A Grand Day Out:Sudbury That's Sudbury on the southern edge of Suffolk, not Sudbury on the southern edge of Harrow. Suffolk's Sudbury is a minor market town on the banks of the River Stour, not quite so well preserved as Lavenham up the road, but still with streets of historic charm. The elongated main square is lined by a collection of Georgian and half-timbered buildings, some banks, some pubs, nothing overly intrusive. The market at its centre sells mostly fruit and veg, but also meat and game, a bit like having an English delicatessen in the heart of town [photo]. Overlooking it all is St Peter's Church, and in its shadow a statue of Sudbury's most famous son, the painter Thomas Gainsborough. Had you been there yesterday, you could have sung him Happy Birthday. [photo]
Nobody's quite sure of Thomas's birth date, only that he was christened on 14th May 1727, so any old Saturday will do for the annual celebration. Overnight someone sneaks in and drapes a garland round his neck - they used to use ladders, but health and safety now requires a cherry picker. Then at 10am a variety of local characters assemble roundabout, and the Town Crier calls everyone to attention. Yesterday's "entertainment" included three buglers from Long Melford and some so-called minstrels who played a couple of tunes they may or may not have rehearsed earlier. The Mayor of Sudbury was present, a short figure in Trumpton-style attire, performing the final engagement of his civic year. Between each brief segment a small girl in 18th century dress rang a bell, slightly reluctantly, while a variety of other costumed folk beamed beneath the statue. Everyone then joined together to sing Happy Birthday to Mr Gainsborough, apart from the recorder player who appeared to be playing a subtly different tune. A final flourish from the Town Crier, plus a blatant exhortation to visit the May Market at Gainsborough's House up the road, and the event was over until Tom's 286th. You'd have enjoyed it, in an entirely understated way. [photo]
A Suffolk gem: Gainsborough's House It still stands, the house in which Thomas Gainsborough was born, looking out onto a street later renamed in his honour. A few hundred yards up from the market square, the size of two former houses knocked together, with some of its structure more than 500 years old. Visitors no longer enter through the front door, not like Anneka Rice did on Treasure Hunt in 1983. Now there's a new entrance up a side alley, with an additional building providing space for (you can probably guess) a cafe and a gift shop. The garden was hosting the aforementioned May Market yesterday, with a popular plant stall and one of those tombolas with bottles and cast-off gifts as prizes. The four minstrels had reappeared beneath a protective awning, serenading ladies in costume and babies in pushchairs. But the house itself was free of faff, and free of charge too this weekend rather than the usual five quid. It was good to see a gallery tacked tastefully onto the back of the old building, providing a welcome showcase for local artist Noel Myles who chops up photographs into chequerboard collages. A very modern take on East Anglian landscape, and nothing like Mr Gainsborough would have painted. Most of his trend-setting landscapes depicted imaginary locations, with rather a lot of peasants by haycarts or waifs at cottage doors. About twenty of his paintings hang in the house proper, the majority the portraits for which he was also famous. These depict an age of tricorn hats and white wigs, for the gentlemen at least, while his female charges have a more timeless demeanour. There are three storeys to explore, dotted with modern as well as contemporary art, accessed via a tightly winding central staircase, and progressing through a timeline of his life. Gainsborough didn't hang around in Sudbury for long, there wasn't enough nobility to paint, so moved on to Ipswich, then to Bath and finally to London (he's buried in Kew). But the house stayed in the family, and hence survived intact, and has been this small but engaging museum for the last fifty years.
How To Get Here:The Gainsborough Line It's a proper branch line, this, a single track chugger from Marks Tey (nr Colchester) up to Sudbury. Trains run hourly, never packed, shuttling back and forth in austere discomfort. You might be interested in the first station, that's Chappel & Wakes Colne, which is the precise location of the East Anglian Railway Museum. Several carriages are on display, from what I saw out of the window, plus this weekend it's their Vintage Transport Extravaganza so expect a broad range of non-track vehicles too. Also here is the Chappel Viaduct, reputedly the second-largest brick structure in England, not that you'd ever guess when rolling across it by train. At Sudbury the line rudely terminates, courtesy of Doctor Beeching, any continuation now blocked by an extension to the town's Leisure Centre. But the trackbed beyond survives as The Valley Walk, an ideal three mile stroll, or jog, on a curve towards Long Melford. It's rather muddy at the moment, but nowhere near as waterlogged as the meadows below. The Stour flooded this week, courtesy of all that rain we've been having, so there are broad lakes stretching out from the river where previously was dry grass [photo 2]. The levels have dropped from their peak, so I'm told, but water continues to overspill... much to the delight of several ducks, and the disquiet of certain horses. Thank goodness nobody's ever been stupid enough to build along this river valley, and hurrah for the grandstand panorama a railway causeway provides.
An Essex Diversion:Borley Near the northern end of The Valley Walk, on the Essex side of the river, I spotted a village name on the map I thought I recognised. Borley's famous, nay infamous, as the site of "The Most Haunted House in England". So I broke off from my railway walk and trooped half a mile uphill to a small hamlet with a hidden history. Psychic researcher Harry Price brought Borley to prominence with his study of Borley Rectory, a rambling Victorian house complete with echoing corridors and restless spirits. Residents claimed to have heard footsteps, even the sound of a horse-drawn carriage passing by, as well as spotting ghostly nuns and experiencing various poltergeist-type phenomena. It was most likely all imagined, or deliberate hokum, but Price's book of his so-called investigations sold particularly well. It may therefore not have been a coincidence that the Rectory promptly burnt to the ground, courtesy of an overturned oil lamp, leading to its complete demolition in 1940. The sitetoday has been subsumed into a private garden, replaced by trimmed grass and a drive, almost entirely walled off round the back of the Old Coach House. The neighbouring bungalows aren't spooky, nor the tithe barn and village pond, but the parish church across the road still has considerable presence [photo 2]. It's accessed via a short avenue of carved yewtrees, thick and rounded like board game pieces, and potentially oppressive on a dark night. But nothing ghostly, not unless you've got as wild and irresponsible an imagination as the Rectory's bogus chronicler. The only unwanted apparitions in Borley today, as I'm sure Neighbourhood Watch will confirm, are provincial ghost-hunters in search of something that isn't here.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.