PETER FROST and his wife ANN love Suffolk and the much underrated county of Essex. Indeed they sometimes find it haunting.
John Constable captured the beauty of the English countryside better than any other painter. We’ll follow in his footsteps and find some of his landscapes hardly changed. But we’ll also let him lead us into Essex – a most underrated county and one with a great deal to offer to anyone with a good pair of walking boots and no fear of the unexplained.
Today the pretty lanes and footpaths between Long Melford and Sudbury are quiet and peaceful. They cross the River Stour which is the county border and bring you to delightful picturebook Suffolk and Essex villages such as Borley. So it is hard to imagine that less than a hundred years ago a terrible fear and dread filled the byways of this corner of England.
Borley was, quite simply, the most haunted village in Britain and its notorious Rectory and its many ghosts was the stuff of legends. Famous Ghost hunters of the 1930’s like Harry Price offered huge money for anyone who would stay overnight in the rectory but there were never any takers. Anyone trying it was lead away screaming.
A hooded nun with the ability to walk through walls and locked doors saw to that and if one nun wasn’t enough there were plenty of other apparitions and poltergeists to frighten visitors away. Exorcisms made no difference so in the end in desperation; in 1939 they burnt down the rectory. The nun and other spirits simply moved to the village church. I didn’t actually check it out for myself – frightened? No just didn’t have the time.
After all the publicity around Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code many people believe that all of England’s five round churches were built by the Knights Templar, and that the origins of modern freemasonry are in some way mixed up in all this. In fact the beautiful and mostly original tiny round church at Little Maplestead in Essex tells a much more public spirited story.
Next time you see the first aid people from the St. John Ambulance Association you will know they can trace their origins back to the crusades. The Order of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem founded their first hospice in the Holy Land in 1092.
In 1185 the village of Little Maplestead was given to these Knights Hospitallers by Juliana Fitz-Audelin and her husband William. It is thought that at this time a hospital was founded here. Today there is a pretty round church on the site.
This is the newest of England’s round churches constructed around 1335. Six columns hold up the roof of the round section and the nave is supported by a beautiful roof like the ribs of a great wooden ship. Drastic restoration in the 1850’s changed many details of the church but the basic form remains as it was; a fine reminder and like all these round churches a replica of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem – the most holy site in Christendom.
Now our journey brings us to the borders of Suffolk and Essex where John Constable painted some of the most typical, and lovely of all British landscapes. Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s Cottage are in Suffolk as is East Bergholt where he was born, but his beloved Dedham Vale is firmly on the Essex side of the border.
The young Constable lived in Flatford Mill and every morning he would cross the river into Essex and walk a couple of miles across the Essex water meadow to the Grammar School in Dedham. It’s still an exceptional walk today.
Many of the views here have changed very little since Constable’s famous paintings were made. Today as you walk the Vale you will often find a few amateur artists out with their easels trying to produce their very own masterpiece.
Much of the county border here is the river Stour and we followed the southern bank of this widening waterway towards the twin ports of Maningtree and Mistly.
Both are handsome if workaday towns. Maningtree was once the busier port shipping the woollen cloth that made East Anglia such an affluent part of the country. A darker page in the town’s history saw it become the headquarters of Mathew Hopkins, who in the 17th century terrorised the local inhabitants as the Witch Finder General.
Mathew came to a sticky end when finally he too was accused of witchcraft. He ended his life like so many of his victims – on the gallows. There is a warning here – witch-hunts always end that way. Here we found our second ghost. The Witch Finder General’s spirit is reputed to still walk the town.
Nearby Mistley stole Maningtree’s shipping trade. It made malt, raw ingredient of good beer but also for we baby-boomers a fondly remembered sweet and sticky dietary supplement we were given as children.
Are you old enough to remember Virol or Radiomalt? I remember my mum hiding it on the highest shelf in the kitchen to stop me getting my sticky fingers on it. Malt was both good for us and delicious and much of it probably came from the giant riverside maltings in Mistley.
Today as you take the fine riverside walk in Mistley the sweet smell of malt still hangs on the air although many of the maltings have been converted to desirable waterside apartments. Huge flocks of swans including some rare black examples still feed on the waste grains a by-product of the malting process.
Along the coast the fine port of Harwich defends two river mouths, first the Stour which we have followed to get here and the Orwell, which flows north into Suffolk. Harwich is always busy with shipping. It is still a popular ferry port and all kinds of ships big and small make the Quay a great place to sit and watch the boats go by.
The Harwich Maritime Heritage Trail is an interesting walk. It starts at the Low Lighthouse, now a small MaritimeMuseum. Sadly the museum is only open on summer Sunday afternoons. The Trail takes you to many of the port’s historical sites and along the way interpretive panels explain the rich maritime history.
Harwich’s Ha’penny pier used to be the departure point for continental steamers. The pier got it name from the toll that passengers paid to use it. Today the pier is free but the only boats leaving it are the passenger ferries to Felixstowe across the river.
In a quiet churchyard at Thorpe Le Soken near Harwich we discovered another chilling bit of history, the grave of no less a villain than Jack the Ripper. The grave is actually marked William Withey Gull; a local boy who really did make good.
He became a doctor. Indeed Gull was the first medical man to identify and name the disease Anorexia Nervosa. Eventually Gull was made physician to the king. Unfortunately for the good doctor the royal family had a most delicate job for him. Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria – and always known as Eddy, got himself into a bit of trouble with a girl.
On one of his visits to the more sleazy corners of London had a brief affair with a shop girl named Annie Crook. Annie got pregnant, some even say Eddy married her in secret. The powers-that-be realised something had to be done. The Royal physician used his influence to have poor Annie Crook locked away in an asylum. She wasn’t insane, but life in an Edwardian mad-house soon made her that way.
That wasn’t the end of the scandal. Four of Annie’s friends knew about the romance with Prince Eddy, They also knew about the baby, and poor Annie’s fate. Those four women were all murdered by Jack the Ripper and all the evidence suggested Jack had real medical knowledge.
It’s up to you whether you believe the widely held theory that Gull terrified Whitechapel as he silenced the witnesses and created for posterity the demented character of Jack the Ripper to cover his real motive. Today it seems somebody does, and they still feel strongly enough about it to have smashed the gravestone of William Withey Gull in the quiet churchyard at Thorpe Le Soken.
Frinton–on–Sea regularly hits the headlines. The locals like it the way it is and have campaigned to stop ice cream vendors, amusement arcades and even pubs spoiling the town’s Victorian seafront. Their efforts mean there are pretty walks along the undeveloped grassy seafront that seems to go on for miles.
At weekends, in the yachting season, Wivenhoe is a busy port with good waterside pubs and a nice footpath that runs along on the bank of the River Colne. In living memory the town had a busy shipbuilding industry but today it’s a playground for the students, professors and lecturers from the University just up the road.
If garden walks are to your taste them you won’t find many better than Beth Chatto’s famous Mediterranean masterpiece. She has turned this dry corner of our islands into a bright and colourful delight.
MerseaIsland is approached across a causeway that can flood at high tides. I don’t know why but I always find islands romantic. MerseaIsland adds to the romance with a vineyard that makes the best Champagne in England.
French lawyers and Brussels bureaucrats have ensured it can’t be called Champagne on the label but who cares? Champagne, and very good Champagne is what it is.
The other local produce goes very well with the fizzy local wine. For MerseaIsland is the home of the famous Colchester Native Oysters. Can there be a more romantic dinner than Champagne and Oysters on you own island?
After posh Champagne and Oysters what could be nicer than bread and jam!
At Tiptree the long established firm of Wilkin & Son make some of the best known and most delicious jams and marmalades. Would you believe the company makes and sells seventeen different kinds of marmalade alone. They also make scores of different jellies, jams and conserves all of which are for sale in the shop next to the factory.
Sharing the building with the shop is an excellent tearoom where you can sample many of the Tiptree jams, perhaps on a scone with a pot of tea. I chose my favourite jam, Wilkin’s famous Little Scarlet.
Made from a tiny variety of strawberries grown on their own farms Wilkins reckons Little Scarlet has five times as many berries per jar as any other strawberry jam. Don’t take my word for it or indeed the jam makers. Read Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love – Little Scarlet it seems is James Bond’s preserve of choice.
A small museum attached to the tearooms and shop is jam packed with exhibits telling the story of how the family has been making preserves there since 1885. I loved the story of how a First World War fighter squadron ordered its Tiptree jam by dropping messages from ‘planes flying low over the factory farm.
The whole Tiptree business, fruit farms, Edwardian factory and the jam itself means that for me this is ‘England in Bottles’. The factory has even featured in a episode of Midsomer Murders and things don’t get more English than that.
After all those scones and jam there was only one thing for it – long walk. Fortunately, as we had discovered, there is no shortage of them in this lovely corner of England.
This article first appeared in Practical Motorhome Magazine in 2008