Suffolk’s best walks: Discovering Sudbury and Bulmer’s connection to artist Thomas Gainsborough
PUBLISHED: 13:54 18 September 2018
Lindsay Want steps into the artist’s iconic painting of 18th century Bulmer couple Mr & Mrs Andrews
When Thomas Gainsborough returned to his native Sudbury with his new wife in 1749 and took a house in Friar Street what was he to do? He’d have revelled in spending his days painting the other love of his life, local landscapes, but with bills to pay, a baby on the way and people more obsessed by looking at pictures of themselves than gazing on sympathetic scenes, fashionable ‘face-painting’ seemed the only option.
Elegant Georgian Sudbury and its surrounding counties had plenty of aspiring fellows, so well paid portrait commissions were probably only a short walk, canter or carriage drive away.
Within months, the accomplished artist found himself working for another pair of young newly-weds, Robert and Frances Andrews, of the Auberies estate, just across the fields beyond Ballingdon.
A similar age to Thomas, with fingers in foreign trade and real estate, Robert was full of ambition, keen to show off his wife’s dowry-lands and to up his street-cred. Perhaps the young men hit it off and struck a deal to keep them both smiling?
No one will ever know, but Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs Andrews, now in the National Gallery, was the best of both worlds – a double portrait, set in, yet gently to the side of, a superb Stour Valley landscape with the fine town of Sudbury defined as almost in shooting distance.
It’s an iconic piece that smacks of social airs, graces and aspirations, from the nonchalance of the young chap with his three-cornered hat and gun half-cocked, to his less-than-playful-looking wife who has clearly not just gambolled through fields of grazing sheep in her fine silks to take a stylish seat under their newly acquired, though ancient oak.
Gainsborough leaves Mrs Andrews’ lap subtly ‘unfinished’ – space to add a son and heir perhaps – and suggests possible storms on the Suffolk horizon. Above all the painting is one great invitation to walk right into the landscape.
Start at Bulmer and you can practically do just that. Alas, paths don’t lead through the Auberies Estate itself to put you in the picture by that very same oak, which, rumour has it, still stands tall and proud today.
But public footpaths there are a-plenty that lead past Georgian mansions and ancient farmsteads, along timeless Belchamp Brook, towards Brundon Mill’s swan-filled pond by the Stour, across East Anglia’s oldest continuously grazed common pastures, past fine symmetrical townhouses and up Sudbury ‘heights’, down green lanes through woodlands and little villages to Bulmer Tye and beyond.
“The landscape of Gainsborough is soothing, tender and affecting,” wrote fellow Suffolk painter John Constable. “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them.”
In many places, today’s landscape is still quite as young Mr Gainsborough would have experienced it on his travels, just as he would have sketched it or held it safely in his gifted mind’s eye to express it on canvas back in the studio.
The trees and hedgerows, the meadows and valley folds, that special Suffolk light, those gathering storm-clouds – they are all around the next corner, down the next trackway, just along the field margin path.
Did Gainsborough’s feet once stride down the hillside towards Belchamp Walter? Did the view of St Mary’s poking its tower above the treetops bring a smile to his face? As Essex churches go, it’s really rather Suffolk – a Monk’s Eleigh or Cavendish look-alike for sure.
Young Thomas certainly painted portraits for the Raymond family who resided at Belchamp Hall then, and still does. The fine red brick Queen Anne house is complete with bay-windowed powder-rooms added when wigs were top of Georgian pops.
Gainsborough’s portraits still hang on Charlie Raymond’s walls, including his ancestor who had grand plans to tame the local landscape. Head towards Belchamp Brook and you can just catch sight of the abandoned Venetian canal which dug the eccentric character firmly into debt. What would our natural landscape-loving painter have thought to all that?
Past Heaven Wood and Smeetham Hall, Belchamp Brook’s wide valley floor, engulfing skies and magical meanders is reminiscent of Constable’s Nayland scenes.
The waters soon meet the Stour near Gainsborough’s familiar home territories around Brundon Mill and Sudbury’s historic water meadows. There’s time to visit the house where he was born and raised, and much more in his bustling home town.
Beyond moated Middleton Hall, deep-cut green lanes carved by time and travelling feet lead through Little Henny’s Home Wood, past the lost church and historic hall of The Ryes to Bulmer Tye.
Here the village green remembers the parish’s famous local landowners with its own modern pargeted rendition of Gainsborough’s great work set in a monument made from Bulmer’s highly acclaimed brick, produced locally since Tudor times.
Of course, the design of Belchamp Hall’s smart red façade had called for far more fashionable, and distinctly less than local, Dutch bricks. No doubt Mr Andrews would have aspired to a similarly tasteful show of wealth and prosperity.
So what became of the ambitious young man? In Bulmer church, a memorial tablet reveals all. Robert Andrews Esq apparently had ‘a long and useful life’, reaching the privileged age of 80.
His wife, Frances Mary, only made it to 48, having given birth to their nine children. Clearly Gainsborough should have painted her with a much bigger lap.
Side tracked in Sudbury
Navigating his way around his home town, especially those inspirational water meadows, young Thomas Gainsborough certainly wouldn’t have had the luxury of today’s handy short-cut along the former railway track-bed path.
The Stour quayside would have been busy with ‘lighters’, flat-bottomed barges, moved and steered with long oars called ‘sweeps’ and the power of the river currents. They would be ferrying goods, including locally-made bricks, to London.
The lands were probably still put to practical use by local textile producers. But a Stour-side wander across Fulling Pit Meadows and Freeman’s Great and Little Commons would have surely been familiar and a source of inspiration to the young painter.
Don’t miss his birthplace in Gainsborough Street, now Gainsborough’s House Museum, and the statue in his honour on Market Hill. Well worth a visit are the town’s impressive churches like All Saints, attended by Gainsborough as a boy and which found its way into the Mr & Mrs Andrews landscape, along with buildings from Mrs Andrew’s childhood home, Ballingdon Hall.
1 Start at Bulmer Village Hall. With your back to the hall, go left up ‘Church Meadow’ lane, to follow the public footpath (right) all the way to the church.
2 St Andrew’s Church Bulmer has memorials to Mr & Mrs Andrews and an impressive ‘green man’ font. Go around the tower end of the church, through the graveyard to find a gateway leading down steps to a tree-lined tarmac path through Coe’s Meadow (play area - right) and a road.
Cross the road, go left, then right down side of black weather-boarded shed. Go too far and you’ll reach the brick congregational church. The footpath turns left along back gardens of a row of houses (left) with views (right) opening up towards Belchamp Walter church.
At end of houses, the path turns right downhill, along a pitted (take care) field-edge path. At the bottom of the field turn left, then right at the polite notice. Go through a gap, down steps to a bridge, then a kissing gate. Head across the meadow (towards church) to find another kissing gate hidden to the right. Turn left, past cottages (left) to the road and go right.
3 Belchamp Hall (left) is clearly visible from the road, with impressive, griffin-topped gates. It starred in the TV series Lovejoy, as Felsham Hall, and the stables were Lovejoy’s workshop. St Mary’s Church (right) has Raymond family monuments and fine 14th century wall-paintings.
Continuing along the road, look out for a stile (right) just past Munt House before the junction. This leads through a wooded area (gardens – right) to farm buildings. Pass the caravan (right) and at end of the green area, a track leads down (right) into woods (remains of the Venetian canal - right).
When it emerges, bear right with the track to a wide valley with open meadows and trees (left). The track sweeps right with Heaven Wood rising to the right and finally becomes a field-margin path alongside high trees (right). Ignore the footpath leading left uphill. Stay on the track going straight ahead (willow carr - right, The Rookery - left).
4 Go left to meet The Rookery’s garden in the corner by the drive. Pass in front of the house – is that an elephant peering at you as you turn right down the drive to the road? Turn right (take care), then at next junction turn right.
Go over Bardfield Bridge and turn left down a bridleway - a long stretch alongside Belchamp Brook (left) all the way to a track and, finally, the Great Eastern Railway Cambridge to Sudbury line trackbed.
5 Decision time! Head down to Sudbury’s water-meadows (turn left signed Stour Valley Path – also becomes Gainsborough Trail) or take the firmer short-cut right along the disused railway line, leaving it just beyond the pumping station (left) by taking the slope down to Ballingdon Road at Ballingdon old railway bridge (8).
6 Brundon Mill is famed for swans on the great mill pond. Pass the mill, heading down Brundon Lane to take footpaths just beyond the Stour across North Meadow Common, past Salmon Leap Weir, through Fulling Pit Meadows.
7 Exit at The Croft, by St Gregory’s to visit Sudbury town and the Gainsborough sites, or continue across Freeman’s Common, past the white mill (hotel). Cross the Stour towards Kings Marsh to exit at Noah’s Ark Lane (where the cattle were led two by two). This joins Cross Street just before Ballingdon road bridge. Turn right, go over the bridge. Continue to the old railway bridge.
8 At Ballingdon old railway bridge cross the road. To the right of the bridge is a footpath (Stour Valley Path – SVP) which leads to Kone Vale reserve. Go all the way through to exit by a housing estate. Cross over the road, going uphill, following SVP signs through streets (Meadow View Road), bearing left (Hall Rise), then finally right into Pinecroft Rise to a footpath in the corner.
9 Sudbury Heights. Take care on this stretch - the hedged path goes sharply uphill and there are sharp, unfenced drops (left) in places. The path can be narrow and there are some tree roots. The views across Sudbury are impressive though. The path eventually emerges into a field which it crosses (graveyard for double-deckers – left) to a track which leads uphill.
10 At the brow of the hill, leave the SVP by turning right onto a footpath. This leads to a leafy, downhill hollow lane where chickens roost in trees (really) finally exiting onto a tarmac lane. Go right past Dutch gabled houses (right - walled garden, left) to meet the road. Go right along Ryes Lane to the A131. Turn left, along the pavement through Bulmer Tye.
11 Bulmer Tye village green is on the right where the A131 sweeps left. Cross with care to find Mr & Mrs Andrews on the village monument. Go diagonally across the green to a Jenkins Farm sign (bottom left hand corner). Turn right, past pink Tudor house (left - village green, right) along the lane which soon becomes a grassy track (houses, right), then a field-edge path.
12 At Bulmer CEVAP school (left), turn left onto road. After a few metres, take the parallel permissive path (left) along the field margin to the village hall. u
Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit their online shop
46 Gainsborough Street, Sudbury CO10 2EU
T: 01787 372958
Visitor entrance and shop: Weavers Lane, at the side of the house.
Belchamp Hall has special tours on August 10 and September 17 and 18. Booking essential: invitationtoview.co.uk
Distance: 9 miles/14.5 kms (or 5.5 miles/9 kms with Sudbury old railway line short-cut)
Time: 5-6 hours
Start: Bulmer Village Hall, Church Road, Bulmer, Nr Sudbury C010 7EH
Getting there/back: suffolkonboard.com Parking by the village hall.
Access: Field-edge, cross-meadow footpaths, stile, kissing gates. Note: on the map, B-road Sandy Lane (Ballingdon-Bulmer) looks like a short-cut, but is not suitable for pedestrians.
Big map: OS Explorer 196
Ts & Ps: In Sudbury