Ring any bells?

Countryside walks

Countryside walks - Credit: Archant

Lindsay Want suggests some rather striking Christmas walks through Suffolk’s seasonal town and countryscapes

Countryside walks

Countryside walks - Credit: Archant

Ah, the Christmas constitutional. After going like the clappers for days on end, it has to be the most welcome walk and relaxing breath of fresh air with family and friends ever.

There might be nothing more satisfying than togging up and leaving all the turkey and tinsel behind a while, but why do we tend to abandon our sense of adventure too?

Off we trot, heading for safe ground, a level playing field even, sticking to some tried and tested route or time-honoured favourite. Ring any bells? It’s definitely an easy way out – leaving our slippers by the fire and following comfy paths which we know all too well. Maybe it avoids dropping Christmas clangers or causing a family ding-dong. But Suffolk has a real reputation for offering alternative paths and that has to be something worth celebrating too.

Thanks to easy-to-download country walks and town trails, circuitous routes become quite straightforward with unfamiliar walks turning into really safe bets. And wherever you wander, lofty church towers and spires are sure to offer comforting pointers and maybe even music to your ears. So, go on – why not make this Christmas the one to ring the changes?

Truly ap-pealing moveable feasts

Put those wellies on and wander along the Alde from Snape towards Iken. Follow the Brownsword Way running chilly rings around Framlingham Castle, or mooch towards Dairy Hill on a bank holiday walk from Holton to Halesworth. It’s strange how the tall bell towers of churches great and small seem to lead a merry dance of their own.

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On any Ipswich town trail, the home to the world’s oldest circle of five bells – St Lawrence’s lofty tower – ducks and dives behind the shops, whereas down by the Lark in Bury’s Abbey Gardens, the Cathedral’s silent millennium tower joins the little ones in a game of hide-and-seek, popping out every now and then from behind the mighty trees and abbey ruins.

Take the Christmas crew for a squelch along the wintry Stour-side paths of the Dedham Vale and there are more than a few surprises when you compare the idyllic English meadowscapes with the world captured on John Constables canvasses. The great painter talked of associating his careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour, but perhaps carelessness continued into adulthood too. As winter lays the tree belts bare, it becomes even clearer that the church towers in his moving scenes aren’t always, well, quite where he pictured them.

Ponder the quandary as you leave Flatford, passing Clapper Farm en route, to mull over the mysteries of East Bergholt’s medieval bell cage. No one will blame you for wondering whether the ruined tower he painted there around 1810 was just another touch or two of artistic licence.

Ringing true

But Constable’s East Bergholt Church: The Ruined Tower at the West End is true to life and paints a picture which resonates with the whole sad story of church bells and the Reformation. Cardinal Wolsey’s tower was never finished when he and the use of church bells fell from favour, so remarkably the heaviest ring of five still in use in England remain in their 16th century temporary ground-level shelter in the churchyard.

Roll up and watch them being hand-swung with festive fervour –it’s an amazing spectacle that’s well worth the wander.

Aye, aye, Captain

Any Suffolk Captain of the Bells is sure to chime on about how redundant Suffolk church towers have crumbled away with the elements. Crunch along frosty Bildeston footpaths from King’s Pightle to St Mary’s to see the old tower at your feet, which tumbled down dramatically in living memory. A bracing stroll around Kessingland’s town and countryside shows how St Edmund’s huge tower has always stood tall and firm of purpose, a beacon to fishermen since the 1400s. Its namesake in Southwold was a mighty watchtower too – something to keep a look out for on a walk across the Blyth from Walberswick’s Bell Inn.

A change is a good as a rest

Just a short stroll along the Angles Way from the heathlands of Wortham Ling, St Marys watchtower is the biggest round tower in England and appears rather defensive. Haughley harbours more mysteries. Its castle-side church tower was clearly once a stand-alone affair and a circular stroll by berry-filled hedgerow paths leads along the strangely named New Bells Lane.

But it’s Stonham Aspal whose landmark stand-alone church tower is a real sign of the times. A wooden, shed-like loudspeaker on a flint perch, it was funded in 1742 by a man who recast five bells into 10 through his passion for the newly invented, eccentrically British art of campanology. Follow country footpaths across from Crowfield and you’ll find it celebrated on the village sign, though alas, walkers and bell-ringers alike must head further afield for refreshment these days. Hard times have sadly taken their toll on the Ten Bells Pub.

Ale and hearty

Ronald Blyth’s Akenfield, that literary homage to rural Suffolk ways around Wickham Market between the wars, tells of shared teams of bell-ringers walking the footpaths between parishes. Over time, the tradition has fallen silent, leaving Charsfields bells hung dead.

A nearby Gallows Route through Pettistree seems an appropriate local walk to mourn the passing, with the exterior bell and mighty spire of All Saints Wickham Market offering some comfort along the way. But somehow, between Kersey’s Bell Inn and Hadleigh’s or Cavendish’s Five Bells Pub, and The Bell at Clare, you can almost hear the paths still jingling to the jolly japes of ringing teams.

At Clare church you can see the 32 pint beer jug, or gotch, presented by – wait for it – the Reverend Matthew Bell to his thirsty team of ringers in 1729. Hadleigh’s dates from 1715, displayed in the church alongside a new one, commissioned when ringers recently restored the gotch-passing tradition.

What goes around, comes around

But what is Suffolk’s ultimate seasonal stroll – the one thats got bells on? Crunch along misty clifftop paths by the haunting Greyfriars ruins at Dunwich and the ghosts of lost churches are sure to leave a strange ringing in your ears, before you wend your way via Westleton back to The Bell at Middleton.

It won’t be long perhaps before the ring of five at St Andrews Covehithe shares a similar, watery fate. Best take a walk from South Coves Five Bells Inn and go full circle, before it’s too late. All too often, just like our Christmas walks, history has a way of repeating itself.

Here’s music to your ears

Stowmarket’s Church Walk is not only home to a peal of eight bells, but the great John Peel Centre for the Creative Arts too.

St Peter and St Mary’s is now on its fourth spire, positioned in 1994, after the shockwaves from the guncotton explosion in 1871 and 600 years of bell ringing had taken their toll. w

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