Low over the undulating countryside where southernmost Suffolk tips over into northern Essex, rainclouds rolled heavy and grey. At the crossroads in ridge-top Stoke-by-Nayland, the village’s brace of inns, Crown and Angel, faced each other like mutually suspicious cats.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
I had a pint of Adnams in one and a ploughman’s in the other, in the interests of good neighbourliness. Then I set out under dripping ash and hazel along roads glistening from a midday downpour, into a landscape smoky and insubstantial behind the golden sheen of a vaporous, sun-splashed winter afternoon.
The deeply furrowed landscape hereabouts would astonish believers in the old canard about East Anglia being pancake flat. I crossed grazing fields sloping sharply into oakwoods that lifted and swung back up to the ridges. Farms founded before the Reformation stood under acres of red pantiles. This timeless landscape of rural England on the borders of Suffolk and Essex gave expression to the genius of local lad John Constable, and there wasn’t a prospect in sight this afternoon that might not have come from one of his canvases.
Down in the valley of the River Box the stiff clay plough lay dark and flat. How strange it felt to be walking empty-handed through fields where, twenty-five years ago, I never strolled without a child’s mouse-like paw in my fist. The sinuous Box was one of our favourite family walks when we lived in Nayland just up the valley. On one of those expeditions a chance kick at a clod of earth had uncovered a Stone Age scraping tool, its delicately scalloped cutting edge still sharp as a razor.
Time moves on. Wrens, roses and thistles still adorned the pargetted walls of Farthings house at Thorington Street, but I found the Rose Inn closed and turned into a private dwelling. Back in the day, a big treat for the children was lunch in the Rose’s garden, where a straw-stuffed cage marked ‘Silver Water ‘Otter’ fascinated them. A tug on the chain brought forth nothing more exotic than an aluminium kettle – the landlord’s little jest.
In the grounds of Tendring Hall shotguns were popping. A cock pheasant scuttled across the path with head and tail strained high, like a brightly coloured barge scudding before a breeze. Neighbouring churches framed the walk – St James’s at Nayland low in the south near the River Stour, its stumpy spire rising among leafless trees, and on the ridge to the north the great brick tower of St Mary’s. I steered for the latter by way of Poplar Farm, a gorgeous old tall-chimneyed house tucked away in the trees. Looking up from here, the Stoke-by-Nayland ridge stood innocent of buildings, as though village and church had been magically drawn down into the earth. But as I climbed the field path the tower of St Mary’s appeared again, rising in apricot light as the sun went down over the valley.
Start & finish: Crown Inn, Stoke-by-Nayland CO6 4SE (OS ref TL 989363)
Getting there: Bus – Chambers Coaches service 84 from Colchester or Sudbury (http://www.carlberry.co.uk/rfnshowr.asp?RN=EX084A). Road: M25, A12 to Colchester; A134 to Nayland; B1087.
Walk (5½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 196): Lane opposite Angel Inn (‘Hadleigh, Shelley’); in 400 yards, right (992365; fingerpost) up path. Through kissing gate, left and follow field edge, then yellow arrows/YA for ½ mile to Valley Farm (001361). Ahead along River Box (YA) for ⅓ mile; then (005358) follow YAs away from river to lane (010356); right to B1068 in Thorington Street. Right for 50 yards, then left (010353; fingerpost) past reservoir to Wick Farm (011349). Right along road; left between barn and Grove Cottage (007351; fingerpost) along farm drive. Skirt right of Tendring Hall Farm (994353); follow drive to B1087. Right (take care!) for ¼ mile; left opposite ‘fishing temple’ (986355) along farm track to Poplar Farm (978359). At 3-finger post, right up track into Stoke-by-Nayland. Through churchyard to crossroads and Crown Inn.
More info: Sudbury TIC (01787-881320);