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A sense of place: The Brett Valley

PUBLISHED: 15:14 16 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:42 20 February 2013

Map by Bev Baddeley

Map by Bev Baddeley

John Seery escapes the madding crowds in south Suffolk

John Seery escapes the madding crowds in south Suffolk

It will soon be a distant and, for some, bitter memory of inglorious failure but do you remember those heady World Cup days of late June?
As an expectant nation flew the flag, and gnashed its teeth in frustration, there seemed no respite to all the hype. Yet on June 23 the day of Englands last group stage match against Slovenia I found sanctuary in the Brett Valley, a beautiful part of south Suffolk.
No flags of St George, imitation vuvuzelas, or snatches of radio or TV commentaries coming from cars or front rooms, just peace and tranquillity.
My journey started at Higham, just a few miles from the busy A12, but nicely removed from the hubbub of nearby Ipswich and Colchester.
Constable Country is close by but here is an area just as captivating, and at this time of high summer you approach along roads lined with poppies and other wild flowers. As I near the village sign a pigeon lazily takes flight from the tarmac and flaps off over fields waiting to be harvested.
This is the home of point-to-point racing and large country houses with names like The Old Vicarage, Higham House and Higham Hall.
Stopping the car I walk along a footpath trying to find the village church. Bells ringing out tell me Im close but though I can see the tower of St Marys I cant reach the church as routes towards it are signposted private property. The bells stop and then all that can be heard is birdsong overhead, the rustle of the wind through long grass and, far away in the distance, someone using a buzzsaw.
It is tempting to sit under a tree and watch this tableau of fields, gently weaving footpaths and birds flitting across an azure sky but I must be off towards Hadleigh.
My route takes me down onto the valley floor towards Layham where I find cattle grazing on meadows. The road then narrows into a single track lane and within yards I witness two very different snapshots of country life. First I drive past a dead badger (a bigger animal than some town-dwellers might realise) lying by the side of the verge, then I come across a roadside outbuilding festooned in the most vibrantly coloured pink roses. A forlorn sight and an uplifting one.
I consider taking the road to Shelley but drive on and find myself behind a horse and rider, no life in the fast lane here. In fact, this is great cycling or walking country as the terrain is gently undulating allowing good views and sparing those participating from too strenuous exercise.
Lower and Upper Layham remind me of the kind of settlements you find in northern France, some homes running quite close to the River Brett, others slighly perched on land rising up from the tree-lined road and valley floor. There is no-one about save for a postman driving his van. I dare say these are tricky places to negotiate in and out of during a snow-filled winter but now they are delightful, off-the-beaten track hamlets to discover.
At Upper Layham there are signs of life, as well as signs of resistance. A hot and bothered jogger is chatting to the driver of a 4x4 vehicle and there are several cars outside St Andrews Church. The Queens Head pub looks just a little tatty and sports an England flag and a hanging basket. Its advertising Sunday roast for 5.95.

Just being able to idle around this part of Hadleigh in the sunshine while much of the townfolk are hard at work is almost a guilty pleasure.

The resistance comes in the form of a notice at the entrance to the village saying: No more pylons. Bury not blight. Its placed just a few yards from a string of the metal eyesores as they make their staggered progress across field after field. v
v Im wondering which part of Hadleigh Im going to approach the tight confines of Benton Street or Toppesfield Bridge? It is the latter and I stop by the little picnic site near the nicely named Tinkers Lane to stretch my legs.
Families and couples are taking shelter from the sun under a canopy of trees and its here that I catch my first proper sight of the Brett. The water is very clear and the river is teeming with fish, close to the bank it looks like roach and dace and possibly something bigger a bream further out. I walk down to a weir near the Hadleigh Football Club sports ground and there are still more fish. They dont seem to be bothered by a family playing Pooh sticks just a few yards downstream.
I follow the towns Riverside Walk which takes you along to the Iron Bridge near Babergh District Councils Cork Lane headquarters. Along the route, and later in the town itself, Im taken by the variety of trees. Common yew, whitebeam, wild cherry, larch, laburnum, weeping willow, sycamore, Scots pine, the list goes on.
Hadleigh resident and tree enthusiast Gwen Dunn says there is a towering lime tree next to the deanery which the artist Thomas Gainsborough probably saw when it was a sapling.
Maybe its because of the heat but no-one is working on the allotments. If Tesco are able to build a supermarket in this part of town a proposed access route might mean some of these flower and vegetable plots biting the dust. As at Layham the locals are fighting back. Hands off our allotments says a sign overlooking the river.
By the Babergh building, the towns cricket pitch nestles in a bowl, a graveyard is on raised ground behind the pavilion, while Friars Road snakes around the lower end of the ground with the White Hart pub well placed to see the action.
Just being able to idle around this part of Hadleigh in the sunshine while much of the townfolk are hard at work is almost a guilty pleasure.
But I cant linger too long here, I must follow the Brett towards Semer and Chelsworth.
Semer passes me in the bat of an eye, though I recognised the village hall from a teenage party many, many years ago. An incident involving setting off a fire extinguisher lingers in my memory followed by a frantic drive across country and a slight detour into a ditch. No-one was injured but for the driver there was some hurt pride.
By now its early afternoon and Ive reached the calm of Chelsworth. I park up and saunter around the village. The place is known for it wonderful gardens and I glimpse some lovely examples behind hedges and through gateways. A woman on a quad-bike, with her dog as a passenger, shoots out from a farm track and startles me. Afternoon, she shouts as she motors off with the ears of her canine friend flapping in the breeze.
The Peacock pub stands in a line of lovely cottages and just across from a little bridge. Its a perfect picture postcard scene and the thought of a cold drink lures me in. Apart from some piped music (the band Maroon 5, I think), its quiet inside and there is no evidence of anyone being too bothered about the football.
Perhaps it was because I was in the heart of the English countryside but a sudden wave of patriotism passes over me.
Ready for the England match? I asked an elderly man in the Peacock.
Bunch of over-paid idiots, he replied.
So you dont care about the result?
Even if they win they will lose in the next round, said this no-nonsense Nostradamus.
And, of course, he was right.

Babergh District Council produce a Cycle South Suffolk map with information on several different routes. Call 01473 825846 for more information.


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