Sudbury station is the terminus of the Stour Valley line, and every half hour or so, a two-car train shuttles along the twelve mile, single-track spur which joins the main London-Norwich line at Marks Tey. At one time, trains went on from here to Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and beyond, but now, the modest station with just the one platform is almost inundated by a car park as big as Texas. Secret Informant, Marsh Samphire and myself turn up by car, wondering how to set about finding the other car, which hopefully contains Ebb Tide, Florence and Master F., in this morass of vehicles. Telephone contact solves the problem and we meet in a convenient branch of Waitrose (this sort of thing never happens in Robert Macfarlane’s books), saviour of Prince Charles’ failing food company, and paradoxically, apparently one of the most successful worker’s co-operatives in the country. Hoisin duck wraps anybody? Horseradish thongs?
We set off through the town to the start of our circular walk, near Ballingdon Bridge, which gives us a chance to take in some of the nice old buildings, many of them the product of wealth generated by the wool trade. Edward III must have had a soft spot for Sudbury, for it was one of the first places to be settled, at his instigation, by Flemish weavers, and the velvet and silk which they produced augmented income from wool as the basis for ‘the town’s’ wealth. However, there can have been no trickle-down effect and the monarch’s regard was not reciprocated, for during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, rebels, led by two parish priests, met at Ballingdon Bridge, and went on to burn down the house of a notorious moneylender and to hunt down and behead the local chief justice.
A few years earlier, in 1375, the ageing Edward had appointed Simon of Sudbury Archbishop of Canterbury, just as things were warming up nicely for the rebellion. The English crown, at this stage less than half way along the road to defeat in the 100 years war, was broke and desperately in need of funds to finance its attempt take over large sections of France. Simon had taken the post of Chancellor- somehow despite churchmen being prohibited from the office – and, according to Sudbury local history society, this was a grave mistake for, in this capacity, he was seen as one of the prime architects of the hated poll tax – a tax on heads – created to raise money for the war. When the revolt reached London, he was dragged from the tower, taken to Tower hill, beheaded, and, following the manner in which traitors were dealt with at the time, his head impaled on a pike above the gatehouse of London Bridge.
History is written by the victorious, which is why the English rebellion of 1381 is referred to as ‘The Peasant’s Revolt’. In fact the prime movers were administrators and clergymen. However, those who recorded the events tended to be from the ruling caste, who, headed by Edward’s successor, the barely pubescent Richard II, managed to suppress the uprising (Wat Tyler’s head replaced Simon’s on London Bridge). We had remembered the peasants revolt before when we were walking through Fobbing in south Essex, and it is interesting to note that whereas Simon still seems to be remembered with affection by sections of Sudbury’s population ( his skull rests in St Gregory’s Church, Sudbury), just 30 or so miles to the south it is the rebels who are commemorated; Wat Tyler has a whole country park to his name at Pitsea and the White Lion at Fobbing has a prominent plaque on its front wall commemorating ”The villagers of Fobbing, who in the year 1381 stood for the freedom of the English people against oppression.”
The disused rail track which used to go to Long Melford is now a footpath, and we climb the embankment and follow this for a couple of hundred yards until a sign for ‘The Gainsborough Way’ directs us down to the water meadows of the Stour, against which the backs of Sudbury’s houses press, the town thwarted from expansion by the damp pasture. It is a cloudy spring day, good for walking, less good perhaps for taking photographs. The fields are thinly populated by dog-walkers, swans, a waterway maintenance crew and a smattering of spring flowers. ‘’Those are mentioned in Shakespeare’’, says Florence pointing to a cluster of delicate white flowers. A couple of moments memory searching and Secret Informant and Florence identify them as Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower. “A spring flower of damp pastures” according to Secret Informant’s book of flora, and we can verify this from our own sensual experience.
There is a pill box sitting on the water meadows which from a distance appears to have been unsympathetically restored, the clean simplicity of its concrete poetry apparently barbarously patched up with brickwork. Master F. turns his connoisseurs’ eye for a closer look however, and it seems as though the box was once attached to a larger brick building that has since been demolished leaving sections of wall adhering to the box.