Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

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A local appetite for sops and dripping

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A visit to a local graveyard led us to a man who loved his sops and dripping so much, he had his dripping-cup affixed to his tombstone.


Travel south of Newmarket and the land swells gently towards the rolling hills of west Suffolk and the fields are dotted with copses and dark-green thickets. The landscape around Newmarket is rather manicured, a result of its racing industry which has brought great wealth to parts of the town although back in February 1605, when James I made his first visit to the town, he described it as a “poor little village.”

 This part of East Anglia was once politically significant, close to the ancient Icknield Way which runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards, up into Thetford Chase. These tracks were in use from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, forming a network of paths which helped people move between the south-west of England and East Anglia. The former Kings of East Anglia built defensive earthworks to gird the loins of what was a naturally  defensive topography: the marshy, dark-watered fens further to the north, creek-riven coastal margins to the east and the sprawling broad-leaf forests of Essex to the south all made invasion and subsequent navigation tricky.
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The small village of Wood Ditton lies just south of Newmarket and was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in an instrument of King Canute: the monarch went on to give Ditton Camoys, one of the Wood Ditton manors, to Ely Abbey in 1022 in exchange for Cheveley, a nearby village. Part of Wood Ditton’s southern boundary is formed by the Anglo-Saxon earthworks, Devil’s Dyke, which is also crossed by the Roman Icknield Way.

St Mary’s church was built on the periphery of the village, down a short track edged by hedgerows and the garden walls of its neighbouring cottages. Early records date the original wooden church buildings (now gone) back to the twelfth-century although it was once home to a monastery of an even greater age. Parts of the church were vandalised by Cromwell’s men but the fourteenth century north aisle remains.

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Enter the yard via a low gate and directly in front of you lies the church and the older part of its graveyard where tombstones patched with ochre-yellow lichens and moss lean at crazy angles. Walk down a gentle slope covered in cow parsley, primroses and the dying leaves of snowdrops and you’ll arrive at two more, partially enclosed, graveyards.

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We came here in search of one particular grave after an internet search for Newmarket Pudding led me to the tombstone epitaph of a local man who has been described as a ‘gourmand’. On the first of March 1753, William Symonds was interred in front of the church, close to the gate and, at his own request, his gravestone has a small iron dripping-dish affixed to its front, protected by a rusting iron grille. A former turnspit to the late Duke of Rutland at Cheveley in Cambridgeshire (although some records state he was a gamekeeper too) Mr Symonds reached a great age of eighty and as he lay dying of an undetermined affliction, his last wishes were that the tale of his demise should be told thus. They are believed to be his own words:

Here lies my corpse, I was the man,

That loved a sop in the dripping pan;

But now, believe me, I am dead:

See here the pan stands at my head.

Still for sops till the last I cried

But could not eat, and so I died.

My neighbours, they perhaps will laugh,

When they do read my epitaph.”

(Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary for the year 1876)

Poor Mr Symonds had endured that most terrible of afflictions for a man who loved his grub; an inability to eat coupled with a raging appetite for something comforting and indulgent as he approached his death. His dripping pan has turned to rust and the remains are barely visible behind the protective iron grille, but a faint ghost of his epitaph is visible, engraved on the thick stone slab. The words took some time to decipher in the cold bright light of a March afternoon, although the word ‘dripping’ retained the most clarity. I like to imagine that William Symonds would have been pleased by that.

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How on earth did a man of his modest means manage to eat his way to a dripping-related death though? His access to meat-dripping (or sops as they were commonly referred to) belied his fiscal and social class because dripping was generally not freely available for poorer working people. However, his love of it can be explained by his occupation as turnspit to the Duke of Rutland which seemed to have provided him with a steady supply. There isn’t a huge amount of information about him (as you might expect) but a life spent proximate to landed gentry and the dukedom means that there is some documentary evidence of his life in relation to them. In records from Cheveley Park dated 1896, he was described as “an eccentric lad” who for many years had filled an important office, helping to roast the game and meat from livestock provided by the ducal estate.

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For William, it must have been extremely arduous work in unpleasantly hot conditions. Indeed, records of the Tudor turnspit boys who worked at Hampton Court give some idea of the travails turnspits endured because when they divested themselves of their upper clothing to cool down, they were commanded to ‘no longer to go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now.’ William would have required every drop of that meaty sop in order to build the upper-body strength and musculature required to keep the spit turning for hours on end. It is not a surprise to learn that a small dog was especially bred to turn these spits too. First mentioned in documents from 1576, these dogs were trained to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit and to make them run faster, a coal might be tossed into their metal cage. By 1850 they had fallen out of popularity because of the creation of  inexpensive, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks, and towards the turn of the century, both human and canine turnspits had become obsolete.

Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
 Sops were commonly known as pieces of bread which would be dipped into the drippings from the spit-roasted meat. These juices were collected in a pan placed underneath the spit. Another type of sop came from bowls of pottage or gruel. When the bread had ‘sopped up’ and was soaked in liquid, meat juices or fat, the trick was to convey the sop as swiftly as possible to the mouth before it disintegrated in the hand. The word ‘soup’ derives from sop or sup (meaning the slices of bread onto which broth or cooking juices was poured) although Joan of Arc liked to sop her bread with wine instead of cooking juices. Wealthier people in the Middle Ages threw their trencher bread (so called because it functioned as an early plate for meat and sauce) out to the dogs, despite it being sopped in a good sauce. Sometimes the trencher bread would be cast out to the waiting poor too.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (in the book ‘A History of Food’) tells of St Patroclus, a third-century saint from Troyes, who managed to survive on barley bread dipped into water and sprinkled with coarse salt. In this practice, he was anticipating the early days of soup when a crust or piece of bread would be placed at the bottom of a low bowl and the gruel or other liquid then poured over it. We can see the origins of the Tuscan bread-thickened soups, the French garbures and onion soups and the Spanish gazpacho. There’s echoes of sop what we call French toast (pan perdu) in a fifteenth-century Italian recipe for suppa dorata, where pieces of bread are dipped in beaten-egg, sugar and rosewater, then fried in butter and served encrusted with more sugar. Think of zuppa Inglese too, where the bread is replaced by sweet cake which is then soaked in wine or rum and blanketed in thick custard. Still in Italy, food historian Ken Albala tells of a sturgeon-based dinner in his book, The Banquet that took place in 1584. Wealthy guests feasted upon sturgeon eggs and beaten flesh of the fish, the latter in a thick soup and served with sops, followed by sturgeon meatballs in a spicy sauce. There were sixteen sturgeon-based platters of food to get through in total, a mighty feast where some of the courses possessed a more humble culinary etymology.

At the humbler end of the scale, there’s dripping cake- or bread- which was once eaten in many British regions, although it is rarely heard of now. The Gloucestershire version of this bread, baked in the oven from  dripping, flour, brown sugar, spices, currants and raisins, had a toffee-like layer at the base of the cake which formed as it baked. Dripping cake gets a mention in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

Tom, by a sort of instinct, knew the right cupboards in the kitchen and pantry, and soon managed to place on the snuggery table better materials for a meal than had appeared there probably during the reign of his tutor, who was then and there initiated, amongst other things, into the excellence of that mysterious condiment, a dripping-cake. The cake was newly baked, and all rich and flaky; Tom had found it reposing in the cook’s private cupboard, awaiting her return; and as a warning to her they finished it to the last crumb.

Sop-style platefuls are found wherever meat forms part of the diet. Go to Hungary and you’ll find that they have their own version of mucky bread which is known locally as fatty bread: goose fat from the well-known Hungarian goose is spread on bread, sprinkled with paprika and eaten with finely chopped peppers and onions. And there’s variations on a theme too such as Smokeworks in Cambridge, who have taken this straightforward ingredient and stirred it into mashed potatoes to make their legendary beef-dripping mash.

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‘Mucky Fat’

In Yorkshire the same dripping is spread onto good bread and goes by the name of ‘mucky sandwich’ although this habit is not unique to this fine region. My grandparents who both hailed from the Midlands kept a large china jug in the fridge, full to the brim with beef dripping from the Sunday roast, the fat solidifying into a creamy layer over a good two inches of rich beef jelly. Over the week it would be used to enrich gravies and pastry or was spread onto hot toast and allowed to melt. On an especially good day, I would be given a plate of fried bread, golden and caught around the crust and heavy with melted dripping and jelly. My grandfather would reminisce about after-school football as a lad where, at half-time, he would wolf down a ‘bread and fat’sopped sandwich with a spreading of his mother’s home-made piccalilli to cut the grease. That Sunday joint kept the family in clover for most of the week.

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Library of Congress: The Prince of Wales (George IV) asks “Dear Mother, pray let me have a sop in the pan.”

In classical literature, a sop was clearly so prized that it was deemed to be a suitable bribe for Cereberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto which guarded the gates of the infernal regions in Virgil’s Aeneid. When a person died, the Greeks and Romans would put a cake in their hands as a sop to this fearsome creature, who might therefore allow them to pass without molestation in exchange. Here we see the sop gains a secondary meaning as a bribe or salve. There exists the possibility that Mr Symons recognises that his much-prized sops might ease his suffering and might also provide him with a swifter, and easier, passage to eternal life. Or might he have been trying to bribe death to not come for him? We cannot be sure about that, but I was told that my own grandfathers sop sandwiches were so coveted by his footballing friends that he could probably have arranged to have the match thrown in exchange for a few bites- the equivalent of having Cereberus in goal.

I feel warmly towards Mr Symonds. Whilst Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary takes a dim view of ones vices being ‘considered a fitting subject for perpetuating in stone’ when it published his epitaph, and indeed Mr Symonds acknowledges his own excess of appetite, I am inclined to approve of a man who wanted to cheer-up his own neighbours whenever they visited the graveyard and church. Clearly the locals of Wood Ditton appreciate his little joke too, because when the original stone was accidentally broken during wedding party festivities at St Mary’s Church around 1871, it was removed and repaired. The stone was re-erected with the original dripping-pan in place.

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A Home away from home: Anna Hope’s novel ‘The Ballroom’ has links with our own Suffolk history

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire. A photographic book entitled `Asylum’ has just been published and shows the work of photographer Mark Davis who has photographed derelict asylum’s round Britain and Ireland.
This feature was first published by The Bury Free Press in their print edition only and is reprinted here by kind permission.

Grand ballrooms are not the first thing that come to mind when we imagine the Victorian asylums of our recent past but a newly published novel by Anna HopeThe Ballroom, was inspired by her discovery old photographs of an ornate ballroom in a northern asylum, now fallen into disrepair. And whilst her story is set many miles away, in the Yorkshire Ridings, it has intriguing parallels with the old county asylum, once known as St Audry’s near Ipswich and the exhibition dedicated to it in Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life. After reading Anna’s novel and interviewing her for this feature, I realised that it was time to re-visit this local museum which has an exhibit about the old St Audry’s asylum and talk to Lisa Harris who is employed there as Collections and Interpretation Manager.

The St Audry’s Project tells the tale of the old St Audry’s Hospital in Melton, which began life as the Suffolk County Asylum in 1832, on the site of an old workhouse. When St Audry’s closed in 1993, its museum collection and archive were divided between various regional establishments. Since then, the Museum of East Anglian Life has been collating oral testimonies and working with local people to ensure that such an important and fascinating part of Suffolk history is not lost. Lisa explains the history of the collection and her involvement in it.

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Abbots Hall at Museum of East Anglian Life. Image: Museum of East Anglian Life

“The Museum of East Anglian Life was re-developing Abbots Hall and we wanted to look at the concept of home and belonging: home as in the people who themselves once lived in Abbots Hall; home as in being a proud Stowmarket girl, or a Suffolk person or even an East Anglian. We also wanted to look at different types of home, of which an asylum is one, and we knew we had the St Audrys collection which hadn’t actually been on public display before, to my knowledge,” she says

“All the archives that survived are based at Ipswich Records Office so this gave us a chance to talk about this whole element of life in Suffolk but also to link into the bigger picture and we were able to get funding from Comic Relief for this.

It is interesting that the collection came into being via the informal efforts of the staff who once worked at the hospital and I ask Lisa about this.

“The collection came here originally because it was in the teaching section of St Audry’s, housed in the attic. When they became a teaching hospital in the 1950s different staff gradually gathered items such as clothing, farm equipment and patients belongings and created a museum on site. But when the asylum closed in 1953, there was concerns as to where all of this might go. Some of the more medical items went to the Science Museum in London, a lot of it went to Felixstowe Museum and the rest came here”, she explains, sweeping her arm around the room lined with glass vitrines containing the tokens used as part of a patient-goods exchange system, the books and records, carefully inked in black fountain pen, pairs of spectacles, thick hard-to-rip nightgowns and decks of cards.

There’s staged vignettes too: a hospital screen has become an art installation where people have attached labels inscribed with the stigmatising language used to describe mental illness and the people who experience it. ‘Mental’, ‘schizoid’, ‘mental enfeeblement’ are starkly stamped on paper luggage tags and there’s a bed and bath with restraints in one corner plus the recorded voices of former staff who talk of their own lives there, often in a pronounced Suffolk burr. As visitors move slowly around the room, these voices fill the air, bringing the room to life.

Conducting research such as this can be made challenging by the stringent rules which control access to patient records: By law, a 30 year closure period is applied to administrative and committee papers, 80 years for student and staff records, and 100 years for personal medical records. This means the most important voices of all – that of the patients- are missing. Both Lisa Harris and Anna Hope emphasise the importance of that patient voice and the ways in which they sought it out for their respective endeavours.

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Anna Hope: author of The Ballroom

The voice of the patients in The Ballroom are vivid, born in part from the many hours of research its author put in, as Anna Hope explains. “Their [the patients] voices do break through too, particularly in the casebooks. I read extensively in the casebooks of High Royds for the period in which the book is set, and the patients jumped vividly from their pages; even the act of holding the casebook in my hands was powerful: the marbled covers, the smell of age, the photographs of the patients, and their own words, erupting into the present, making themselves heard.” Anna skilfully combines her research with the imagination of a fiction author, managing to avoid the trap that many authors fall into, of circumventing the objectivity of historical data to such a degree that accuracy suffers.

“We decided our exhibition would only go up to the 1920s because we can’t access any of the records after that date so why try to tell a story that isn’t out there yet in purely historical terms?” Lisa points out. “Our concern was telling that historical story in the hope that people can learn from it. And that maybe we don’t make the same mistakes in the future that we made in the past…or in the case of something has worked well, we’ll take that and work out how we can take that forward now. We’re trying to do sessions with medical professionals because in order to tell the story you’ve got to have some understanding of the terminology and the treatments. I’m not a medical expert, my understanding  is of curating and preservation: woodworm and rust!” She laughs. “I need to be able to point people in the right direction to get greater understanding, and to properly explain the context”, something which served her well when later on in our chat,  Lisa tells me about her encounters with some artefacts which appear to have a sinister purpose.
In 1832, when St Audry’s was called  The Suffolk County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics, Dr John Kirkman was appointed Medical Superintendent  and his reports and those of the doctors following him show a mind remarkably in tune with some of today’s philosophies of what constitutes good mental health care. The concept of an asylum as a home from home was central to his management: “Drugs are of course necessary in some cases, but moral treatment is essential to all and this is obtained chiefly by means of employment, amusement, pleasing associations and cheerful surroundings which act as medicine to the deceased mind” said the 50th Annual Report, back in 1888″  and the hospital became a self-sufficient community which nonetheless had strong ties to the village of Melton. Dr Kirkman couldn’t be more different to Dr Fuller, one of the narrators in Hope’s book.

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High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

The Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and it begins with the arrival of Ella Fay at the Sharston asylum in 1911. She is sent there because, after railing against the lack of light in the textiles mill where she works, she snaps and breaks one of the windows- a socially transgressive act in the eyes of her employers and her colleagues, albeit perfectly understandable and rational to us. John Mulligan is already a patient at Sharston, an Irishman suffering from depression provoked by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent abandonment of him. When Ella and John meet at a Friday night dance in the asylum’s beautiful ballroom, they embark upon a slow-burn of a relationship, marked by surreptitious meetings outdoors and smuggled letters and encounters in the wild, expansive Yorkshire moors.

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The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Overseeing their care and to a certain extent, their fate, is Dr Charles Fuller, an ambitious yet inadequate medic who becomes slowly obsessed by the growing eugenics movement which advocated the social control and compulsory sterilisation of the poor and anyone with a mental illness or learning disability. In 1908, the newly appointed home secretary, Winston Churchill, was determined to solve the problem of what he referred to as  the“feeble-minded” – anyone who was deemed unable to self-determine. Churchill’s views on compulsory sterilisation crystallised and he began to circulate pamphlets on the subject among the cabinet. The Eugenics Society grew increasingly influential and in 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act established powers to incarcerate the “feeble-minded” in specially-built asylums. As we see in John and Ella’s story, the sexes lived separately and only met in strictly monitored meetings, in their case, the weekly dance and these impending laws threaten their relationship and very existence, in John’s case.

I asked Anna Hope about the clear parallels with todays social and political situation, not just in the UK but across Europe too, where cuts to health and social care have disproportionately impacted upon the poor and the mentally unwell and the language used to justify government policy has become ugly. “The welfare state; universal healthcare, access to education and greater social mobility are being eroded daily. Not just that, but I feel something even more insidious taking place; poverty has shifted in my lifetime from being something that should be ameliorated by a healthy government and society, to something that is perceived as the fault of those who find themselves poor. I think this is deeply dangerous and beneath the cuts to child benefits for instance, amongst many other cuts, there’s a disturbing echo, as you say, of eugenic policy,” she says.

As for the long view, Anna emphasises the importance of re-visiting the recent past in order to learn from it. We must guard against rose-tinted historiography too. “I think it’s a good time to look a little into our past and see what we were capable of” she says. “Churchill, for example, has been very well served by history, and for good reason, but if you look at his language as home secretary in 1911, in its insistence on ‘racial purity’ and the threat to the race from social degeneration it’s really not so very far from Hitler’s a few decades later.”

Do you think we lost as much as we gained from the abolition of the asylum system with regard to the purest meaning of the word? Have we forgotten that sometimes, some people do need a place of asylum while they recover, I ask Anna.

“That’s a really great question. Before I started researching I think my preconception, from reading lots of novels, about the Victorian and Edwardian asylum system was that once you were there you were there for life and the key was thrown away. Reading the casebooks gave me a different picture; there were many women for instance who were suffering from exhaustion or what sounded like post-natal depression, and who must have been working all hours in the mills or similar places, who simply needed a place to rest” she says.
“Following their stories in the casebooks I was really surprised and happy to read how many of them improved steadily over time with decent food, and rest and time away from work and families”, Anna adds. “So the asylum began to be a more nuanced, complex environment, not just this bleak, monolithic place from which no one ever emerged.”
Lisa Harris concurs with this and addresses some of the common stereotypes and misconceptions people held and still hold about an admission to an asylum. “A lot of people come to us and say “I’ve been tracing my family tree and I think I’ve found someone who was in an asylum and they get worried about this” she states, then looks back at her own initial reactions when she began looking through the St Audrys collection in the early days of developing the exhibit at the museum.
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The ‘Home From Home’ exhibition at Museum of East Anglian Life
“When I started this, I didn’t know very much about asylums at all and the first thing I found was this set of branding irons,” she says, pointing to a set of narrow branding irons displayed in a glass case. “Now the first thing that went through my head and our Learning Officers head was ‘Oh no, they branded the patients,  that is awful!’, but as we went on, we thought this cannot possibly be true. We had an over-active imagination and I do give a talk about the implications of this [for historical research]. But, in the light of the restraints we also found it was an understandable assumption and we were really pleased when we discovered the hospital had its own farm!”, she laughs wryly.
How many of us have assumed patients never left once admitted and lived in social seclusion, isolated from local villages, a source of fear, prejudice and trepidation to the locals? Not necessarily so, according to both Lisa and Anna although it would be naive to assume that the patients lived free from this. People with mental illness still have to negotiate the impact of stigma, whether this be socially, occupationally or politically [usually all three] and this prejudice is deeply rooted in the past. Lisa tells me more about St Audry’s and its position in the local community.
“The hospital was like a little city and the whole village of Melton relied on St Audrys. There was an overseeing of the patients as they went into the village and people were protective of them. That’s what humans do, what they should do. Look at the Second World War and how we cared for people. Would we still do that today? I hope so…” she says, quietly and goes on to touch upon the misconceptions many of us have about asylums whilst also warning against adopting a rose-tinted view of life in one.
” My concern was always that I would look at this with rose tinted glasses because its really easy to do that but the more you talk to people and the more stories you hear, you think actually, I’m not rose tinting it.And I spent months reading the medical records, and they are obviously written to sound good but as you read them you realise that on the whole, these people really did care and they wanted the patients to get better.”
You hear a lot of stories” Lisa smiles, warming to her theme. “St Audrys was a home for unmarried mothers- which was not necessarily true-and it was likely a misunderstanding of postnatal depression. People say ‘they went in and never came out.’ Well, the research I did showed that unless there was an issue with other illnesses like dementia or epilepsy for example, which weren’t really understood back then, people were admitted and usually came out within two years.”
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This bath was used for psychiatric treatments: from the ‘Home From Home’ exhibition

 

Anna tells me, that same lack of medical knowledge meant that “it certainly wasn’t a great time for mental health-care” and expands upon this. “I’d argue that it was perhaps a little better than the age of lobotomy and experimentation that came not so long after the First World War. When you look at the records for the pre-World War One asylums there were very few drugs used on the patients, which meant that many suffered without remission but also that they were awake and alive in a way that later patients perhaps weren’t allowed to be.” Certainly the discovery of Chlorpromazine in the fifties led to its being described as a chemical cosh and many people suffered from its terrible sedating side-effects.

And what of the ballroom which first inspired Anna Hope to write her novel? Well, interestingly I also discovered that St Audry’s had a ballroom too which is, for me,  one of the most unexpected counterpoints to the stereotype of an asylum as a dour and crepuscular place- all worthy, joyless therapies and rigid monitoring. I also discovered that ballrooms were common in Victorian mansions from the 1880s until around 1920, and these mansions were, after all, family homes which links beautifully to Dr Kirkman’s belief that St Audry’s should replicate the home as much as possible and be filled with activities and things that were not merely useful but also stimulated the patient aesthetically.

“The more we looked into it, the more we discovered that St Audrys acted as a home away from home and this was all of the principles that Dr Kirkman put into place about being able to step out of your day to day life and the drudgery and issues that worried you,” Lisa says.

“If you had a mental illness, [although obviously these illnesses were understood in a different way to how we interpret them today], you then could be taken somewhere that was safe. You could be kept warm, you could be fed and given the chance to keep yourself clean but also, be given something that would keep your mind active. So being involved in day to day running- making clothes, helping with washing, on the farm,. It kept you busy and gave you the time to heal, I suppose”, she adds, and her words very much reflect the  St Audry’s 28th annual report of 1865 which reports, in the purple prose of the Victorian age,”the admission is in dark insanity, the discharge in bright reason and  light.”

Interestingly, in The Ballroom, Dr Charles Fuller, is initially keen to encourage his patients to enjoy dance and music, playing the piano for them in the dayroom and when he is introduced to the new Ragtime music emanating from New Orleans by a local music-shop employee he attempts and fails, to embody its joyful and less boundaried spirit. I held my breath as I read this because Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients but fails to recognise this and I really hoped he might break free. The psychic struggle he becomes embroiled in is something I asked Anna about, especially with regards to his lessening empathy for his patients and increased ‘othering’ of them in line with his belief that eugenics is the way forward. “I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy,” she says, something which chimes with Dr Kirkman’s own beliefs about how to care for the mentally unwell, some of which are inscribed on the walls of the exhibit in the Museum of East Anglian Life. “No restraint can be employed which is so powerful as tenderness. Watchfullness, activity, gentleness and that peculiar tact acquired by long training to replace contests of strength between patient and keeper.

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Vitrine containing nurses uniforms from St Audry’s hospital
Lisa is privy to the reactions of visitors to the St Audry’s exhibit.” I’ve come in and there have been groups of people in here and they start a conversation along the lines of ‘Oh, we worked at St Audrys and it was really like family, with everyone looking out for each other. Generations of the same families worked there” she explains. “Dr Kirkman started the hospital in the 1800s but his ideas and principles carried right on through.”
“We did a survey a couple of years ago” she adds, “and since we’ve opened, the St Audry’s exhibit has seemed like a room where people feel the need to come in and be quiet and we’re not that kind of museum, not a quiet museum really! But the survey said that people felt they needed to talk to each other about it and our work has opened up ways for them to do this.
“It has encouraged adults and children to talk about mental health.”
Sadly, it has been more challenging to encourage patients to come forward, the latter more understandably. “We struggle to get in touch with people who once were hospitalised” says Lisa. “We’ve done appeals but they don’t necessarily want to talk about it.”
There is pain here, I comment. Lisa nods. “This  exhibit has made our team more aware of mental health  issues, and more aware of how we each have our own needs. I think its one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on.”

The Ballroom is out now. 

The Museum of East Anglian Life website.

Related links: an oral history of a Suffolk psychiatric hospital

Museum images courtesy of The Museum of East Anglian Life, except where indicated.

Image of The Ballroom book cover, Anna Hope, the High Royds hospital, courtesy of Anna Hope/Transworld publishers.

The header image of West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum is courtesy Mark Davis / Guzelian

 

Best breakfast and brunches in my corner of Suffolk

The last year has seen a plethora of new places serving great breakfast and brunch within driving distance of Bury St Edmunds, where I live. Most of my favourites are in North and West Suffolk, admittedly, but I’ve hopped over the border to Norfolk too.

In this round-up of my favourites, I’ve only include establishments that I (or people whose judgement I trust) have regularly visited and found to be excellent as opposed to regurgitating press releases about establishments that I’m unfamiliar with. I hope this offers readers some guarantee that these places are reliably good and deserving of your hard-earned money. I realise that I have appeared to ignore great swathes of East Anglia but I will get to them in time, so please be patient if I’ve left off your chosen one [s].

Some of my choices don’t serve what you might think of as traditional brunch platefuls either but I don’t really think it really matters whether we eat an Indian inspired mid-morning meal or a typical English breakfast. I don’t think brunch is the time for concrete thinking.  All that’s important is that the food is delicious and the surroundings, convivial. You can decide what kind of morning menu you prefer but these all serve food that I enjoy eating at any time of the day.

Gastro-No-Me

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Lola granola from Gastro-No-Me

Situated in the pretty and winding St John’s Street in Bury St Edmunds, Gastro-no-me is a tiny and cosy little deli/café with a nicely edited menu of brunch classics and some more unusual meals. You get a vibrant plate of food here: the pancakes are basically Disney on a plate, loaded as they are with berries and the French Rascal croissants are similarly colourful and well stuffed with ham, cheddar, rocket and tomato jam. The newly updated menu includes Lola Granola [photo above], a plate full of fruit, flowers and toasted cereals and a platter of sweetcorn fritters. These sunny little mouthfuls come with wilted spinach, bacon, plum tomatoes halloumi and a pot of lime & chipotle butter. There’s plenty of veggie options and the cafe is very family friendly with a regular clientele that includes Americans from the local base who know a thing or two about what makes a great brunch. You can buy cheeses, meats , breads and pastries from their deli counter to take home too, after your meal. Win win. Gastro-no-me

Guat’s Up

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A brand new coffee shop recently opened in Guildhall Street, Guat’s Up has a carefully designed interior [fab cushions made from coffee-sacks] but great design hasn’t come at the expense of comfort or your tastebuds. It’s open from 7 am which is handy for that pre-work cup of Joe and this is definitely the place to breakfast at if you prefer something lighter to accompany your morning coffee. They are serious about their coffee [but not pompous] and they are equally serious about their doughnuts which are brought in, freshly handmade, from Doughnut Lab. Guat’s Up is a multi-purpose place: they create fabulous cocktails and stay open until late in the evening, providing customers with a calm and sophisticated atmosphere in which to enjoy a drink. Coffee-wise, choose from pour-over Ethiopian Guititi natural, Peruvian Tunki and Colombia Huila among many others.  Even their cocktails contain coffee: try ‘The Bruce Wayne’ made with bourbon, espresso coffee and maple syrup or the all-day single shot Irish coffee made with Ethiopian Derikocha filter coffee, whisky, sugar syrup and double cream. There’s also a great tea menu [the Rooibos Relief is a perfect winter tea with eucalyptus and orange] alongside pastries and savouries for a light European breakfast. And they sell all the kit a serious coffee drinker needs at home too, accompanied with friendly advice and guidance. Guat’s Up

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Paddy & Scotts

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Another Bury St Edmunds coffee-shop, this relatively recent addition to historic Abbeygate St is a tiny gem with an interior like the inside of a coffee cup, all chocolates and creams and warm dark wood. Their coffees are slow roasted and small-batch using hand-built machines and they sell particularly good cold drip coffee according to local journos [who know a thing or two about this]. There’s a morning coffee, “Wakey Wakey” , and a “Pure Shot” whole bean coffee which makes a smooth espresso for those of you struggling to stay awake. You can buy bags to take out and they are Rainforest Alliance Certified. Food-wise, customers can choose from a range of pastries, cakes (all homely and freshly made) and sandwiches. The serving and seating area is small and double buggies would struggle to be accommodated but its a lovely spot to lounge in and the large picture windows offer ample opportunities to people-watch. I also covet their armchairs made out of leather and brushed metal which are seriously comfortable. Paddy & Scotts

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Images courtesy of Paddy & Scotts

 

Bury St Edmunds Market

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Held every Wednesday and Saturday, this large market offers a wide range of foods both hot and cold for munching on as you wander around or to take and eat in the Abbey Gardens and other open spaces. In warmer weather, a mini-brunch safari is a great thing to do, and particularly popular with the kids. A favourite breakfast of mine comes from the  Yakitori Suzuki stall, owned by Kaori Dawson who serves breakfast until 11:30am. The Japanese breakfast centres upon a folded omelette (called tamagoyaki) made by rolling together thin layers of seasoned egg in a frying pan.This is served with triangles of rice, a miso broth and pickles made from mooli, a member of the radish family with a gentle peppery taste. For something rather different, try a Caribbean veggie pasty baked by Thomas Benjamin who has a large stall near Croasdales Chemist. Thomas sells handmade Caribbean pasties, wraps, cakes and pies from his well established stall: particular favourites are a crab filled pasty and cakes made with banana, coconut, ginger and rum. There’s also wheat-free versions and egg-free options for vegans. Mummery Brothers fish and Paul’s FishBox sell little pots of brown shrimps, pints of prawns and dressed crab, all ready for eating and Henry’s Hogroast is perfect for soft floury rolls stuffed with roast pig and topped with a perfect piece of crackling. If you fancy some pickles with it, drop by CourtYard Chutney Co for their ‘Berry St Edmunds chutney’ or even a pot of honey to sweeten that roast pork. For hot foods, try Spicey Sausages‘ authentic grilled Slaska and Torunska sausage. Run by two Polish friends. Beata Kalinska and Anita Okoniewska, they griddle them to order- just follow your nose and you’ll locate them. Thai Taste has a set-up up near the Buttermarket war memorial where they cook dishes such as noodle-based Pad Thai to order, adding chicken for non-vegetarians. They offer a mild coconut-infused Massaman beef curry which is popular with kids and is slow-cooked all day. Run by  local baker Mark Proctor, The Friendly Loaf Company stall can usually  be found near Waterstones and sells fresh bread, pastries and cakes made with flour from nearby Pakenham Mill. Mark trained in some of the most prestigious establishments and it shows in his food which is the best bread in Suffolk, in my opinion. Here’s the place to get a pain-au-chocolat, pastries loaded with fruits in season, bread pudding, very adult brownies and breads spiked with cheese, hazelnut and walnut, seeds, peppers and whatever else takes his fancy. Finally, we must not ignore the fruit and veg sellers who can sell you brown paper bags of cherries and perfect tomatoes in the summer. and blood-oranges to eat on the hoof in the winter. Add a baguette and some cheese, you have the perfect brunch.  Bury St Edmunds Market stall PDF can be downloaded here.

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Bread from The Friendly Loaf Co

Lavenham Farmers Market

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Fresh breakfast muffins at the farmers market: image by Ransom & West photography

Established by Justine Paul of Suffolk Farmers Market Events, these award-winning markets offer plenty of brunch opportunities from stalls selling produce made or sourced within a thirty mile radius. So you can eat with the knowledge that you are supporting some of our best artisanal local businesses. Recently recognised by February’s edition of Olive Magazine as one of the top food events nationally, the Lavenham farmers market thoughtfully provides a child-friendly Farmers’ Cafe where you can sit and eat a farmers breakfast or a bowl of soup, locally made cakes and freshly brewed hot drinks. If you want to eat on the hoof, the stalls are piled high with breads, pies, sausage rolls and cakes and you can buy chutneys, cheeses,honey and charcuterie to stuff into bread rolls. Afterwards, burn off the calories by walking round one of the most picturesque and historic villages in the UK, where plenty of other tearooms, food shops, pubs and restaurants compete to offer you the chance to eat lunch, high tea and supper without leaving the village. The village has well-organised websites rammed with information to help you plan a whole day in this justifiably famous village. Lavenham Farmers Market

The Suffolk Carver

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Image courtesy of OurBuryStEdmunds

Another recommendation via Twitter (thank you Barry Peters), The Suffolk Carver is located on Brentgovel Street, around the corner from the Buttermarket and is very popular for both sit-down customers and local workers in search of a swift take-out service. On market days (Weds/Sat) it gets very busy but a swift turnover means you’ll find a seat in this split-level café, so worry not. Want a substantial brunch? Choose the roast pork baguette with stuffing and apple sauce, the sausage and bacon granary baguette made with meat from local butchers or one of the grilled sandwiches from the large menu. ” A cracking breakfast and possibly the most pleasant staff I’ve ever come across” is the verdict on Facebook although customers do warn you to get there early if you want their roast pork because it is scarfed so swiftly by locals who know a good thing when they see it. Portions are large, the breakfasts come with good coffee and there’s outdoor seating on warmer days with a view of the venerable Moyses Hall museum which is well worth a visit after your meal. The Suffolk Carver

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Tuddenham Mill

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Image courtesy of Tuddenham Mill

If you are looking to book a special occasion breakfast or brunch, this converted water mill is a stellar choice with a kitchen overseen by an award-winning chef and Bury Free Press columnist, Lee Bye. The surroundings are historic, subtly lit and gentle on tired eyes of-a-morning. There’s a lighter menu featuring Goosnargh yoghurt, almond granola or honey-glazed pink grapefruit or the Full English: a plate of Dingley Dell pork sausage, mushroom, bacon, baked beans, plum tomato, baby black pudding and eggs of your choice will fill you up. Or choose locally smoked kippers with a lemon beurre-noisette. For sweet-toothed breakfasters, the brioche French toast, caramelised banana and maple syrup is the logical meal to order. Non-residents pay 17,50 [at time of writing, Feb 2016] which is not inexpensive but reflects the expertise of the team, the lovely surroundings and the quality and effort put into the sourcing of ingredients. There has been a mill at Tuddenham for around 1,000 years  with the earliest records being documented in the Doomsday book of 1086 and the surrounding countryside offers some of the loveliest walking in East Anglia. Tuddenham Mill

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Rockers Cafe at Krazy Horse

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Image courtesy Krazy horse

The Rockers Cafe was established in collaboration with the world famous Ace Café and can be found upstairs, on a balcony overlooking Krazy Horses custom-bike operation. You’re on the Mildenhall Road industrial estate so the general location is nothing to write home about but the Rockers Cafe is. You’ll find a Wurlitzer and an industrial cum Americana vibe with a diner counter, silver pull-up stools and about eight or so tables arranged in semi circle. Behind the tables are shelves full of clothing and windows look out onto the business forecourt and the coming and goings of the bikes. They serve huge breakfasts with black pudding, hash-browns, sausages and eggs any way you want them, breakfast baguettes stuffed with any combination of the above, pancakes or waffles. Bottles of Salubrious Breakfast Sauce are a great alternative to the ubiquitous Heinz. Crabbies ginger beer, root beer and vanilla coke are served and the ice-cream, syrup and milk thick shakes taste pretty authentic. Coffees are flavoured with syrups and Belvoir mandarin and orange pressés are available alongside beer and ciders. It’s a great, fun place for well-behaved older kids and teenagers alongside anyone else who is bike-mad. Krazy Horse

 The Coffee House

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Tucked away on Moreton Hall, the Coffee House nonetheless attracts customers from all over the town because of its friendly and welcoming surroundings and lovely staff who don’t cluck at you if you make that cup of coffee last an hour or more. This is definitely the place to come if you like to spread out over a comfy sofa in front of large light-filled windows, eat slowly and read your paper. There’s a shelf of books to borrow, buy and swap and the Coffee House is regularly used by local community groups. Perfect for a huge brunch or a swift Suffolk Roasted breakfast coffee and Danish, the menu includes classics such as poached eggs on whole-wheat, fish-finger sandwiches, full English breakfasts, sausage stuffed baps and plenty of diner style layer cakes, tarts, pies and smaller hand-sized baked goodies. Regulars speak highly of the bowls of porridge with honey and banana, the excellent Americano coffee, the cheese scones and bacon butties. The Coffee House also has a branch in Ixworth too, ensuring villagers have their own community hub too. Great stuff! The Coffee House

Amandines Cafe- Restaurant

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Although it’s not technically a brunch place, I had to include the delightful Amandines whose owners have been cooking vegan and vegetarian food in the little town of Diss for over 28 years. Their premises is prettily situated in the courtyard of a converted Victorian red-brick warehouse, opposite Fredericks, one of the best delicatessens around. Amadines is bright and airy and in warmer months the climbing jasmine and roses scent the air although a Godin wood-burning stove and internal glass-covered courtyard keep it snug year round- dogs are allowed in the courtyard too. Open Tues – Sat between 10am – 3pm, food is freshly prepared by the staff and the menu easily navigates the brunch-lunch interface, offering sandwiches and toasties; a mature cheddar panini with lime pickle dressing is very good; hearty bowl-food plus quiches, cakes- Tunisian orange cake and a date tart were gorgeous- and pastries.Pudding-wise they excel and an apricot and pine-nut pudding with butterscotch brittle and mascarpone cream was a recent offering which went down very well. Their drinks are well spoken of by their customers with the Italian coffee and hot chocolate prepared properly. If you are looking for something heartier, meals such as dosa, pea and beetroot chutney, coconut rice and curry are just one example of what they do exceedingly well and in the summer months, customers can enjoy creative salads such as feta and nectarine with home-made goats cheese and olive bread. Although they don’t serve meat products, I’ve never heard a customer complain about this and you really won’t miss them. Amandines

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The Copper Kettle & Tearoom at Kersey

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Owned by Rosie Waller and located in the adorable village of Kersey with its famous ford, the Copper Kettle cooks bake every day, providing customers with a wealth of fresh cakes, pastries, scones and bread and their passion for seasonal, local ingredients shines through. As well as lovely breakfasts and brunches served from an early bird opening time of 8:30am, (excellent bacon rolls and endless cups of tea plus Rosie’s Suffolk Huffers), they serve a classic English afternoon tea with sandwiches and speciality teas. The surroundings are as lovely as the food with a more formal café tea room overlooking the Mediterranean Gardens and a conservatory with club chair seating which opens onto a pretty courtyard. The mill itself is worth a look around as are the other shops and amenities in the grounds. Walk it all off by strolling up the hill to Kersey’s church with scenic views over this tiny village. Copper Kettle Tearoom

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The Pantry, Newmarket

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Since their opening, The Pantry’s ethos has been based upon using and selling the very best East Anglian foods in their deli and the restaurant. There’s an open kitchen and lively, bright eating area, deservedly popular with locals and visitors alike. Meat comes from Eric Tennant’s butchers and all things fishy from Fish! of Burwell, both near-neighbours trading just off Newmarket High Street. Brunch is served until midday and is high quality at a very reasonable price. There’s croissants stuffed with local cheese and ham or a veggie version with Hawkston cheese and mushrooms. My favourite is the black pudding, fried egg and potato hash which comes with toast. If you order *just* toast, it’ll come with East Anglian jams and marmalades . Very hungry? Go for the pantry breakfast: Suffolk bacon, Musks sausages (from Newmarket), black pudding, tomato, mushrooms, fried egg and toast is £7 and there’s a vegetarian breakfast with roast beetroot, mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes and scrambled egg for a fiver. Paddy & Scotts supply their coffee, by the way and I also recommend the lemon posset with Swedish toffee biscuit and a dark chocolate rice pudding with pistachio brittle which is not ‘breakfast’ per se but I really don’t care for such restrictions. Afterwards, a walk to the Harley Davidson dealers in the town to drool over the bikes is recommended.  The Pantry.

Brown’s Kitchen

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Bubble n Squeak: photo courtesy of Browns

Just over the border in Norfolk and close to Thetford Forest and only a thirty minute drive from Bury St Eds, Browns of Mundford is an absolute gem, serving top-notch food made from local ingredients. They are hugely supportive of local farmers and their bacon and sausage is some of the best we’ve had. Sausage and bacon is Scotts Field large black pigs, the eggs are free-range and from Andy Gapp and the scrambled eggs that result are buttery, soft and delicate. A large bacon roll is 3,95 at time of writing and from noon, they start serving bubble and squeak with Scotts Field ham, those eggs again and a basil dressing. Cakes, tarts and scones are made on the premises and alongside the old favourites there are more unusual choices such as Tosca cake, walnut tart and chocolate and peach layer cake, all made by a pastry chef. Seating is comfy, spacious and plentiful, both indoor and outdoor, WiFi is provided and you’ll not be shoved out of the door if you want to slump on the sofa and read the papers afterwards.

Brown’s Kitchen, Mundford (Facebook)

Earsham Street Café

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Nestling in historic Bungay, 37 miles from Bury St Edmunds, Earsham Street Café is a wonderful pit-stop on the way to the beaches of North-East Suffolk, located as it is on the borders of Norfolk. Sited inside a lovely historic (17th century, to be precise) building which used to be a former cock-fighting pit, among its many incarnations, the cafe is now a happy well-regarded tea-room and cafe. The opening hours are 10am – 4.30pm (last orders at 4pm) 7 days a week and they offer full English and vegetarian breakfasts and lighter meals on a Saturday & Sunday between 10am – noon. Kids are made welcome with a selection of toys, crayons & books and dogs are allowed in the covered courtyard garden (free dog biscuits given!) whilst cyclists can store their bikes securely in the garden. Teas and coffees are Fair Trade and accompany the lovely weekend brunch menu which also features American style pancakes with Greek yoghurt, banana, and maple syrup, beans on toast or a bacon sandwich. The Earsham Street vegetarian breakfast is fabulous value at £7,00, serving up fried egg, tomatoes, mushrooms, home made baked beans, griddled polenta & a slice of toast. They try to source locally too: organic vegetables are from Peter at Kitchen Gardens; cheeses come from Jonny at Fen Farm and Rodwell Farm in deepest Suffolk. Their eggs are from Mr & Mrs Blackmore near Halesworth whilst Cundy’s of Bungay deliver super-fresh Suffolk Marybelle milk and cream.  Earsham Street Cafe.

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Cafe Clare

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The Cafe Clare ‘minor’ breakfast

Located in a fourteenth century building at the heart of Clare, one of Suffolk’s loveliest little towns, Cafe Clare caters to locals and visitors alike across two floors and a tiny courtyard garden with views of the castle ruins and motte. Gluten, dairy free and vegetarian diets are also catered for along with smaller portions for children and well behaved dogs are made welcome. Cafe Clare serves breakfast all day, conveniently opening from 8:30am although breakfast can be served from 7am (24 hours notice) and they are open Tuesday to Sunday inclusive. (Closed on Mondays.) Owners Sue and Chris Curtin pride themselves on their locally sourced ingredients which include free-range eggs from Rymer Farm Barnham and sausages and bacon from Hubbards Pork butchers in Bury St Edmunds: the sausages and black pudding are actually made on Hubbards premises. All breakfasts are cooked to order and customers preferences are happily catered to alongside a choice of a major or minor full English, hot-smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, breakfast bacon burgers and other menu choices. The village shops and antiques centres, pubs, museum and country park provide ample entertainment for a day out after your breakfast with the surrounding countryside criss-crossed by a range of cycling and walking routes. Cafe Clare

The Barn Cafe at Alder Carr

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Photo from Alder Carr website

Located near Needham Market, off the A14, at the heart of a working farm in a converted barn, The Barn Cafe sources as many ingredients as they can from local suppliers and this includes seasonal produce grown on the farm: all dishes are made from scratch too. Full cooked breakfasts are available between 9:30 – 11:30am (11:15 Sundays) and include a full breakfast for 7,95 (sausage, smoked Suffolk bacon, grilled tomato, field mushroom, black pudding, bubble and squeak cake and a free range egg served poached or fried plus toast) and a vegetarian version with veggie sausages. Egg lovers can choose from several options: Royale, Benedict or dippy eggs accompanied by chunky toast soldiers. Children are made welcome in the spacious and light dining area and post-breakfast, visitors can browse the farm shop and crafts stores or eat some of the superb Alder Carr ice-cream which is some of the best you’ll eat anywhere in the UK. The cafe is set in Mid-Suffolk’s Gipping Valley surrounded by miles of beautiful walks and cycle routes and the nearby town of Stowmarket is home to the Museum of East Anglian Life. The museum is deservedly popular with families because of its child-friendly and engaging activities and exhibits. The Barn Cafe.

Hollow Trees Farm Shop and Woodlands Cafe

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Photo courtesy of Hollow Trees Farm

This is a bit of a drive from Bury St Edmunds for us, but the glorious countryside along the way and fantastic breakfast and brunch at the end makes it absolutely worthwhile. And of course, for you, it may be a shorter drive. Hollow Trees Farm is a 140 acre mixed farm, growing vegetables and producing pork beef and lamb and its breakfasts have been previously nominated in The Best Breakfast Awards. Combining their own produce with the best available locally, their full English is rightly popular (sausages and bacon sourced from the farm, local free range egg, hash brown, grilled tomato, mushrooms and toast) as is the granola from Crush Foods of Norfolk, made using local borage honey and apple juice. Served with yoghurt made with milk supplied by local dairies, it is a lovely light alternative. Coffee is freshly ground and the orange juice pressed to order. There are children’s menus and highchairs; menu-wise the café offers daily specials and gluten-free options and there’s good wheelchair access. After you’ve eaten, stock up at the Farm Shop where a wide range of regional and seasonal foods are stocked and take the kids on the farm trail to see the many animals that live on the farm and burn off energy on the rope swings and other outdoor equipment. (There’s a small charge for the trail.) Hollow Trees Farm and Cafe

 

 

Autumnal wooded walks in East Anglia

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Alison Uttley knew a thing or two about woods and many of her characters are creatures of them. From Susan in The Country Child who lived among the wooded scrabbly crags of the Peak District to the Little Grey Rabbit who was, to me, the perfect anima of those woodland trees, when Uttley said “there are many lovely small things- leaves and rain” she must surely have been thinking of the British woods in the Autumn.

Woodlands are magical places all year round but as Summer relaxes its hold and we slip into Autumn, they become ever more so, guardians of an imagination forged by the tales of childhood: remember The Forbidden Forest, Hundred Acre Wood and the acres of spike dark pine trees which inhabited the imaginations of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen? From the barcode trunks of pines in Breckland forests to the twisted moss-cloaked limbs of old oaks, trees are a gateway into a shared history and collective subconscious. Trees cloaked our little islands and provided us with the means to be safe, warm and fed and in turn they nourished a rich cultural heritage where specific stories, legends and songs told their local tale.

The Woodland Trust is desperately trying to save over 613 ancient woodlands across the UK, many of them at risk from development, pollution and the effects of viruses which attack specific trees and plants and increasingly at risk are the 256 threatened wildlife species who rely on them to develop and thrive. Over the last 10 years, over 100 of these woodlands have been lost and it is even more imperative that we familiarise ourselves with our local woodlands and the only way to do this is to use them regularly- and join one of the many conservation groups dedicated to protect and promote them for generations to come.

So this Autumn and the coming Winter, join some wildlife organisations, download their wildlife spotting guides then put on your boots and walk. Learn about the local dialect and the names for the things you will see and encourage your children to make up words for the things they see too, in the best tradition of our ancestors who were far more imaginative with words than we seem to be. Only through a workaday familiarity will be protect our East Anglian landscapes and allow them to grow in a dynamic fashion in harmony with the humans who, all too often in the past, have threatened their existence by holding too tight to the myth of the pastoral idyll which seeks to both preserve in aspic and alienate through idealisation.

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Here are some of The Millers Tales favourite woodlands across East Anglia. Some have facilities such as toilets, places to eat and drink and run regular events designed to educate and entertain such as bird ringing demonstrations, coppicing workdays, bug hunting and night walks to spot bats. Others are simply woods, a place to walk, sit and contemplate, a busy place for other creatures but hopefully less so for us; they offer us the chance to stop and watch and listen.

Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.
Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.

Arger Fen, which lies on the borders of South Suffolk and Essex, near Little Cornard,  is a small fragment of the wild wood that once covered Suffolk over a thousand years ago and the history of those who lived nearby is writ large upon it. The woods retain a sense of timelessness; apart from the conservation signs there is very little to remind you of the modern world and much to transport you away from it. Arger Fen protects species of plants and animals that you might not encounter very often; ancient stands of wild cherry (Prunus Avium) fuzzed with blossoms in the Spring, stag beetles, the hazel dormouse and barbastelle bats. Famous for its English bluebells which thickly carpet the slopes and glades, visitors can avoid trampling on them by using the boardwalks which also cross marshy areas and streams although stepping on them is at times unavoidable. Packed earth steps are cut into the banks at the heart of the wood, making this a woodland unsuitable for wheelchairs and flimsy buggies and there are no toilets nearby. The nearby villages of Bures, Henny and Assington all have lovely country pubs for a post walk repast.

Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org
Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org

Bacton Woods is basically a safari park for trees with over thirty species found in this beautiful woodland, close to Witton in North Norfolk on the Happisburgh road. The original woodland included Sessile Oaks and two of these, which are thought to be over 200 years old, still remain and the whole site was originally heathland before planting which is why you will see plenty of clumps of old gorse and broom. Keeping them company are Scots and Corsican pine, western hemlock, Douglas fir and larch alongside other broadleafs such as hazels, rowans and ash; bluebells, sorrell and dogs mercury carpet the woodland floor with seasonal foliage and blooms, making this a sensory pleasure at all heights.

Bacton Wood is more proactive with regards to entertainment: visitors can enjoy orienteering along three waymarked routes; ride or walk several trails which possess broad paths, bounded by natural leafy archways: this is the place to bring toddlers who enjoy Autumn leaf kicking. The blue trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches and walkers will be able to identify many woodlandtree species from the beech avenues, ‘short’ pines planted for seed collection and towering wellingtonia trees. The medium ability red trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches to rest on,  passing through a conifer plantation and mixed woodland, a beech avenue and recently planted woodland where a ‘grandparent’ Oak lies and, finally, past the pond. The yellow trail (1.3miles) runs along well made tracks with frequent benches. From a clockwise approach it gradually loses height as it passes conifer and mixed woodland to the pond and then on to the ‘grandparent’ oak tree. This is followed by a 200m incline to a level walk past the wellingtonia trees, mixed woodland and an area recently cleared to encourage native broadleaf woodland.

Organised events include conservation work and children’s activities such as nature spotting walks and entry is free for under 3s (unless otherwise stated). The woods also have some decent mountain biking trails which include free drops from 7ft high to smaller, safer ones for beginners. Dirt jumps will allow freestylers to try out their tricks and these jumps are 6-7 feet high. Picnic areas are also provided and carparking facilities (about two and a half miles north of North Walsham) including disabled bays are provided. The nearest public toilets are in North Walsham town centre or on the B1159 at Walcott.

Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush
Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush

Lions Mouth at Felbrigg Hall is run by the National Trust and offers the Hall with all its amenities, parkland, lakeside walks and a  520-acre (2.1 km2) Great Wood which shelters the house. Of especial note is the well-known “Lions Mouth”, a beauty spot which can be reached from the main road A148 and is popular with walkers and ramblers.

Home to beech trees which may well prove to be the furthest north they can exist on this type of acid soil, rare fungi and lichens and (the fabulously named) slender lemon slug, the area is an ecological wonder-  parts of Felbrigg have SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status. This is the place to be in the early morning when the mists are slow to burn off, when plovers, lapwings and barn owls screech, rise and fall, clamour and call to each other.

Birds aren’t the only creature on the wing though: eight species of bat have been recorded here, including woodland mammals such as Natterer’s bat and the rare Barbestelle. Felbrigg Lake is a good place to head for at dusk to see bat activity as they swoop through the clouds of midges and gnats which skein just above the surface of the water. Check out the mysterious Icehouse, hibernation site for many of the Felbrigg bats.

There are many marked walks available (see the NT website)  including 3 easy circular dog friendly options which encircle the Hall and old deer park. Two of the walks pass along wide, push and wheelchair accessible tracks and one takes you through the “Victory V” wood.  Planted  in 1946, it was designed to be seen as a “V” from the air. Felbrigg Hall organises a raft of events for all the family, marking popular calendar dates such as Halloween and Christmas. Booking ahead is advised.

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Longthorpe Woods by Woodland Trust

Londonthorpe Wood and the Belton Estate, Lincolnshire– Here’s a handy clue as to the age of a woodland: If there is evidence of wood anemone and enchanter’s nightshade, the woodland is a venerable one. Londonthorpe has a healthy population of both, dating back to more ancient woodlands among its newer oak and ash saplings (planted in three phases from 1993-95) and also boasts trees planted back in 1856, in memory of the Crimean War. More intriguing are the ghost sightings spoken of by locals and visitors: a headless coachman whose stagecoach rattles its way along Five Gates Lane and estate entrance; the chilling feeling that apparently creeps along the spines of visitors to Belmont Tower which can be found close by. One visitor to the woods reported “a huge red handprint firmly on his neck and a choking sensation. The handprint remained for half an hour.”

The village name  derives from the Old Scandinavian, lundr+thorp, meaning an “outlying farmstead or hamlet by a grove and groves aplenty we have here alongside a range of habitats from mature woodland to a pond, separated by roadways. Grassy paths wander circuitously through open meadows with a healthy population of Spring and Summer wildflowers and  there is also a wide range of species that call it home, including woodpeckers and grass snakes. The site lies on the edge of Grantham and the National Trust’s Belton Park, the Woodland Trust property and surrounding farmland. The new planting consists of mixed, mostly native, broadleaved species with ash and oak and the site contains many veteran trees – remnants of older parkland planting and the old hedgerows that transect the planting site.

Belton Estate has dramatically wide woodland paths with sweeping vistas- one of them culminates in Belmont Tower itself. The Belton Estate is rich in wildlife and covers about 1,350 acres (750 acres of which is designated deer park and includes a mysterious site of a deserted medieval village called Towthorpe. The ruins are close to the Lion Gates and towards the River Witham.  Keen eyes will spot the signs of earthworks and evidence of the ridges and furrows associated with medieval farming methods.

Long Melford Country Park
Long Melford Country Park

Long Melford Country Park– Formerly known locally as Rodbridge Corner Picnic Place, this little pocket of woodland, open grass and former gravel pit waterways borders the River Stour on its western and southern boundaries as the river wends its way from the village of Long Melford and onto Sudbury. Close to Clare and Cavendish and the town of Sudbury with its beautiful water meadows, the park is a lovely place to spend a few hours or explore as you walk the various river routes of South Suffolk. Formerly called Rodbridge Corner Picnic Grounds, this is my old stamping grounds, easily walked with youngsters and providing swiftly changing landscapes.

Established in 1967 from gravel pits used to construct the WW2 airfields that dot the local region, the park is well used for walking, angling and is home to many white poplar trees which shade the riverpath. The ponds are rich in aquatic insect life, dragonflies and damselflies, Roach, Bream, Tench and Pike, and make good breeding sites for Coot, Little Grebe, Moorhen and Mute Swan. Well established rabbit warrens pepper the earthbanks and dips in the terrain caused by the former excavations. Bring binoculars because you may well see otters and kingfishers dipping in and out of the muddy banks which are thickly lined with bullrushes and clumps of waterlillies. The river paths can get muddy after it has rained but most of the park is accessible if a little bumpy underfoot for wheeled visitors. There are two areas of grassland, with the southern area allowed to grow naturally, crossed by mown paths, picnic tables and chairs and a toilet.

Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org
Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org

Hainault Forest Country Park– Having retained its Green Flag Status for 2015/16 from Keep Britain Tidy, this large woodland space which lies just outside the Romford stretches was one a haven for vagabonds and n’er do wells and also provided shelter for fugitives from London’s plague filled streets. Nowadays, the park is a haven for families and the only creatures hiding in the trees are creepy crawlies such as giant spiders and a grim reaper, which are all to be found hiding in the mile long monster trail. At dusk, the coppiced hornbeams cast spooky shapes for those of you seeking some Autumnal and Halloween fun (the park is dominated by veteran hornbeams – around 12,000 of them) and there’s an adventure play trail too. This is beautifully designed with climbing posts and rope bridges, adventure play towers and a circular swing in the shape of a spiders web (perfect for children who have disabilities) plus woodland trails with site specific sculpture and wildlife information to spark their imagination and help them become fully engaged with their surroundings.

And that’s not all. There’s a boating lake and Foxburrow Farm, an all weather animal petting area with badger faced sheep, nubian goats and mangalitza pigs among the many attractions. Guided walks, segways and orienteering are also on offer plus a land train which takes passengers on a scenic 15 minute ride departing from the zoo and travelling around the lake and surrounding areas. The route is not fixed and varies year round according to the weather. The park has toilet and changing facilities, carparking and plenty of places to picnic.

Nowton Park
Nowton Park

Nowton Park, West Suffolk– A woodland park in the grand Victorian style, this was once the grounds of a large home and is now managed by St Edmundsbury Council who fund a wide range of nature related activities for all the family. Located on the outskirts of the town (there’s a bus service which stops nearby), the park has a cafe, changing facilities and toilets plus a small adventure playground but the real fun is to be found in its various habitats from open flower studded meadow to bluebell and harebell edged woodland walks. Scramble over logs, join in with bat walks and nighttime stargazing and look out for the wild and wacky trees planted by the Victorians:  a lightning struck Douglas fir; a catalpa (Indian bean tree) that appears to be consuming a fence; yews that spin and twist and finally, the giants of the tree world- the redwoods.

In addition, felled tree trunks have been left in situ for children to swarm over and ape the Enid Blyton-esque childhood antics that modern life sometimes deprives them of. The east and west arboretum and folly woodland walk has been newly landscaped with sinuous bark litter covered walkways curving around specimen plants, camellia, Cedars of Lebanon and a flint and stone tumbled folly. There’s also a folly and pond  planted with a Japanese feel- willows, specimen trees and bushes, airy, light with the branches traced against a more visible sky.

Tyrells Wood, Norfolk- is a well used broadleaf wood, quiet and off the beaten track (it runs parallel to the A140 to the west and Ansons Lane to the east) and dating back to the ancient woodland site at its centre. The Boscus de Grischave can be found in records dating back to 1251, is indeed thought to date back to the Ice Age, and it is home to veteran hornbeams which have been pollarded into fat twisted trunks and the elderly relics of coppiced hazels.

Tyrrells Wood is arguably at its best in the Autumn where a roundabout route takes walkers past oaks which once provided the great and good of Norfolk with the finest of timber, birch and ash, and yellow field maples turned butter gold by the warm days and cold nights. Rowan berries and haws light up the brush, glowing as red as the eyes of the woodland creatures whose gaze are caught in the beams of torches at nightfall. The silver patched trunks of the birches shimmer in  the gloaming, their lemon tinted leaves strafed and spinning from gusts of wind which appear to swirl out of nowhere. There’s no way markings or facilities as such: this is a place to savour as is.

Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Priestley Wood, Suffolk is a dream of a place for eagle eyed plant spotters with more than 130 species recorded here, making it an important SSSI. Located in the parish of Barking in the Gipping Valley, there are over 24 miles of public footpaths in the vicinity and the ancient woodlands of Bonny Wood, Priestley Wood, Swingens Wood, Park Wood and Ditch Wood provide a timeless natural habitat for flora and fauna. Priestely Wood is now owned by the Woodland Trust and we are allowed to wander its many paths. Part of Bonny Wood is owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust with paths open to the public.

Deep in these woods, grows a lonely wild pear, miles away from the only other one which exists in the country and you’ll find several varieties of wild orchids cowled away in the undergrowth alongside ramps in the Spring, the broad leaved helleborine, foamy blossoms of anthriscus and carpets of woodruffs with their proudly Tudor leaf-ruff. Their names are testimony to folklore, quirk, legend, and utility, in the case of the pignut. Barren strawberries, the bulbous buttercup, yellow pimpernel and creeping buttercup are all names to recite to your children and make them laugh. Tell them that harebells (campanula) are sometimes known as fairies’ thimbles and were thought to shelter fairies who were at the beck and call of witches and wished to have no more of this.

The tree cover is mixed broadleaf: a hotchpotch of ash, cherry, oak, hawthorn and hazel with a few small leaved limes and hornbeams lurking behind their more common neighbours. Nightingales surf the sky here, high above the surrounding fields, we are in the farming heartland of the Gipping Valley proper, close to Stowmarket which is home to the Museum of East Anglian Life with its insightful documentation of the people who have made this part of the country their home. Autumn is dramatically beautiful, the best time of year to come here in my opinion but Spring is no slouch either: Priestley Woods are one of the best places in England to see the bluebells so make sure you bookend the year with visits to this magical and simple place. Parking is not the easiest, there’s no public toilets.

Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust
Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust

Old Wood Norfolk– gives lie to the erroneous belief that Norfolk is flat which anyone who has cycled towards the Northern coastal areas of this county will laugh mirthlessly at. In Old Wood, undulating and marked pathways lope over ridges and slopes, suddenly raising the game (and youjr heartbeat) with their sudden and unexpected inclines. We’re just outside Sheringham and the land here is in a hurry to get to the North Sea, reaching its third highest point in this county, some 96 metres (314ft) above sea level. Take time out here to enjoy the views northwards across the tree line towards Sheringham and the North Sea beyond and gaze at a landscape which is slightly different from inland woods with its sandy heathland, acid soils which support a springy grass covering much beloved by the adders and slow worms which bask here on warmer days. There’s predominately coniferous woodland here- Douglas fir and Corsican pine- but the Woodland Trust intends to restore the site back to mixed broadleaf and heathland. Free parking is provided, some 500 metres away.

Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Pigneys Wood, Norfolk might be small but it is mighty, having been recently purchased in 1993 and since then, this little wood a few miles from North Walsham has been extensively redeveloped. The site is a remarkably diverse blend of mature and new mixed woodland and some low lying wet grassland. Some 20,000 trees of 40 different species have been planted alongside other features such as a renovated barn, reed beds, and information boards on wild flowers, butterflies, trees and birds.

Despite its small size, Pigneys Wood is remarkably diverse, supporting a wide variety of trees, including a ‘listed’ 450 year old oak and its water features make it attractive to visiting children alongside the fauna that make their home here. There is a ‘scrape’, a shallow pond, which attracts migratory and wading birds and a dipping platform for children has been created alongside an interactive tree identification trail and guide. Dawn and dusk visitors stand a good chance of bumping into deer and barn owls can be watched as they swoop low over the open grassland. and a bird hide is under construction.  There’s designated walks bordered by native hedgerows and provision for wheelchair access alongside plenty of viewing points where you can sit and enjoy the view or use the picnic facilities of which there are three. Dog walking is permitted throughout the wood but between March 1st and July 31st there are designated areas where dogs are not allowed unless on a lead.

Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods,
Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods, Geograph.org

Pretty Corner Woods, Norfolk is a Green Flag award winning site, jointly run by the Woodland Trust and the NNDC countryside team. With a lovely tea rooms and garden surrounded by a pretty wood to walk in, and despite its obvious popularity with tourists and locals, the woods manage to maintain a sense of tranquility rare in the busier months of the tourist season.Upper Sheringham in North Norfolk was first established in 1926, originating as a wooden pavilion. Originally a wooden pavilion, the tea room scores bonus points for its wood burning stove, dog friendly grounds and both indoor and outdoor.

Autumn sees the woods ablaze with colour, competing with the sensitively planted gardens surrounding the tea gardens and dipping ponds. You’ll see bats, butterflies and buzzards; hear woodpeckers before you see them and see barn owls before you hear this most silent of birds. The woods and heathlands are thick with red campion, dogs mercury and wood sorrel and deer are often spotted nibbling the seedheads from the tall grasses. Country Rangers organise a myriad of events (booking advised in the busier months) and alongside summer festivals, you’ll have the chance to participate in woodland crafts such as bodging and archery. This Autumn, the site is trying to raise awareness of the plight of the bee with a craft sale in its shop.

There is free car parking and a picnic area if you prefer to bring your own food. There is a bus stop situated next to the woods with good links to Sheringham and the surrounding area.

The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks
The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks

The Walks, Kings Lynn in Norfolk  might not be a woodland in the strictest, most romanticised of senses, but having been originally conceived as an urban space somewhat different to the grand Victorian park, the Walks still works well as a promenade for locals and a green lung away from the hustle of central Kings Lynn. It is the only surviving 18th century town walk in Norfolk and provides historians with a fascinating insight into changing fashions in urban planning and forms a vital part of Kings Lynn’s social record over its two centuries of development and revision. It’s a wonderful place as it stands, injecting Autumn deep into the concrete and brick of urban Kings Lynn.

The Walks entrance
The Walks entrance

Built originally upon a central historic spine earthworking and identified, by Norfolk Landscape Archaeology, as ‘part of one of the most complete systems of earthwork town defences in eastern England’, the earthwork mounds, banks and watercourses imbue what would otherwise have been a flat site with a softly undulating form. These gentle ascents are home to shrubberies and plantations (‘Seven Sisters’, seven trees planted in a circle in 1760), a medieval pilgrims trail, and a tree lined walk with semi-circular seating areas. The trees are regal, all 800 of them, offering a sturdy and venerable home to squirrels, woodpeckers and a myriad of creatures. They shed leaves in their thousands, piles of rust, gold and orange to kick up, collect and take home. The highest point of the Walks is the Grade 1 listed Red Mount which houses a unique 15th century chapel and provides visitors with elevated view points of the landscape from the structure itself and from the mound which partially surrounds it. The Red Mount houses a unique 15th century chapel. The landscape itself is Grade 2 and has been preserved via a 3.4m restoration project with a cafe, play and games area having been created.

Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty
Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty

So tranquil and hidden that encountering other people here tends to come as a surprise, Bulls Wood near Cockfield in West Suffolk are a bit of a local secret. Park up on the concrete concourse at Palmers Farm next to the woods and enter a wood which is one of the last pieces of the ancient Cockfield woods which were referred to in the Hundred Rolls of 1279.

Especially beautiful in Spring, this is also a place to come in Autumn for a subtle show of colour and change as the tres shed their leaves and reveal their essential selves. Spring sees rare oxlips carpet parts of the woodland floor and the Early-purple orchid is also plentiful here alongside the spurge-laurel, wood anemone and herb-paris which tend not to be associated as strongly with ancient woodlands. There’s Autumn birdsong too: tawny owls swoop low through glades denuded of leaves, long tailed tits loop through the air and treecreepers and chiffchaffs make the woods their home. The traditional method of coppicing encourages wildlife and local volunteers take charge of this. Trees local to the woods include ash, hazel and field maple while the oaks are normally left to mature into standard trees. Dogs on leads are welcome.

Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace
Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace

Wayland Wood in Norfolk is reputed to be the site of The Babes in the Wood legend and is the not so silent keeper of a tale which inspires both sadness and sheer horror in all who hear it. The wood is no silent witness either:  this is one of the more densely planted, wilder Norfolk woods, said to be haunted by the souls of the young abandoned brother and sister whose ghostly cries for help are echoed by the creatures who make the woods their home. The darkness is literal too because this is not only one of the counties largest woods, it has also been intensively coppicedsince the 10th century and its thick cover is a result of the traditional woodland management techniques which have heightened its ability to support such diversity of flora and fauna, making it a SSSI. These woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age and 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.

Walk here and enjoy a splendid mixture of tree species: hazel, oak, downy birch, bird-cherry, sallow, ash, hornbeam and field maple alongside over 125 species of flowering plants. The ground is thick with bluebells, water avens, yellow archangel and wood anemone, whilst the early purple orchid is happily established here alongside the rare yellow star of Bethlehem. As you’d expect, the air is filled with the sounds of woodland birds including breeding nuthatch, bud stripping bullfinches, and the marsh tit and the bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population. Over 25o types of moth are on the wing come dusk, one of the best times to walk here if you bring a torch to light your way although the crepuscular gloom does bring home the sadness of a tale which saw two infants left for dead in the woods because of the usual motives of money, ownership and avarice.

Dunwich Woodlands
Dunwich Woodlands

The woods at Dunwich, Suffolk is undergoing a process of rewilding which will see it transformed back into indigenous coastal healthlands and the existing conifer plantatiions removed. However, it is still a strikingly rich mosaic of woodland, heathland and wooded pastures which abuts a romantically desolate coastline designated as an AONB. Grazed by wild Dartmoor ponies, there are numerous walks and trails past hedgerows bursting with life and the heavy honeyed scent of gorse from the heathland which edge the approach roads to the village. Gentle climbs offer sweeping views of Dunwich and the sea where the majority of the ancient village lies, having succumbed to sea storms centuries ago.

Dartmoor ponies grazing the open areas, Dunwich Forest is being transformed From a conifer plantation into a rich mosaic of woodpasture, wet woodland and heathland. Radar gate on Sandlings walk entrance, all other kissing gates motorised wheel chair/buggy accessible. Some rides may be difficult for non-motorised wheel chairs, particularly in wet weather/winter.

Dunwich tree canopy
Dunwich tree canopy

From the beach car park this route heads inland along leafy bridleways and through the woods of Dunwich Forest. Although much of the planted stock in this area is coniferous, giving a background of consistent pine, it is a walk with infinite variety as the hedgerows and deciduous glades constantly change with the seasons. During spring and early summer the swathes of gorse add an extra dimension with their vibrant yellow flowers and sweet aroma. On the return section of the route there are a couple of gentle climbs that ultimately lead to great views over Dunwich and toward the sea. Summer is also a great time to make sure you visit the garden of The Ship at Dunwich as it is home to England’s oldest fig tree – believed to be over 600 years old – and it looks magnificent in full leaf.

Footpath towards Bonny Wood
Footpath towards Bonny Wood, Geograph.org

The ancient coppiced landscape of Bonny Woods near Needham Market can be traced back as far as 1251 and is part of the Barking Tyewoods which are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Although the Suffolk Wildlife Trust states the woods are at their best in the Spring when wood anemone, woodruff and herb-paris bloom, Bonny Woods are still beautiful in the Autumn and Winter when it reveals its historic bone structure and the shape of the trees tell a story of land management.  The woods have been variously owned by Elizabeth the First (1561) who purchased them from the Bishop of Ely and sold on by James the First in 1611.

Badger live here and at certain times of the year, you will be amused by the mating displays of woodcock as they strut and mince about at dusk. Mowing, coppicing and raking by the SWT keep sunny rides open and locals enjoy walking dogs here although they must be on leads. Park in Barking Tye Village Hall car park .The woods do not have disabled access.

The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes
The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes

Lackford Lakes, in West Suffolk is one of The Millers Tale’s favourite places to walk in because of the diversity of habitats it offers and extensive programme of family events. Abutting West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, the SWT managed reserve has been established on flooded gravel pits which feed a labrinyth of reed beds and marshes, lakes, waterways and wooded areas adjacent to the remarkable Brecklands landscapes. An Autumn walk here will reveal tree lines ablaze with colour, a fiery backdrop to lakes which are home to cormorants, grebe, egrets, swans and Egyptian geese among many many species. Come in the hour before dusk and watch the cormorants prepare to roost in the trees which grow on little islands in the largest lake. Silhouetted against the sun, they extend their wings to warm them before night removes the heat from the sky and look, for all the world, like a Japanese painting.

Lackford at dusk
Lackford at dusk

Other birds including shoveler, lapwing, goosander, bittern and goldeneye depend on the lakes during the autumn and winter months. The broadleaf and coniferous trees that make up the Kings Forest are a distant echo of the small wooded walks which wend their way from bird hide to bird hide, with stands of birch, hazel, blackthorn and oak. The paths wend their way alongside meadows and the scrubby Brecks with their small scale mosaics of sedums, lichens and mosses. Kingfishers and otters fish and live here along the small streams, ponds and reedbeds and the bird hides provide daily opportunities to watch them- ask rangers for advice as to the best times and places or check the whiteboard in the education centre entryway where visitors record their sightings. Dipping ponds are kept for kids to use with rangers to guide and explain and the education centre offers tea, cakes, a close up view of bird feeders and the nest cams.

A large part of the reserve is accessible to buggies and wheelchairs and the hides are ramped.

North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust
North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust

North Cove between Beccles and Lowestoft offers a relaxing walk amid mixed wetland habitats: grazing marsh, wet woodland and pools nestled along the Waveney Valley. The ponds, dykes and meadows are important habitats for marsh ferns, bog pimpernel and golden saxifrage whilst the mature woodland is home to birds such as the warbler, siskin, redpoll and all three types of woodpecker. Woodcock nest and feed in the scrub and young carr and sparrow-hawk hunt here their swift swooping flight low to the ground and ascending flight clear against tall and wide Suffolk skies.

If you like dragonflies, this is the place for you and late summer will find grass snakes and common lizards soaking up the last of the suns heat before late Autumn and Winter sees them retreating. Cattle graze here and provide and important management service, keeping scrub at manageable levels. The Beccles Bird Society co maintains the site alongside the SWT which gives some idea of its avian importance. The woods form part of  Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Suffolk Broads Living Landscape which is a project intending to develop a rich landscape of wetland habitat from Lowestoft to Beccles. This will be home to a host of unique Broadland species such the rare Norfolk Hawker dragonfly.

The plant hunters of Suffolk

Cedar_on_Hardwick_Heath_-_geograph.org.uk_-_705896
Cedars of Lebanon on Hardwick Heath in Bury St Edmunds

Suffolk is an unusual place, irregularly defined more by water than its land which has presented a peculiar and unpredictable challenge for various invading forces. However it has also been the home of people who travel far beyond its confines in their own lifetime and the results of these expeditions can be seen growing in our gardens and parks and town centres.

The tales of the great plant hunters are epic, ranging across seas and the unmapped heart of continents. Often centred upon the grand male narrative, these treks were deemed unsuitable for women although some did manage to penetrate the closed world of botany and plant collection. Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, of whom we will hear more from later, said this, barely 100 years ago: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.”

Think of David Douglas who sought out and introduced the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Escholtzia (Californian poppy) and lupins and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii and Alice Eastwood who rescued the herbarium at California Academy of Sciences after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire, by clinging to the banisters. Then there’s Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke who went to Columbia and Panama in search of the rare orchids and were were kidnapped by Farc guerillas, remaining captive for nine months in more recent times: this has never been a sedate and genteel past-time. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovering the new, whether that be a plant or place to forage for them has driven humans to trade in and import plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain and elaborate preparations were made to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree covered mountain slopes.

Two of the countries most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who went on to become scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and became Director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1185 and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker who was Kews first Director and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.

Joseph Hooker combined a thirst for discovery and an inexhaustible hunger for travel with rigorous taxonomic innovation and investigation which soon led to a developing reputation as the foremost botanist of his time. Beginning his career as an assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus for Antarctic expeditions (a way of overcoming a lack of fiscal means by which to fund his own expedition), he roamed the southern oceans, India and the Himalayas, even getting himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for ranging far into territories he had received no invitation for- Tibet. If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons because the varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were his Indian discoveries: 25 of them in total and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants. The restored Victorian gardens at Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their apparent domesticity and British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here. Hooker adored his plants but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer. As he commented about the rhododendrons one day, ” If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am.”

Joseph_Dalton_Hooker_NLM2
Joseph Dalton Hooker

In those extensive diaries now being digitised at Kew, Hooker frequently expounded on the arduous nature of his expeditions: “I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect the seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever” as he wrote to William Hooker from Darjeeling in 1849. Joseph took few luxuries with him: apart from the tools of his trade he packed a supply of cigars for each evening and a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Kinchin. A devoted companion, the dog one day fell to its death and was swept away by a river.

Described as ‘an interrogator of the natural world’, Hookers work helped to support Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species because he understood botanical context- he interpreted what he saw around him and his own publications were many. Containing exquisite botanical illustrations, works such as the Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya and the Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India culminated in The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years and published in 1883. It has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century, describing over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species. The work underpinned the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.

Joseph’s father, William, the first Director of Kew Gardens came to Halesworth to take up the position of superintendent of the brewery, staying for eleven years until his botanical passion drive him to London and his directorial post at Kew Gardens. His son clearly followed in his footsteps and mighty ones they were too: he increased the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres and oversaw the construction of the Palm House. On 1 November 1865, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, aged just 48.

One of my personal favourites of all his plants is the Winter flowering Sarcococca ‘Hookeriana’ which is possessed of an understated appearance but a fragrance that is anything but. Tiny lime green pendulous blossoms, dangling from the undersides of leathery leafed branches give off a powerfully spicy and verdant sweet scent which wends its way down our garden and into the kitchen whenever we open the door. Often used by municipal gardeners because it is tough and low maintenance, the Sarcococca often makes its home outside multi-storey car parks, on median strips of urban clearways and on council office borders and most of us walk past without paying it a moments notice.

But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with great hazy swathes of bluebells although all these are without doubt easily found in our county and much celebrated. I think of the Scots Pines and Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath. They populate the ancient and characteristic twisted pinelines of the Brecklands (‘broken lands’) and tall cedars grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall nearby after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.

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Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in the eponymous country and in Syria too, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians. Many thousands had been massacred. Even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker ” ‘For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.” As he arrived in Damascus in the October, his diary told of what he encountered: ” The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses” but the expedition found, what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon, about 400 of them with an estimated age was 350-400 years. Hooker collected the seeds and added to the UK population of a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes, both rural and urban. Its shape is etiolated and those distal flat level branches with their clearly defined clouds of bristly leaves are well suited to the coastal regions where it provides tall shade for the wild ponies that graze there and shelters the acid yellow gorse that perfumes the late spring air. Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the bible, “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92 v12), the tree has been a great success and is my living memorial to Joseph Hooker.

Hooker’s own botanical illustrations straddle the fields of art and science being both wondrous objet d’art and scientific record. The history of botanical painting and illustration stretches back centuries, being used for medicinal purposes (Culpeppers) alongside its aesthetic and decorative properties. In Santon Downham, the Iceni Botanical Artists now offer tutorial workshops free of charge to the public at the village hall, funded by the HLF ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. There are guest speakers, the chance to gain skills in watercolour and receive tuition on how best to depict local flora from Breckland wild flowers to its fungi and pine tree landscapes. Artists can tap into a landscape suffused with stories which stretch back to the Stone Age: rabbit farming, glacial pingos, flint mines and over 12,845 species of plants and animals.

Drovers paths and the Moulton Packhorse Bridge

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I still nurse a childhood fascination with drovers and the romanticised images I held of these men as they tramped along the ancient walkways that cross-hatched the British countryside, etching them deeper and deeper into the land as they escorted their charges to market, to summer pastures or sheltered locations for overwintering. The census of 1890 lists the details of young men who worked as ‘ankle beaters’, using a sharp rap with a stick to drive the livestock forward towards market.

As a child I read The Woolpack by Cynthia Garnett and thought about the sheepy-smelling wool merchants of fifteenth-century Cotswolds as they smuggled, double-crossed and pirated their way into actions that reverberated across Europe. I explored the wool towns and villages of South Suffolk- Lavenham, Long Melford, Sudbury and Hadleigh -where wooden frames houses line narrow streets which wend their way towards ornate, dramatic churches constructed with wool money, imbued with lanolin and self-importance.

These sheep, which dotted the fields and pastures of Suffolk, earned the county untold wealth and influence. The animals moved from field to field, farm to farm and their fleeces and cloth were sold in local markets or transported overland or by river barge to the North Sea via Kings Lynn, along the river Stour at Sudbury, or taken to London and  transported onto mainland Europe and beyond. Suffolk wasn’t strictly all things ovine although records of 1440 show that around Bury St Edmunds, the profits from the rearing of sheep had superceded those of cattle. The annual cattle shows in villages such as Melton, Hoxne, Woolpit and Woodbridge drew the attention of Scottish cattle farmers in the early 18th century who sent down animals in fine condition although there is evidence that cattle have been driven to England as far back as the fifteenth century. These could fetch prices as high as seven shillings for a handsome short-horn. Suffolk and East Anglia as a whole were geographically convenient, being within reach of the London markets and home to some of the best ‘finishing’  grazing where cattle could fatten up and rest after the long and arduous drive from the Scottish highlands and lowlands.

East Anglia had adopted Flemish methods of livestock farming which included supplementing grazing with the feeding of fodder such as clover and root-vegetables- highly attractive to cattle farmers wanting the best return on their livestock. Indeed, Daniel Defoe (in the quote below) had remarked that East Suffolk became the first English district which fed and fattened its sheep and cattle in this manner and by the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south from Scotland. His account mirrors modern day food debates about the merits of grass versus grain-finished cattle and their respective flavour and textures and it is also thought that the Red Poll breed that came out of Norfolk and Suffolk is most likely a result of polled Scottish red Galloway bulls being put to local cattle.

GEORGE WILLIAM HORLOR (1849-1895) CATTLE DROVERS, SUNSET
GEORGE WILLIAM HORLOR (1849-1895) The Cattle Drovers at Sunset

“This part of England is also remarkable for being the first where the feeding and fattening of cattle, both sheep as well as black cattle with turnips, was first practised in England, which is made a very great part of the improvement of their lands to this day; and from whence the practice is spread over most of the east and south parts of England, to the great enriching of the farmers, and encrease of fat cattle: And tho’ some have objected against the goodness of the flesh thus fed with turnips, and have fansied it would taste of the root; yet upon experience ’tis found, that at market there is no difference nor can they that buy, single out one joynt of mutton from another by the taste..

The feet of turkeys would be tarred and sanded to protect them on a journey that could take up to three months (according to John Chartres in Chapters from The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume 4) and a typical journey in 1696 saw turkeys driven from Newmarket to Epsom, whilst cattle were fitted with iron shoes. Geese would have iron booties making me wonder whether the term ‘a gaggle of geese’ accurately described what must have been an infernal racket as they clattered and scuttered across the landscape on route to market.

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Victorian turkey droving from Norfolk to London

Suffolk cattle drovers would place notices in the local press during the month of January, advertising where they would be present to collect stock to drive onto London’s Smithfield Market. They gathered at Oulton Blue Boat Inn and Rushmere Hall, at the Ufford Crown, Martlesham Red Lion and the Woolpack at Pakenham. In Cockfield, a large parish lying between Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds, the drovers assembled at The Greyhound Inn and records by the Suffolk Institute mention a Mr James Howlett of Brome who took a ‘more westerly route’ which included Bury St Edmunds on the traditional Wednesday market day. On this day, he could be assured of like-minded company, a place to gather and catch up on all the news and seek lodgings should he require it.

These Scottish cattle droves were mightily impressive with each drover responsible for fifty or sixty heads which comprised herds over two hundred, reaching paces of between ten to fifteen miles per day.  As in classic American Western style, a mounted topsman would ride on ahead, operating as an alert system and charged with securing night-time pasture, water and shelter. Paid approximately twice the going rate for a farm labourer (3/4s per day, 10s for their return journey), this had to cover their lodgings and their food.  As the time of the fairs approached, local village lanes and pastures were hemmed in by herds of steaming, snorting beasts, tended by drovers in their hundreds and picked over by local graziers looking to add to their stock. The hostelries and local businesses ramped up their hospitality, serving meals and advertising the time and location of these. Indeed, the Melton fair was held on land next door to the local inn.

Suffolk and Norfolk are watery counties and maps show a lattice of rivers and streams, marshes, bogs, creeks and man-made drainage channels. As many a would-be invader found to their cost, navigating the region was complex and attempts to replicate the flight path of a crow were doomed to failure. Whilst navigating on water might seem as simple as building a craft fit for the purpose of carrying humans, fitting hundreds of heads of cattle, sheep and flocks of stroppy, birds onto one is an entirely different matter. Trying to ford what appears to be a shallow body of water with livestock in tow or mounted on horseback can swiftly go very wrong indeed as William Camden wrote in 1582 after trying to ford the River Wharfe “…for, it hath such slippery stones in it that a horse can have no sure footing on them, or else the violence of the water carryeth them away from under his feet.” 

Therefore, a drover generally needed to travel around or over water and when time is money (packhorse transport was considerably more costly than horse-towed barges on water), going around might necessarily involve considerable added mileage. So began the construction of packhorse bridges along main routes at a time when the large-scale trading of livestock and their produce began to factor greatly in the regional and national economy. Dating mostly back to the seventeenth century, packhorse bridges were largely used to transport wool, cloth, sheep and cattle. Designed to be narrow in width with low parapets to allow clear passage of the heavy, goods laden panniers that were carried on the backs of animals, these bridges began life as planked-in wood with supports constructed of logs. Later on as the design was improved, the wood was replaced by piers and arches made in the local stone and some of them were widened to allow safer and more efficient passage of the significantly more wide bodied cattle. By the eighteenth century, the construction of turnpikes (after the 1773 Turnpike Act) rendered some of the bridges obsolete although away from the ‘main drags’ they continued to be used to navigate free routes. Drovers did much to create the seemingly meandering patterns of lanes in our countryside as they tried their best to avoid costly turnpikes and toll-gates, most of which straddled the straighter routes between markets, ports and towns.

The village of Moulton is four miles east of Newmarket and has its own Packhorse Bridge. The village is recorded in the Domesday book although the settlement of Moulton predates 1086 and is older than the its much larger neighbour. The name is Old English for the Farmstead of a man called Mula although an alternative explanation suggests the name may be derived from the Old English words ‘Mula’ plus ‘Tun’= as a place where mules are kept.

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Moulton from the top of the Packhorse Bridge

Bounded by meadows and farmland, the River Kennett runs south-north along the eastern borders of the meadows, carving a gentle pathway through a chalk landscape which folds itself into two hills, Primrose Hill to the east and Folly Hill and Thrift Covert to the west.  The parish is bordered on its north side by the prehistoric Icknield Way which went on to be modified by Roman engineers to follow the chalk uplands which bisect England from the Wash to Wiltshire. The Icknield Way was one of the longest used drover routes and a popular route for merchants travelling between the towns of Royston and Newmarket, with higher vantage points at Gazeley and Dalham. Although its name is suggestive of a single defined route, it actually grew from a medley of braided tracks, lanes and greenways which lie above the lowland chalk that runs underneath Breckland, past Newmarket and onto Knettishall Heath, ten or so miles from Thetford. The Roman route of Peddars Way continues on from Knettishall to the red sandstone layers of Hunstanton’s cliffs on the North Norfolk coastline.

Out driving last week, I crossed and recrossed the borders of Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire and I encountered the 15th century Pack Horse Bridge quite by accident after getting lost trying to find my way to Newmarket from Sudbury via the back roads and lanes. The bridge itself traverses the old Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds packhorse route, one of the main arterial runs for the latters wool trade which, by 1440, had outpaced cattle farming in revenue and if you draw a straight line from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds, it passes straight through Moulton. Stockily built in local flint and stone and spanning twenty metres, the bridge possesses the classically low parapets although it is wide enough to allow the passage of smaller carts. As you walk over, the view ahead is of acid-jazz fields of oil seed rape, a road snaking its way up a hill and scudding clouds. The curve of the bridge is far less gentle underfoot than its appearance from the roadside might suggest and after a week of torpid sun and a night of rain, my sandals scudded across its gravelled surface in their search for traction, and I imagined the slip and flinty clatter of horses or mules hooves as they struggled to gain momentum, panniers laden and possibly pulling a cumbersome cart behind them too in trains of up to fifty animals. The surface most certainly would not have been user-friendly gravel back then and surely must have been made more treacherous from animal manure and other detritus.

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The vantage point is a gift that keeps on giving: views of the old rectory school on your right, dating back to 1849 and beyond that lies the churchyard and St Peter’s church set above the river. The west face of the church presides over fields dotted with copses and the misty silhouette of Ely Cathedral lies on the horizon amid the low-lying Cambridgeshire fens. Ask an East Anglian about ‘The Ship of the Fens’ as we call the Cathedral and many of us will be able to name our favoured spot where we go to gaze upon its spires from a distance. This is now mine. Gazeley Stud lies beyond (this is prime horse country) and nearby pastures are home to some of the best horseflesh in the world.

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The road by the bridge was dry when I visited although a few days later the skies dumped a months worth of rain in one night but I didn’t go back to see if anything had changed. Back in February (2014), heavy rainfall did cause flooding and the bridge was once again fording torrents of water as the Kennett burst its banks and the environment agency issues flood warnings from Ousden to Freckenham. The River Kennett is home to kingfishers, egrets and the healthy chalk favouring stickleback population which feed them and further downstream, a similar old flint footbridge curves over the waters which have shrunk somewhat since the bridge was first built. The size of this bridge shows us this because had the Kennett been a small narrow stream back then, a single arch would have sufficed. However the Moulton bridge has a series of four smaller arches which allow for a gentler slope towards its apex instead of the steep slope a single arch of the size needed would have resulted in and each arch, shaped like a bishops mitre, is faced with brick as are the cut water buttresses. The arches were constructed via the creation of a timber framework to provide a template for their shape and form and support for the brickwork. Once the bricks had been laid in place, the supports (formers) were taken away. The bricks are rayed outwards and bedded down against knobbly flints and rusty red sandstone rubble.

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I was able to walk underneath and alongside the bridge because a concrete surface, like a platform, has been laid down alongside and over the top of the stream. A close look at the undersides of some of the arches revealed a micro climate: slightly steamy and dank, feeding and housing the lichen, ferns and moss which like to lodge themselves in all the damp places. When I pressed my hands against the flint and stone rubble, water leached and seeped through my fingers and my childhood self, enchanted by the subterranean and grotto-like atmosphere, would have fashioned a world of water fairies on leaf boats with beds of maidenhair fern and toads as friends and guardian of the arches.

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The edges of the stream had all the verdancy you would expect from a Suffolk waterway in July. Rushes and reeds, rosebay willowherb, ferns, trefoil and clover, potentilla, flag irises and water hyacinth, flattened down in places here and there; possibly because of the passageways of voles and rats and perhaps, otters which have been returning to our local rivers. Waterways overlaying chalk (which the Kennett is) are vitally important for local widlife: sometimes intermittent in nature, they possess clear, pure, oxygenated water with a relatively even temperature all year round and would be especially useful to drovers, who were always on the lookout for water sources for their livestock and themselves. Additionally, the abundant fenlands that are proximate to this part of East Anglia are dependent upon lime rich waters which feed and support their unique biodiversity.


I wasn’t singing this, but the Song of the Skewbald was recorded under the middle arch of the Moulton PackHorse Bridge. There’s a wealth of local folk songs that are most appropriate for humming under ones breath or listening to on an ipod should you want a musically immersive experience. This Moulton and three churches walk is a pleasure to do  as is this walk. The Moulton Packhorse Inn is next to the bridge and locals speak highly of it for ambience, food, beer and location.

Thank you to Dr Harvey Osborne, senior lecturer in History at University Campus, Suffolk for his generous help in locating primary and secondary sources.

Walking the Deben estuary: Bawdsey Island, Felixstowe Ferry and Ramsholt

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Boats on the Deben at Ramsholt

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.

The Deben at Ramsholt
The Deben at Ramsholt

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.

The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry
The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry

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.

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Looking out from the jetty at Ramsholt

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.

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Noght pushes towards Bawdsey from the North Sea which lies beyond the mouth of the Deben estuary

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.

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Approaching the Ramsholt Arms and River Deben

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.

The old sea defences
The old sea defences

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
The Ramsholt Arms

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 harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty
The harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty

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.

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Footpaths take you up to the church which perches high above the estuary

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.

All Saints Church at Ramsholt
All Saints Church at Ramsholt

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.

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Bawdsey Ferry by Martin Hardie from the V&A Collection

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.

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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.

The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

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Looking out to Felixstowe Ferry

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.

The strange tale of Borley Rectory

 

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

By Steve Foster
By Steve Foster

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

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

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The town of Sudbury can be seen on the horizon

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

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

Newspaper report of the hauntings
Newspaper report of the hauntings

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

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

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

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

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The burned down rectory

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

Harry Price by William Hope
Harry Price by William Hope

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

Marianne Foyster
Marianne Foyster

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

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

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

The spectral scribbles
The spectral scribbles

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

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

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

Plan of the rectory
Plan of the rectory

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

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