Text & photos by Patrick Meehan
Having walked the route the previous week with wife Pauline, walk leader Paul Jordan promised this twenty-strong group our first sighting of snowdrops and a walk through history. And we had barely gone a quarter mile before we entered a lane with the promised snowdrops lining the banks on either side. As for the history? We were there already: Eyke sits square in the Deben Valley, the name ‘Eyke’ deriving from the word ‘Oak’, and the village was first mentioned during the reign of Henry II.
Paul related that the Deben Valley was once at the centre of the East Anglian Anglo-Saxon Kingdom and is rich in archaeological sites – in particular the ship burial discovered at Sutton Hoo in 1939.
More recently, in 2008, a long-lost royal settlement was discovered at Rendlesham. In his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the eighth-century Northumbrian monk, the venerable Bede, relates that it was at this very royal settlement that Aethelwold, King of the East Angles, sponsored the baptism of Swithelm, King of the East Saxons, sometime between AD 655 and 663. Further investigations since 2008 have revealed the settlement was active for almost 300 years, from the fifth to the eighth centuries.
The Rendlesham site is on private farmland with no public access. However, the ongoing Rendlesham Revealed project will allow local people to volunteer for on-site archaeological training in survey and excavation, which will take place at Rendlesham and elsewhere in the Deben Valley.
Additionally, an exhibition called Rendlesham Revealed: The Heart of a Kingdom AD 400-800, will open at Sutton Hoo on 23 March 2023, where 1,400-year-old artefacts – many never before seen by the public – will be on display, and will help tell the story of Rendlesham’s royal connections. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/suffolk/sutton-hoo/main-exhibition-at-sutton-hoo
By late morning, after skirting flat fields and machine-cut hedgerows (see picture, top), we were peering through the heavy, closed, iron gates of Grade II-listed Loudham Hall, sat in the middle distance surrounded by lush parklands. A 2007 article in Country Life tells us that Loudham Hall was built for the Loudham family in the fifteenth century, and was substantially altered c. 1750, when Charles Wood inherited the house on the death of the Duke of Southampton. The Country Life article went on to say that the Hall was then currently owned by art collector and interior decorator, Keith Skeel – better known for designing fabulous houses for the likes of Michael Jackson and Barbara Streisand – and was on the market with a guide price of £6m. (It was eventually sold in 2007 and is now in private ownership).
Now, heading south-east beneath overcast skies in dry, windless, 9°C conditions, we soon came to the church of St Gregory the Great in the parish of Rendelsham. St Gregory was the Pope who sent St Augustine to England to spread Christianity in AD 597. The present church was built in the fourteenth century and is one of the largest churches in south-east Suffolk, further testament to the historic importance of nearby Rendlesham from Anglo-Saxon times.
This community church, which is open seven days a week, lifts the spirit on entry with its surprisingly bright, pink and cream pastel interior and pastel blue pews.
Among the many memorial plaques on the walls, one in particular stood out. This was a poignant message from parents remembering their four-year-old daughter Caroline. It reads: “Her years were few and full of suffering, which she bore with a patient resignation beyond her age. God, in his mercy, removed her gentle spirit to a happier world.”
Our lunch stop was at the highly regarded Tavern pub in Rendlesham village, where the kindly proprietor allowed us to commandeer his outside tables. Those who had a drink were complimentary about the good quality real ales, beers and wines on offer, and although the pub mainly serves the local community, all comers are welcome. They also have open-mic nights on the last Tuesday of every month. Well worth a visit if you are in the area. https://restaurantguru.com/The-Tavern-Rendlesham
After lunch, we gradually circled back southwards then northwards through Rendlesham Forest to regain our start point at the village car park in Eyke.
About a mile from home, we were regaled by a robin redbreast atop the sparse architecture of a tall, leafless blackberry bush, who, as we passed, sang a fulsome refrain about the promise of spring and the Elysian days of the mid-year to come. It wasn’t quite Keats’ nightingale, that “light-winged Dryad of the trees” who sang of Summer “in full-throated ease”, nor Wordsworth’s “Cuckoo-bird / Breaking the silence of the seas / Among the farthest Hebrides“, but our enthusiastic little harbinger held his own for sheer joy in the telling, and lifted the spirits of many a passer-by.
We were all agreed that walk leader Paul, ably assisted by wife Pauline, had crafted a fine Sunday’s adventure, and arrangements were quickly made to drink to their good health (and everyone else’s) in the Wilford Bridge pub in Woodbridge on the way home.