On a trip to check our walking notes for our ‘Secret Suffolk’ walking holiday, I found this tranquil, often overlooked, rural area, marking the boundary between the ‘North folk’ and the South folk’ of East Anglia, to be a real revelation. On each day’s walk I came across one intriguing building after another, each unique in its own way and each with a story to tell. In the first of two articles, here are the first ‘six of the best’ from my favourite dozen...
The Church Tower
My walk began in the market town of Bungay where I was instantly drawn to the church’s bell tower. You see, it’s rather unusual in that it’s not attached to the church, but located further ‘inland’ from the river towards the High Street.
St Michael’s church was built (without a tower) on the high escarpment overlooking the River Waveney. But when it came to adding a tower, in about 1500, the church was deemed too close to the river to place the tower at the traditional western end – in case its immense weight caused it to topple into the river. So it was built as a free-standing structure to the east of the nave nearer the town.
I paid the small fee to climb the 122 steps to the top of the 97ft tower – and it was worth it. The views over the town and along the valley were wonderful, and had it been a tad clearer, I would have seen the sea.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Beccles was home to Catherine Suckling (great niece of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain) and it was here, at St Michael’s, that she married the Rev Edmund Nelson in 1749. The couple later moved to a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, and went on to have eleven children, the sixth of whom became England’s greatest naval hero – Lord Horatio Nelson.
The Locks Inn
This atmospheric riverside inn is a good place to stop for refreshments, though unfortunately I’d set off too early in the morning and it wasn’t yet open when I got there. It has had a chequered past, beginning life as a mill-keeper’s cottage, thought to have been built in the 1560s and then ‘modernised’ in 1666, when it was converted to a public ale-house.
Its out-of-the-way location saw it become very popular with certain colourful elements during the seventeenth century when it was renowned as ‘a lively and bawdy place’. It became the scene for cross-county border smuggling and illegal prize-fighting, among other things.
The pub was a convenient calling in point for the crews of the traditional sailing barges, or wherries, that plied their trade up and down the river. Wherries are sailing and oar craft which date from about 1600, carrying passengers and cargo along the rivers and Broads of Norfolk and Suffolk. A few restored examples can still be seen.
Nowadays, the Locks Inn is a quirky ‘free house’ pub, as lively as ever, and serving a wide range of good local ales. They serve spirits, too – and, so the stories go, quite a few can still be seen at the bar after dark...
I arrived in Bungay at the round-headed tower of Holy Trinity church, but across the road, I was more intrigued by the ruins at the back of St Mary's church. St Mary’s was built as the church to a Benedictine priory in the late-twelfth century on the site of an earlier Saxon church. The main part of the present church dates from the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, having survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries, only to be struck by lightning in 1577 and then consumed by a great fire in 1688.
It was repaired and has been refurbished over the centuries – it’s worth going inside just to see the stained glass windows – but, sadly, today it is one of many ‘redundant’ English churches. As I wandered round the atmospheric ruins of the priory in the churchyard behind the church, I recalled the legend of the ‘Black Dog of Bungay’.
Apparently, during the momentous thunder storm of 1577, a black dog, or ‘the Devil incarnate’, ran into the church and attacked the congregation, before disappearing. The Churchwardens’ account book mentions that two men in the belfry were killed, more likely the result of having been struck by lightning, though I like the black dog story better.
Second World War pillbox
Mendham is a lovely riverside village with a cosy pub, so it seemed appropriate to pop inside for a well-earned glass of Suffolk cider. The pub’s name commemorates one of Mendham’s most famous sons. Artist Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) was born at nearby Mendham Mill, his father being the miller. He became one of England's finest painters of horses, including horses involved in the Great War, which made him very wealthy.
Across the road is All Saints Church, which holds a surprise in its graveyard – a Second World War pillbox – certainly not what I was expecting to see. They were built at strategic sites all across the country in 1940 and 1941 during the Second World War as a defence against a possible enemy invasion. Luckily, as far as I’m aware, Mendham was never invaded.
The church itself dates mainly from the fourteenth century, before ‘suffering’ at the hands of Victorian restorers. Inside, there are some interesting angels that support the nave roof, carved in the 1860s by Robert Godbold of Harleston, while, in the chancel, I saw the carved portrait of Lord Waveney of nearby Flixton Hall, the man who funded the restoration in the 1870s.
I know what you’re thinking – that’s just a pile of rubble. And so it is, but not just any old rubble. This is all that remains of a Cluniac Priory that once stood on a small island rising above the water meadows beside the River Waveney near Mendham.
And I have to confess, that this unprepossessing ruin is one of my favourite ‘finds’, close to the public footpath that runs across the marshes from Withersdale Street to Mendham. As I walked round it, pondering on what life must have been like in its heyday, I spotted the only piece of evidence that this was once a religious site – a large piece of inscribed masonry just lying on the ground.
The priory was founded here in the mid-twelfth century by William de Huntingfield, the grandson of one of William I’s conquering knights from Caen in Normandy. The ruins of the priory actually survived intact into the twentieth-century when they are said to have finally fallen as the result of a wartime bomb blast in the winter of 1943-4. However, various decorative items had already been taken to adorn the grounds of the early nineteenth-century mansion on the south side of Withersdale Street which was given the name ‘Mendham Priory’.
While walking from Diss to Harleston, I passed the rather smart-looking Hall Farm, not far from the village of Billingford. Just past the farmhouse, I noticed this wonderful single-storey thatched building standing in the middle of a field. Its purpose wasn’t initially clear but I guessed (correctly as it turned out) that this was probably a dovecote.
Dovecotes were a very common site in the seventeenth century, with over 26,000 in England alone, mainly located in the grounds of monasteries and manor houses – in other words, for the rich. Pigeons were a great source of food and, as they foraged for their own food, profitable, too. The eggs were collected on a regular basis and the young taken for their tender meat. Although most of those dovecotes have long since disappeared, the remaining few are now protected by law and must be maintained, their historical value now being recognised and cherished.
I later noticed on my OS map that the wood behind is called ‘Dovehouse Wood’.
Read Part II
for the final six of my favourite architectural gems in Suffolk...