Life in the valley

PUBLISHED: 13:19 25 February 2014 | UPDATED: 13:19 25 February 2014




Teapots, Morris men and the county’s first self-service shop . . . Jonathan Schofield visits a village where a perfectly preserved past complements a lively commercial spirit

parish magazine writer Joan Wilkins and he rchief proof reader, husband Havparish magazine writer Joan Wilkins and he rchief proof reader, husband Hav

Around the time our Norman conquerers were establishing control in the volatile years after 1066, Debenham was busily gaining clout as a commercial and religious hub – and one of the highest populated villages in East Anglia.

Its popularity as a place to live can be traced back Neolithic times and could be down to Debenham’s old English meaning, ‘the village in a deep valley’. It was an area perfectly suited for settlement, with plentiful fish from the River Deben, which runs through the centre of the village and incorporates one of England’s largest fords, and surrounded by fertile land.

Today, arriving from the west of the county, the road past the village’s high school and leisure centre plummets down to reveal one of the prettiest villages I’ve visited in Suffolk. With its tiny green surrounded by medieval buildings, it’s easy to see why the centre of Debenham was declared a conservation area in 1970, and in 1975 was chosen to represent East Anglia in a festival of villages during the European Architectural Heritage Year.

After exploring the stunning St Mary Magdelene Church, which sits high above the town, I met Clive Cook, chairman of the Debenham History Society. He might be more recognisable to many as the Morris Horse, the role he performs with the East Suffolk Morris Men. Having moved to Debenham a decade ago Clive’s a relative newcomer to the village, but is as passionate a local as you could meet.

Clive Cook, chairman of Debenham History SocietyClive Cook, chairman of Debenham History Society

“I’ve always lived in Suffolk, but on the coast until I moved here,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I could live inland, but now I can’t imagine leaving. It’s a fascinating place, full of character and history. I started going to the history society lectures, which revealed all the complex layers of history that lay beneath this village, and from then on I was hooked.”

As we toured the village he pointed to a selection of houses on the High Street that, between 2006 and 2008, were studied by a team from the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory. Timbers were delicately drilled and wood samples taken for analysis to establish the exact date of construction.

The results, now available at the Suffolk Record Office, provide precise data of when the houses were built, including one dated to 1446.

“It allowed us to piece together a more exact picture of our village’s past,” explains Clive.

Read all about it

Grace and Bob Webster opened a newsagents in Debenham more than 55 years ago and the business is still going strong today. Jammed full of every newspaper title, magazine and periodical, and luring me in with tall jars full of old fashioned sweets behind the counter, Websters seemed to be as much a business as a social hub of the village when I popped in.

Grace, 92, still helps out in the shop alongside her daughter Ruth Boulton and son-in-law Stephen.

“We’re still up at the crack of dawn to do the paper rounds,” says Ruth. “We know our customers so well and delivery often includes changing a lightbulb for someone or helping to take out the rubbish.”

Containers filled with bottle tops, hearing aids and glasses in the shop are testament to the family’s commitment to recycling and raising money for charity.

A lifetime of memories

If there’s someone who can truly talk about life in the village over the last nine decades it’s 85-year-old Joan Wilkins. Every month in the parish magazine you can read ‘Joan’s Debenham Memories’. Her articles, which she writes out in longhand before passing to her husband, Hav, for proofreading, have become so popular there are plans to publish a collection of her work in a book.

“I’ve always loved writing,” says Joan from her living room stacked floor to ceiling with books and magazines. “But the articles started when my grandchildren kept asking me ‘what was it like in the olden days nan?’ So I decided to get it all down on paper. I now publish a monthly article and give talks at the school on what life was like in the past. Some of the children are amazed when I tell them we had no water or sewage systems connected to our homes as late as the 1950s!”

Working with parish magazine editor David Carruthers, Joan has already submitted her story list for the next 12 issues. Joan’s articles, supported by her extensive photo library, cover topics from the annual harvest, shops and businesses to weddings, sports events and the first signs of spring.

Joan, who has just started computer lessons, has lived in the village her entire life. “My father was a bricklayer in Debenham and built many of the buildings and when I walk through the village I feel like I’m part of the bricks and mortar.”

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