Suffolk's best walks: The Stour Valley from Stoke-by-Clare
PUBLISHED: 16:55 04 January 2019
Lindsay Want makes a Dickensian discovery in the beautiful Stour Valley, on a walk from Stoke by Clare
Christmas has a way of bringing out the walker in us all. Surrounded by friends, family and enormous helpings of festive fare, in many households the Christmas constitutional has become quite a tradition.
Why not enter into the real spirit of things? Share a stroll between Stoke by Clare and the wool town of Clare via seasonal sounding Claret Hall. Each is a former home of John Elwes and his ancestors, the renowned Georgian miser MP and reputed role model for Dickens’ Scrooge character from A Christmas Carol.
Gaze up at St John the Baptist’s church in Stoke by Clare and you can’t help wondering whether the family of old misers might have had a say in its unusual, one-handed clock. Bald, gaunt, hunched over a stick and dressed in the dour suit in which he both lived and slept, Elwes is depicted on the village sign.
His is a two-pronged tale of stinginess, inherited from his massively mean maternal grandmother, Lady Isabella Hervey, of Ickworth family fame, and of utter obsequiousness. In fact it’s hard to know which he worshipped more – his uncle, the miser-of-all-misers Sir Hervey Elwes (MP for Sudbury, 2nd Baronet of Stoke by Clare), or his uncle’s stack of cash.
Heavily influenced by both, he rapidly switched his name from Meggot to Elwes, adopted a life of extreme paucity and set himself up to inherit his uncle’s highly prized millions. Successful in his mission, he continued his obsessive behaviour throughout his life, even when elected MP for Berkshire, and died with over £1 billion to his name in 1789. How does that Suffolk saying go? “Hent never seen a shroud with a pocket on it.”
But before you head off past the lines of foxes and boxing hares which balance on the thatched top-knots of some of Stoke by Clare’s weavers’ cottages, be sure to drink in the church’s wine glass pulpit, spot the rare ‘doom’ wall-painting lurking ominously behind the organ, and home in on the Tudor pigeon roost by the entrance to the former chantry college.
That the dovecote survived is a miracle in itself, especially since during John’s ownership of Stoke College, he refused to spend a penny on maintenance, letting all his properties fall into ruin.
On the village green, there are more severed links to ponder as you make tracks with the ghosts of times past down the old Cambridge to Colchester railway line and under the abandoned Victorian bridge to reach open fields and high hedgerows.
Perhaps it was here, in one of these very hedges, that old ‘Scrooge’ Elwes discovered the discarded tatty wig which he reputedly found snagged on a branch and wore for weeks on end.
To avoid paying for a coach he would, of course, have walked everywhere and no doubt, regularly killed two birds with one stone (apparently, he did eat a moorhen once) by checking every inch of his land while en route to Clare Priory, another of his properties originally secured a century or so after the Reformation by old ancestor Gervase.
Beyond Hollow Road, John Elwes would surely have revelled in the wildflower meadow dotted with Shepherds’ Purse and longed for Moneywort to take root around its damp edges. Down Bradley Hill, on the approach to Claret Hall – the Elwes ‘halfway’ house – you can almost picture the miser pottering along, his pockets stuffed with filberts.
How did Dickens describe those nuts as seasonal fare in A Christmas Carol? “Mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves.” Perhaps the great author walked this way too.
Time for “a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop”. At the driveway to Claret Hall, there’s a chance to follow the Stour Valley Path as it leads down Bradley Hill, weaving its way to Ashen Bridge and along the waterside, first to Elwes’ Clare Priory with its peaceful gardens, then to Clare Castle country park and Clare’s medieval market town magic.
But that would be missing a Christmas Carol Country treat. Just like Dickens’ 1843 sledgehammer of a holiday read which sold 6,000 copies in just five days, it’s perhaps the last bit which delivers the most joy.
It seems ironic that Claret Hall, perched high on a stunning stretch of the Stour Valley, was once home to all that Elwes family doom and gloom, but to discover that it went on to be the 1980s HQ of a cult progressive rock band preoccupied with nuclear apocalypse seems somehow amusing. Singer Kim Wilde apparently even cut some of her early records in its studio.
But outside on the ridge walk back to Stoke by Clare, it’s the wild geese, kestrels and buzzards soaring the vast Suffolk skies which are the biggest hit, matched only by the beauty of the Stour Valley itself.
Clare’s historic ruins stick their flag above the parapet, lines of poplars pierce the blue heavens. You feel king of the Christmas castle, or as Scrooge put it: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”
A Tudor ‘Mr Brexit’
The royal insignia in the brickwork of Stoke College perhaps points to one-time royal dean of the college, the Protestant reformer ‘Nosey’ Matthew Parker. He was Anne Boleyn’s chaplain, was placed in charge of Elizabeth I, and later became Archbishop of Canterbury.
A sort of Tudor Mr Brexit, Parker made it his mission to strengthen England’s religious break from Europe by showing the English church to be historically independent from Rome, a lengthy, complicated job which gave him a reputation for sticking his nose in, questioning everything.
1) Start at Stoke by Clare church (CO10 8JE). With the church behind you (dovecote and Stoke College drive on your left) walk straight ahead, past a row of cottages (right) to meet the A1092. Turn right through the village to the green (left).
2) Opposite the green, take the footpath on your right to follow the dismantled railway line downhill.
3) Before reaching a driveway, just under an old railway bridge, turn right (signed Stour Valley Path) towards the river. Cross the river and weir via the footbridge. Turn left, keeping on the Stour Valley Path briefly to another smaller footbridge.
4) Over the bridge, turn right. The path zig-zags along field edges to meet a small road opposite ‘Stours’, a farmhouse. Turn left along the road, gently uphill to a T-junction with Hollow Road.
5) Cross the road and continue along the footpath opposite. Take the footpath to the left of a small stream, then over a footbridge (right) and along a field-edge path on the right of a long meadow until you reach a cross roads of paths.
6) Turn left, following a farm track. This bears slightly to the left of a gated field entrance. The track leads to a field with a post (right) and cross-field path (left). Take this cross-field path to the left, heading for a gap in the trees with a footbridge to enter the next field. Follow the field-edge path right around this arable land, going along the hedge parallel to the road.
7) At the entrance driveway to Claret Hall on Bradley Hill, choose to return to Stoke by Clare along the Stour Valley Path (signed – see below), or continue into Clare along the Stour Valley Path by going down Bradley Hill.
8) On meeting Ashen Road, turn right, then take the footpath (left) past the back of gardens. It then turns right along the Stour, over a bridge into the left-hand side of a field. Walk along to meet the road.
9-12) Turn left onto the road. Look for the footpath (right) just before Ashen Bridge, cross over and follow the path along waterside to Clare Priory (10 – enter by a wooden gate in the wall), Clare Castle and Country Park (11) and the town (12).
Retrace your steps uphill to the entrance to Claret Hall on Bradley Hill (7). Turn into the driveway to pass the hall (right), plus farm buildings and paddock (left), after a small wooded area. Continue along the ridge with stunning views back towards Clare and across the Stour Valley below.
13) The path turns right, downhill to Ashen Road.
14) Turn left along the road to pick up the footpath (right) signed Stour Valley Path. This goes downhill along a hedge (right), across two open fields to the valley floor where the water-meadows lead back to the small footbridge crossed earlier (4).
Retrace your original steps, crossing the footbridge, the Stour, going along the footpath and right up the old railway track to the A1092 and the green, finally turning left to get back to the church.
Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit our online shop www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/al
Distance: 6 miles/9.5 kms
Time: 3.5 hours
Start: Stoke by Clare Parish Church CO10 8JE
Getting there/back: By car or bus suffolkonboard.com
Parking: By the church or by the village green
Access: Field-edge, cross-field paths, tarmac lanes/roads/pavements, footbridges, gates. Includes signed sections of Stour Valley Path
Big map: OS Explorer 210
Ts & Ps: Stoke by Clare pub (thelionstokebyclare.com). Clare pubs & cafés