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