A wander in the Alde Valley
Take your time around and about Sweffling
Surely no Suffolk spot ever survived the centuries on a wing and a prayer, quite like Sweffling. Follow the village footpath along The Gull and soon hedgerows bright with berries and busy bullfinches lead the way up gentle valley slopes to views of medieval St Mary’s perched proudly on its hilltop roost.
In the woody copses, bold woodpeckers drum the day away to the tune of the skylark songsters climbing high above the rolling fields. Drop down to the Alde and there’s a firework flash of a kingfisher, the beaky dart of a snipe perhaps. Up beyond the lowing herds, catch a glimpse through the pines of the flinty fortress-like St Michael’s at Rendham. Alas, gone are the days when the scythe-like wings of vast flocks of screaming swifts cut through the Sweffling (Swifterling?) skies, but in the summer months you’d like to think that some still return to familiar nesting sites, in historic haunts beneath the church.
Sweffling – an ancient place full of beautiful surprises that just loves to keep you guessing and on your toes. First up, is it one ‘f’ or two? The electoral ward and parish boundaries talk only of Swefling, but all the signs suggest otherwise.
At the top of the hill, stretch up for a quick peek over hedgerows and you’ll spot the stumpy roundhouses of the ‘High’ and ‘Middle’ post-mills. There was clearly once a third in the original ’Sweffling triangle’, although it seems that Girlings (low) Mill has mysteriously disappeared Bermudastyle without a trace.
Dare to go your separate ways with a parting, “Meet you in the White Horse” and you’re asking to come a cropper. Traditionally, great rivals and staunchly independent communities, Sweffling and Rendham seem to have dug in their heels (hooves?) over the name of their village watering holes.
Whether mildly amusing, gleeful spite or sheer Suffolk bloody-mindedness, having two white horses practically in the same stable on the B1119 just can’t be a coincidence, can it?
The feathery ancestors of the local parliament of owls seen quartering the meadows beyond Friar’s Grove around Barn Spring, obviously chose their nesting sites wisely. Royalist stronghold, Rendham, would have been no place for them during the Civil War years, but they were among Parlimentarian mates on the Sweffling side of the valley.
Over the centuries they must have seen plenty of curious comings and goings, like the early independent-spirited Congregationalists who rooted themselves first in Sweffling in 1650, only to decamp to ‘the other place’ a century later, and the curate of Sweffling St Mary’s, the famous 18th century poet of nature and truth, George Crabbe. A blue plaque commemorates his time at Lady Whincups, just along the lane from Grove Farm’s great hollow tree where the clergy poet, also a renowned creepy-crawly collector, is bound to have beetled about.
Today, Rendham boasts sculptress Maggi Hambling among its creative residents, and there’s something gently comforting that Crabbe found his resting place by the seashore, in St Peter and St Paul’s just an Aldeburgh pebble throw away from Maggi’s Scallop, that steely tribute to Britten’s Peter Grimes and Crabbe’s lines that inspired it.
The Green Man peering out from the Suffolk pink farmhouse by Benhall Low Street and the ‘woodwose’ carved above St Mary’s porch door are undeniably at home here. And as you curve your way around the Alde marshland behind Whitehouse Farm, and the early crossing point of Dern Ford, you find yourself willing to be true the rumours of an ancient low mound and battles hereabouts with great Queen Boudica. It’s surely not a coincidence that Rendham schoolboys found Claudius’ bronze head in the river in 1907. Possibly part of the victory spoils from the Iceni’s ransacking of Colchester around AD61? The heathens used it as a football until a savvy Benhall schoolmaster bought it off them for five shillings. Some 60 years later, it sold at Sothebys for £15,500.
High above Sweffling village at medieval St Mary’s, you can’t help feeling that the vantage point was a recognised place of importance long before the Domesday Book recorded it as Sweflinga with one ‘f’, or Christianity left its towering mark.
Perhaps Rendham rivalry goes back even to the Dark Ages, as far as Sweftel’s family? In Suffolk there are many rivers to cross, but for some reason the Alde here allegedly drew battle-lines, and neighbours on foot, or perhaps even on white horses, tried not to cross each-others’ paths.
Today, any rivalry is more light-hearted, limited maybe to football and bowls matches. The Rendham Mummers hold on to ancient traditions, but are content with a well-angled quip or two during play performances at home or on rival territory.
Sweffling’s village sign, too, seems intent enough on keeping the peace. It bears a loving heart firmly conquering a dagger drawn and raging battle-axe. It captures the roll of the hills, the church, a mill and swifts, of course. For all to see, it shouts out the joys of Sweffling – with two ‘f’s.
ABOVE: The view across the River Alde to Grove FarmLEFT: Exploring the hollows perhaps as nature lover and poet George Crabbe did?