A sense of place: The Upper Deben

PUBLISHED: 10:14 11 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:08 20 February 2013

Peter Sampson's route from Debenham to Wickham Market


Peter Sampson's route from Debenham to Wickham Market Map by BEV BADDELEY

Get off the tourist trail and head for the beautiful quiet stretch of the River Deben between Wickham Market and Debenham, says Peter Sampson

Get off the tourist trail and head for the beautiful quiet stretch of the River Deben between Wickham Market and Debenham, says Peter Sampson

Nobody talks about the Deben. Its Suffolks forgotten river, the one that keeps itself to itself and rarely gets written about or filmed or photographed or celebrated.
Im not thinking, of course, about the Deben estuary below Woodbridge, that stretch of the river which is constantly in the public eye, always busy with yachts of all shapes and sizes elegantly gliding their way below the lumps and bumps of Sutton Hoo all the way to the sea. Far from being forgotten and anonymous, that bit of the Deben from Woodbridge down to Bawdsey and the grey North Sea is constantly on postcards and tourist maps, usually with the Tide Mill somewhere in the forefront. Its hardly the Deben at all, any more than the A12 is a country lane.
Im thinking instead of the quieter, more secluded stretch of the river from Wickham Market up to where it begins near Debenham. The distance is only a few miles, about ten as the crow flies, but the river twists and turns and meanders through some of the loveliest of Suffolks countryside.
Its only proper that you start with a place of real delight. Rackhams Mill sits astride the Deben just outside Wickham Market, on a site which goes back to the Domesday Book. Its a jumble of buildings in red brick, white board, pantiles and the Georgian front of the house where Jane and David Rackham live. It ought to look chaotic but somehow it works.
The Rackham family have run the place for 125 years and milling flour only finished in 1970. Now, among other things, they supply coal and coke, together with animal and pet feed.
Jane Rackham showed me where the Deben forms the mill pond at the back of the buildings. Its huge and dark and a couple of bad-tempered swans waddle along the bank. Across the water, a heron flapped lazily away. Its there nearly every day, she told me. Its almost tame.
The undershot water wheel that once powered the mill is still there and still turns occasionally, tucked under the buildings. When the water gets too high during the night, it starts to rumble and we know its time to do something about the flow of the river, she said.
Leave Rackhams Mill and take the quiet road towards Easton. Almost immediately, you cross a small bridge under which the Deben flows slow and shallow and wide. You might catch a glimpse of a white Camargue horse pottering about in a distant meadow beyond Valley Farm, a place where they teach you how to ride.
Youre following the river and within minutes youre in Easton.
The whole place used to be owned by v
v various Dukes of Hamilton, who lived sometimes behind the longest crinkle-crankle wall in Europe, every now and then providing a village hall or a school or, in 1875, a model farm (to please the Duchess, apparently) or some cottages for the locals, while rebuilding chunks of the Hall itself. The whole village used to be a sort of aristocratic toy, to be taken out and played with as the mood struck their lordships and ignored for much of the rest of the time.
The twelfth Duke, who died in 1895, was one of those rather disreputable characters in which Suffolk seems to specialise, as at Ickworth, for instance. At the age of 28, he was publicly denounced for his idleness and dissipation and he was saved from bankruptcy only when his horse won the Grand National in 1867.
The estate lands fell on hard times after the Great War and were sold off but nobody wanted to buy the mansion behind its wall, so they knocked it down in 1924.

At the age of 28, he was publicly denounced for his idleness and dissipation and he was saved from bankruptcy only when his horse
won the Grand National in 1867.

Whats left are the crinkle-crankle wall, the school and some pretty cottages with arched windows. Every morning, the pack of hounds belonging to the Easton Harriers, who figure on the village sign, clamour for their breakfast. Right in the centre of the village, the White Horse pub is one of the most good-looking in Suffolk, with a sloping path up to a narrow front door shaded by roses. Its setting, just by the village green and alongside a row of neat 18th century cottages with the church tower behind the trees, makes Lavenham look gaudy.
Her ladyships model farm has become the very popular Easton Farm Park just outside the village on a bend in the Deben. Over the summer months, children hug rabbits or balance anxiously on ponies and theres a monthly farmers market.
If you follow the Deben under huge skies along the lanes round the back of the Farm Park and through Letheringham, with its white cottages backing on to the river, you enter Akenfield country. Charsfield itself is only a couple of miles away and its a landscape of narrow lanes, old farmhouses and wide fields all the way to Hoo and up to Kettleburgh, where an old willow droops over the Deben next to what used to be the village pinfold, the stockade in which villagers kept animals that had strayed.
Just down the road is Brandeston. One of Shakespeares characters has the splendid line: Lets kill all the lawyers. The people of Brandeston went a step further: they hanged their vicar.
Back in the 1640s, the Rev John Lowes was 80 years old and hed been their vicar for some 50 years. The man was a bit of a curmudgeon hed had a stand-up row in the churchyard with one of his parishioners and given the man a bloody nose and he had religious views that the locals thought were dangerously close to the old Catholic faith. So they accused the poor man of witchcraft and chucked him into Framlingham mere to see if hed float. When, exhausted, he confessed, they took him to Bury and strung him up.
The place is calmer now. The Deben curves quietly round the southern edge of the village and runs behind Framlingham v v Colleges junior school in Brandeston Hall. The halls a good-looking building, a replica of the Tudor original that burnt down in 1844.
Whenever lifes fretful fever grabs you by the throat and you really need to slow down for a bit of peace and quiet, amble along the edge of the field next to the school grounds, where small boys shout as they play rugby. You walk under a line of oaks and then cross a couple of little footbridges to reach the Deben.
Its quite wide there, some 20 feet or so, and weeds move in the water, fish rise and trees dip their branches. The river banks are thick with willow-herb and nettles and the world is almost silent. This is the Deben at its very best. All you need to do is stand and gaze ruminatively at the slow-moving stream. Within minutes, I promise you, youll be thinking grave, wise thoughts about the great natural rhythms of the soil and the meaning of life and the unimportance of the hole in your stair-carpet. Even Jeremy Clarkson ceases to matter very much.
When you leave Brandeston and head towards Cretingham, theres a defining moment when the Deben stops being a river and becomes a stream you could jump across. From now on, it stays small and, at Debenham, it splinters into different, even smaller streams, so that its difficult to track it down to one convincing source somewhere in a field beyond the town.
After ambling through places like Letheringham and Kettleburgh, where you can see one end of the village from the other, going into Debenham is like entering the Big Wicked City, a place where there are actually real shops and car-parks and schools and a leisure centre. In the car park at the bottom of the High Street, where childrens voices floated across from the playing field on the other side of the hedge, a man told me: Ah, Debenhams all right. Good spirit, good shops. We like it.
The residents boast of having the longest ford in Suffolk and the most winding road in Europe (I wonder how they know that?); theyve got places called Hoggs Kiss Wood and Hilly Filly and they boast of a Groaning Stone that moves and moans under a full moon.
This is pretty heady stuff. No wonder Debenham was picked to represent East Anglia in a Daily Telegraph Festival of Villages. In 1975, that was.
Anyway, Debenham marks the end or, rather, the beginning of the Deben, an undemonstrative waterway that winds through the most peaceful landscapes of the county without making a fuss about it. Its the most Suffolk of Suffolks rivers. It soothes the soul.
When you rejoin the busy world, you feel that the human race may have something to be said for it after all.

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