This stunning six-mile circular walk crosses three pretty Suffolk villages
- Credit: Jayne Lindill
One of the brilliant things about walking in the Brett Valley is the villages are conveniently close together. This walk takes in three - Bildeston, Monks Eleigh and Chelsworth - but you could easily extend it in all directions and hike your way to Kettlebaston, Lavenham or Kersey.
On a day in the high summer we thought would never arrive, with the mercury touching 23C and hardly a breath of a breeze, a gentle two and a half hour stroll starting in Bildeston, across the fields to Monks Eleigh and back via Chelsworth is just right.
1 Parking is free in Bildeston's lovely market square, beneath the magnificent Victorian clock tower and the village's war memorial. I always like to read the Suffolk names which seem so familiar. The square is bounded by elegant red brick houses and charming cottages with colourful front gardens. Bildeston grew wealthy from the medieval wool trade, evidenced in its fine timber framed buildings, particularly in Chapel Street and Duke Street which once housed dyers, weavers, shearmen, spinners and clothiers during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Bildeston has nearly 80 listed buildings. I admire some of them as I wander down Chapel Street and follow it all the way to the edge of the village to Church Lane. As you toil up this hill (fairly steep for Suffolk) you might wonder what possessed the good people of Bildeston to build their church on a hill just over half a mile out of the village. The answer is, they didn't.
Bildeston didn't always nestle in a valley. According to the 11th century Domesday Book, the village was once on top of the hill with the church, where the villagers lived and farmed the surrounding lands. But by the end of the 15th century, the village had been deserted and all that remained was the church and the manor house estate.
Until 1974, earthworks of the deserted medieval village could be clearly seen south-west of the church. A homestead moat encircling a manor house, a fish pond, streets and traces of house platforms lay undisturbed for centuries until ploughing in 1974 obliterated it all. But field walkers picked up bits of pottery and other fragments, and around 80 per cent of finds were medieval, mostly 13th century.
Why the villagers moved downhill is a bit of a mystery. One theory is that the old village was smitten by the plague that wiped out over half of England’s 14th century population. More likely, according the village's website, it's the result of manorial lord Matthew de Loveyne acquiring a market charter in 1264.
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Stuck on a hill, the village was unlikely to attract passing trade and develop commercially, so a marketing area was laid out on the nearby highway connecting Stowmarket and Hadleigh. Gradually, a new village grew up around it. The people of Bildeston continued maintain their place of worship, however, and eventually, only the manor house and church were left on the hill-top.
One very noticeable thing about St Mary Magdalene church is its strangely un-Suffolk tower, a wooden box and spire atop the usual flint and stone construction. It seems that on the morning of May 8 1975 the church tower, undergoing maintenance, collapsed. Fortunately, the medieval bells had been removed. The replacement is the functional tower you see today. Pop inside Grade 1 listed St Mary’s and you can see a superb window by the studio of Charles Eamer Kempe, a famous Victorian designer and manufacturer of stained glass.
2 The footpath meanders through converted barns, past the site of the old moat and manor house, and out along a field edge, 3. Walking the county's paths I often ponder how these ancient byways were once the way we all journeyed on foot from place to place. No wonder the villages are close together - who needs to walk further than a couple of miles to return a borrowed shovel or visit a sick relation?
The land is flinty under foot and despite the splendid views all around I can't help but study the ground. On one walk I chanced upon what turned out to be a stone age hammer, and I've been fascinated ever since. Imagine finding an arrowhead...
Buzzards soar and mew overhead, rising on the thermals. A quarter of a mile along the way, I meet a man in black. "A brave day to be in shorts," he quips, remarking my attire. "Watch out for the horseflies." Indeed. I've known horseflies that could easily probe the most impenetrable garments.
4 I reach a T-junction in the footpath and turn right for about another mile to the bottom of the Brett Valley, though fields and woodland to the intriguingly named Wagger Farm. Here the path joins the road to the farm and the River Brett is a splash (ford).
5 I cross over using the sturdy bridge and head up to a staggered crossroads. Turning left and immediately right, I climb up out of the valley. A stroll along this lovely, quiet, country lane proves to be one of the highlights of the walk. For the entire length I'm accompanied by butterflies of all varieties, drifting in and put of the hedgerows. It's more than I've seen all summer so far, and in the field over to the left a huge cloud of large whites dances above the crop. Monks Eleigh church tower comes into view.
6 Reaching a T-junction I head left, down the hill towards the village.
7 I pick up the footpath on the left which bends around the rear of a large house and emerges into the churchyard of St Peter's.
Monks Eleigh was another of the great wool producing villages in the Brett Valley, hence it has a splendid church, mostly dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. It's cool interior and shady trees make a pleasant place to pause for a drink and some respite from the sun.
8 I emerge from the churchyard onto the road through the village (B115). Monks Eleigh is a very pretty village, with colour washed cottages fronted by beautiful cottage gardens. If you want to stop for a while, turn right and you'll find the pub (The Swan), also the delightful village green.
I continue the walk by turning left, however, along the path for about a quarter of a mile to the crossroads where the roads converge at the former Cobbolds Mill. Turning right takes you over the rather splendid bridge that crosses Lavenham Brook.
9 I'm heading straight on, however, towards Chelsworth, picking up the footpath at the entrance to the field that runs alongside the road. I follow it for about half a mile to the edge of Chelsworth where the road crosses over the brook again.
I peer into the water below and I'm treated to a display of electric blue, black-winged damselflies, fluttering over the water and pausing to rest on the reeds. It's quietly thrilling. I stroll through my third village, beautiful Chelsworth, famous for its gardens (open day September 5), its thatched cottages and grand old houses, and its pub, The Peacock, recently refurbished and re-opened. The garden is full of people relaxing on a sunny summer's day.
10 At the other end of the village I find the public footpath on the left, opposite the junction with Parsonage Lane. It leads uphill, straight through a corn field for about three-quarters of a mile and along a filed edge until it meets up with Bildeston Church. I pause to take in the view before I stroll back down Church Lane... to Bildeston's 'new' village.
Need to know
Distance: Approx 5 miles/8km
Time: 2.5 hours
Getting there: A14/A1071/A1141/B115 Satnav IP7 7EB
Parking: Market Square IP7 7EB
Access: footpaths, field edges, lanes and roads, small bridge across a ford
Ts & Ps: Chelsworth Peacock, Monks Eleigh Swan, Bildeston Crown
Big Map: OS Explorer 196 Sudbury, Hadleigh and Dedham Vale