The thing about circular walks is they give you a choice of starting points. This one takes in the countryside east of Lavenham, including the villages of Brent Eleigh and Monks Eleigh. I could start in Lavenham, but with all its wonderful distractions on an early spring Saturday I'd probably never be able to tear myself away from its myriad medieval charms.

So, instead I'm starting in Monks Eleigh, a delight in itself, walking a centuries old route that many a sheep farmer must have taken to trade his valuable wool, when Lavenham was at the centre of the nation's booming wool and cloth industry.

Is it fanciful to imagine that the fields that cloak the beautiful Brett valley were once teeming with sheep? Medieval farming methods were different today's. There were large landowners with sizeable flocks, but much of the land was owned in small parcels. Nevertheless, it seems that practically everyone who had a green patch outside their door put a sheep on it, including abbeys and monasteries, which drew useful income from wool.

In 1290, the population of England was an estimated 4.75 million people; sheep numbered 5 million, producing around 30,000 woolsacks a year. A century later, Henry V was able to collect almost 63 per cent of the Crown’s total income from a tax on wool; it was the lifeblood of the nation's wealth. Edward III was even prepared to go to war with France, partly to help protect the wool trade with Flanders, after the burghers from the rich Flemish cloth-towns appealed to him for help against their French overlord.

The Hundred Years War would actually grind through 116 years, from 1337 to 1453. Flemish weavers fleeing the horrors of war and French rule were encouraged to set up home in England; many settled in Suffolk and Norfolk.

Lavenham is widely acknowledged as the best example of a medieval wool town in England. In Tudor times, it was said to be the fourteenth wealthiest town in England, despite its small size, and the fine timber-framed buildings and beautiful church we see today were built from the proceeds of the wool trade.

Lavenham wasn't the only success story, of course; 26 cathedrals as well as thousands of stone churches were constructed throughout the country with the earnings from wool and cloth. In south Suffolk, 15th century wealth almost completely rebuilt many churches, such as at Clare, Hadleigh, Long Melford, Sudbury and Lavenham – Suffolk's five 'wool towns'.

But others further afield in Southwold and Ipswich also benefited from the wool trade that passed through their ports, and many village churches, such as at Stoke by Nayland and Polstead, saw considerable improvements carried out in the 14th and 15th centuries.

And when you went to pray at your splendidly restored parish church, no doubt for the continued good health of your sheep, you'd be wearing a hat... by law. So vital was wool to our economic wellbeing that in 1571 the Cappers Act decreed that every English resident over the age of six and below the rank of 'gentleman' should wear a woollen cap on Sundays and holidays, as part of a government plan to support the wool industry.

Lots to ponder as you wend your way through this lovely part of the Brett valley, with village church towers on every horizon acting as directional guides – such a feature of Suffolk countryside walks.

Great British Life: The ancient wall paintings at Brent Eleigh church. The ancient wall paintings at Brent Eleigh church. (Image: Archives)

St Peter's church is at the heart of Monks Eleigh and well worth a visit, as is Brent Eleigh's, where some fine 14th century wall paintings were uncovered in 1961, including a crucifixion scene above the altar.

There was never a monastery at Monks Eleigh; the village's name comes from the fact that for centuries it has been a 'peculiar' of Canterbury, a parish controlled outside its normal territorial jurisdiction.

In 991, a Saxon noble, Brithnoth, Earl of Essex, died fighting the Danes at the Battle of Maldon. His lands included the Manor of Illeigh, or 'Illa's meadows', Illa thought to be the name of a local landowner. Aelfflaed, Brithnoth's widow, bequeathed the manor (among other) to Christchurch Canterbury – the monks of Canterbury– and there they remained.

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1541, Monks Eleigh was among the properties that Henry VIII ordered to be transferred to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral, who remained Lords of the Manor until 1863, when they were transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. English history is complex and endlessly fascinating.

This walk returns via neighbouring Brent Eleigh, which probably takes its name from Ila's meadow, which was burnt ('brent') before 1254. Both villages are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, when their combined population was 61.

Brent Eleigh Manor was originally owned by the Illeigh/Ely family, then taken over by the Shelton family in the 13th century till the 16th/17th century. Samuel Colman bought the manor from Robert Jermyn of Rushbrook in 1607 and the family had a long association with the village. Samuel's grandson, Edward Colman, was born in Brent Eleigh in I636. He grew up to become a Catholic courtier under Charles II but came to a tragic end.

Implicated by Titus Oates in his false accusations concerning a Popish Plot to assassinate Charles II – accusations that led to the executions of at least 22 men – Edward was hanged, drawn and quartered on a treason charge. He is a Catholic martyr, beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929. So much for sleepy Suffolk.

Great British Life: Colourful cottages nestle around the green at Monks Eleigh.Colourful cottages nestle around the green at Monks Eleigh. (Image: Christian Barrett)

The walk

Start: park in Monks Eleigh (I found a spot close to the church). Walk up the quiet lane past the church and head north west out of the village. The countryside opens out before you with lovely views over the Brett valley. At Tye Farm, the lane bends sharpish left and follows a Roman road. This bypasses the village due to the existence of a druid’s mound, which the Romans generally avoided.

Along this stretch, is a Roadside Nature Reserve, one of hundreds in the county which are maintained for the benefit of wildlife. Later in spring it will be covered in primroses. Here a beautiful red kite rose up from a field and circled lazily overhead, russet body and forked tail clearly visible. It then led the way for about half a mile, stopping here and there to perch, before eventually joining a mate in a tree. It's moments like this that make some walks memorable.

1. Reaching a junction, just past Langley Wood, turn right.

2. After about a quarter of a mile, turn left onto a bridleway and footpath. This is Clay Lane and it leads all the way, for about 1.5 miles (2.4km), to Lavenham. It's a well used track and, after a wet winter, pretty muddy. But it's a pleasant walk along this sheltered track, through arching hedges and old trees.

3. Past Clay Hill Farm, the track descends and crosses a bridge to meet the road into Lavenham from Brent Eleigh. Turn left, then right up Water Street. You're now among the fine timber houses of Lavenham, in the streets where centuries ago, lived wealthy wool and cloth merchants, as well as weavers and dyers in cottages close to their places of work.Water Street takes its name from a stream which flows the entire length of the street, now hidden beneath the footpath. The de Vere House, owned by the family which owned the Lavenham estate until 1604, is also here.

Lavenham's streets all have a story to tell. Today we're not lingering in in the village, but a weekend here is well spent, with a guided tour included and a visit to the the Guildhall, Market Place, Crooked House, Swan Hotel, St Peter and St Paul's church, Little Hall and plenty more.

Great British Life: The Swan Hotel in Lavenham. The Swan Hotel in Lavenham. (Image: Phil Morley)Great British Life: St Peter and St Paul's church, Lavenham. St Peter and St Paul's church, Lavenham. (Image: John Fielding)

4. At the junction with the high street, turn left and head up Church Street. After about 20 yards, turn left in the direction of Meadow Close. Follow the lane, making a sharp right at Mill Cottage, then left, continuing on to Weaner's Farm and Bear's Lane Farm. Turn left at a public footpath sign and follow an enclosed grassy path along the edge of a field on your left. Turn right where it reaches the next field. Where the path curves left, go through a hedge gap and continue on the right of a stream. Cross an earth bridge and follow the path through a lovely mixed plantation of ash, oak, beech and maple.

5. Reaching a concrete path, with Hill Farm to the left, turn right and head up to the junction with Cock Lane.

6. Turn left and follow the lane which leads to Brent Eleigh.

7. Cross the main A1141 Brent Eleigh to Lavenham road and walk through the village, heading up Hall Road, passing Brent Eleigh Hall, the church and the magnificent old rectory.

8. Reaching the junction with the Roman road, turn right and retrace your steps back to Monks Eleigh.

Compass points

Distance: 8.5 miles/13.6 km

Time: 3.5 hours + depending on whether you explore Lavenham

Start/finish: Monks Eleigh (A1141)

Access: Footpaths (muddy in wet weather), quiet lanes, village streets in Lavenham

Map: OSExplorer 196 Sudbury, Hadleigh and Dedham Vale

Ts & Ps: Numerous cafes, restaurants and pubs, and public toilets in Lavenham. Monks Eleigh – community shop and Swan pub; Bridge Farm Barns with Corn Craft cafe, galleries, antiques. Brent Eleigh – The Cock pub on Lavenham road; community shop and Post Office; Cafe Como in the Street; Hedgerows Farm Shop & Nursery.