Suffolk’s best walks: Seven-mile trek at Haughley and Wetherden
PUBLISHED: 16:23 16 March 2020 | UPDATED: 13:44 18 March 2020
Lindsay Want takes an enchanting walk west from Suffolk’s geographical centre, Haughley near Stowmarket
Some Suffolk spaces and places are weirdly attractive. The area around Haughley and Wetherden is most definitely one of them.
These days it quietly goes about its rural business, giving way to Stowmarket in the east and Bury in the west, tucked away from the lines of traffic ploughing the A14.
With its scattered farmsteads and picture-perfect villages complete with rambling pink cottages, greens and duck ponds, it makes great commuter country.
You can even live in Little London here. People have been gravitating towards it for centuries. A strong strategic position was certainly a big draw for our ancestors and their invaders, but could there have been some other, more mysterious forces at play?
If you believe some place name theories, Haughley and Wetherden – ‘high clearings’ or ‘fields’ in woods – were literally right in the thick of it all, even back in distant pagan times.
Imagine the haunting castle earthworks site at Haughley surrounded by venerable oaks and copious quantities of mistletoe, and you can see how romantic rumours of the place being a ‘Magus’, or druid settlement, could easily have spread like wild fire. Yet they could also have a certain substance about them.
Once you get wandering and wondering, this rather unsuspecting central Suffolk patch puts you under its spell.Strange things soon catch your eye, and hearsay helps join the dots.
The thing about being in the centre is that you’re also in between everything else. A strange sort of no-man’s land or middle earth, perhaps. Now there’s a thought.
Make your way across the village green towards medieval St Mary’s and the experience is already one of being in a slight time-warp.
There’s the Old Counting House, Suffolk’s oldest post office dating from 1861, and Palmers, where brick-oven-baked bread has been made on the premises since 1752.
Behind you, Haughley House not only boasts the current Lord of Haughley Manor, but a priest hole and possibly a secret tunnel towards the churchyard.
From the outside, St Mary’s is undeniably out of the ordinary with its square, great gargoyle-roost of a tower, set apart from the nave and joined only by a side aisle afterthought.
Step inside though and on the font there’s a strange, sharp-eared elfin creature amidst a worry of woodwoses (men of the wood). High above the north aisle is a whole flurry of snowflake roof bosses. It’s a heart-meltingly peaceful place.
Round the back of the churchyard, then up and over a stile, and you’re soon in a wide expanse of meadow – to the left Haughley castle earthworks crowned with Cedar of Lebanon, behind you the school and church, undoubtedly built in the outer bailey.
Even in its overgrown state, it’s an impressive spot steeped in history with one-time owners as wide ranging as Suetonius’ army, Danish Lord Gutmund and Mary Tudor.
Henry II gained the Honour of Haughley when Henry d’Essex found himself defeated in a duel and decided to become a monk.
Another owner, the King’s all too obedient knight, Ralph de Broc, who helped kill Thomas Becket, died here in a siege, whereas Henry III’s brother gave it away to Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, which he’d built as an act of thanks for surviving a shipwreck.
So as rather an exception to the Suffolk rule, until the Reformation Haughley church, the castle and its lands were ruled from afar and not by Bury’s all-powerful abbey-dom.
Across the fields, Haughley Mere hides by the Bacton Road and, over the railway line, somewhere on the chilly, distant Haughley Green horizon, Walnut Tree Manor was once home to Captain Oates of Scott’s Antarctic expedition fame.
But the paths lead left, down thinly hedged margins by open arable expanses, long stripped of their ancient woodland or planted oak deer parks.
Past moated Wetherden Hall, where one of Suffolk’s most famous catholic families, the Sulyards, lived before building Haughley Park in the 1620s.
At the railway bridge, you finally catch up with lonely Captain’s Lane where a footpath wends its way towards Mutton Hall, before dropping down into the comparative hubbub of Little London.
Walking west of Haughley, left of that central Suffolk spot, or standing near the old post mill site by Little London’s Warren Mill House, you can’t help feeling that this whole area has somehow got Suffolk’s back up. It’s bizarre to feel at a height even on the flat.
The sudden appearance of Brecks-style strips of pine-lined, sandy heathland seems out of character too, amid mid-Suffolk’s smooth chalk rises and rich, fertile bumps of boulder-clay.
You’d like to think that 16th century, Grade II listed former Maltsters Arms has led Wetherden’s inhabitants on many a merry song and dance of a May morning since it became the Maypole Inn. Perhaps 20th century composer Michael Tippett was taken along to watch such a spectacle when he lived here as a lad.
Wetherden harbours plenty more mysteries down by the tiny thatched cottages and mullioned ‘Weavers House’, and in St Mary’s, a church devasted by Puritan reformer William Dowsing, of Laxfield, when he passed through one snowy February day in 1644.
Taking his hammer to the place to rid it of ‘superstitious’ stuff, he had 65lbs of brasses lifted, a dig at one of the inlaid lilies on the porch, a smash at the Sulyard memorials and stained glass, and declared that 68 ‘cherubim’ should be cut down from the angel roof.
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However, he left the monkey, bear and long-eared beasts on the pew-ends intact. Most rarely, even a pointless unicorn or two still survive here. The font has some strange pointy-eared fellows though too. Elves? Woodland fauns?
Edging Haughley Park the village suddenly looks remarkably spread out in a sea of woodland but the tide of A14 motor noise soon breaks the spell beyond Brickwall Farm, and the meadows lead back to the village at Suffolk’s centre.
The final field margin paths seem to land deliberately at a road called ‘The Folly’. It’s near the duck pond – the remains of Haughley’s castle moat – the perfect place to stop and reflect on an unexpected walking adventure.
Crumbs . . . that’s old
Haughley’s traditional family bakery, Palmers Bakery, celebrated 150 years in 2019. William James Palmer purchased the business in 1869 and today it’s run by his direct descendants, Kenneth and Kieron Palmer.
Over the years Palmers has employed 500 people. Thirty of them have a combined service of more than 1,000 years.
As well as its Haughley bakery, where bread is made in brick ovens dating from about 1750, the bakery has outlets in Claydon, Ipswich, Needham Market, Stanton, Stowmarket and Woolpit.
Why not pick up a sticky bun to keep you going on the walk?
1) Start at St Mary’s Church Haughley (IP14 3QS). Take footpath between church and school, exiting churchyard into field with Haughley Castle moat/ earthworks on left. Cross low stile/ footbridge. Follow path (right) around field edge (Football Club pavilion on right), to enter another field. Follow field-margin path.
2) Cross sleeper bridge (right). Turn left along grassy margin path to railway crossing gate in treeline.
3) Cross railway line. Path leads alongside driveway for Spindleberry Cottage, over footbridge and between paddocks to small lane. Cross to take footpath opposite.
Path leads straight ahead, then left. At junction of paths by a vintage oak, keep straight ahead to pass moated Wetherden Hall (right) and cross the driveway (signed Wetherden Hall Farm). Keep hedge of mature trees and ditch on your right.
4) Cross wooden footbridge, then at the top of its steps, turn left (ditch now on left). Take the next wooden footbridge on left, then keep straight ahead (another ditch on left). Path leads uphill, around field-edge, past paddocks (left). Turn right along path (now parallel to railway line). Ignore stile to walkers’ railway crossing, continuing straight ahead to meet lane.
5) Turn left. Follow road under railway bridge to junction near Hunter’s Lodge. Continue ahead into Captain’s Lane (signed). Where footpath crosses the road, turn right. Path leads across field to a kissing gate into copse. Follow signed path to driveway to Mutton Hall. Turn left to reach the road at Little London.
6) Cross road, turning right to take next left up track towards Warren Mill House. At ‘no parking’ signs (just before house) turn left (grassy opening beside narrow copse). Continue alongside trees to turn left at footpath sign. This leads downhill (copse, then playing field left) to hedge gap leading past houses (right) to Wetherden village hall.
7) Turn left onto Park Road and straight over at crossroads.
8) St Mary’s Church is on the right. Retrace steps to village hall, passing it to continue south along Park Road to the T-junction (Haughley Park opposite).
9) Turn left. Follow road to Haughley New Street. Pavement starts near Brickwall Farm (left). After factory (right) look for cycle lane (left).
10) Look for path (left) between picket fence leading down into a meadow. Follow this through hedge-gap into a long, open meadow. Take weaving path diagonally right (ie. towards the church in distance), to find tall stile in meadow corner.
11) Go through tree-belt, over a stream to follow field-margin path uphill (hedge left) to road (The Folly). Turn left.
12) At T-junction turn right onto Duke Street to St Mary’s Church (left) and the village centre.
Distance: 7 miles / 11 kms
Time: 3 hours
Start: St Mary’s Church, Duke Street, Haughley (IP14 3QS).
Parking: Village centre / Old Street
Getting there / back: suffolkonboard.com / travelineeastanglia.org.uk
Access: Field-edge and meadow paths; tarmac roads, pavement. Stiles, footbridges, kissing gates.
Big Map to hand: OS Explorer 211
Ts & Ps: Supermarket, shops, pubs – Haughley