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A sense of place: The Elm, the Ash and the Willow

PUBLISHED: 12:08 14 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 20 February 2013

Illustrated map by BEV BADDELEY

Illustrated map by BEV BADDELEY

Peter Sampson explores the quiet and pretty villages of Badwell Ash, Elmswell and Walsham-le-Willows

Peter Sampson explores the quiet and pretty villages of Badwell Ash, Elmswell and Walsham-le-Willows




If youd been trying to find your way around mid-Suffolk in the days before William the Bastard brought his Norman bullyboys across the Channel, some helpful stranger might have told you: Turn right at Badas place. Theres a stream there and some ash trees. Or, perhaps: See those elms? Cross the stream and head for a village where a bunch of Celts live near some willows.
Those dots in the landscape of pre-Domesday England became Badwell Ash, Elmswell and Walsham-le-Willows, just north of the A14 and about halfway between Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds.
They make a curiously assorted trio. Ones a village with umpteen timbered medieval buildings, one was largely burnt down by two small boys 300 years ago and ones a dormitory village for people, many of whom work elsewhere.
Take Badwell Ash. The Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury wrote about the place in 1929: It contains very little of importance or interest except from a purely rustic point of view, although it grudgingly admits the place has a quiet charm. Im not quite sure what the writer was expecting Blackpool? but he did the place an injustice. Just opposite the church is an attractive timbered cottage with a Free Tibet sticker in the window and the countryside comes comfortably right into the village, where horses browse in fields between the houses.
There arent many pre-Georgian buildings in the centre apart from the White Horse pub but thats the fault of those two small boys. Apparently, one Sunday summer afternoon in 1723, they were told to go out and scare the birds away from the fruit trees. As small boys invariably do, they started squabbling about who was going to carry the gun and, inevitably, there was a bang, a flash and the thatch caught fire. Most of the village centre disappeared and the villagers had to start rebuilding the place from scratch.
I dont know what happened to the two boys but the village now runs a Gun Club that meets every fortnight.
Just up the road is Walsham-le-Willows. Its a very good-looking place indeed. Theres a stream, somewhat overgrown, that runs through the village centre, its banks lined with willows, as is only right and proper, and there are medieval houses galore, pink-washed, terracotta and ochre; red-brick buildings mingle with houses boarded in black or in white. Some 62 of the village buildings go back over 300 years, back even to the 13th century. The place is a visual treat, though I noticed a builder was putting up some 50 new houses not far from the centre, so perhaps things are changing.




The boysstarted squabbling about who was going to carry the gun and, inevitably, there was a bang, a flash and the thatch caught fire. Most of the village centre disappeared and the villagers had to start rebuilding the place from scratch.






Even Clarkes of Walsham, the builders merchant, who has a ten-acre place in the heart of the village and will cheerfully sell you anything from cartridges to a garden gate, an oil tank to a wax jacket, somehow manages to remain tactfully out of sight.
One of the oldest buildings, naturally, is the church of St Mary the Virgin. The surrounding graveyard is quiet and carefully tended and just inside the gate is a rather splendid gravestone column protected by iron railings. Its the grave of the resonantly named Jabez Ebenezer Colson His life was craved but God denied who died in 1869. A young woman carrying flowers into the church saw me looking at it and stopped to ask if Id seen the War Memorial among its rose-beds.
Look at the numbers, she said. The First World War. This would have been a tiny village then and look: seven or eight men killed every single year of the war. There were 36 killed altogether. Just from one village. Doesnt bear thinking about.
Walsham has a strong sense of its own past. By some lucky chance, far more than usual of the accounts, wills, inventories and rolls, that chart a places history in the minutest detail, have survived for Walsham and are in the Suffolk Record Office. The Village History Group has done a remarkable job for many years of analysing these records and publishing their findings in little booklets.
Indeed, Walsham seems to be a pretty highly organised sort of place altogether. Somebodys carefully organised six planned walks around the place, each with its own theme, a Historic Trail, an Orchid Walk and a Trades and Occupations Walk being just three of them. Artists who live in the village exhibit their work, the drama group puts on a pantomime every year, the reading group reads Martin Amis and Chekhov and you can attend a kickboxing academy. Theyve been opening their nicest gardens to the public for some 30 years.
Then theres Elmswell.
Elmswells a good example of what happens when you pick a small community not far from two major towns, run a railway line through the middle of it linking the place to Ipswich and Cambridge and then build a major dual carriageway just outside which takes all the traffic between Felixstowe and the Midlands. People flock to live there and you have to build houses for them. Consequently, with a population of well over 3,000, Elmswell can now really be called a village only if youre in a very generous mood.
Elmswell people live mainly in the enormous labyrinth of new housing thats grown up south of the railway line, between the original village and the A14. They live in neat residential avenues with names like Crabtree Meadow, Rowan Green, Gardeners Walk and Rose Lane, with lots of tidy lawn in front of and between the houses. The houses themselves have picture windows and porches and everything is very spick and span, though admittedly theres not much in their design to suggest youre in Suffolk.
Young mothers push buggies along the pavements, perhaps on their way to or from the playgroup or the day nursery or the Elmswell toddler group. It looks the sort of place where husbands wash cars lovingly on Sundays, standing back every now and then to admire the shine on the bonnet.
It may not be a way of life to the taste of your cool metropolitan sophisticate but the whole area is actually rather attractive. Some of the houses still have the raw edges of newness but most have settled down to a pleasantly assorted collection of decent places in which to live. In 2008, Elmswell was chosen as the Suffolk Village of the Year because of its community spirit, wildlife areas and eco-friendly award-winning new housing. You can see why.
One word of warning, though. If youre near the level crossing by the station and you see a sign saying Old Tea Rooms, dont pull over, eager for a cake and a cuppa. Its a vets surgery.
So there you are. Three very different places Badwell Ash, Elmswell and Walsham-le-Willows. Suffolks a more varied and more interesting county than you might think.

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