Suffolk's best walks: The Magna Carta Trail between Castle Hedingham and Clare
PUBLISHED: 13:53 28 September 2018 | UPDATED: 13:53 28 September 2018
Lindsay Want treads the ancient paths of pilgrims and mighty barons between Castle Hedingham and Clare
It’s 1215 (AD) and King John has really been winding up his nobles. Not only has the Norman king of England lost his ancestors’ revered homeland of Normandy, plus all his father’s continental territories, to Phillipe of France, but in trying to refill his war chests to fight for their return, he has behaved outrageously.
By the River Colne near Suffolk borderlands, Robert de Vere of Hedingham Castle is more than a little miffed. Not content with payment of huge sums already, the desperate king has left him in a potentially ruinous situation, imposing a hefty inheritance tax, and denying him his hereditary title of Earl of Oxford and powerful court office of Lord Great Chamberlain.
By the River Stour, Richard de Clare from Clare Castle has been hit by crippling taxes too. But he also has a personal grievance against John, who imprisoned his daughter’s husband and mother-in-law in Windsor Castle and starved them to death.
How often must hurried hooves have thundered up and down the green lanes between Clare and Hedingham castles, as the Barons prepared their rebel cause, mooting the history-changing Magna Carta which would endeavour to sort out Big Bad John once and for all, and bring peace and fairer play to the kingdom of England?
Get yourself to quaint little Castle Hedingham. Set your sights on the charming market town of Clare, and take a remarkable castle to castle walk, back through time and gentle folds of East Anglian countryside where history is with you every step of the way.
Hedingham castle’s Barnack stone is all that remains of the 1140 complex built by Aubrey De Vere II. The prime perch overlooks the Colne and ancient Wool Street trade route and was secured by his father, William the Conqueror’s brother-in-law.
But St Nicholas’ Church is the place to start when it comes to revelling in fine Norman survivals. Gaze away at arches, pillars and carved capitals. Trace the swirling shapes of original ironwork on unbelievably intact oak doors.
Find chevron-laden entranceways and get caught up in the spokes of one of only five surviving Romanesque wheel windows in England.
Outside, the main column of the war memorial cross is a richly carved Norman pillar found in the 15th century Falcon Inn, where it had presumably been propping up the cellar roof for centuries.
The half-timbered house, built by a De Vere for his head falconer, is decorated with the powerful family’s heraldic star (mullet) – once spotted, you’ll be counting them almost everywhere and may even go chasing after a De Vere blue boar too.
Beyond Bayley Street, there’s a chance to peer at it through the trees and discern Sir William Ashhurst’s adjacent Georgian mansion, lake and 18th century dovecote. Wild red grapes still grow in the grounds, their stock allegedly trailing back to the treasured vines of those early Aubrey De Veres.
At the valley top on redolent Rosemary Lane, there’s the keeper’s cottage and yeoman’s farmstead by the old wetlands of Rushley Green, where servant-folk gathered rushes and fragrant herbs for flooring or rush lights.
But the ancient path leads north across the one-time Great Park, hunting grounds granted by Edward III and later enjoyed by Elizabeth I and her falcons. Great Lodge Farm is one of Castle Hedingham’s oldest domestic buildings, but nearby Colliersley (Chelsey) Wood certainly existed in part after the Norman conquest, and the route to Clare led De Vere’s Magna Carta messengers through the woodland itself.
Across Norman fields
The Normans were clearly taken with this rolling patch which falls away to the brook below. They called it ‘Belchamp’ - beautiful field – and the name still rings true today.
William Otonis owned these lands around 1212, but there’s a theory that Belchamp Otten got its name from Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV, King John’s nephew who everyone was blaming for the loss of England’s French territories at the 1214 Battle of Bouvines.
As you gaze down to Belchamp Brook, detour for half-way refreshments to Belchamp St Paul’s historic Half Moon, or look across to Belchamp Walter on the distant horizon. The beauty of the fields is still undeniably there.
The Long Lane to Clare
Treelined, hollowed and straight as a die, ‘Long Lane’ is still where pilgrims pass and horses canter. It’s an evocative time-tunnel that goes on and on, teasing with glimpses across the valley.
Across the Stour, Clare Castle mound cries out to be climbed, a modern-day opportunity to look out and back. By 1250 Hugh De Vere had provided a ‘New Abbey’ rest place near the Chapel of St James at Castle Hedingham, to welcome pilgrims bound for Bury or Walsingham.
Their next stop was Clare’s Augustinian friars founded by Richard de Clare in 1248. The Priory has had its ups and downs, changed its course with the Reformation, but got itself back on its Augustinian track in the end. Its delightful gardens are the perfect spot to sit and reflect on the long way from castle to castle.
Did you know?
Out of the 25 famous Magna Carta Barons, five were from Suffolk. They were:
- Richard and Gilbert de Clare
- Hugh and Roger Bigod (Framlingham)
- William de Huntingfield
- There was also Castle Hedingham’s Robert De Vere, and three others from Essex. None were from Norfolk.
1) Start at St Nicholas’ Church, Castle Hedingham. Exit the churchyard by the war memorial into Falcon Square and to the right of Falcon House, head up Castle Lane to face the entrance to Hedingham Castle on Bayley Street.
2) The Castle is now a private venue, opening regularly for special events (hedinghamcastle.co.uk). The official start of the waymarked Magna Carta trail is at Pye Corner (left down Bayley Street, then take footpath alongside houses on the right), but for better glimpses of the castle and its grounds, go right along Bayley Street to Forge Green (village sign and Magna Carta information boards on right).
Cross over to the castle side of the road and go left briefly along St James’ Street towards Sudbury.
3) Take the footpath (left) uphill alongside the castle lake and park to Rosemary Lane. Turn left along the metalled road towards Rushley Green. At the triangle of wet woodland (information board), it’s worth continuing along the lane to view thatched Keeper’s Cottage, historic ‘Yeomans’ and to look back down across idyllic meadow slopes towards the village.
Retrace your steps to the triangle and pick up Magna Carta Trail waymarkers which lead you all the way to Clare. Here, they point through the wood to a small road. This becomes a track on the approach to Great Lodge Farm.
4) Keep left by the farm gate. This grassy track soon continues between fields, then across arable land to meet Colliersley Wood.
5) Go left along the woodland edge and field margin. Follow signs over a footbridge to field margin paths high above Belchamp Brook, with views down towards working farms and a striking red brick mansion. The path eventually meets up with a track which goes down to meet North End Road. Turn left past ‘The Lantern’ and cattery and continue briefly along the road.
6) Look out for a footpath sign in the hedge (right) – the hole alongside it may be slightly overgrown! The path goes down and diagonally across the arable field to a large footbridge with metal railings. Turn left, then head straight up to meet a road.
Turn right onto the road, past the old windmill base at Mill Cottage and Hopkin’s Farm (left), then pink St Mary’s Hall (right) towards cream-coloured Brook Farm with its long run of brick outbuildings.
7) Just before Brook Farm, head left along a very long concrete track to a concrete ‘apron’. Turn left, then right along a field edge (hedge right). The waymarkers lead right, then left to reach the road at Knowl Green.
8) Turn left past the former Cherry Tree pub (left) and Georgian Hole Farm (right), turning right to follow the road all the way to the junction at Cut Bush Farm.
9) Go straight across into Long Lane (Cut Bush Farm right) which soon shows itself to be a tree-lined green lane with occasional views across the Stour Valley to Suffolk fields beyond. As the lane descends to the road it is at times lined with gabions.
10) With views of Clare Castle ahead, turn right along the road (Hickfords Hill), then left onto a footpath across a field to a wooden footbridge over the Stour with a stile. The path goes ahead across the meadow to a gate by the granary building and Mill House.
11) Go over the old railway bridge to houses, bearing left (Bayley Close) to descend into Castle Park by the old railway platform (and tearooms). Climb up the castle motte (right) for great views of Clare.
12) To view the shrine or church at Clare Priory or rest in its peaceful gardens, continue along the bank of the Stour (river on right) to find the wooden gate in the garden wall.
Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit our online shop www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/
Distance: 8.5 m/3.5 kms
Time: 5 - 6 hours
Start: St Nicholas’ Church, Church Lane, Castle Hedingham C09 3DA
Getting there/back: Walk with family/friends and leave vehicle at each end of the route.
Parking: Memorial Hall, off Church Lane, or street
Access: Fully waymarked. Field-edge, footpaths, green lanes, streets and quiet roads. Stile.
Big map to hand: OS Explorer 195,196 & 210
Ts & Ps: Castle Hedingham, Clare.