Woolly Money

 


Route GPX File   Woolly Money

Intro

This is a ride through the centres of the medieval wool trade, which was then the flywheel of England’s economy. It starts at Manningtree Station and crosses the undemanding, rolling landscape of South Suffolk, through visibly ancient and once-wealthy market towns and villages, timber framed houses and towering churches. It finishes at Sudbury where a train can take you back to the main line at Marks Tey.

Heading for Lavenham, it mostly follows the valley of the River Brett, a tributary of the Stour, along quiet country roads and although you might think of Suffolk as being very flat, remember you are cycling up a river valley and rivers don't flow uphill. The first two waypoints are shared with my Dedham Vale Route.

Zooming In

  • History porn / Medieval wool towns and ancient villages
  • Ancient and often outsize churches.
  • Flatford Mill / Constable Country
  • Hadleigh, the old capital of the Viking Guthrum and the Saxon Ealdorman Byrhtnoth
  • Sudbury and Thomas Gainsborough
  • A choice selection of spooks and oddities.

Tips

There is a bit less climbing if you do the route in reverse, starting at Sudbury. 

Shortcuts that involve crossing the A12 at surface level are not recommended or safe. The roads around Manningtree Station can be busy. 

Trains between Sudbury and Marks Tey are usually hourly so you might want to check times in advance. If these leave you time, you could continue south to catch the train at Bures. The route from Ballingdon, just outside Sudbury, along minor roads to the west of the River Stour is the most appealing.

Zooming Out

A bit of deep history first. If you also try my Stour Tour ride, much of this description is echoed there.

If you want to know a bit more about the creation of the landscape of the South East region as a whole and its people, take a look at my posts here: www.pootler.co.uk/p/fossicking.html. To summarise it sits on a bed of chalk bed laid down under deep ancient seas. Over aeons, the thermostat and sea levels bobbed up and down and extended periods of glaciation ground down the chalk and played havoc with the coastline and river network. That came to an end around 12,000 years ago by which time much of  the area was covered by the ‘boulder clay’ or ‘till’ left behind as the ice melted or, in a few places and mainly to the east of the A12,  the sand left behind as sea levels fell and rivers shifted course. Think Greenland. 

The Greenland Ice Sheet

This area has been open country for a very long time. The woodland that appeared after the ice age, initially birch but later hazel, oak, and elm, started to be cleared around 6000 years ago. That process continued and only a few hundred years ago the middle of the County was still known as The Woodlands'.  

The area was a' doormat for European immigrants. During the Iron Age, it was inhabited by Brittonic (Belgic and NOT Celtic) tribes, one of whose Kings was later immortalised as Cymbeline by Shakespeare. The Romans invaded not long after the crucifixion of a well-known troublemaker in Jerusalem, subjugated the locals, and set to work building Colchester on a nearby ridge. It probably looked better then.

As I am sure you know, Angles and Saxons arrived as the Romans departed. Their minor kingdoms flickered in and out like dodgy lightbulbs. Slowly the area was subordinated by the Saxon Wessex. Then the Danish Vikings turned up and control periodically switched between them and the Saxons until the Normans invasion in 1066.

Illegal Immigrants in Small Boats

Rearing sheep, mainly for wool, had been important throughout this period (and eventually up until Victorian times) although the fortunes of the farmers fluctuated. The period between 950 and 1250 is known as the Medieval Warm Period. These were good times and the population grew rapidly, but then things came to a shuddering halt.

Farming : Fun

When touring in your time machine, avoid the 1300’s. By then, with a much larger population and exhausted and over-grazed fields, the country was groaning at the seams. So what better time to start a bloody and ruinously expensive ‘Hundred Years’ War’. With (of course!) the French. In the middle of the century, the Black Death arrived to add to the misery. The result was that the population shrank dramatically, maybe by half.

  
           Plague : Not Fun. 

This, oddly, was what turbocharged wool from a nifty side-line for the farmers into a pillar of the economy, with weaving as a major industry and both cloth and the wool itself as major exports. Until then, the open field system of farming restricted the areas available for grazing and the sheep were valued as much as perambulatory fertilisers as for their wool or meat. See my post on landscape history: Link The Lay of the Land.  

After the 1300s, the dramatic fall in the population and the resulting shortage of toiling peasants and increasing availability of land meant that more land and less labour were available. That was especially important on the fields of heavy clay of Mid Suffolk which called for a heavy plough with the turning circle of a 40 ton truck. Sheep didn’t require as much attention and could be accommodated by accelerating the ‘enclosure’ of the previously open fields, often by increasingly rich landowners. There is more on this in the posts referenced above.

Suffolk was in the vanguard of these changes and in much the same way as the nouveau riche today try and secure their future with tickets on a space ark or underground bolt holes in New Zealand, they tried to secure their place in heaven by funding the construction of glorious churches. Those at Hadleigh, Lavenham, Melford, and Sudbury are just some of them, scattered all over the area and most now look out of proportion to the smaller congregations they serve.

Gainsborough : St Mary's Hadleigh

The profitability of the industry declined sharply after the 1400s, following increased competition in their export markets and from new and alternative textiles and fashions. There were also more disruptive wars and quality issues arising from bad husbandry and grazing practices. The once prosperous towns began to struggle and the area became an economic backwater. As a result, many of them appear to have been pickled 500 years ago with scattered farms, narrow lanes running along valley floors, old ‘hollow ways’ up the valley sides and isolated farms.

A Hollow Way

The enclosures continued apace into the 1800s, leaving behind the patches of useful woodland, meadow and pasture which didn't lend themselves to it and slowly morphing into the landscape we see today. 

On Gainsborough. He was born and lived in Sudbury in the 1700s and will appear again in the waypoint note. The English have had a soft spot for landscape paintings but in his time the preference was for portraits or paintings of biblical or classical subjects that told a story or embodied a moral. 

Slowly, a developing interest in the ‘picturesque’ (think of the ‘host of of golden daffodils etc,) changed that notion and Gainsborough was in the forefront of that, painting portraits for income and landscapes for joy. To a greater extent than Constable, the other and later famous painter of Suffolk landscapes, he just painted what he saw. As a result he perhaps gives us a better picture of rural Suffolk in his time. Cornards Wood at Sudbury is pictured below. You can see more of them here. Link : Gainsborough Landscapes

Gainsborough. Cornards Wood

A general point on Churches. They are a feature of the area, mostly dating to the 1400s and not as mucked about by the Victorians as many. I am not religious, quite the opposite, but many do tell a story. You can find plenty of them on the labour of love that is Simon Knott’s website: www.suffolkchurches.co.uk/churchlists.htm

Frankly, I am a sucker for most really old buildings and you will see a lot of them on this tour. As far as houses are concerned, most date back to the 1500s or later, but in this area, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, you will see some that are even older. The problem is telling the difference. This post will give you some tips. Link: Houses & Cottages

A.   Manningtree & The Stour Valley

The tour doesn’t go into Manningtree itself. It was home to Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’ in Cromwell’s time and later Margaret Thatcher who worked here as a young chemist. So the place is troubled by vengeful spirits.

Turning out of the access road to Manningtree Station you turn left and after half a mile cross the River Stour. Pronounce it to rhyme with fur or tower as you wish, it means ‘strong river’ in old English. Or maybe Brythonic! If this is your bag, Wikipedia goes into the etymology in detail!

Stour Estuary @ Manningtree

The bridge controls the water flow. Upstream, on the right bank, is the River Stour Nature Reserve while downstream it is tidal and often mostly sandbanks. The Sweet Chestnut trees in the Nature Reserve are allegedly the descendants of those planted by the Romans and it is one of the rare remaining habitats of doormice. Don't wake them.  

At almost 50 miles long, the river was a transport route and a source of power for flour mills since Roman times. Using locks, many of which have now gone, ‘Stour Lighter’ barges carried the products of the land down to the estuary and onto London.

C : Dedham

This is also on my Dedham Vale route. Another village inextricably linked with Constable, but often besieged by tourists and amateur watercolourists. Rumour has it that Henry V11's Mum paid for the imposing church which is a 1400s rubble and flint rebuild of an earlier version. Constable didn't do much religious painting but 'The Ascension' on the wall is his.

Factoid: Apparently the painting was originally commissioned by a brewer who wanted to gift it on as a bribe to get consent to build more pubs. 

The village was the home of another painter, Alfred Munnings, born in 1878 and a very establishment figure. You can see a collection of his work at the little museum at Castle Hill in Dedham. He liked to paint horses and some of his work sold for huge sums. Not my cup of tea and I wonder how he got the models to keep still.

Alfred Munnings 

D: Stratford St Mary

An old, old place. Evidence of a 6000 year-old henge was found on the high ground in the village.

I was more inspired by the three olde pubbes. The Swan was apparently visited by George 2nd on one of the rare occasions when he deigned to pop over from Hanover, and the Black Horse by Matthew Keys, a highwayman who had trouble paying his bill. The village was on a main route towards the London markets for livestock including cattle, geese and turkeys, and the Anchor played host to some of them.

Lots of olde houses as well, but as usual nearly all of them have been much altered over time. That can be seen at Gateman's, the pink house you pass at the end of Upper Street, which was apparently built in 1334. At July '24 it was on sale for £775k. To you, 700,000 Guineas. 

Gateman's

Factoid : Legend has it that the tale of Tarka the Otter was inspired by Henry Williamson’s seeing one of them in the river here.

E. Layham

Village halls are not normally the most eerie and ancient place for a self-respecting spook and in Layham's case, the spooks would have been troubled Ghostbusters on hand as well. The story is better seen than told, so here is a link to a very short Youtube video. Link: Ghosthunting

F. Hadleigh

Hadleigh is now a quiet wool town with a grand church, many old houses and a medieval Guildhall and bridge. But in the 870s the place was once the vibrant hub (!) of a Suffolk controlled, like much of England, by Vikings and their leader Guthrum. Their huge army had penned King Alfred back into his Wessex homeland where, after allegedly failing in his audition for Bake-Off, he devised a spectacular comeback. A lot of smiting and swatting culminated in a home win, rather against the run of play. Guthrum was forced to make peace on Alfred’s terms which involved converting to Christianity and sticking to his domain around Suffolk. Amazingly the Treaty that records all of this has survived. Later annals record his burial here in Hadleigh, presumably at a forerunner to St Mary’s church. I was lucky enough to get a photo of him first, although the older among you might think he looks suspiciously like Michael York under that helmet. 

Guthrum The Dane 

For a century the area remained under English control as the domain of Earl Byrhtnoth which was centred on Hadleigh. But then the Danish Vikings returned. Byrhtnoth met them with force at Maldon where, following a spectacular tactical miscalculation, he lost both his life and Earldom. In doing so he joins the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Dutch raid on the Medway in the pantheon of great British military cock-ups. 


Brythnoth @ Maldon 

Byrhtnoth’s statue now stands there, gazing defiantly across a waterfront devoid of Vikings. His story was recorded in one of the oldest poems in English, The Battle of Maldon. It is a good yarn and well-told, but in old English it is almost unintelligible. This is the start,

Hēt þā hyssa hwæne / hors forlǣtan / feor āfȳsan / and forð gangan, hicgan tō handum  /  and tō hiġe gōdum.

Get my point? Had enough already? Here is a decent translation: Link. 

Battle of Maldon

And if you want to know more about what happened, Brittanica has a concise summary here: The Battle

In the 1200s Hadleigh became a market town and by the late 1300s it was an industrial centre with weavers, fullers, dyers and whatnot, only topped by Bury and Ipswich. It's wealth paid for many of those impressive buildings and the massive bridge on the Layham Road. The good times stopped rolling in the 1500's for the reasons referred to in 'Zooming Out' earlier. 

G. Kersey

This is the most quaint and atmospheric village I have seen in Suffolk, not least because it straddles a small valley with a forded stream called the ‘Kersey Splash’.

In medieval times it gave its name to a popular and widely exported lightweight woollen cloth. You can still find it. If you are interested (and I suspect that you are not), Wikipedia covers it here. Link:  Kersey Cloth 

Many of the old houses you see were built by the prosperous weavers. The church on the hill above the town was a destination for pilgrimages once, which made it a target for ransacking in the Cromwell's time.

Kersey 

 As you can imagine, this is another popular place for filming. But BritBox doesn't count, so if I was them and as much as I like Timothy Spall, I wouldn't trumpet the 'Magpie Murders' connection.   

I & K Chelsworth & Monks Eleigh

These are marked on the route simply because they are pleasant villages albeit sadly bisected by well-used roads. Chelsworth probably goes back to Roman times when it would have been the highest navigable point on the River Brett. It was Ceorleswyrthe in 962 when King Edgar gave the village as a prezzie to his stepmother, Aethelflad of Domerham. I only mention this because, unusually, the record of it exists in the British Museum. If you like the place and are a real history nut, the village has an impressive account of it all here. Link: Chelsworth

Monks Eleigh is similarly chocolate box pretty and also has its own but rather less engaging website. So I haven't bothered with it. 

L. Clay Lane

If you have a bike that can handle rougher ground, the track off to the left here takes you more directly into Lavenham. When I tried it, heavy rainfall had made it impassable, so the gpx route sticks to roads.

M: Lavenham

This was once one of the richest towns in England, prospering from the wool trade and its ‘Lavenham Blue’ broadcloth much of which was exported. The colour came from the woad plant and is a pigment rather than a dye, so the cloth would have faded like jeans. A stream ran down Water Street where the cloth was given a final wash. The whole story is told in an exhibition on Lavenham’s history in ‘Little Hall’ on Market Place 


Little Hall 

You can tell that Lavenham used to be Suffolk's answer to Lubeck from the wonderful old buildings. Keep in mind that it was the more expensive and better built medieval houses that had the best chance of survival, even if they are now often wobbly. The header photo in this post is an example. Yet more of the profits materialised in the ‘Perpendicular Gothic’ and the huge campanile (or Bell Tower) of the church of St Peter and Paul, which is now a spectacular church for a town this size.

As in Hadleigh, in  the 1500s the wool industry declined and the town which had been very much richer than nearby Melford, was rather poorer. This was in part dues to a famous clothes maker called Thomas Spring whose grave can be found in the Church and his story here: Link. The Rich Clothier

As the woolly money evaporated,  Lavenham became one of the best examples of a pickled Medieval wool town. It seems that sometimes something lovely remains, many years after a flood of money has done its flowing and ebbing and capitalism has boosted and then deserted a place. I wonder if we will ever feel that way about the coalfield towns.  

The place is understandably popular with film makers. It appears in Barry Lyndon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and more recently the Netflix horror The Strays. Lavenham Guildhall was used as the location of Godric’s Hollow, the home of James and Lily Potter in the Harry Potter film series.

Factoid: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was written by Jane Taylor who lived in Lavenham from the late 18th c.

N. Long Melford

You will discover how Long Melford earned its name if you stroll down the High Street. At three miles long, it is claimed to be England’s longest. It is another of the great cloth towns and an attractive place. It's website describes it as a quintessential English village and I guess that is correct if you factor in the traffic. 

Melford Hall is unusual hereabouts is the fortune of the family that still live there owe less to sheep and more to plunder from a Spanish galleon captured in 1762. 

They say that years later the house was visited by Beatrix Potter, which is perhaps a bit like those hotels that claim that (insert name of Tudor monarch) slept here. But I am told that they do have some of her sketches on display. There is little intrinsically interesting to see now. 

A diversion to the north of the village takes you to the rather more striking Kentwell Hall, a magnificent Tudor moated manor built with all that easy money to be made from sheep or, in this case, the land they grazed on. Appropriately they now rear the rare Norfolk Horn variety. The medieval soap opera is recorded here: Link: Kentwell

Kentwell Hall 

Worryingly, while there you can try 'appropriate 16th c. activities'. 

Of course Melford has a handsome church, very old and then rebuilt with wool money in the 1400's. Stained glass was a major art form at the time, and this has some of the best  in England, albeit an accolade more easily won after the Parliamentarians smashed up a lot elsewhere in the Civil War.

O. Hall Road

You have a choice here. If you want to get a sniff of the supernatural, or if you want to continue by road rather than continuing into Sudbury along a converted railway track, turn right. The road route will be obvious from the map.

P. Borley Rectory

Nothing to see here really because they knocked the Rectory down because it was infamous as the most haunted house in England. Apparently, the Rectory was built on the site of an old monastery where a monk and nun fell in love, eloped, were caught and hanged and imprisoned respectively. They decided to hang about and, after the demolition of the Rectory, moved into the Church. 

You could of course opt to spend the night there. Failing which you can find the full story and a link to a Youtube video about it here. Link: The Borley Haunting

S : Sudbury

The route (and a lot of road traffic) goes through Sudbury which’ like Lavenham, has a reputation as crack for lovers of old buildings. (Lavenham wins the Listed Buildings competition by c. 300 to 242). But unlike Lavenham, this wool town appears to have moved on and, betraying its heritage, has become the centre of the UK silk industry with several mills. Not quite Silicon Valley but maybe, after the electricity is turned off.

I found it a bit of a disappointment in comparison. Once again, you get a grand 1300’s church for your money, except this one is now an ‘enriching’ cultural centre. You can make your own mind up on that score; as I write it is offering a Taster Day with the Bonkers Belchamp Morris men. Gainsborough's house is now a (good) gallery and museum which alongside showing his artwork gives you a good idea of what a much-altered medieval house looks like from the inside. I scoured it looking for traces of the earliest building. 

And if you are really a fan of Ruritanian stuff, it used to be thought hereabouts that you could protect yourself from witches and whatnot by interring a mummified cat in your building. The Mill Hotel has one in reception. Apparently, it was once moved to a nearby shop and retaliated by haunting it. Now, in its rightful place, it is quiet.

T : Sudbury Station

Trains usually run hourly to Marks Tey so you might want to check times in advance.




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