You couldn’t ask for a more peaceful place than the valley of the gentle River Blyth. It is one of Suffolk’s many unsung beauties, despite boasting of no less than two celebrity hot-spots, Southwold and Walberswick, at its mouth.
Yet, in centuries past it has been witness to riots, an historic discovery on a bonfire heap and the extraordinary tale of a vicar’s wife who spent rather a lot of time on her back.
The Blyth begins its modest journey to the sea near the high Suffolk village of Laxfield and drops down at nearby Ubbeston into a narrow vale, so breathtakingly beautiful that you want to weep for all in the countryside that is lost.
However, it is not until it reaches Heveningham that the river can really be identified as such and it is here that our journey begins, following its course as closely as possible.
The village of Heveningham is tucked into the prettiest of folds, the steep sides of the valley opening out to a delightful mix of colour-washed cottages and handsome houses, built more or less around three sides of a green triangle on which stands the Church of St Margaret of Antioch.
Yet this lovely spot enjoys comparative obscurity, as the focus of attention is the vast Palladian pile that shares the village’s name, a mile or so down the valley.
Heading downstream, it would easy to miss Huntingfield, again tucked away into the valley side and centred on a handsome inn, the Huntingfield Arms, overlooking a small village green.
From here a road climbs to the Church of St Mary the Virgin, its traditional exterior hiding within a truly remarkable 19th century interior that will blow your mind. And its all down to the vicar’s wife.
For seven years, between 1859 and 1866, Mildred Holland lay on her back on top of scaffolding and painted the ceilings and beams with striking images of medieval angels, saints, pageantry, gilding and lettering.
The shock of her achievement is matched only by the richness of the colours she used and for a real blast you can turn on the spotlights by popping a coin in the slot. Astonishing!
Moving on and there’s another gasp in store, the sheer bulk and grandeur of Grade I-listed Heveningham Hall, standing in its lush acres of tree-studded parkland.
Built in 1778 for Sir Gerard Vanneck, a wealthy Dutch merchant, it was designed by Sir Robert Taylor, with interiors by James Wyatt, whose vaulted hall has been dubbed the most beautiful room in England.
The Vanneck’s left in 1970, after which the hall suffered somewhat until 1994, when it became the family home (I am told there are 25 bedrooms) of the present owner, Jon Hunt, the former master of Foxtons. Mr Hunt is lavishing his millions on restoring the building and developing the parkland to the original designs of Capability Brown, which includes a string of new lakes a mile long.
On to Walpole on the river bank, whose hidden gem can be found out along the Halesworth road, disguised as a typical, timber-framed, 16th century Suffolk farmhouse. This is Walpole Old Chapel, which did indeed start life as a farmhouse before being converted into a place of worship by Suffolk Puritans, who hollowed out the interiors and doubled the width, building a central pulpit, box pews and extensive galleries.
In recent years this simple, austere and deeply satisfying building has been lovingly restored by The Historic Chapels Trust and is used for concerts and readings, as well as an annual, candle-lit, costume carol service, when it is literally packed to the rafters.
From here the valley widens and from the high road into Halesworth the tree-line course of the river below can clearly be seen.
Halesworth is a bustling market town, well worth exploring on its own. But few people may realise that in centuries past the Blyth was navigable from here to the sea. The old quays can still be seen off the town’s Quay Street, while the huge Maltings on the hill above tell their own tale of the barge traffic that once plied between here and Southwold Harbour.
At first, nearby Holton appears to be an extension of Halesworth. But once free of the ribbon development that links the two, it becomes clear that the village has its own identity and charm, with a little round towered church set against a backdrop of a heavily wooded hillside.
To the east, the gleaming white sails of Grade II-listed Holton Mill rise above the trees. Built in 1749 and last worked in 1910, the mill was saved from dereliction in the 1960s and is now preserved as a landmark.
Pushing on along what is now the B1123, it is all too easy to miss the turning to Mells, a tiny hamlet on the south bank that must once have been a lively spot, with barges constantly passing to and fro.
Today all is quiet and the road climbs to the ruins of the Norman chapel of St Margaret’s that sits upon a knoll from where there are far-reaching views over the valley, although barbed wire keeps visitors at bay. The ruins can be visited by prior permission, however.
The narrow lane from Mells to Wenhaston winds through heathland, an early indication that our route is nearing the sea. A village strung out along its main street, Wenhaston is perhaps best known, in gardening circles at least, for the highly acclaimed Wootten’s plant nursery. Less well known, but of major national importance nevertheless, is the Wenhaston Doom in St Peter’s Church.
What is remarkable about this Judgement Day painting is that it was done on boards and not directly on to the walls, as was usually the case. It warns of hell and damnation and was originally fitted into the archway of the chancel for all to see.
In the mid 1500s the painting was whitewashed over and remained hidden and forgotten until 1892 when, during restoration work, the boards were ripped out and flung on a heap in the churchyard, possibly to be burned the following day.
Overnight rain (who says miracles never happen?) washed off some of the covering to reveal the glorious colours beneath and the painting was saved and returned in triumph to the church, where it can be seen to this day.
Back over the river bridge to Blyford, a scattered collection of farmhouses and cottages and including the Queen’s Head pub and All Saints church. From here the valley widens to marshland flanking the river on either side, while up ahead, on a peaceful promontory, lies a sprawling period building that was once the focus of vicious riots.
The Bulcamp House of Industry was under construction in 1765 when it was attacked by a mob, angry that this prison-by-any-other-name would replace their rights to poor relief in their own homes in the surrounding villages. Soldiers from Ipswich were called and one man was killed and many injured.
But things were to get worse. Between 1766 and 1793 the annual death rate among the 300 inmates was estimated at 25 per cent, while the New Poor Law of 1834 established a deliberately harsh new regime to act as a deterrent, separating husbands from wives and children from their parents. Once again the enraged mob attacked.
Bulcamp became Blythburgh Hospital after 1929. It closed in 1994 and since then its simple, elegant and historic wings have been converted into comfortable homes.
The route now briefly joins the A12, the river bridge marking the start of the tidal Blyth estuary, a wide and serenely beautiful stretch of water and mudflats, dominated by Blythburgh’s Holy Trinity Church, rightly known as the Cathedral of the Marshes.
This magnificent building, among Suffolk’s finest, thankfully escaped the national outbreak of Victorian stained glass and today remains flooded with natural light from high clerestory windows, illuminating its famous angel roof, like a heavenly fly-past.
Walberswick needs little introduction, a wonderful place to visit at any time of year, to eat, drink, mooch about its intriguing lanes or take bracing walks along the beach.
During the summer months, a tiny ferry carries passengers across Southwold Harbour. But, being winter, I head inland along the river bank to the footbridge and then back past the black boarded huts and gleaming yachts to the Harbour Inn on the Southwold side.
There is something very special about following a trail to its very end.
So this is where the journey ends, on the water’s edge where the River Blyth finally flows into the sea.
Article by Sam Roseberry reproduced by kind permission of the EADT