Re­li­gious river ram­ble

Dar­ren Flint and Don­ald Greig set out on a win­ter’s jour­ney through the Stour Val­ley, dis­cov­er­ing a trio of churches, each with their own fas­ci­nat­ing past

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Stour Val­ley, Sus­sex/Es­sex


in­ter can be a mag­i­cal time for ex­plor­ing the peace­ful river val­leys and charm­ing ru­ral churches of Suf­folk, and there is much to be said for soak­ing up the at­mos­phere of this gen­teel cor­ner of East An­glia out of high sea­son. Days get off to a slug­gish start, with the coun­try­side swad­dled in a lin­ger­ing shroud of mist, soon shrugged off and re­placed by crisp air and milky sun­shine, ideal con­di­tions for a win­ter walk.

The Stour Val­ley is gen­tle and un­du­lat­ing, an ever-chang­ing patch­work of wood­land trails and farm­land fringed with sleep­ing hedgerows. Sprin­kled with small towns and pretty bu­colic vil­lages of thatched painted cot­tages, and com­plete with a re­as­sur­ing clus­ter of cosy tea rooms, this is an area to be savoured.

Start­ing from the his­toric wool town of Clare, Suf­folk’s small­est town, the route links three of the area’s most charm­ing churches, wend­ing its way along the Stour Val­ley to Cavendish, be­fore re­turn­ing on the Stour Val­ley Path high above the river. Pop into the St Gre­gory and

St Ge­orge church in Pent­low, with its dis­tinc­tive round tower, visit a ghostly rail­way sta­tion and peace­ful pri­ory, and revel in some clas­sic Suf­folk views. The wind off the North Sea can come whistling down the val­ley, so wrap up warm and pack a ther­mos as you set off to ex­plore this de­light­ful Suf­folk-Es­sex bor­der­land.


From Clare Cas­tle Coun­try

Park car park, cross the metal bridge over the River Stour. The walk goes left here, but con­tinue straight ahead for a de­tour to visit the charm­ing 13th-cen­tury Clare Pri­ory, one of the old­est re­li­gious houses in Eng­land and home to a mixed com­mu­nity of Au­gus­tinian fri­ars and lay


peo­ple. The pri­ory is pri­vate but vis­i­tors are wel­come in the peace­ful grounds, ru­ins and shrine.

Re­turn to the metal bridge and fol­low the river­bank to re­join the route. Once over the weir, go di­ag­o­nally right and con­tinue up to the lane (you are now in Es­sex), turn­ing left and join­ing the bri­dle­way af­ter about 200m.

When the track meets the me­an­der­ing Stour river, turn right and fol­low the hedgerow east up­hill for ap­prox­i­mately 3km. Turn left at the lane, pass­ing 16th-cen­tury Bower

Hall. At the meadow, the path veers slightly right to fol­low the fence­line on through a wood to Pent­low.


At the road, the route goes left but first, carry on ahead to the 12th-cen­tury church of St Gre­gory and St Ge­orge with its un­usual crenu­lated round tower. Take a peek be­hind the or­gan at the im­pres­sive 17th-cen­tury Kempe tomb, com­pris­ing re­cum­bent fig­ures of Judge Ge­orge Kempe, his son John and daugh­ter-in-law Eli­nore, and panel carv­ings of their 14 chil­dren.

Re­turn to the road and cross the river back into Suf­folk. Con­tinue into Cavendish, turn­ing left on to the river­bank foot­path, with a fine row of po­plar and weep­ing wil­lows fram­ing Pent­low Mill op­po­site. Look out for, then take the foot­path on the right. Nip through a gar­den and along Ram Al­ley, turn­ing left at

Cavendish High Street, where cart wheels were once soaked in a pond – known as ‘The Waiver’ (mean­ing swampy ground) – to swell and tighten the wooden joints. In the 14th cen­tury, Cavendish was home to John Cavendish – the an­ces­tor of the Dukes of Devon­shire – whose son, also John, struck the fa­tal blow that killed Wat Tyler in the sup­pres­sion of the Peas­ant’s Re­volt in 1381.


Cross the busy road at The

Green for one of Suf­folk’s most iconic views and a quin­tes­sen­tial English scene: a row of pink thatched cot­tages with a back­drop of St Mary the Vir­gin church. Un­usu­ally, the church tower

has a chim­ney, which serves the fire­place in the priest’s room. In­side, note the strik­ing 16th-cen­tury Flem­ish al­abaster of the cru­ci­fix­ion, with gilded rere­dos and the poignant wooden crosses, 13 of them, each a tem­po­rary marker for parish res­i­dents who per­ished on the bat­tle­fields of the First World War. Look out, too, for the memo­rial to for­mer res­i­dents, hus­band and wife Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ry­der, both now known for their epony­mous char­i­ties.

On de­part­ing, head along the back of The Green and pass the thatched Five

Bells pub (some­thing of a mis­nomer, for St Mary’s tower has six bells), soon join­ing the Stour Val­ley Path. This sec­tion (ap­prox­i­mately 3.5km) crosses farm­land with fine val­ley views, con­tin­ues on by Houghton Hall and even­tu­ally drops down to Clare. At Her­mitage Farm, take the path on the right through the farm­yard and then left at the road.


The fi­nal stretch winds through Clare, with its pretty his­toric build­ings and in­de­pen­dent shops. Pass to the right of St

Peter and St Paul’s, one of the big­gest wool churches in

Suf­folk, be­fore stop­ping to visit the An­cient House Mu­seum. The Grade-I-listed build­ing, with its re­mark­able par­get­ing (dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter­ing), dates from the 14th cen­tury, mak­ing it one of the old­est houses in the county. Con­tinue down Mar­ket Hill and, at the bot­tom, go left on to Sta­tion Road.

En­ter Clare Cas­tle Coun­try Park and fol­low the path as it bends around to the right, back to the car park. Time per­mit­ting, climb the cas­tle motte, dat­ing to the time of Wil­liam the Con­queror, for the best view


of the town, and visit the old rail­way sta­tion (and café), both ac­ces­si­ble from the car park. And If you’re look­ing for last-minute Christ­mas shop­ping, pop into the vast em­po­rium of Clare An­tiques in the old mill build­ing.

For re­fresh­ments, there’s no short­age of choice: Café Clare on Well Lane and

Plat­form One at the old rail­way sta­tion are two of our favourites. If all this leaves you want­ing more, head for the an­nual Dick­en­sian Christ­mas ex­trav­a­ganza (sec­ond and third week­ends in De­cem­ber) at Tu­dor man­sion Ken­twell

Hall, nearby in Long Melford.

Like many East Anglian build­ings, the ex­te­rior of St Mary the Vir­gin church in Cavendish is dressed with flint

Clare Cas­tle’s motte is about 20m high, mak­ing it one of the tallest in the coun­try

Dar­ren Flint and Don­ald Greig are the au­thors of Suf­folk: 40 Coast & Coun­try Walks..

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