Small but beautiful: deserves a visit

WHEN PEOPLE CONSIDER picturesque places in the eastern English county of Suffolk, the following places usually spring to mind: Bury St Edmunds, Clare, Southwold, Lavenham, Long Melford, and Sudbury. All these places deserve their reputation as sites worth visiting. Kersey is another place, which is exceptionally attractive. I had never heard about it until someone in a museum (in Essex) told me about it recently. It is far less visited than those mentioned above.

Kersey, Suffolk, England

Kersey is about 9 miles west of Ipswich. The village lies on the steep slopes of the valley of a small stream, a tributary of the River Brett (which feeds the River Stour). The main road running through Kersey crosses the stream not over a bridge but by a ford (known as ‘The Splash’). The village’s name, Kersey, means a ‘wet area with cress’. It is likely that this refers to the part of the place around The Splash. The heyday of the village was long ago: it was during the 14th century when Kersey was important in the then flourishing woollen cloth production industry. The church overlooking the village, St Mary’s, dates from that prosperous era. Likewise, with many of the lovely half-timbered houses. Although their construction began in the 14th and 15th centuries, they have undergone modifications over the centuries. However, they have a picturesqueness that easily rivals that which has made the better-known places (listed above) so famous.

Apart from the church and the half-timbered Bell Inn (about 14th century), one building stands out in Kersey. This is a large building with an impressive 16th century two storeyed red brick entrance structure projecting from the rest of the edifice, which was constructed in the 15th century. Above the main entrance, there is an inscribed stone plaque set into the brickwork. It bears the following: “Ye Olde River House 1490”.

After the Black Death (1346-1353) and later the decline of the wool industry in that part of Suffolk (in about the 17th century), not much happened in Kersey between then and the present, so I was told by a local inhabitant. Nothing much replaced the textile trade, and this led to the village remaining much as it was during its best days. This is lucky for those, like me, who enjoy the charm of England’s older and eye-catching vernacular architecture. Neither I nor the inhabitant with whom I spoke could understand why Kersey, unlike places such as I mentioned at the start of this piece, is not as frequently visited by tourists. Although smaller than all the other places, it easily matches their beauty.

Look, no hands

WE VISITED TWO churches in Suffolk, and inside them we spotted three things that particularly interested us. The first church is in Cavendish, The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin. Standing on a hill above the village, its construction dates from 1300 and was largely completed by 1485. Some restoration work was carried out in the 19th century. One of the two things that fascinated us in this church is affixed to the inside of the north wall. It is a bas-relief depicting the Crucifixion. It is a reredos of Flemmish make, created in the 16th century. It is framed in a Victorian surround designed by Ninian Comper (1864-1960) in 1895. The sculpted reredos was brought to the church from the private chapel of the hymn writer Athelstan Riley (1858-1945) in London, following his death.

Cavendish church

The other curiosity in this church, which has memorials to the philanthropists and local parishioners Baroness Sue Ryder and Baron Leonard Cheshire, is on a wall just behind the 19th century wooden pulpit within arm’s reach of the preacher. It is an hourglass, looking like a large egg-timer, which the priest could use to time his sermon. I had never seen such a thing in a church. Less curious but also fairly unusual are the 13 wooden crucifixes on the interior walls of the bell tower. These were made from wood salvaged from the Western Front during WW1 and each one commemorates one of the men from Cavendish who were killed in the conflict.

The other church we visited on our recent trip to Suffolk was St Mary in Stoke by Nayland, which was sometimes painted by John Constable (1776-1837), who was born nearby in East Bergholt. Built in Perpendicular Gothic style between 1300 and 1481 it is very majestic, like a small cathedral. The church is full of interesting monuments including many fine brasses. It was one of the funerary monuments that particularly intrigued us: the Lady Anne Windsor monument. Anne lived from about 1568 until 1615. A stone carving depicts her lying with her head on a pillow. At her feet, there is a carving of a kneeling man, Anne’s son. By her head, two carvings depict a pair of kneeling women, Anne’s daughters. Look closely at this pair and you will notice that their hands have been broken off. Their arms are merely amputated stumps. What is going on here?

Stoke by Nayland church

The answer is that in 1643, Parliamentary Commissioners visited the church in Stoke by Nayland and destroyed 100 religious images and 7 funerary items. Part of this over-zealous iconoclastic behaviour was the removal of the four hands of the two women on Lady Anne’s monument, as well as those of the recumbent figure of the deceased. All the hands of females on the monument were removed but those of the kneeling male figure were left untouched. Apparently, the female hands were removed because the Commissioners considered them to have been in “a superstitious attitude of prayer”, whatever that meant during the Reformation.

The three items I have described are but a few of the things worth seeing in the two churches. I have chosen to describe them because I have not seen such things in the many other parish churches I have visited in England.

A delightful detour

ONE OF THE JOYS of travelling around in one’s own car is the ability to go almost anywhere one wishes and by any route, direct or indirect. Recently, we were driving along the A1141 between the Suffolk wool towns of Lavenham and Hadleigh when we noticed a small brown and white sign directing tourists to “St James Chapel”. We turned off the main road and drove along a narrow, winding by-road, which threaded its way through cultivated fields and small clumps of trees. We had no idea where the chapel is located and it was almost by chance that we noticed the small building, which is located well away from the lane. The best view of this tiny edifice is through a farmyard next to which it stands, otherwise it is well concealed by tall hedges.

Maintained by English Heritage, the chapel is approached via a narrow L-shaped passage between it and the hedges. A board close by gives the history of the place.  The tiny 13th century chapel served the nearby Lindsey Castle, which was abandoned in the 14th century and now exists only as earthworks (www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=384905&resourceID=19191). During the 13th century, a lady called Nesta de Cockfield (c1182-c1248; https://our-royal-titled-noble-and-commoner-ancestors.com/p5161.htm#i154959), who was born near Lindsey Castle at Kersey, established a tithe (tax) to maintain the chapel of St James. Along with all other chantries (usually, chapels on private land), St James was closed in 1547 as part of the religious reforms instigated by King Edward VI.

The chapel was used as a barn from 1547 until the early 1930s, when it became designated as a historic monument. The building is built with roughly cut flints held together with mortar or cement. The entrance with its gothic archway and the windows are trimmed with well-cut stone blocks. The interior walls are not plastered and look the same as the exterior. On the south wall there is a niche or ‘piscina’ (used for draining water used in the Mass in pre-Reformation church services), which, like the windows, is topped by a gothic arch. Apart from the piscina, there is nothing else left within the chapel apart from the ghosts of those who prayed there many centuries ago.

The ceiling of St James is formed of the exposed timbers that support the roof, which is attractively thatched, and looks well-maintained. The north wall of the chapel faces the road across the car park of the farm next door to it.

Without a car or bicycle or horse, reaching the tiny chapel of St James would involve a tiring walk. Without a car and plenty of leisure time we would most likely never have visited this delightful remnant of East Anglia’s rich mediaeval heritage.

Station with no trains

THERE ARE NO MORE trains running to the picturesque town of Clare in Suffolk. Between 1865 and 1967, trains running on the Stour Valley Line between Marks Tey (in Essex) and Shelford (in Cambridgeshire) stopped at Clare Station. In 1961, you could leave London’s Liverpool Street Station at 8.30 am and reach Clare at 10.44 am (www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/clare/).  

On a recent visit to Clare in August 2021, we decided to take a look at what remains of Clare Castle, which was built shortly after 1066 by Richard fitz Gilbert (1035-c1090), who took part in the Norman invasion of England (1066). To reach the remains of this structure, we walked across a large car park, at the far end of which is the attractive Clare Castle Country Park. The north side of the park is occupied by a tall conical mound, the motte of the former castle. On top of this, there is a short length of ruined, curved walling. Running east from the base of the motte, is a length of wall with one archway, presumably a wall that formed part of the castle’s bailey. These features are all that can be seen of the former castle. Exciting as this might be for historians, the park contains some other structures of historic interest. They are not as old as the castle, but fascinating, nevertheless.

Clare railway station

The Country Park contains the platforms, station buildings, and the goods shed of the former Clare Station. These have all been preserved well and employed as leisure facilities for visitors to the park. The main station buildings on platform 1 contain a waiting room with its old fireplace and ticket office. Built in 1865 to a standard design used in 30 Great Eastern Railway stations, this building now serves as an eatery and café. Across the grassy strip, where the tracks used to be laid, is platform 2, with its own waiting room, now used as a visitors’ centre and souvenir shop. A short distance away from the old platforms, the former goods shed still stands. With an old-fashioned goods crane outside it, the shed contains toilets and other facilities for visitors. Clare’s signal box no longer exists as it was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s.

The line that used to run through Clare was closed in 1967 as part of a plan devised by Dr Richard Beeching (1913-1985), who became Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961. Beeching was instructed by the British Government to devise a plan to increase the efficiency of British Railways. This was eventually executed and involved the closure of many stations, including Clare, and of many miles of track, including the Stour Valley Line. The last passenger train to stop at Clare was on the 4th of March 1967. Although trains used the line for a short time after this, none ever stopped at Clare again.

A visit to Clare is worthwhile because it is small town with many historic buildings and an attractive parish church. We visited recently on a Saturday morning when a small street market was in full swing. The town has several shops selling antiques and a few cafés, apart from that in the former railway station. We had visited Clare several times before, but it was only on our latest visit that we came across the old railway buildings. In this period when there is great concern about global warming and ‘saving the planet’ seeing the station and its platforms reminds us that Beeching’s plan to close so many lines was short-sighted because a good network of mass rail transport could contribute to reducing the current dependence on road transport and might reduce pollution. Thinking back to the 1960s, the time of Beeching’s plan, I do not recall that there was much concern about the future of our planet in those days.

A village, a school, and Jemima Puddleduck

LONG MELFORD IN Suffolk is a village that I have passed through several times. It was only during our most recent visit in August 2021, when we stopped there to see its church and Melford Hall that I realised that the place has a connection with Highgate School (in north London), which I attended between 1965 and 1970.

Melford Hall sits on land that was once owned by the abbots of St Edmundsbury. As with all monastic property, it passed into the hands of King Henry VIII when he ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The king with an eye to profit rather than the prophets sold the properties he had confiscated to wealthy buyers (nobles, merchants, and lawyers). Melford Hall and its lands were sold to a local lawyer, William Cordell (1522-1581). His father was a personal assistant (‘steward’) to Sir William Clopton, a lawyer and owner of Kentwell Hall at Long Melford. Young Cordell was sent to study law at Lincolns Inn and was called to the Bar at the early age of 22. An active politician during the reigns of Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I and a founder of the Russia Company, William Cordell acquired great wealth. It was he that bought the estate at Long Melford along with its stately home, Melford Hall. In addition, he married Sir William Clopton’s granddaughter, heiress to estates in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

Cordell did not build Melford Hall, but he did modify it in various ways. However, he did build the nearby Hospital of the Holy and Blessed Trinity in 1573. Situated across from the cathedral-like parish church, this was an almshouse for 12 aged men and women. The Great Church of The Holy Trinity stands behind and above the almshouse. It is a superb example of 15th century gothic architecture and is distinguished by having a separate Lady Chapel, which cannot be entered from the church, at its east end. It is one of the only parish churches in the country, which was never part of an abbey, to have such a feature. Within this fine church, Sir William Cordell’s elaborate sculpted tomb can be found in the chancel to the right (south) of the high altar. He died childless.

Amongst other important roles, William Cordell became Recorder of London. He succeeded his acquaintance, another lawyer from Lincolns Inn, Sir Roger Cholmeley (c1485-1565). Sir Roger was the founder of Highgate School during the final months of his life. This is the school I attended many years later.

Thomas Hinde, author of “Highgate School. A History” wrote that after Cholmeley, William Cordell was the school’s greatest early benefactor. Connected with two other educational establishments, St Johns College in Cambridge and Merchants Taylors’ School, Cordell became a Governor of Highgate School in 1576.

When I was at Highgate, it only admitted boys. Some pupils, including me, were day boys, and others were boarders. The boarders lived in one of four houses: School House, The Lodge, Grindal House, and Cordell House. Grindal was named to commemorate Bishop Edmund Grindal (c1519-1583), who helped establish Highgate School and Cordell was named to honour William Cordell. Until We visited Long Melford, I had no idea about the reason for giving Cordell House its name.

Returning to Melford Hall, once the home of William Cordell, it has passed through many generations of the Hyde Parker family, who acquired the hall and its grounds in 1786 from a descendant of both William’s sister and his cousin, Thomas Cordell. In 1890. The Reverend Sir William Hyde Parker (1863-1931) married Ethel Leech (1861-1941) in 1890. Ethel had a cousin, who has become extremely well-known, the children’s author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). She used to visit the Hyde Parkers at Melford Hall, where she stayed occasionally. She used to draw and sketch many features of the hall and its grounds. We were shown one of the bedrooms in which she used to sleep. Nearby in a glass-fronted display cabinet, you can see a toy duck, wearing the outfit that Beatrix had created for it. This duck was the inspiration for her book “The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck”, which was first published in July 1908.

I had seen photographs of Melford Hall, which made me want to visit it, and I was not disappointed. However, I had not expected to learn that the Hall and the village have connections with both Beatrix Potter and one of the earliest benefactors and governors of the secondary school I attended in Highgate. Our visit to Long Melford certainly broadened our minds, as the popular saying goes. I will leave you with how GK Chesterton, who attended St Paul’s School rather than Highgate, expressed this idea in his “The Shadow of the Shark”:

“They say travel broadens the mind, but you must have the mind.”

Shopping surprise in Suffolk

WE TRAVELLED TO HADLEIGH in Suffolk to see its church, its mediaeval guildhall, and its Deanery Tower. After viewing these buildings on a drizzly afternoon, we walked along the High Street, looking at some of the lovely old buildings along it. Several of them have coloured pargetting (decorative plasterwork).  Then, we spotted MW Partridge &Co on the corner of High Street and George Street. From the outside, there is nothing remarkable about this hardware store.

Stepping inside Partridges is like entering an enormous. well organised Aladdin’s cave. Apart from food and plants, there is almost nothing that cannot be found in the shop. One room leads to another, and then another, and yet another, each filled with everything that you might ever need to maintain your home and garden. Remarkable as this is, what is truly fascinating is that apart from one room built as an annexe in the 20th century, the rest of the shop is supported by old-fashioned timber beams and pillars.

According to the company’s history (www.partridgeshadleigh.co.uk/index.php?main_page=about_us), there has been an ironmongery business on the spot since 1823, if not before. In 1823, the ironmonger and iron founder Thomas Pritty acquired the business from a Charles Pretty (or ‘Pritty’). After passing through a couple of other owners, Maitland Walter Partridge and Daniel Partridge of Kersey bought the concern in 1929. This partnership did not last long, and in 1934 Maitland and his sister Edith registered the name M W Partridge & Co. Partridges have been in business ever since.

Eating securely at Baltic Amber

HAVERHILL IS IN SUFFOLK, close to where this county’s border meets those of Cambridgeshire and Essex. It is not a place that is near the top of Suffolk’s list of attractions. It does not rival, for example, Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds, Long Melford, and Southwold, to name but a few. However, we chose to spend a couple of nights there. When exploring the town’s dining opportunities, one place caught my attention. It is a restaurant/bar named Baltic Amber.

On the establishment’s website (www.balticamberrestaurant.com/), there is a pair of sample menus. One is in English and the other in Lithuanian. The restaurant was established by a Lithuanian family in March 2020. Despite this, there are only a few Lithuanian dishes on the menu. When we visited, of the five Lithuanian dishes, one must be ordered a day in advance, and, sadly, another was unavailable.

On arrival at this modern place next door to a large Travelodge hotel, we were met at the entrance by two burly but extremely friendly uniformed security guards. One of them checked our names on a list which was attached to a clip board. We asked them if they were expecting trouble. They answered, half jokingly, that they were there to “… keep out the riff-raff to allow diners to enjoy their meals peacefully.” Then, we were led inside and met by a waitress, to whom the security guard said: “table 24”. We were greeted by the lady, who turned out to be Lithuanian and she showed us to our table. I practised the three words of Lithuanian, which I know, on her and later on the owner. Both seemed pleased with my efforts.  The interior is modern and almost Scandinavian in design. The chairs at the tables were comfortable. Outside the restaurant, there are tables and chairs as well as a couple of fire-pits around which diners can be seated and kept warm.

Lithuanian potato pancakes with soured cream

We sampled Mead Vilnius, and aromatic spirit, rather like the Czech Becherovka. We also tried a Lithuanian beer. We ordered one of the Lithuanian dishes to share as a starter. Made of grated potatoes, which were fried and served with thick soured cream, they had a great resemblance to the Jewish dish, ‘latkes’. We followed that with Beef Stroganoff and Duck in an orange sauce. Both were above average both in quality and quantity.

The restaurant was full. The other diners, probably locals, were all having a good time, as did we. The place has good service and a pleasantly lively atmosphere. I am glad that I ‘discovered’ this place and would happily go again.