Suffolk's forgotten beauty: 'High Suffolk'
PUBLISHED: 10:30 19 September 2016
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Suffolk Preservation Society safeguards some of the county's most precious and endangered landscapes and buildings. Fiona Cairns, director, talks about the often overlooked beauty of High Suffolk's green space
Suffolk commons, greens and tyes – what and where are they? How can it be that a type of land covering nearly 1,800 hectares across Suffolk is hardly noticed? Yet this is what seems to have happened to the unique archipelago of land and buildings that is sometimes known as ‘High’ Suffolk.
It stretches from Great Ashfield and Walsham-le-Willows in the west to the South Elmhams and the north side of Halesworth in the east, reaching out in an arc from the edge of the Waveney valley in the north to the edges of the Gipping and Deben valleys in the south. A vast area of unspoilt rural green space.
This landscape is characterised by a tapestry of open grassland known as greens – or tyes for those south of the Gipping – some of which are extensive and cover many hectares, such as Mellis, while the majority of them are small and measure less than an acre.
These open spaces are typically characterised by the ubiquitous Suffolk vernacular cottages and farmsteads which encircle and define these open greens. In part of north Suffolk there are thought to be more than 200 such open spaces, each distinct and separate from the others.
But this vision is more than just pleasant on the eye. It is a living reminder of what much of the county and indeed the country would have looked like before the great enclosure movements, which divided up the land into parcels of hedge-rowed fields. This is especially true of those greens which are grazed by cattle, such as Chippenhall Green, as part of the management programme of this biodiverse rich area.
The reasons for their survival as greens are various and variously contested. In part, the clay soils are frequently poor in nutrients and badly drained and so of little agricultural value. By other accounts, the local social structure was characterised by a weaker than average gentry, who were incapable or simply unwilling to take on a more powerful than average class of smallholders.
But whatever the cause, I would argue that these rural greens are more authentic in their unspoilt simplicity, with their added value of wildlife and flora and picturesque value of Suffolk’s rural past, than their wealthier and more built-up neighbours. In recent years they have increasingly come under threat from piecemeal and ill-conceived housing development.
But there is a more insidious threat of encroaching suburbanisation – inappropriate mowing and planting of commons, the creation of hard-standings, use as pony paddocks, as well as the more drastic ditching practices to deter travellers.
Unlike more cleverly branded character areas, such as the Dedham Vale, the Deben Estuary or the ‘Heritage’ Coast, Suffolk’s greens lack a coherent ‘image’ and hence a place in most people’s consciousness. Crucially, they are devoid of the ‘landscape designation’ of these better known areas that enjoy a degree of protection within the planning system.
Also, because of their sheer geographical spread, the greens and commons fall within a multitude of ownerships, including parish councils and the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, as well as numerous private individuals, all with varying management regimes. If we really want to maintain this fragile landscape we need a much greater appreciation of their special qualities and a more sensitive approach by owners and the communities who live in and within them.
If not, I worry that Suffolk’s rural simplicity of landscape character and countryside heritage will be lost forever.