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Favourite Suffolk towns: Sudbury

PUBLISHED: 00:16 21 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:31 20 February 2013

Favourite Suffolk towns: Sudbury

Favourite Suffolk towns: Sudbury

Alan Cocksedge starts our new series on places in the county with this personal portrait of the birthplace of artist Thomas Gainsborough

Alan Cocksedge starts our new series on places in the county with this personal portrait of the birthplace of artist Thomas Gainsborough




Water meadows, silk and Gainsborough are just a few of the things that come to mind as potential jewels in the crown when it comes to Sudbury 1,000 years a market town.
Maybe there are larger traditional market towns in Suffolk, but this one, tucked into a fold of the River Stour, where the valley loops towards Essex, is a place with a purpose.
It is more than able to punch its weight in what it has to offer, and is sufficiently far away from any other significant centre of population to present itself as a confident, self reliant community.
It may be fighting a decades-long and more than likely futile campaign to have a western by-pass. But hey, being off the beaten track when it comes to motorways removes it a bit further from the rat race.
At 60 miles from the capital, it is in the London commuter belt. But only the more dedicated persons wishing to hide away make the effort to take up residency, with many venturing into the sleepy hamlets not much more than a stones throw from the town.
A good proportion of the incomers infiltrate via the 12-mile Sudbury branch line that commences at Marks Tey on the Colchester-Liverpool Street line.
Residents undertook an almighty dust up in the 1960s to retain the link and save it from the Beeching axe, although the bit that went on to Cambridge via Haverhill was lost.


v Sudburians fought a tenacious battle to keep on the tracks none more than local jazz-loving clergyman Brian Bird, who nearly got locked up in the town police cells for his enthusiastic behaviour at a public inquiry.
The loss of the iron road to the west has not been without a silver lining, with three miles of old track now forming a railway walk beside the water meadows towards Long Melford.
However, the part of the line left operating is flourishing, although the icing on the cake would be later homeward trains to enable a night out in the West End to be accommodated.
Yet, there again, Sudbury provides an alternative. The admirable Quay Theatre offers just about every imaginable turn, from panto to opera and films to rock. In fact, history lectures are almost the new rock and roll in Sudbury with sell-out audiences unable to get enough when local historians reveal new twists concerning the towns past.
At the Quay, touring companies are entertained, and some very high quality amateur dramatics are also on the bill, often performed by ex pro thespians, together with some of the best am dram people to be found.
Tremendously dedicated trustees, volunteers and a very small team of professionals keep the playhouse going, along with quite a small hand-out from the public purse. However, there is a cloud on the horizon as the local district council is looking to cut its cloth according to harder financial times.
The Quay was once a River Stour waterside warehouse which, over past centuries, stored items such as grain when the 20-odd mile navigable river provided an important commercial link with the outside world.
Bricks to build the likes of the Royal Albert Hall were shipped out of Sudbury, down the East Coast and up the Thames. In return, London is said to have sent Suffolk the surplus horse manure from its streets to spread on the land!
An unusual First World War use of the theatre was the bailing of local hay to be transported to France for horses. Perhaps a production of War Horse would be an appropriate venture some time. The building was also used to generate the towns first electricity supply.
Today, the nearby river basin and adjoining cut provide the base for the River Stour Trust, which has done much to ensure the river retains its navigable rights. Some riparian owners have to date blocked plans to make the river an even greater attraction to visitors by restoration of all the locks down to Manningtree.
Although one appreciates the need to preserve the ecology and peaceful nature of the beautiful Stour, there is some merit in believing a few vested interests have overplayed the conservation card in a so far successful resistance to better navigation.
A feature of the river at nearby Friars Meadow is a long, wide stretch created over several decades when the drainage authority straightened the water course to accommodate better flood prevention.
This improvement has been the equivalent of providing the towns rowing club with a course of mini Olympic proportions, as the wider water allows crews to race side by side, as opposed to taking part in staggered starts. Well into its second century, the rowing club is one of the sporting prides of Sudbury, as there is nothing like it elsewhere in the county.
The Stour valley was, of course, the schoolboy inspiration of Thomas Gainsborough, and the home in which he was born is now an international art gem.
The largest collection of the artists work anywhere in the world is held at the museum, and its print work shop is an inspirational centre for artists from throughout the region.
The house has benefited from considerable investment in recent times. Its imaginative exhibition programme more often than not highlights artistic links to Gainsborough, or other notable painters and collectors that have enjoyed being part of the East Anglia scene.
Not surprisingly, over the years various businesses have sought to capitalise on the artists name, including one firm that once sold petrol.
A company with perhaps a more appropriate attachment to the artist, in that its work does require both artistry and considerable skill to exist, is the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company, whose fabrics drape some of the best known public buildings in the world.
However, it is the smallest of the towns four mills, with the highest proportion of Sudburys 300 silk workers employed by Vanners Silks and the multi-generational family owned Stephen Walters.
All three firms are prestigious flag carriers of quality work that has made the town famous for its products throughout the world. And no one is allowed to forget Diana Spencers wedding dress was woven by one of them!
If wool, and more lately silk, has been a noteworthy part of the towns industrial history, then perhaps the not quite so glamorous diesel powered combustion engine has had an even greater impact on local prosperity over the last half century.
American owned Delphi employs 800 people, having initially moved to Suffolk as CAV Ltd to escape Hitlers bombs, and continue manufacturing important diesel engine parts for the war effort.




Bricks to build the likes of the Royal Albert Hall were shipped out of Sudbury, down the East Coast and up the Thames. In return, London is said to have sent Suffolk the surplus horse manure from its streets to spread on the land!





Its subsequent success has made Sudbury the Motown of East Anglia, having initially in the 1950s mopped up the hundreds of people leaving the land because of farm mechanisation.
Later, in the 60s and 70s, it took on labour as part of the towns expansion in connection with London overspill population, an exercise in social engineering which appears to have left the area relatively unscathed.
Passing through the ownership of the now defunct Lucas group and on to various owners in the States, the diesel injector factory continues to be a world leader.
It has always been said the dominance of the companys position in providing such a high proportion of local employment is a risky strategy. But the emergence of other equally successful industries, in several cases led by homegrown entrepreneurs, has made for more diversity and future security.
One of the smaller, alternative production ventures is brewing, an industry which had a considerable presence in the town a century ago before mergers helped lead to the growth of the likes of Greene King.
Among those with a previous foothold in the town was the Mauldon family. Peter Mauldon, a nephew of the original family, brought the brewing name back to Sudbury a couple of decades ago. The new Mauldons brewery is now owned by Steve Sims, a former Adnams man. Recently he decided it was time to have his own real ale pub, and acquired the run down Black Horse in East Street.
With a new name, the Brewery Tap, he created the antidote to both gastro pubs and those licensed premises run by owners that feel the only way to survive involves the provision of wall-to-wall football screens.
Instead, the Tap makes only a nodding acquaintance in the direction of home comforts, but is high on enabling consumption of a quiet pint and a leisurely read of the papers if one chooses not to indulge in the ancient craft of conversation. When in town, give the place a try,and dont forget the salt beef rolls.
To work up a thirst, a stroll over the previously, briefly mentioned water meadows should be experienced.
These lands, most of which have been under grazing for upwards of 1,000 years, really do set Sudbury apart from other towns.
Most of them are administered by the Sudbury Common Lands Charity. Although the towns freemen enjoy nominal income from grazing rights, their trustees show commendable dedication to preserve the meadows for benefit of both visitors and townsfolk alike. At the same time they seek to make grazing viable, along with retention of the unique ecology of the meadows.
The guardian supreme of these lands is Adrian Walters. For around two decades he has been secretary/ranger to the trustees. Hes Sudbury's answer to David Bellamy or Bill Oddie, but without their eccentricities. Adrian has turned the study of the meadows and their ecological wonders into an art form, producing a number of books on the subject along the away.
Retired school teacher David Burnett has been similarly active in publishing illustrated work featuring the towns Victorian architecture. He has a finger in several historical pies, including having helped launch an impressive website showing hundreds of old photographs of Sudbury.
One picture unlikely to be appearing on the site just yet will be that of Borehamgate Precinct. Although some scenes as recent as 50 years ago do appear, the 1960s shopping edifice understandably continues to be an unspeakable absentee. The blot on the landscape just will not fall down, and any redevelopment of adjoining land and the local bus station continues to grind along.
Thankfully, one building still standing tall is the towns magnificent former corn exchange on the Market Hill. It now houses the local library, but was threatened by demolition until local solicitor Andrew Phillips worked up a storm in the 1960s.
He has been keeping the town on the map ever since and, although now into his early 70s, shows no sign of relenting. A posh boy with the art of delivering a brilliant Suffolk accent, Andrew has the towns name stamped through him like a piece of seaside rock.
When he occasionally accepts an invitation to provide a funeral eulogy to a late, departed friend, it is often a tour-de-force. They say you have not really arrived (or departed) in Sudbury until he has said a few words at your funeral!
Words, of course, have been his speciality, for many years being the long-serving Legal Eagle to Jimmy Young on BBC radio.
A few years ago he became a Liberal peer, but when he, perhaps prematurely, decided to call it a day, he found it constitutionally impossible to hand in his peerage. Failing to de-frock himself, he retreated to Suffolk, but now finds the time to become London-bound again, having rediscovered his appetite for speaking in the Lords.
Speaking of Lords, the community boasts one of the countrys last remaining town centre cricket facilities and, like the famous ground in London, its intimacy provides an intense, close-up experience for watchers.
It is one of several fine sporting venues the town can boast, with both the rugby and football clubs recently unveiling state-of-art stadiums. The headquarters of AFC Sudbury is possibly without equal among similar towns in the country, combining sporting functionality with architectural merit.
Elsewhere, much of what goes on locally gets aired inside the Market Hill church of St Peters. It was one of the first churches in the country to embrace the positive side of redundancy, with the buildings Friends managing it and offering everything from farmers markets to concerts featuring the buildings much heralded and fully restored organ.
Although Sudbury may not be the very best market town in England, it has much to commend it to residents and visitors alike.


For more than four decades Alan Cocksedge saw life in Sudbury through the eyes of a local journalist and the lens of an amateur photographer. Several of his photos now feature on the towns history web site and are included in this feature.

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