Where to find dragons in Suffolk: and the best picnic spots along the way
PUBLISHED: 12:01 12 April 2016 | UPDATED: 12:04 12 April 2016
From Walberswick and Sutton Hoo to the Stour Valley, we head out in search of the perfect Suffolk spot for a St George’s Day picnic
By George, now’s definitely the moment to get all fired up for a country walk! Good ol’ Suffolk springtime is galloping along apace in its cloak of many colours, rescuing everything in its path from the final stubborn stodginess of winter and preparing to whisk the world away towards summer’s heart-warming days. What a true knight in shining armour! It delivers that poke in the ribs which we all undeniably need and goads us into action.
So, where best to wander? A primrose path perhaps along Middleton’s green lanes? Through the sea of bluebells up in Freston’s ancient woods? Or maybe down the may-blossom tunnels behind Ixworth St Mary’s? Well, that’s all very lovely, but surely we can be a bit more daring than that? Why not pack up a deliciously English picnic and head out on your own mini-crusade across the Suffolk countryside? It doesn’t even have to be on St George’s day itself – just go on, be brave and you’ll soon be rewarded with all sorts of unexpected and noble discoveries.
From dungeons to dragon’s teeth
Canter off towards the coast where Konik ponies graze the heaths and waves of white horses hurtle from the deep towards the sea walls. According to legend, they once carried a merman onto the shore. The ‘Wild Man of Orford’ was swiftly locked up in the castle dungeons, but eventually escaped. If you fancy spotting a North Sea white horse or two, the Suffolk Coast and Heaths path along Boyton Marshes near Hollesley and Europe’s greatest shingle spit is the bracing place to be. Mind you, if you’re just out to blow away the very last cobwebs of winter, a climb to the blustery rooftops of Orford’s mighty castle keep will surely do the trick too.
But what about that picnic? Head for the Suffolk Coast and Heaths path around Walberswick or Dunwich where once sharp metal spikes set in concrete reached out from the beach – the fearsome WWII defences designed to tear the bottom out of invasion barges. Don’t worry, those dangerous ‘dragon’s teeth’ have all but been extracted now from the shingle coastline, but smaller concrete anti-tank pyramids and great blocks remain dotted along the beach. Why not dare to take a perch on one alongside RSPB Minsmere – they make lofty solid seats to drink in the views as you munch your lunch.
Mythical beasts, dragon beams and boats
Is that a flying pig or some strange sort of dragon gracing the pew end in Nettlestead church near Great Blakenham? Another East Anglian wild man seems to have found himself immortalised on the font here – blowing a raspberry at all who pass by. From Denston to Dennington there are bench-end carvings of miraculous medieval menageries including all sorts of winged dragons, griffins and gremlins to behold. They’re at just the right height too for the little ones to discover, unlike the beautiful carvings of the mighty dragon beams you’ll find on a walk around half-timbered Lavenham. Look out for these highly impressive corner posts on the medieval Guildhall of Corpus Christi on Market Place.
Once you recognise one of these wonderful dragons, you’ll be spotting them year round all over Suffolk’s wool towns and villages, but you’ll have to wait a while to experience Suffolk’s en mass gathering of dragons at Oulton Broad. A month after St Georges’ Day, the great charity Dragon Boat Festival is a spectacle to behold. Until then though, what’s stopping you from wandering off towards nearby Carlton Marshes for your picnic by the Waveney, to watch water-boatmen of a different kind and maybe even catch sight of an early dragonfly or two?
Into the dragon’s den
Ssshh! It’s no secret that Ickworth Estate near Bury St Edmunds is wonderful for walks and comes complete with its very own picnic-perfect Teaparty Oak, but if you chance upon The Stumpery round the back of the Italianate gardens be sure to tread softly. Dream-catchers dangle from the trees where the curled up dragon snoozes and abandoned bones warn of the fate of those who presumably ignored JK Rowling’s sterling advice in the Hogwart’s motto - “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” – and dared to tickle a sleeping dragon.
Over at Sutton Hoo, Spot, the colourful woody dragon who lurks beneath the sweet chestnuts on the jolly circular path leading to Top Hat wood, is a more friendly, photogenic sort of fellow, who’s only too keen for you to snuggle with your sandwich – especially if you then post the picture on his facebook page.
Suffolk’s ultimate dragonlands
Take a stroll along the Stour Valley Path, linking it up with St Edmund’s Way around the strangely cross-border village of Bures where Edmund was reputedly crowned, and you’re bound to get more than you bargained for. Just up from Smallbridge Hall and the wilds of Wormingford Mere, there be a dragon in them there hills.
Breathing fire, but with a playful twist in his tail, the 70m high winged beastie seems to be making a cheeky, catch-me-if-you-can run for it across the landscape. Indeed, locals warn that you should see him today, ‘for on the morrow, he may be gone’. Even though he lurks opposite Prince of Wales Wood, he’s apparently English through and through, etched in celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and in memory of the terrifying medieval reptile which apparently gobbled up as many virgins as the community of the local ‘hundred’ could muster back at the time.
The medieval congregation at nearby Wissington painted a dragon warning on the church wall opposite the door, but across in Wormingford St Andrew’s, a post-war stained glass window is quite graphic about the tale, showing the legs of some poor unfortunate dangling from between killer teeth, as if from the jaws of hell in some medieval doom painting. Its depiction sides with the escaped crocodile theory – that the ‘dragon’ was Richard I’s pet, a gift to the Crusader King from Saladin, which broke free from its new home in the Tower of London, swam off up the Thames and got to the Stour one day at about tea time. The perfect place to picnic and ponder the tale is just behind the tiny thatched chapel of St Stephen, Bures – reputedly the very spot where Edmund was crowned in AD 855 – and where a welcoming bench awaits with the legendary view.
But there’s more than one twist in this dragon’s tail. Creepy croc or full blown beastie, some reports say it finally fled the arrows of its would-be assassins never to return again. Others praise the prowess of local Sir George Marney from layer de la Haye who armed himself and his horse, chased the dragon and valiantly put it to death.
Ah, the very tale of England’s current patron saint, played out right on our Suffolk doorstep, almost exactly on the spot where Edmund, England’s former patron saint was crowned king. Quirk of fate? History carefully contrived? Or just sheer coincidence? Now that really has to be something to chew on.
Like this? Check out Stunning Suffolk churches: 6 unforgettable parishes to visit