Threading the Stour Valley
A circular walk via the cloth town of Haverhill
WHEN it comes to wonderful Suffolk walks, the Stour Valley has so often got it all sewn up. From Clare Country Park to Gainsborough’s Sudbury water-meadows, Nayland’s ancient Knoll and picturesque Constable Country, the river’s thread runs through a rich patchwork of history, passing everything from fine merchants’ houses and mighty silk mills to pictureperfect weavers’ cottages. But what about the unsung cloth-lands further upstream? Haverhill still has ties with its textile history in its world-renowned shirt-makers, Gurteen. But, although a silk mill moved here from Spitalfields in the 19th century, it was the production of coarse linen and cotton ‘drabett’, destined for farm-workers’ smocks, which really put the town on the textile map. Here the river slopes are home to a superbly practical little walk, well suited to all seasons, and which bears all the much-loved Stour Valley trademarks – history-rich villages, undulating landscapes and the occasional breathtaking vista.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES
In the tiny village of Barnardiston, four miles north-east of Haverhill, All Saints’ church seems like it could certainly do with a new outfit, if not a large dose of TLC. But once you’ve continued up past Three Cocked Hat wood and followed the ancient green trackway, Buntry Lane, past Taylor’s Farm to St Peter & St Paul’s in the next village, you’ll soon see how it has surely been playing second fiddle to its Kedington counterpart for centuries. Today, the porch of the almost abandoned church is slowly going green inside with envy (and algae), its doors both great and small, sadly shut to pilgrims and passers-by, its pulpit and holy tomes, just discernible through the low windows, are home now only to hungry wood worms and book worms alike. A trained eye might spot how the nave pre-dates the 13th century chancel, but there’s little to tell you that it resides in the outer enclosure of a medieval manor, whose moats and carp pond are hidden on private land – two of Suffolk’s mere handful of scheduled ancient monuments.
The landscape which rises up holds yet more mysteries. Walk this way in the autumn when the hedgerows are dripping with deep red rose hips, hawthorn and briony berries and it feels like there could be some truth in local legends. Was this Blood Hill, the site of Boudicca’s last stand against the Romans? Rumours are rife about Roman villas in these parts, with evidence of re-used Roman bricks in local medieval buildings and even a Roman hypocaust lurking underneath Kedington’s church. In winter, seams of high hedgerows scarfed up with Old Man’s Beard give welcome protection from cutting winds, making the views which they eventually give way to, more breathtaking. High and generally dry underfoot, it’s easy-going terrain. Come springtime, the green lanes burst into a bright livery worthy of their name, and in summer, the rolling clay estate-lands reach for their time-honoured coat of many colours. Spot the rare yellows of Sulphur clover and delicate pink blooms of spiny rest-harrow, the tall stems of crested dog tail and the lowly dwarf thistles.
There’s something delightfully unhurried about the ancient lane that eventually opens out, descending through the farmsteads to the linear hamlet of Dash End. Time enough to try to unpick the complex tapestries of the past, in search of that needle-in-the-historical-haystack connection to the Barnardiston left behind. Near Squirrel Cottage, first a precariously perching long-eared owl, then a plucky pheasant, draw the eye up to the neatest top-nots of thick, tightly trimmed thatch. And suddenly the penny drops. Wasn’t Samuel Barnardiston the man behind that most historical of haircuts, the original 17th century model of the unusual short-back-an-sides ‘Roundhead’ look? Even if he ended up near Ipswich, his folk surely hailed from here, a powerful Puritan family and staunch leaders of the Parliamentarians in Suffolk, but where was the evidence?
Ah, just a stroll away down towards the Stour. From the outside, Kedington church looks unsuspecting enough. There’s no suggestion of the long-lost moated hall behind the graveyard, once home to the ‘Godly household’ of the Barnardiston clan. But step inside (it prides itself on being open) and it is really all too blindingly obvious
why Sir John Betjeman called St Peter & St Paul’s “a Westminster Abbey amongst village churches”. You have to take your hat off to the place – mighty monuments, massive tombs, a manorial box pew the size of a mini-bus, coats of arms displayed on colourful hatchments, everything is here and pretty much all with the Barnardiston stamp on it. Of course, the preacher took off more than just his hat and coat when he climbed the triple-decker heights of the pulpit. By some miracle of Victorian laissez-faire, like so much of this place, this lofty Jacobean loud-speaker device has survived intact, complete with sound board and canopy. Take time to hunt out the hat hooks and convenient wig pole. There’s even an hour-glass holder for clergy and congregation to keep an eye on the length of the sermon.
By the altar, a late Saxon stone cross found nearby hints at the heritage beneath your feet. But, surrounded by more than 20 great Westminster-Abbey-worthy monuments, there’s hardly need to mention the 54 shapely Barnardiston coffins cowering in vaults below. Then just as you come to terms with the centuries of life, death and ecclesiastical clutter, there’s an invitation to take a virtual tour of the tower-top views, courtesy of the Managing a Masterpiece project’s smart bit of kit, ‘The Pod’ or ‘Stour-cam’. Back outside, the Stour Valley Path, on the church doorstep, leads north towards the racing silks of Newmarket and south towards the site of the Gurteen family’s Victorian home, on the edge of Haverhill’s East Town Park. Suffolk’s 21st century links with its textile heritage might not be a stitch on what has gone before, but the connection through the landscape is somehow still there.
Retrace gentle steps to Dash End and steer a more westerly return path uphill to Barnardiston, one so straight that you’d be almost tempted to call it a Roman ‘road’. New or old, no matter. It dissects arable lands that have been hemmed in by hedgerows for centuries. And you just can’t help picturing here the ploughmen of the past who plodded home their weary way, dressed in their drabbet smocks.
THE WALK 1
Start in the village of Barnardiston ( just off A143, north-east Haverhill) by All Saints’ Church. With the church on your left, head along Church Lane, following footpath signs. Past Ley’s Farm (left) leave the main track to turn left onto field margin footpaths, heading towards the corner of the triangular woodland known as ‘Three Cocked Hat’.
Turn left just beyond the vintage oak. Enjoy the views towards Barnardiston church and its manorial site as you head down the field margin. The path then bears right, narrowing between quite high, relatively recently planted hedgerows. Keeping right as you follow the path, it widens and becomes more grassy, leading gently downhill as historic Buntry Lane.
At Taylor’s Farm the green lane becomes concrete/tarmac (Taylors Farm Road). Continue straight ahead passing a modern brick house (right), then a white property dated 1742 (left). The ‘road’ leads left down to the picturesque thatched cottages of Dash End, where the right fork sees Dash End Lane coming out onto Kedington Road at The Limes, a large property with white pudding-ball gates. Turn right along the pavement to the church.
St Peter & St Paul Kedington is open to all daily from 9am until 4pm (later in summer), services and ceremonies permitting. Retrace your steps back along the road and up Dash End Lane.
Before bearing right up towards Taylor’s Farm/Buntry Lane, look left for a footpath by the telegraph poles. This is a crossfield path which leads diagonally across the arable land to a gap in the hedge beyond.
Once through the hedge-gap, turn right to follow the straight field edge path.
The path meets a straight, wide, grassy track with thick hedgerows. (Footpath signs in hedge!) Turn right. The path leads uphill, then downhill, straight back along Church Lane to Barnardiston, revealing views across the rolling landscape towards Highpoint prison in the distance (left), and towards the church and all its secrets in the next valley fold.
Left main picture, looking back to Barnadiston. Below left, thatched pheasant at Dash End, tombs at Barnadiston. below, Kedington church. All photos: Lindsay Want
Above and below, Barnadiston Church with its wealth of historical ‘clutter’, including a wig pole.
Views of Barnadiston