Suffolk walk: On the trail of the Red Barn Murder at Polstead
PUBLISHED: 14:57 22 August 2020
A walk over the beautiful Box Valley hills from Stoke by Nayland to explore Polstead’s colourful past
My name is William Corder, to you I do declare.
I courted Maria Marten, so beautiful and fair.
I promised that I’d marry her upon a certain day -
Instead of that, I was resolved to take her life away.
Strange how a song you haven’t heard in years can come back to haunt you out of nowhere. Especially one about the grisly goings-on in Polstead’s legendary Red Barn, on a morning when you’ve woken up feeling you could really murder a good walk.
South Suffolk’s best-loved long-distance paths give Polstead a decidedly wide berth, which is a pity – steer clear of the place and you miss a real treat.
Set out from Stoke by Nayland, and a wee peep inside St Mary’s porch is a must, for the best carved medieval doors in Suffolk. Quite what Scotland Street is doing in this quintessentially English rural idyll is as much a mystery as the mighty sarsen stone which sits alongside it. Paths leap over stiles and hop across parkland boundaries to look down on the cascade of paddocks around Frog’s Hall.
Across the valley, Stoke by Nayland’s redbrick church tower rises high above the tartan stretch of fields and hedgerows. Down below, rambling farms recall fond memories of cherry harvests gone by, when the Polstead Black brought sweeter fame to the village, celebrated by an annual Cherry Festival on the green. Even then though, its puppet shows shared tales of a grim moment past. Over the majestic hill and not so far away, is where Polstead’s gory story starts.
I went unto her father’s house on the 18th day of May
Said “Come my dear, Maria, we’ll fix the wedding day.
If you’ll meet me at the Red Barn, as sure as I am life,
I’ll take you down to Ipswich town and there make you my wife.”
Marten’s Lane looks innocent enough and probably hasn’t altered much since the local molecatcher’s daughter, Maria, called it home. Now neatly thatched and pretty in pink, Brook House was reputedly her birthplace, but on the fateful day William Corder came knocking, she lived up the road, in a now sweet, honey-coloured cottage with her name on it.
Maria’s back-story is a long one, and William’s is too. Neither of Polstead’s protagonists were saints, but when Maria disappeared in 1827, after her Red Barn rendezvous with William ‘foxy’ Corder, he declared her fit, well and with him on the Isle of Wight. Her mother was not so convinced and in a convenient flourish of fashionable Victorian voyeurism, came up with another theory…
Her mother’s mind was so disturbed, she dreamt three nights o’er
That her dear daughter lay murdered beneath that Red Barn floor
She sent three men into the Barn and under the floor they thrust
And there they found her daughter dear lay mingling with the dust.
So-called because it looked a sinister blaze of colour in the Suffolk light, the Red Barn is no more, save for a souvenir snuff-box carved from its timbers, lodged with other grisly artefacts from the murder/ murderer in Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds.
Just metres from Martens Lane, the barn burnt down in 1842. Yet, over the brow of the hill a farm building appears with huge crimson doors. It’s a clever quip and one which must keep spectators in the farmhouse entertained for hours. But there’s something weirdly unnerving about passing alongside it into the unknown of a tree-tunnel, only to emerge by an eerie rise, shimmering red with wild grasses.
Adieu, adieu my loving friends, my race is almost run –
On Monday next will be the day that I am to be hung
So all young friends that do pass by with pity look on me
My sentence passed – I die at last, to be hung up on tree.
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The relief of reaching the pretty thatched cottages by Polstead village green is rather tainted by the thought that Maria’s inquest – identification of decomposed body bits included – took place at the Cock Inn. Corder’s house, half-timbered Street Farm, is firmly en route too, near one of Suffolk’s most picturesque – and possibly most haunted – duck ponds. All three of William’s brothers, including another of Maria’s lovers, allegedly met untimely ends here.
Up in the porch of Polstead St Mary’s, maybe it was the hand of fate, or a Victorian renovator with a warped sense of humour, which placed the stained glass picture of a girl innocently picking flowers, on one side, and a lone ‘peeping’ fragment of a male face with watchful eyes and crooked smile on the other.
Outside, Maria’s gravestone is no more, plundered for souvenirs like the Red Barn timbers and probably sold off like the Bury hangman’s rope which saw William’s last gasp and went for a guinea an inch. A faded wooden plaque suggests the location of her burial, not far from the stump of the Gospel Oak.
Directly from the churchyard edge, the Polstead path falls away towards Mill Street through buttercup meadows. En route to the old watermill by the Box, the leaves of occasional cherry trees already show their blood-red colours of autumn. Come spring they will bloom again and keep glimmers of Polstead’s past alive.
1 Start at Stoke by Nayland car park (CO6 4QY). Turn left along School Street until level with church. Left through churchyard. Near war memorial, path joins Church Street. At small green, bear left (B1087) to road junction. Turn right (B1068) and cross to Crown Inn. Keep ahead on road (on verge, then parallel footpath).
2 Follow path left along field edge, then right. Pass through small wood and field.
3 At path-junction turn sharp left (between hedge and fence), heading towards hamlet. Path eventually passes through garden and alongside cream-coloured house (left) where it is fenced on both sides.
4 At road (Scotland Street), turn right. Pass Scotland Place and erratic boulder (left). Cross small bridge. At cottage (right), turn left through hedge gap, via footbridge and kissing gate to meadows with lake. Follow path beside black metal fence past lake. Through gate, continue on path across field. At signpost, bear left uphill towards kissing gate into woodland.
5 Follow path through wood. Turn right along grassy track until shortly before Marten’s Lane.
6 Turn left onto path between tall hedge and fence to reach junction with driveway. Turn right, then immediately left back onto path. Through kissing gate, bear right, path leads uphill to bench, then steeply down to stile by road junction (Bells Corner).
7 Turn right (Martens Lane), passing Brook House and Maria’s Marten’s Cottage. Continue along road uphill.
8 Take signed footpath (right) through woods by lane to emerge at road junction. Rejoin Marten’s Lane briefly to signed footpath (left) in hedge gap with stile.
9 Follow path over brow of hill, then down over stiles to ‘crimson’ barn. Keep left down side of barn alongside pond. Path leads left over boardwalk, then right alongside a meadow rise (left). Turn right at footpath sign, through wood, bearing left to junction of paths. Continue ahead, round meadow (path bears right) to emerge at ‘New House’ at end of Rockalls Road. Go straight ahead between two cream houses, through footpath gate to reach village green.
10 Turn left. Descend to duck pond, passing Corder’s half-timbered farmhouse (left). Turn right by pond, then left up driveway to St Mary’s Church.
11 Exit churchyard by gate to right of war memorial. Descend cross-meadow path towards white house. At road (Mill Street) continue straight ahead on road. After River Box, turn right onto Mill Lane, passing mill (right).
12 At ‘The Thatch’, turn left onto field-edge footpath (hedge on right) towards Steps Farm. At farm drive, turn right, then left along track and adjacent grassy path to B1068. Turn left along pavement, then right into School Street to reach car park.
Distance: 6.5 miles/10.5 kms
Time: 3 hours
Start/Parking: Stoke by Nayland recreation ground car park, School Lane CO6 4QY
Getting there/back: suffolkonboard.com
Access: Cross-meadow, field-margin, woodland paths; green lanes; pavement/ tarmacked lanes. Stiles, kissing gates, boardwalk.
Big map to hand: OS Explorer 196
Ts & Ps: Pubs & shops at Stoke by Nayland & Polstead