Inside out: Inspired by Woolpit

PUBLISHED: 12:14 19 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:09 20 February 2013

Inside out: Inspired by Woolpit

Inside out: Inspired by Woolpit

Essex man Martin Newell visits the pretty village of Woolpit

Essex man Martin Newell visits the pretty village of Woolpit

To Woolpit, which I hadnt seen in three decades. I remembered it chiefly for its old water pump, which sits under a lychgate style shelter in the middle of the improbably pretty village square.

The first thing which I noticed on the approach here, was the steeple of St Marys church tucked into the gentle cleavage of the surrounding countryside. In the area of north Essex where I live, there are more church towers than spires, so the sight of the spire was rather a treat for me.

Woolpit lies just off the busy A14, six or seven miles west of Bury. We could, if wed so wished, have done the A12/Toys R Us roundabout route at Ipswich and whipped straight up there on the A14. This, however, is not in the spirit of seeing Suffolk and so, once again, we took the pretty way: over the White Bridge at Manningtree and up through East Bergholt, Hadleigh, Bildeston, Hitcham and Great Finborough.

Suffolk, after the flatlands of Essex, can seem surprisingly hilly what my Norfolk forebears might have called pimply. Theres a steady climb at Bildeston which gradually levels out towards Great Finborough. This is the area where the late great DJ John Peel lived and I can never pass through here without remembering that these lanes must have been the ones on which he travelled back and forth to and from numerous broadcasts for the BBC.

At Woolpit itself I learned that the jury was still out on how the place got its name. Woolpit is thought not to be associated with the wool trade, which its name pre-dates, but with an actual wolf trap. Read the tourist information board in the village square, however, and it will tell you that neither story is true. The board then adds that if you want to know the true meaning of the name Woolpit, you must go into the museum across the road, which was closed when we visited.

After some trouble, I finally discovered elsewhere, that Woolpit is now thought to be named after a Saxon earl called Ulfketel, whose name means (wait for it) wolf trap. They do like to go the long way round in this county.

Woolpit, though, is possessed of a stunning church St Marys and Our Ladys Well, whose sulphurous waters were once thought to be curative. Both places were once destinations for pilgrims. The village is also home to one of Suffolks most famous legends, that of the two Green Children, who its said, in medieval times, appeared in the local fields at harvest time, speaking a strange language.

Another thing which I found interesting about Woolpit, is that there is still a fair amount of its medieval architectural wealth around. Although the centre of the village, which also features some handsome Georgian buildings seems in a perpetually primped state of readiness for tourist coaches, a walk around the smaller back lanes elicits views of an altogether cosier, off-duty and more lived-in place. For it is here that youll see the sleeping cats, the washing lines and the odd bits of DIY going on. So much was this so when I visited, that after a while I half expected to meet with Mr Tom from the film Goodnight Mr Tom, part-way up a ladder fixing pantiles into place on an outbuilding.

If I want to take the pulse of a village, however, Ill go and study the community notice boards and read the cards in the shop windows. Woolpit does not let me down in this respect. Theres a comedy triple bill of plays due on at the village hall and the WI are soon to host a talk by the daughter of the late comedian, Eric Morecambe. Elsewhere there are workshops, lessons and various other services being advertised.

The bakers shop, which boasts traditional brick ovens is doing good business. Down the road, is a proper drinker. They seem to be doing pies, fishcakes, fish and chips. They have a dartboard. Theres also a small team of young men and women, obviously familiar with the place, queuing cheerily at the bar, ordering lunches. Unfortunately, my partner and I are now out of time, having dawdled down Woolpits back lanes for far too long.

This unspoilt piece of old medieval Suffolk nestles comfortably into its native countryside bounded by the noisy sleepless ribbon of the A14 and yet, seems hardly the worse for it. I hadnt seen it in three decades. I didnt know it well then and I cant say that I know it well now. Woolpit, though, seems utterly familiar to me as an unchanging and virtually unchanged piece of Suffolk, East Anglia and England.

Its late summer and as the car putters away back down the road, I reflect that if I didnt return for a further three decades I doubt that much would change. The WI the bakers, the pump, the village hall, the church and all of the higgledy-piggledy houses in the back lanes will probably all still be here.

Then, a few minutes later, I see the church spire standing up against the fields and the darker hues of the woods. And I realise again that Im looking at something truly timeless. Could I live here? Of course not. Im from Essex. It would probably drive me nuts. Lovely place to visit, though.

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