Christ­mas Carol Coun­try

Lind­say Want makes a Dick­en­sian dis­cov­ery in the beau­ti­ful Stour Val­ley, on a walk from Stoke by Clare

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE -

Lind­say Want walks a Dick­en­sian trail at Stoke by Clare

Christ­mas has a way of bring­ing out the walker in us all. Sur­rounded by friends, fam­ily and enor­mous help­ings of fes­tive fare, in many house­holds the Christ­mas con­sti­tu­tional has be­come quite a tra­di­tion. Why not en­ter into the real spirit of things? Share a stroll be­tween Stoke by Clare and the wool town of Clare via sea­sonal sound­ing Claret Hall. Each is a for­mer home of John El­wes and his an­ces­tors, the renowned Geor­gian miser MP and re­puted role model for Dick­ens’ Scrooge char­ac­ter from A Christ­mas Carol.

Gaze up at St John the Bap­tist’s church in Stoke by Clare and you can’t help won­der­ing whether the fam­ily of old mi­sers might have had a say in its un­usual, one-handed clock. Bald, gaunt, hunched over a stick and dressed in the dour suit in which he both lived and slept, El­wes is de­picted on the vil­lage sign. His is a twopronged tale of stingi­ness, in­her­ited from his mas­sively mean ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Lady Is­abella Her­vey, of Ick­worth fam­ily fame, and of ut­ter ob­se­quious­ness. In fact it’s hard to know which he wor­shipped more – his un­cle, the miser-of-all-mi­sers Sir Her­vey El­wes (MP for Sud­bury, 2nd Baronet of Stoke by Clare), or his un­cle’s stack of cash. Heav­ily in­flu­enced by both, he rapidly switched his name from Meg­got to El­wes, adopted a life of ex­treme paucity and set him­self up to in­herit his un­cle’s highly prized mil­lions. Suc­cess­ful in his mis­sion, he con­tin­ued his ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour through­out his life, even when elected MP for Berk­shire, and died with over £1 bil­lion to his name in 1789. How does that Suf­folk say­ing go? “Hent never seen a shroud with a pocket on it.”

But be­fore you head off past the lines of foxes and box­ing hares which bal­ance on the thatched top-knots of some of Stoke by Clare’s weavers’ cot­tages, be sure to drink in the church’s wine glass pul­pit, spot the rare ‘doom’ wall-paint­ing lurk­ing omi­nously be­hind the or­gan, and home in on the Tu­dor pi­geon roost by the en­trance to the for­mer chantry col­lege. That the dove­cote sur­vived is a mir­a­cle in it­self, es­pe­cially since dur­ing John’s own­er­ship of Stoke Col­lege, he re­fused to spend a penny on main­te­nance, let­ting all his prop­er­ties fall into ruin.

On the vil­lage green, there are more sev­ered links to pon­der as you make tracks with the ghosts of times past down the old Cam­bridge to Colch­ester rail­way line and un­der the aban­doned Vic­to­rian bridge to reach open fields and high hedgerows. Per­haps it was here, in one of these very hedges, that old ‘Scrooge’ El­wes dis­cov­ered the dis­carded tatty wig which he re­put­edly found snagged on a branch and wore for weeks on end. To avoid pay­ing for a coach he would, of course, have walked every­where and no doubt, reg­u­larly killed two birds with one stone (ap­par­ently, he did eat a moorhen once) by check­ing ev­ery inch of his land while en route to Clare Pri­ory, an­other of his prop­er­ties orig­i­nally se­cured a cen­tury or so af­ter the Re­for­ma­tion by old an­ces­tor Ger­vase.

Be­yond Hol­low Road, John El­wes would surely have rev­elled in the wild­flower meadow dot­ted with Shep­herds’ Purse and longed for Money­wort to take root around its damp edges. Down Bradley Hill, on the ap­proach to Claret Hall – the El­wes ‘halfway’ house – you can al­most pic­ture the miser pot­ter­ing along, his pock­ets stuffed with fil­berts. How did Dick­ens de­scribe those nuts as sea­sonal fare in

A Christ­mas Carol? “Mossy and brown, re­call­ing, in their fra­grance, an­cient walks among the woods, and pleas­ant shuf­flings an­kle deep through with­ered leaves.” Per­haps the great author walked this way too.

Time for “a Christ­mas bowl of Smok­ing Bishop”. At the drive­way to Claret Hall, there’s a chance to fol­low the Stour Val­ley Path as it leads down Bradley Hill, weav­ing its way to Ashen Bridge and along the wa­ter­side, first to El­wes’ Clare Pri­ory with its peace­ful gar­dens, then to Clare Cas­tle coun­try park and Clare’s me­dieval mar­ket town magic. But that would be miss­ing a Christ­mas Carol Coun­try treat. Just like Dick­ens’ 1843 sledge­ham­mer of a hol­i­day read which sold 6,000 copies in just five days, it’s per­haps the last bit which de­liv­ers the most joy. It seems ironic that Claret Hall, perched high on a stun­ning stretch of the Stour Val­ley, was once home to all that El­wes fam­ily doom and gloom, but to dis­cover that it went on to be the 1980s HQ of a cult pro­gres­sive rock band pre­oc­cu­pied with nu­clear apoca­lypse seems some­how amus­ing. Singer Kim Wilde ap­par­ently even cut some of her early records in its stu­dio.

But out­side on the ridge walk back to Stoke by Clare, it’s the wild geese, kestrels and buz­zards soar­ing the vast Suf­folk skies which are the big­gest hit, matched only by the beauty of the Stour Val­ley it­self. Clare’s his­toric ru­ins stick their flag above the para­pet, lines of poplars pierce the blue heav­ens. You feel king of the Christ­mas cas­tle, or as Scrooge put it: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an an­gel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christ­mas to ev­ery-body! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

Foxes on top of the thatch at Stoke by Clare

Re­turn­ing to Stoke by Clare

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