Walking the Footpaths in Suffolk thirty years ago
When we came to Stowmarket 33 years ago we lived on the edge of what was once a small market town. Fields surrounded us. Rabbits came in at the door and wild strawberries grew nearby. I had never lived in the country before. In fact much of my life had been spent near the sea in Yorkshire or the Wirral. My ancestors, I regret to say, had been whalers in the 18th century, sailing out from Hull to hunt in Greenland waters. I knew little about the countryside or country life. My initial encounter with it in Stowmarket was the firing of bird scaring guns which was quite alarming.
I had no idea where it was possible to walk. What was the point of being on the edge of the countryside and not being able to walk in it? Hopefully, the solution would be for an R.A. Group to be created in Stowmarket. I did get some publicity in the local press and expressed concern that few footpaths appeared to be signposted and that there was a danger that these rights of way would be lost At the time I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to walk the footpaths in Suffolk.
I contacted R.A. Head Office and speakers were booked for a meeting in Fison Hall in the United Reformed Church on Saturday 21st September 1974. They were Tony Parker OBE, a member of the National Executive and Footpath Secretary for the Southern Area, Andrew Rollings, Secretary of the Sudbury and District Group and Footpath Secretary for the Babergh District, and Tom Doggett, Secretary for the Southern Area. I asked Frank Reed, Headmaster of Combs Middle School, to chair the meeting. I had tried to get as much publicity as possible and the place was packed.
The meeting was well reported in the now defunct Stowmarket Mercury. One member of the public said: "We used to be able to walk along me towpath by the River Gipping but this is impossible now. Our river is a ditch/" Someone else said: "If we could preserve our footpaths we could preserve our hedgerows. There should be more co-operation between the R.A. and conservation societies". I didn't realise the seriousness of that remark at the time. Mr Doggett said that 500 of our footpaths were being lost every year and the formation of a local Group in Stowmarket would bring together those who wished to protect their rights of way. Again I wasn't to know that it would be more like a battle which not everyone who wanted to walk in the countryside would be willing to engage in.
It was agreed that a local R.A Group be formed. Harold Phillips, who died in 2004, was elected our first chairman. I was elected secretary and committee members were chosen. As far as I can remember Barbara Rogers, (last heard of in the Midlands) Dick Pollard (died 1999) and Audrey Lilley, were members of that committee. Founder members of the Group included John Francis (Stowmarket) and Molly Kershaw (Needham Market - died 2005).
Committee meetings were quite frequent if there was a programme to plan or an AGM to organise. Otherwise there could be a three month interval between meetings. Initially we met in the Town Council Offices or Combs Middle School, later sometimes in a pub or each other's houses. Walks happened once or twice a month and they had to be surveyed carefully beforehand. Often we walked with other Groups: Hadleigh - the disused railway track, or Ipswich - down the coast from Orford Ness. The Ipswich Group seemed to walk at breakneck speed which some of us found quite disconcerting.
Clearances happened fairly frequently because a potentially interesting circular walk might be obstructed at some point. This in fact was often the case. We spent a couple of days, starting on Saturday 5th October 1977, clearing Swilltub Lane for instance, an old trackway forming the boundary between Cotton and Bacton. It was tough: saplings even growing in the middle of the Lane. We had to bum everything the other side of the hedge - with permission. It makes me very angry that having cleared it, the locals allowed it to become overgrown again. On the 19th January 1996 there was a report in the Bury Free Press saying the villagers cut down the overgrowth along the lane so it could be used as a footpath again." What did they do with it for nearly 20 years? It's a fact that in the seventies people were not much interested in rights of way.
The status of Swilltub Lane was in dispute in 1996. I agree with the locals: it should have been declared a footpath, no matter what it had been used for in the past: a horse and cart is very different from a motorbike or car. Despite this it has been given the status of byway.
During the 'seventies’ the Gipping Towpath preoccupied us greatly. Talks were given to the Groups from Heritage Officers, surveys and clearances were carried out during 1975 and 1976 and we walked it with the Ipswich Group from Bramford. I remember Barbara Rogers and I walking a stretch from Needham Market to Stowmarket, fighting our way through undergrowth and crossing streams minus footbridges. The Stowmarket Group were involved in clearance work up to Munton and Fison. It was particularly difficult alongside ICI, struggling through a dense thicket of brambles.
Again it makes me angry that the people of Stowmarket think they're achieving great things by "tidying up" a stretch of riverbank between the Pickerel Brides and the Station Bridge in Stowmarket - a few yards of the towpath. Our efforts 30 years ago were never really recognised.
Other clearance work we did was of City Lane in Little Finborough on Saturday 13th November 1976. What a wonderful name with urban and rural connotations! As to its state now, I've no idea. We also cleared Hundred Lane north of Gipping Church on the 25th and 26th February 1978. This was probably related to the Stowmarket Group's turn to organise a County Walk. Part of this Lane followed the line of the old disused railway track.
At sometime shortly after the formation of the Group I became Footpath Secretary. I had little idea of the implications of the job. I note from my old diaries that I attended Suffolk Area Footpath Secretary meetings in various places: Martlesham, Norton (chez Pat Rattenbury) and Ipswich. I frequently contacted Glyn Roberts, County Highways Officer, who was very helpful. (He was a speaker at one of our AGMs). He was probably in need of help himself This was the time when information about rights of way had to be sent to County Highways by 1st October 1979 in preparation for the review of the Definitive Map.
Once during my lunch break from the High School I remember meeting Glyn Roberts and the secretary of the Suffolk Preservation Society to consider the possibility of a footpath from Burford Bridge to follow the River Rat, or at least reinstate the footpath, then unsigned, which ran west from the junction of Combs Lane and Finborough Road, just south of the Bridge. Time on that occasion was very limited. I had to get back to school, remove my muddy boots and adopt a different mind set for calling the register.
In those early days I used to use a push-bike to get around but later purchased a second hand and very temperamental moped, which sometimes refused to start when I was out in the wilderness somewhere. Very frightening.
It was hard work finding the footpaths because they were of course inadequately signposted and often obstructed. Complaints to Parish Councils or fanners were often ignored or violently opposed. Often it was very difficult to ascertain who the landowner was. But animosity or disinterest was not always the rule. Some Parish Councils, as for instance Onehouse, were very helpful and had all their footpaths beautifully signposted. You could tell whether you'd crossed into another parish by the state of the footpaths.
Farmers didn't bother too much about reinstating paths after ploughing which they had to do within 3 weeks if they hadn't informed County Highways of their intention to plough, 6 weeks if they had. Campbell’s "Law of Footpaths and Bridleways" became my vade mecum. Often footbridges were missing across ditches or streams and when surveying for a walk one had the difficult decision as to whether to risk walkers being agile enough to clamber across with inadequate footwear, or plan another route entirely using an unofficial path or track- And then there were the obstructions: thick undergrowth, fences or locked gates with no stiles, and sometimes barbed wire. It was legal to cut one’s way through to make adequate space to pass through if one happened by chance to have cutters with one!
This was the time of the destruction of the countryside, the grubbing out of hedges, for which farmers received subsidies, and the cutting down of trees- I would remember returning to a path, which I'd surveyed the previous year, and instead of a tree-lined path would just find burnt out stumps. It was heart rending, a sentiment felt by Oliver Rackham. Farmers would get rid of the hedge then apply for a footpath to be diverted to go round the edge of the field. So the distance from A to B would get longer. I would object strongly to the diversion, also would insist when leading a walk that the Group follow the line of the official path even if it meant going through growing crops. There were murmurs of protest and I remember on one occasion there was quite a fierce argument as to which route to take, round the edge of the field or through the growing crops. I forget the exact details of me outcome but I remember some did follow me, one behind the other, so the path could be reinstated.
Often when surveying for a walk, because the original field boundaries had disappeared, I would have to look for other features to get my bearings: ponds, pylons, pollarded trees which would often mark parish boundaries. A compass would have been useful. Sometimes I would meet an irate fanner with dog and gun, asking me what the hell I was doing on his land. Production of my 2 1/2 inch to the mile map (predecessor to the much lamented Pathfinder) marked up with footpath numbers by the ever-helpful Wilfred George, sometimes silenced him.
It was very exciting finding old trackways (RUPPs) sometimes completely overgrown as for instance south from Shelland Church, which must have led to a large house south of the road. I remember emerging from the small wood leading from the B 1113 (Stowmarket Road) onto a wide meadow. In the distance was Badley Hall and Church. This must have been a carriageway once to the house. I became fascinated by the history of the landscape and read W.G. Hoskins' "English Landscapes" and Oliver Rackham's 'Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape." (Dr Oliver Rackham, Research Fellow of Corpus Christi College Cambridge was our speaker at the 1977 AGM). Some of these green trackways with ditches and hedges on either side are hundreds of years old. I remember discovering the Old Hundred Lane which crosses the Roman Road, now the A 140, and being awed and saddened because it was in dire need of being given as much protection as a listed building. To quote Oliver Rackham: "It is an uncanny experience to trace an identifiable wood or hedge through five or seven centuries, and on going to the spot to be just in time for the dying embers of the bonfires in which it has been destroyed."
Of course the wholesale destruction slowed down towards the end of the eighties. It was a question of over production and now fair-trading. Why should East Anglian sugar beet producers flood the market when developing countries can produce sugar more cheaply? Recently after a request from the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act the government for the first time published the amount of subsidy each farmer in Britain receives. Just 17 farmers and agricultural enterprises alone received more than £lm each in 2004. According to Oxfam "East Anglian grain barons and the landed gentry enjoy a bumper cash harvest, while small farmers struggle to get by." Of course these large subsidies will stop and the Common Agricultural Policy will be abolished. The emphasis now is to award grants, £70 an acre, to protect the environment. Where once farmers were given grants to grub out hedges - a legacy from the war to produce as much as possible for the country to be self sufficient - now since 1997 there are now rules to preserve hedges (A hedge count of the number of species in a 30 yard stretch reveals its age - one hundred years for each species). A hedge had to be preserved if it marked a pre 1850 boundary, if there were archaeological remains and if there were a minimum of 7 woody species in a 35-metre stretch.
It's interesting that the hedge next to the former Stow Lodge Hospital, now Stow Lodge Centre, is over 1000 years old. In 19891 was concerned about its destruction by thoughtless pruning, vandalism and new tree planting with the new housing development. Something was done to protect it after I complained, but what it's like now I've no idea. Whether there was an investigation before the driveway was cut through for access to the new Ambulance Station and Stow Lodge Centre, I don't know either. This hedge is the boundary between Stowmarket and Onehouse (The Biology Department carried out the hedge count to establish its age: one thousand years at least). I tried to get the kids at the High School interested in landscape history and walking the footpaths. Whether I succeeded at all I'm not sure. I told them about Bradfield Woods which used to belong to the Benedictine monastery in Bury St Edmunds. It has been coppiced since medieval times but was under threat from neighbouring landowners. Due to the efforts of the then wardens Ann and James Hart and Oliver Rackham it has been saved and is now managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. When we walked in the Felsham area. Ann Hart led a walk through this wood.
I served on the County Long Distance Footpaths Committee but there were so many other problems to live with in the seventies I can't remember that we achieved much. In 19791 was diagnosed with lumbar spondylosis (arthritis of the spine) and this began to limit the distance I could walk. However I did manage to organise 3 long distance walks for the Stowmarket R.A. Group before 1 had to give up walking with them altogether. In July 1976 we walked Offa's Dyke from Chepstow to Montgomery staying at Youth Hostels and Bed and Breakfasts. My regret then was not being able to get down to Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, which we could see in the sunlight below. Tragic - I'll never get there now. In July 1978 we walked the Dorset Coastal Path from Dorchester to Lyme Regis: The Jurassic Coast, now a World Heritage Site. It was a wonderful walk and the ammonites on the beach at Lyme Regis were the size of dinner plates. In April 1979 we calked the North Downs Way following part of the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury. We accomplished Farnham to Godstone. I had to give up three quarters of the way because of very painful blisters. Heavy boots hadn't really been necessary. It was a beautiful walk, often through woods. The great surprise was the George Frederick Watts Museum, housed in his former house at Compton near Guildford. Perhaps his most famous painting is Hope (Tate Britain) portrayed clutching the globe, which could easily be mistaken for Despair. The most extraordinary building here is the Watts Cemetery Chapel designed by Mrs Watts and built by the villagers of Compton, It is a strange mixture of Celtic and Byzantine Art, quite awesome.
The Freedom to Roam Act now gives the walker much greater access to the countryside but the countryside itself is under increasing threat from the expansion of the built environment: housing, motorways, runways (and then there's coastal erosion. The Cleveland Way will probably tall into the sea). Now it's apparent that the law allows trail riders, 4 x 4's, motorbikes on by-ways such as the historic Ridgeway. The knock on effect of all this, apart from losing the peace and quiet of the countryside, is global warming from increased pollution. Most people have never heard of photosynthesis and haven't a clue about the value of trees for reducing carbon dioxide.
Perhaps footpaths will come into their own some time in the not too distant future when oil reserves run out. We are becoming increasingly dependent now on gas from Russia and Norway. Nuclear power is not the answer. People will have to walk more on these paths which before the advent of the automobile were indeed used to get from village to village, so they should be guarded and not even diverted round the edge of fields which means the distance walked becomes much greater. When the Council withdrew free transport for kids living less than 3 miles from their school, there was an outcry. My letter to the Bury Free Press detailing footpaths, which could be used from Onehouse to Stowmarket, apparently went completely unnoticed.
There will be great changes to the countryside as land once used for agriculture becomes salt marshes or reed beds to encourage wild life and large fields are returned to meadows. I wonder are today's walkers aware of what the future may hold when the farm subsidies cease and these changes in land use take place. I do envy those who can walk in the countryside. That I can no longer do so is for me a kind of bereavement.
By Ann Hewlett
Copyright Ann Hewlett