The chance to hear unplugged live music played by local musicians in a small traditional Suffolk pub drew us to The Cock Inn located in the tiny village of Brent Eleigh. Formerly known as Brent-Ely, it was once a market town under a grant by Henry III and is now part of the parish of Cosford. Typically Suffolk in its character, there’s a village green and a row of red brick alms houses dating back to 1731 and an even more ancient timbered hall; lots of Germolene pink and ochre plaster, thatch and studwork; a white weatherboard mill style building and a pub, clustered deep within a fold of land near the river Bret, seven miles from Sudbury.
According to Eilert Ekwall, the possible meaning of the village name is Ilega’s meadow, which was burnt before 1254 and the village is mentioned in the Domesday Book, at which time it and neighbouring Monks Eleigh had a population of 61. The two settlements, Brent and Monks Eleigh reached their peak of prosperity in the 14th and 15th centuries through the cloth and wool trades which endowed the region with great wealth resulting in some magnificent churches, guildhalls and other public buildings- nearby Lavenham is the best known example. The church at Brent Eleigh is of typical Norman structure with perpendicular tower and dedicated to St. Mary. Inside its chancel can be found a parochial library of 1,500 volumes, founded by Dr. Colman, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
The church of St Mary was built in the 13th century on a steep-sided hill beside Brent Eleigh Hall, of flint and stone construction and internal fittings that span several centuries and architectural periods. You will find benches from the fifteenth century, Jacobean box pews and some additions from the nineteenth century too. A font dated to the early part of the fourteenth century has a Jacobean cover and a carved pulpit from the same period whilst the manorial pew, enclosed by a parclose screen with tall panelled walls has been dated as the oldest screen of its kind in the county, sit or kneel in prayer and the rest of the congregation disappear from view. Walking over to the chancel we admired a monument to Edward Colman (d. 1739) and crafted by Thomas Dunn, who worked with Nicholas Hawksmoor, the renowned architect. Colman is draped dramatically in carved, folded bedcloths, surmounted by a cherubic angel bearing a crown.
The jewel in the crown of the church though is the series of early medieval wall paintings on the east wall, next to and underneath the large east window. Discovered in 1960 under a coat of whitewash, they have been restored by Eve Barker and have been described as one of the finest collections of wall paintings in England and together probably span the years 1270-1330 . One painting features a pair of censing angels flanking a now no longer there statue of the Virgin Mary against a brilliant blue and gold starry background. Beneath the east window, directly behind the high altar, is a horizontal strip depicting the Crucifixion in a vibrant and fluid depiction. This probably dates to the early 14th century and has the figure of Christ on the cross flanked by figures of Mary and St John. Finally on the south side of the altar is a scene depicting the Harrowing of Hell and despite the harrowing of time upon it- rendering it badly faded- it is arguably the most important of the Brent Eleigh paintings, dating to the latter half of the 13th century. The figure of Christ is positioned next to a kneeling Adam and a smaller figure bearing a tonsure kneels below and to the right, looking up at Christ. This ‘priest’ may well be the donor or patron responsible for the painting and this figure is accompanied by a Lombardic inscription ‘+RICA’.
Come out of the church, walk over the bridge and along meandering banked hilly roads and you will come to the Cock Inn, alongside a signpost directing you back to the village proper along the A1141, the old Lavenham Road. In the latter half of the 19th century, the inn was owned and run by five successive generations of the Underwood family and the first quarter of the 20th century, the landlord was appropriately named Walter Beere.
With its thatched hairstyle and Suffolk Pink plaster, two tiny bars, log fire warming stone floors and small yet well stocked bar, the village pub is a convivial space, the epitome of what a village pub should be. Three resident cats complete the setting- on our visit the Tortoiseshell was sat behind the bar with face and ears peering between the pumps – a small and hairy bartender. Entering into the pub is to go back in time to 1982 and the pubs of my late teenage hood; all lock ins and lack of pretense: Suffolk friendliness and a contemplative walk home (stagger) at the end of the evening through country lanes bounded by hedgerows frilled with Cow Parsley, ghostly in the moonlight. You really do see those big starry Suffolk skies out in this part of the county with minimal light pollution and a sense of being a traveller back in time, following well worn paths home as thousands of travellers must have done over the centuries.
The Cock is praised for its food, offering Sunday roasts and traditional puddings (Spotted Dick, Jam Roly Poly), ploughmans, sandwiches, soups and jacket potatoes for not a lot of money and a nut roast for non meat eaters. The menu is not extensive- for such a tiny place it will never be- and that is a strong point because large menus generally indicate bought in catered frozen food. We had a ploughmans and a simple cheese and pickle sandwich, the latter made with doorstop fresh local bread and a good nose clearing Cheddar.
Tuesday evenings are known as’ Cheese Night’ where locals bring cheese, bread and other foods, laying them out on the bar for all visitors to eat. We were initially a bit bemused as to whether that included us (strangers) but apparently it does so next time we will bring a contribution. One of the regulars had brought his own home made sheep’s cheeses and was also an expert water dowser happy to show us his skills- potentially very useful in dry East Anglia, parts of which get some of England’s lowest recorded rainfalls.
The left hand bar comfortably holds twenty people no more and last night many of them had brought their instruments including a stunning Double Bass. Three hours of Roots, blues and folk ensued interspersed with cheese eating and cig breaks for some of the musicians. The pub regularly hosts bands in a small marquee in its small roadside raised garden with enough room for a few wooden benches, the band and the audience. We have seen the bluegrass band Blind Fever play here, the music drifting out across fields and lanes as locals sprawl across the grassy banks outside the pub, pints at their side, or dance in the marquee during the warmer months. All you can see and hear as you walk up the lane is the red tipped glow of cigarettes as people sit outside, the low murmur of their Suffolk inflected voices and the lamplight from the pub shining out of the open top half of the stable door. The pub is not lit with bright electric lights of an evening and there no overhead harshness to offend the eyes and pollute the night sky, just low watt wall lamps.
Pubs like these need our support but in a manner that doesn’t destroy their essential self- the pub as village hub where older residents can come and sit in company with others and the noticeboard serves as a model of pre-internet community information . The last thing small authentic places like this need is an influx of tourists come to visit the ‘Locals in their natural habitat’, but if you love music or play it (and cheese) or want a decent home cooked roast, this pub is perfect.