plague, only to starve to death, unable to escape. Her grey robes fade away to nothingness below the knees as she drifts around several location in the older parts of the city, it is understandable that after such confinement, unable to escape, her ghost is certainly not going to limit itself to one site.
(3) Disappearing and reappearing mansions in Suffolk-
Perusing the Bury Free Press last spring I was intrigued by a letter from a Jean Batram who spoke of her disquiet after seeing a house apparently appear then disappear moments later as she drove through the village of Rougham. She explained: “About five years ago, we were having a Sunday afternoon drive, coming into Rougham and going along Kingshall Street (I’d never been that way before) and up to the last bungalow. Looking across the newly harrowed field I saw a large house on its own very, very plainly. I said to my husband ‘look at that lovely house, I’ll take a look again on the way back’.
But coming back later, the house was gone and I asked if we were on the same road and he said ‘yes’, so I remarked ‘how odd’ as I knew very plainly that there was a large house standing on its own quite near across the field with trees behind it.”
NowJean was not the first person to see this strange vision and indeed is one of many over the last century and a half. In her book, ‘Ghosts of Suffolk’, Betty Puttick christens the apparition the “Rougham mirage” and goes on to talk about an eye witness account from 1860 when another local by the name of Robert Palfrey saw a large red brick double-fronted house behind ornate iron gates, only for the sight to disappear in a blink of an eye, right in front of him. Several decades later, his own great grandson reported the same phenomena whilst out with his horse and carriage. He drove past it and upon his return trip, noticed the house was no longer there. What is so odd about these sightings is that the house is described as not only being very large, making one wonder how locals had such little awareness of such a house being constructed, but was also of Georgian appearance. That period of architecture ended around 1830, only thirty years before Mr Palfrey’s sighting so it would seem likely that had it existed, locals would report their memories of its construction. Remember how under populated rural regions were then (and still are)? You could not hope to slip in and out of a village let alone build a house in one, unnoticed. The building of such a house would have involved hundreds of locals, from those sourcing and supplying the raw materials to the many who would have been intrigued and gossiped about the potential inhabitants.
Well known and respected psychic researcher Tony Cornell carried out his own investigations in the seventies and could find no corroboration of either its existence or the lack of; however he did find some evidence of the existence of a residence called the Kings House, demolished in the early 1800’s through his research of local maps. The mystery continues although I look away from the alleged site whenever we drive past, frightened that I might accidentally see it (which would be NOT a good thing for this frightened of ghost houses person).
(4) And haunted airfields-
Suffolk and Norfolk provided a temporary home to thousands of the ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’ American Airforce men during the Second World War and it appears that some may have decided to remain here, long after their corporeal life was over. Rougham Airfield (What it is about this little village that makes it so seductive to ghosts?) has long been reputed to be the eternal wandering grounds of a number of these young men from the U.S. 8th Air Force 1942-1945 who tragically were killed during their posting here.
After the wars end, most of the airfields north of the village were returned to the farmers and were reintegrated into the surrounding arable fields, although a few acres became the Rougham Industrial Estate, whilst the remaining grass taxi and runways were turned over for commercial and civil use. The control tower remains though, and now forms the hub of the Airfield Museum with frequent open days, kite festivals and other events, giving the public a chance to visit.
Towards the end of the war, an American airman nicknamed L’il Butch wandered around the base, triumphant after his successful return from yet another bombing raid over Germany. He must have been greatly relieved to be back at base as he wasn’t too far off the end of his active service in England. He was seen and waved to by several of his colleagues as they too arrived back or headed towards their own planes. The curious thing was that several months earlier, L’il Butch had actually been killed on a bombing raid over Germany and had not returned at all. He seemed to not know that he had died, according to his friends, and apart from their knowing that he was dead, his ghost gave no indication of being in anything other than the rudest of health.
Hauntings at the airfield were said to have increased from the seventies onwards, with locals reporting sightings of ghostly apparitions of American servicemen walking the fields and runways of the base and the noise of aircraft could be heard as they landed and took off. Eerie voices echoed around the control tower: one in particular sounds very distressing and is believed to be that of a pilot who ran out of fuel and crashed his plane at the base: ‘Why wouldn’t you let us land?’” he has been heard crying out in distress. Should you wish to further channel the spirit of these good natured and brave men, then Lavenham’s Swan Hotel has the Airmen Bar with one wall covered in their signatures. They relaxed and drank here and Glenn Miller was reputed to have set out on his fateful flight after visiting the bar. As Bernard Nolan stated in the East Anglian Daily Times: “We could get to Lavenham quite easily from where we lived in a Nissen hut just a few fields away. I can recall that we used to walk across the muddy fields in our flying boots, and we would take our boots off and leave them on the road and pick them up on the way back from the pub We usually came here to the Swan – it was one of our favourite haunts.” It is such a shame that so many of the cartoons and graffiti created by the airmen has now disappeared although the group Eighth in the East was established to record and research the legacy USAF had (and still has ) upon East Anglia.
“And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring. And its wild bark thrill’d around, his eyes had the glow of the fires below, t’was the form of the spectre hound.”
Or as Enid Porter said in ‘Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore”: “The noise of rattling chains over the desolate fields on moonless nights announced the invisible presence of these hounds; sometimes their heavy breathing might be heard. The important thing to do was to take shelter immediately, at home if possible, and to lock and bolt doors and windows so that the fearsome animals, foretelling death or other disaster, could not come by”
The Anglo Saxon had a word for a devil or demon; ‘Scucca‘, as did the Norse Vikings; ‘Shukir‘ and both of these served as shorthand, after a manner, for their Norse ‘Dogs of War’, the gods called Odin and Thor. Some historians claim this was the name of Thor’s faithful old dog whilst others state the dog actually belonged to Odin. So one of both of these may have given their name to the ‘Black Shuck’, the East Anglian colloquial name for a terrifying canine beast that is super sized (and I don’t mean St Bernard sized- think bigger). Huge and black with eyes the size of saucers, the Black Shuck pads almost soundlessly behind you, dogging your step and getting closer and closer: your inevitable fate, should you look directly into those eyes, is death within six months to a year. Equally its name may simply be a bastardisation of’ Shucky’ which simply means shaggy, and the legend merely a story of the shaggy dog kind.
The Black Shuck is a local version of a legend that is common to many parts of the UK and even in East Anglia, he is known by other names: the Galleytrot in Suffolk and Old Scarfe in other parts of Norfolk. In Essex they call him the ‘Hateful Thing.’ One of his more famous stamping grounds lies between Sheringham and Overstrand where, in 1890, a young boy reported being hounded farther out to sea by a large dog that would not let him come ashore. There are numerous sightings over centuries, all remarkably consistent regarding behaviour and appearance, although Overstrand village legend also tells of a gentler Black Shuck. In this version, a Dane, a Saxon and Shuck the dog were inseparable friends who were drowned whilst out fishing one day and the Dane ended up being washed up at Beeston while his friend, the Saxon, washed up at Overstrand. Shuck roams the coast between the two looking for his friends and masters, doomed to never be reunited with them and to this day the village of Overstrand bears an image of this loyal hound on its village sign.
Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have based ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on another of the Black Shuck’s routes, around Mill Lane which passes by Cromer Hall but replaced the flatter Norfolk with a wilder Dartmoor. The description of Baskerville is remarkably close to the appearance of Cromer Hall although stories telling of black devil dogs abound in Devon too so it is by no means certain that Doyle used the Norfolk prototype as his inspiration.
The benefits of tales and legends such as these are pretty clear. What better way to keep people safely at home as night fell, away from beaches, cliff edges and lonely dark lanes than by frightening them? Or they may have functioned as a way to explain what was then, the inexplicable- tragedies, misadventure and disappearances as people attempted to find their way home in the dark, in an inhospitable place. Curious children can be protected from drowning by an over elaborate tale of how one of their compatriots nearly drowned themselves after venturing too close to the sea. In addition, if you are involved in smuggling or other beach side capers, here’s how you warn away the curious and those who might wish to make a move on your lucrative trade.
What was probably a lightning strike in a church in Blythburgh, resulting in black striations on the inside of the church door, which locals described as the claw marks, sounds far more sinister blamed upon a gigantic black dog leaping from a beam up high, killing a boy and two grown men, before leaving the building with ‘a great thundering sound?’ It also avoids having to ask awkward questions of a God who sends a storm to kill pious church goers- and far more comfortable it must be to blame it on a black dog sent by a devil instead. Of course this would be encouraged by the church who could further turn such tales and subsequent fears to their advantage: “Pray harder, tithe more to prevent such evil visiting us again” maybe?
East Anglia is littered (get it?) with all manner of Black Shuck iconography, from the signs of its villages to street lights topped by weathervanes such as this one in Bungay, designed by a local child in a competition in 1933. The hound rides a lightning bolt and refers to his appearance in the town in 1577 during yet another thunderstorm which killed several worshippers in St Mary’s church. Two were killed after being touched by the animal and a third died after being “drawn together and shrunk up as like a piece of leather” according to Abraham Fleming’s account of this event in his pamphlet of 1577. This latter description sounds more like the effects of the intense heat of a bolt of lightning. The weathervane cum streetlight, which was erected on the site of the old water pump has an inscription which reads: “All down the church in midst of fire the hellish monster flew. and passing onwards to the Quire he many people slew.” Should you want to know more, then ‘ byShock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Folklore’ by Dr David Waldron and Christopher Reeve is a great (albeit non academic) account of the history of not only the Bungay and Blythburgh events, but the historical and cultural background to the myth.
Should you wish to toast the legend of the Black Shuck then there are available locally, several fine ales brewed by some small independent breweries in regional hostelries or via off licences. Hellhound, a Suffolk brewery based in Hadleigh,started up only a few years ago, has Cerberus as its logo and brews Black Shuck, a 3.9% porter described by them as dark bodied with notes of caramel and raisin and is a ‘breakfast stout’, brewed with porridge oats and coffee. We drank it at a Norwich pub called The Murderers, a suitably named place for an ale named after a dark legend. In Old Buckenham, the Wagtail Brewery brews ‘Black Shuck’, a stout using malt from Wells-next-the-Sea. According to the label: “Since Viking times, the inhabitants of Norfolk have told of a wild black dog with flaming red eyes, the appearance of which bodes ill to the beholder.” Made as a vegan beer in total contradiction to its namesake who we feel sure is NOT a vegan, this ale is shuck dark with a very mild scent of coffee, roasted and woody in the mouth.
(6) The haunted drowned town of Dunwich
From a land haunted by dogs and people, we turn to a land haunted by an entire disappeared village, a place once inhabited by real Suffolk folk, busy and full of life. By the eleventh century, Dunwich, right on the edge of Suffolk where it meets the tea coloured waters of the North Sea, was one of the greatest ports on the entire east coast with a naval base, monasteries, churches, huge public buildings and its own mint. Locals lived well off the fat of their labours in shipbuilding and trade and a fishing fleet of more than seventy ships went out every day. From its earliest beginnings as a Roman fort, Dunwich became the capital of a Saxon kingdom and the place where St Felix converted East Anglians to Christianity, and the tenth largest in England with two parliamentary seats. There was much to be lost when the town eventually tumbled into the North Sea that had provided it with such a good living.
Prior to this disastrous and terminal event, the towns expansion and prosperity had been curtailed by a huge storm in 1328 which tore through the town, shifting the shingle of the seabed, changing the current and ended up blocking off its harbour. Walberswick became prosperous off the back of this because ships were diverted there and this caused animosity between the two towns. During the subsequent storms, houses, churches and windmills were lost and by 1540 the sea had engulfed the market place and Dunwich was lost. All that was left was the 13th century Franciscan friary on the edge of the cliff and the Leper Hospital chapel in the present churchyard.
Coastal erosion has not ceased and the land continues to recede at a steady old rate, first recorded in Roman times. The soft boulder clay of this coastline is crowned by a layer of shingle which has an essential impermanence, shifting so much the coastal mappers cannot keep up. Man has not helped either with the construction, in the early 20th century, of a new pier at Lowestoft. This altered the tides and the current began to encroach upon and take All Saints church, formerly one of Suffolk’s most impressive churches. That one church tower remained upright on the beach until its eventual collapse in 1900. Until the 1950’s walkers still came upon its masonry, littered across the shoreline and the former graves gave up their contents, scattering bones across the cliffs. The thundering surge took not only the village, all six parishes of it, but also wiped out an entire hunting forest, hills and the harbour which was stopped up by a shingle bank so impenetrable, its fate was sealed forever.
Today Dunwich is a little village of less than 120 residents although its numbers swell hugely during the tourist season. There are some fishing boats left, a shadow of the former fleet and the gorgeous pub ‘The Ship’ which sprawls on the corner of the sandy tracks down to the beach. The Flora tearooms cook and serve up hundreds of thousands of plates of expertly friend fish and chips and the heath teams with walkers and bird watchers. Near to the pub is the Dunwich Museum that tells the tale of this lost place.
“But!” I hear you cry…“What about the haunting? “
That lost undersea world, our nearest thing to Atlantis has attracted many pilgrims over the years who come to sit on the sand and perch on the cliff tops, listening for the church bells, ringing their futile and haunted peels from the bottom of the North Sea. “Where frowns the ruin o’er the silent dead?” we might ask as we sit on the beach at night, the only light coming from the few buildings that cling to the marram grass tufted cliffs, and the only noise the soft clatter of the thick crust of pebbles that make up the beach here as the waves move up and over them. There is a myth that Dunwich had over fifty churches, perpetuated by Thomas Gardner, a Southwold historian, but there weren’t that many.
The seabed here attracts divers and snorkellers, attracted by an subterranean history as rich as that of ground sites and experienced divers, who are not easily spooked nor vulnerable to all manner of fancies, tell of unsettled feelings, of not being alone down ‘there’. Fishermen too, another breed of folk not prone to flights of imagination talk (although they do like a good yarn) speak of seeing an Elizabethan sailor who wanders the beach at nights fall, eventually wading out to a boat anchored a way out to sea. They hear the bells, infinitessimally muted by a hundred of more feet of waters, hear the cries of ghostly children playing on the beach at dusk and see the phantom horseman astride his steed. Said to be a former squire of the Dunwich heathlands (now owned by the National Trust), he only appears during the full moon when the tides turn, scaring those that encounter him. The phantom horseman is not the only phantom horseman either and when there’s a full moon, locals have seen the ghostly apparition of a past landowner racing his horse across the heathland at full gallop.
Walk the cliff path near the grade II* listed Greyfriars Priory ruins and you may see the apparition of a man, striding along in angry search of his adulterous wife who ran away with her lover. The ruins of the priory and those of the old leper hospital in Dunwich are the haunt of ghostly monks (I have yet to come across a priory that isn’t home to a monk ghost of three!) who roam its grounds, blissfully unaware that it is in need of urgent repair. Finally, if you are brave (and daft enough) to visit St James Church at dusk, you may bump into the spectral remains of the leper inhabitants who are said to haunt the churches graveyard.
That old East Anglian ghost mascot, the Black Shuck likes it here too and its glowing red eyes have been reported to peer at visitors who come here at dusk (who in their right mind would want to come to such a spooky place at night?) with a notable sighting reported in 1926 of a giant dog which loped around the tumbled stones. Dunwich has a plethora of animal ghosts with flocks of ghost sheep and cows seen along the shoreline, reminders of the real animals who were once raised here and perished during the storms, their water logged corpses washed up along the shore for months afterwards.
One of the worst tales for sheer weirdness is the encounter a young couple had with a pair of ghostly disembodied legs along the Helena Walk Trail in 2011. Hearing strange footsteps following them, they turned around to see these spooky floating legs, hovering a few feet above the pathway. Wearing dark trousers and boots, the legs ran away into the trees lining the pathway and may have belonged to the ghost of the brother of the Lord of the Manor who apparently fell in love with a local serving maid. Banned from ever seeing her again, he is said to have pined away and died from a broken heart. I do not know how he became separated from the rest of his body.
(7) The wailing babes in a (Norfolk) wood
The trope of the pint sized ghost- that of a child- is a familiar one over the centuries and in many cultures, one that should fill us with nothing but sadness for the tale of a young life cut short. Yet all too often films and books with stories of child ghosts and spirits (is there a difference between the two?) are the scariest. What lies behind this might be the fear of the partially formed spiritual and religious persona, a child with an incomplete grasp on (adult) morality and therefore more vulnerable to inculcation by evil. I don’t know.
Or maybe the thought of these ghostly spectral children are too vivid a reminder of the vulnerability of our own children, of our family happiness and security? What could be worse than the spectre of your child, a child, so near and yet so far away, hovering in the doorway, in a wood or other familiar place? I think that as a mother, I would be driven out of my mind by this, not comforted. With ghosts (and specifically the ghosts of children) A fear of something I want to keep outside has somehow made its way inside and lodged itself into the realms of possibility- that one of my own children might, one day, die before me. Anyway…<pushes that thought firmly out of my mind>, we go on.
In 1595, Thomas Millington published the story ‘The Babes in the Wood’ in Norwich and again in ballad form as ‘Children of the Wood’ in 1640. Millingtons story was written in a time when some Protestant and Catholics were making all manner of wild accusations at each other, so it may have had a nefarious and political intent. But folk tales tend to contain a grain of truth….
According to folklore this tale was based on a wicked uncle from Norfolk who decided to dispose of his two child charges in the local woods, Wayland Woods, known previously as ‘Wailing Woods’- an ancient woodland near Watton. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), oak, ash, hazel and bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population and the woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age. The nearby Thompson Common is renowned for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which provide a home for water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil upwards. Starting in nearby Stow Beddon, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk that encompasses this phenomena and many other local sights.
To date, no other place has been strongly associated with the tale and it is now believed to be at least partially based upon a true series of events in the sixteenth century. The name ‘Wayland’ is derived from the cries of the children calling for help, cries that woodland walkers allege they hear to this day. Other sources say the Vikings named the woods Waneland, a place of worship which may be another origin of the legend. In pagan times it has been alleged that people sacrificed unwanted children to appease and praise the gods, often by leaving them in remote places. Could these two tales have melded- the pagan woodland sacrifices and the 16th century deaths into one combined source of the legend?
The legend tells that these two children were left in the care of their uncle at Griston Hall on the edge of the woods, following the death of their parents. On reaching the age of majority (21) they were to inherit their father’s fortune, but should they pass before this time the wealth would go directly to the uncle. The uncle plotted to dispose of the two children to stake his claim to the wealth after hiring two cut throats to take them and murder them in the woods. One of the cut throats appear to have possessed a stronger moral code than the uncle though (only ever so slightly though) and killed the other in order to prevent him from going ahead with the murder. The surviving cut throat abandoned them there (remember the children were aged three and one under two) and they died of exposure and starvation. Their bodies were found under an oak tree where robins had covered their bodies with leaves, an absolutely heartbreaking detail. In 1879, the tree that the babes had reputedly been left under was struck by lightning and destroyed.
Griston Hall used to contain a wood carving that was described as depicting the tale of the Babes in the Wood, placed there by a family descendant as reminder of his ancestral cruelty. The village signs of Griston and Watton commemorate the tale and locals will tell of the white wraiths seen flitting from tree to tree in the woods as darkness falls. Ground fog or the spirits of these unfortunate children? Who knows.
In which we walk the Shotley Peninsula, explore Pin Mill and its history and finish with a meal at the Butt & Oyster, made famous by author Arthur Ransome.
The coast of Suffolk with its small towns clustered on spits of land, carved out and isolated by tides and rivers, became a place where traditionally the up-and-coming middle classes from our engine-room cities came to rest up and regain their spirits after maintaining the empire. Marry this with the independent and reserved personality of the indigenous ‘South Folk’, their toughness and shy self-sufficiency hard-wired via centuries of fighting off challenges by land grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility and you can see why our county sea borders are home to such a compelling mix of people- an intriguing place to visit and live.
The Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) actually extends from the Stour Estuary in the south right up to Kessingland near the Norfolk borders and covers over 403 square kilometres. We recently spent a few days exploring a small part of it: the coastal areas around Pin Mill on the Shotley Peninsula, a spit of land between the River Orwell and the River Stour. The two rivers meet at Shotley Gate, merge and eventually flow into the North Sea where the north bank is crowned by the international port and docks of Felixstowe and the harbour town and port of Harwich on the south point. A passenger ferry transports people between the two.
Found on the western shore of the River Orwell, Pin Mill was made famous by the author Arthur Ransome of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and fronts onto the Harry King Boatyard. In his book “We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea”, the young and adventurous protagonists were staying at Alma Cottage, located right by the Butt & Oyster pub. Ransom had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard, although he actually lived on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington. Humans also live on the river and there are quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, then slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red-sailed Thames sailing barges are a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here.
During the 19th century, coastal vessels stopped off here to offload shallower barges and local farms would have their produce collected and transported elsewhere by them. Buttermans Bay (to the right of the pub) was named after the fast schooners that carried dairy produce from the Channel Islands and to this day there is still an annual Thames Barge Match held here even though the halcyon days of trading here have now passed. The Orwell River was once a prime trading route between Ipswich, the European mainland and the rest of the country and in the Middle Ages, the wool produced by wealthy East Anglian merchants and farmers was exported via the town whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area in Ipswich is now slowly being restored although the waters bob with yachts and houseboats now instead of the merchants ships that once plied their trade there.
The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well known trail that loops around the Palladian Woolverstone Hall and its Park, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rises up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirts the tiny village of Chelmondiston, before returning you to your start point- The Butt & Oyster Inn. The pub overlooks the boatyards which edge Pin Mill Common on both sides and makes a logical and scenic place to start or finish at although if you like a drink, it might be best to wait until after that walk- the fireside seats and sunny warmth streaming through the picture windows overlooking the water makes it hard to get up and get going.
Once out in the fresh air, the clanking of halyards in the breeze and puttering of outboard motors, coupled with the sounds of men and women working on their boats will remind you that this is very much a working boatyard and river as opposed to a place for the flip-collared deck shoe-shod regatta brigade. Brick-edged creeks and streams edged with mossy seaweed run past the paths, the water clear and ice-cold. The brackish waters of the saltings and tidal mud flats act as a magnet for overwintering birds: waders such as the egrets-all orange beak and spindly-legged; avocets which breed here in the summer and the plovers and oyster catchers which feed and breed, then rest on the tongues of land that bisect the lagoons. They are partially camouflaged by the lush summer foliage of sea-lavender and purslane and breeding linnets soar overhead too, far above the scrubby gorse that lines the opposite side of the river and up to the woodlands clustered on the bluffs.
The sandy heathland is a welcoming habitat for the gorse that flowers from mid winter onwards, providing nectar rich blooms for insects to feed on, which are, in turn, eaten by the linnets. The acid-yellow of its flowers carry a heady scent of coconut and saffron on the breeze, melding with the salt and dankness of the estuarine mud to create the unique smell of Pin Mill. The estuaries of the two rivers provide a vital stop off or stop over point for many migrant species and carries the European designation of Special Protection Area (SPA) as “a wetland of international importance”.
On warmer days when the tide is low children paddle by the pub, stepping gingerly over the pebbles on the shore that runs alongside the raised outdoor seating area and car-park whilst dogs plunge in, recklessly. They are overlooked by the pub windows, the shore reached by a ladder fixed to its wall which is rapidly submerged as the tide comes in. Beyond the shore we continued our walk along the undercliff which is rapidly being eroded and has been partially protected by riverside revetments. It is possible to head west, in the opposite direction too, upriver, by turning left as you walk down the shaded narrow lane to arrive at the pub which will then be on your right. This route will take you past the Pin Mill Sailing Club, alongside the boatyard with its hedges bedecked with bunting and surrounding woods and sheep pastures and eventually towards the woods. In the summer, the fields that surround Wolverstone Park are filled with red campion, cornflowers, clover, jack-in-the-pulpit and tall thistles, stiff purple bristles bursting out of their calyxes and as you approach Woolverstone Marina, you will get wonderful views across to the Orwell Bridge which carries the A14 over the river.
Our lunch at the Butt & Oyster on an overcast early September day didn’t include the oysters that the pub name commemorates (there were prolific oyster fisheries here) but was otherwise resplendent with its piles of local seafood and fish, all slippery hues of coral and oak and palest pink. Smoked trout, salmon and mackerel plus shell on prawns, crawfish and crab came with Marie Rose sauce and the obligatory granary bread and salad. A starter of goats cheese and red onion marmalade on a shoe sized crouton was large enough to be a main course; the cheese was young and crumbly, lacking the barnyard rigor of older cheeses and possessed instead, a lemony rime.
Sticky toffee pudding with banana fudge ice cream, chosen from a menu of different ice-cream flavours rounded off a lighter meal than we had originally intended; the other choices of pork and apple burgers, smoked haddock risotto and fish stew with a tomato and chili sauce had sold out. We arrived late and were happy we were fed at all. The pub has a dining area, smaller side room heated by a wood-burning stove and outdoor seating but we sat by the main bar near the picture windows and watched the river rise. If you aren’t that fussed about a meal but want to nibble at something then the roasted cashew nuts will keep you pretty happy, I reckon. I imagine the Fritto Misto would too- a heap of deep fried prawns, squid, whitebait and gougons of white fish served with a pot of coleslaw. One of those things you order thinking you aren’t that hungry then find yourself tearing into like some ravening creature with poor table manners.
In my first edit of this piece I forgot to mention the lovely staff at the Butt & Oyster <the shame> who were super accommodating towards two ditsy, tired, grubby and hungry walkers. Nothing was too much trouble for them, including my complete inability to decide between the ice-cream flavours, a decision they appeared to be as invested in as I was. Their advice was considered, patient and great fun too.
Staff did not know we were coming, were not told we were reviewing and indeed remained unaware of this until this feature came out. At no time have we received fiscal reward for this review.