The Suffolk Countryside – Part 2

10 09 2006

9-10 September 2006

Part1 | Part2


I am carrying my backpack. The folded tent is strapped to its side. My walking stick is as dependable as ever. My trousers are tucked into my socks to keep them clean and dry.

I approach Ickworth from the south by the woods that surround it. Leaving the woods and a lake behind, there is a short uphill walk. Soon after, I suddenly hit an open field that has been tilled after the harvest. Beyond this large vacant field broken only by a couple of trees, the house comes into view with its breathtaking rotunda. A terrace looks down from the edge of the garden towards the open field, the woods and beyond. To the left, the church is also to be seen. I start to cross the field and walk towards the house. Visitors walking along the terrace stare at me as if they have never seen or expected anyone to come to Ickworth in this manner.

Ickworth House seen from the gardens

Ickworth House seen from the gardens

Ickworth House is unique in its design. Inspired by classical designs and motifs, it is perhaps more Italian than English. Scenes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey decorate the rotunda in embossed friezes. These friezes are based on Flaxman’s illustrations whose style I had first encountered at the Tate Britain. The rotunda is in two levels. The lower level is ringed by demure Ionic columns. The upper level is more ornamental with Corinthian columns and the friezes above it. From this rotunda span two curved corridors, one towards the East Wing, the other towards the West Wing. In this manner, the central rotunda is a showcase to the world, of wealth, possession and luxurious living; while the connected buildings on either side are private living quarters for the family or for guests. On the whole, it is an imposing structure. It is formal but not charming. It is graceful but not homely. It is balanced but not beautiful. It is more ordered and predictable that the red-brick Tudor facades more commonly seen in Suffolk.

I was more curious to see how this curvature would be handled on the inside. It is an easy guess if one has taken note of the tall full-length windows that cover the rotunda. It is rather typical of country houses to have tall windows. In addition to the practical purpose of letting in light, these afford good views of the garden, the park or larger landscapes. At Ickworth, the garden is at the back. The windows in the library, a semi-circular room, open out to the garden. Without these windows, the space would have been difficult to handle on the inside. The curvature of the wall would have been restrictive and even claustrophobic. It is also difficult to hang a large painting on such a wall. So the windows break up the space along the wall. Paintings if any, hang on the other wall at the centre of the rotunda. Yet for all this ingenuity, the library is not really a comfortable room. One reason is the presence of four tall pillars. These pillars break up the space well but at the same time they are obtrusive. Thus the room stands in a state of divided unity.

The other rooms are designed with a similar concept. The attention of the visitor is always towards the centre of the rotunda and away from the windows. The furniture is arranged to make this happen. But for someone who lives in the house, I wonder if such an eccentric design would have become annoying at some point.

There are a few things in this house that captured my attention. The sedan chairs in the Staircase Hall are things I have only read about but never seen. They were used by the gentile in the 17th and 18th centuries when moving around in London. The floor boards in the corridors are curved. They have been laid so well that there are no gaps or bulges. In Eastern philosophy it is said that water has no shape; rather it takes the shape of the vessel into which it is poured. Such too is the case of these boards.

Long corridors flank the main rotunda

Long corridors flank the main rotunda

The fascination for me lay in John Flaxman’s sculpture, “The Fury of Athamas”, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was commissioned in Rome for £600 in 1790. It was stolen by Napoleon and later discovered in Paris. It was finally brought to Ickworth at an additional cost of £600. This sculpture is yet another masterpiece of Flaxman. Mad Athamas is about to fling his son who clings to his mother. She tries in vain to restrain Athamas. Thus the eye moves from Athamas, to his son, to his mother and back to Athamas. Closer to ground, the other child completes the composition. The sculpture is balanced by the ingenious use of drapery that falls off Athamas.

The garden at Ickworth has nothing remarkable. The box hedges are pretty. They afford quiet walks but nothing more. There are no surprises. They are as formal as the building and little enchanting. One unique item in the garden is the entrance to the bat hibernaculum, for bats to hibernate in winter. Now, what do bats have to do with the classicism and formality that embody Ickworth?

Bury St Edmunds

Saturday morning market at Bury St Edmunds

Saturday morning market at Bury St Edmunds

I had absolutely no idea what Bury had to offer except that it had a famous cathedral. So, that became my one and only point of visit other than the general walk about the town centre. I was surprised. It is not as large as any of the cathedrals I have visited. For its size it has a lot more fame. Known as the Cathedral Church of St James, it looks more like a church than a cathedral. That such a cathedral should be the only cathedral in Suffolk is a greater surprise. A short walk around this building with its new Millennium Tower explained the reason for such an ancient fame.

The cathedral is surrounded by the ruins of an abbey. A poster at the grand abbey gate tells the rich history. A monastery existed in the 7th century. In the 10th century the abbey was founded to honour King Edmund, a saintly king who had been killed in battle against the Danes in 869 AD. In the 11th century it became a Benedictine monastery. While Fountains Abbey near Ripon grew wealthy by the wool trade, here the growth was mainly due to royal grants. The ruins we see today are the buildings that grew soon after the Norman Conquest. After the Dissolution of 1539, it suffered the same fate as Corfe Castle – that is, the townspeople robbed much of the stone as building material. It was a sensible thing to do. Stone would have been hard to find in those days, which is why in Suffolk many houses are structures of timber-frame and wattle & daub.

The church has survived and grown over time. It was only in 1914 it became a cathedral. So it is a young cathedral with a long history. It has been slowly enlarged over the last century. With its new tower completed in 2005, it is set to fulfil its destiny as a Suffolk cathedral for centuries yet to come.

Ruins of the old Abbey

Ruins of the old Abbey

The uninitiated may think that Bury St Edmunds is called by that name because St Edmund was buried here. But the word “bury” is in fact derived from an Old English word that meant a fort or a stronghold. Salisbury and Canterbury take their names from this root. So Bury St Edmunds must have been called Bury from a long time. A yet older name for this town is Bedericesworth. The striking change is its association with St Edmund which must have happened only in the 10th century. So here we find an example where one man can change the name of an existing town. While in St Albans, it is seen that the town was founded by the saint and naturally took his name, at Bury St Edmunds we find something more difficult in the making. To change an established name to something else is indeed an achievement, a testimony to the greatness of the saint or to the love of his people. In our own time, such changes are seen to be more difficult. It is difficult to discard one’s identity to adopt a new shared identity. This is perhaps one reason why the British hesitate in adopting the Euro.

Coming back to the cathedral, I sat through an entire evensong. There were moments of great beauty and an almost perfection. Unlike the practice in most cathedrals, here the visitor is allowed to sit in the nave and listen to the choir without taking part in the service. One is not obliged to stand or kneel in prayer. Thus each one is encouraged to find his own method of worship, his own spiritual path and open up as individual responses dictate. The Millennium Tower is a great achievement of our own generation but the rest of the cathedral did not impress. It is more important, though, to be impressed on a spiritual level and this is exactly what the evensong succeeded with me. The ancient sanctity and atmosphere of prayer of the abbey lingers and evolves in this cathedral.

Following the usual Sunday evensong, I was given the rare privilege to participate in a special service, the 37th Annual Festal Evensong of the Knights Templar of the Provincial Priory of East Anglia. The formal title of this ancient organisation was printed to great length in the printed service booklet:

The United Religious, Military and Masonic Orders
of the Temple and of St. John of Jerusalem,
Palestine, Rhodes and Malta of England and Wales
and its Provinces Overseas

The service was full of ceremony but that did not make the sermon any less meaningful or important. R.E. Kt. Geoffrey Hewitt, the Provincial Prior for East Anglia, gave a humorous lesson and brought out from it important points of religious morality. The choir was only eight voices strong and was composed entirely of women. It lacked the diversity and rich bass of an all male choir. However, some of the hymns were rendered exceptionally well. I was pleased to hear a different tonal range for a change. The greater joy was to see women in the choir which is something I have seen nowhere else. It is important to note that this all female choir sang in the nave, not in the choir.

Despite an illuminating service, I felt this whole episode was a joke. The Knight Templars go all the way back to the time of Richard I and the Christian crusades. What is their relevance today? I asked someone. Her reply was neither satisfying nor encouraging. The most they do these days is to raise money for charity. Anyone can do that. One doesn’t need a fancy title, a costumed dress, sword and banners with medieval coat of arms, or a special ceremony. Most of the so called knights were aging men, some of who were visibly tired after walking a couple of times down the aisle. Most had taken good care of their elaborate robed dress. For some, it was clear that these stained and unwashed robes came out from some humid chest once a year for this very occasion.

Many months ago I had visited Exeter on a very wet day. I had my cap on to keep my head as dry as possible. When I entered the Cathedral for a service I was politely asked to remove my cap. This, I normally do in advance, but the rain had made me forget to keep up the habit. Today, at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, it was quite different. All through the service two women wore fine hats. Many more were dressed in their best, replete with make-up and jewellery. To them this event was less of a service. It was more of a gay social gathering like a summer’s outing on a race day at Ascot, Epsom or Newmarket.

Thus we find among the previous generations decadent practices of tradition. However, it is likely that the Knights Templar do more than what met my eye. A couple of paramedics from St. John’s Ambulance were present at the Cathedral for assistance. Their contribution to society is not to be doubted. Historically, they are perhaps linked to the Knights Templar.

Suffolk Pink

I haven’t travelled much in Suffolk but from what I have seen I am certain of this: in every village one may be sure to find at least one building painted in a pretty pink colour. It is not the pink that is bright and garish. It is not the pink that explodes on a calm country setting. Rather, it is a muted pink in a neutral shade that merges well with the surrounding greens of the country, the browns of stubble fields or quiet blues of the sky after sunset.

A woman explained to me that this colour was made from the red earth so commonly available in Suffolk. This is mixed with pig’s urine among other ingredients to produce Suffolk Pink. This is the traditional view; but the colours that we see today may have been artificially made by newer processes. The name is an indication of the pride locals have in its discovery. We must necessarily admit that colours cannot be invented. They can only be discovered. An apt analogy is in Indian classical music where a raaga cannot be invented but only discovered.

Now we come to specific question of the history of Suffolk Pink. When I was at Waddesdon I noticed a Sevres porcelain vase in a rare “pink ground colour” that looks almost identical to Suffolk Pink. This pot-pourri vase was made in 1763. The colour is said to have been “invented” (so they claim) in 1758 and used only until the early 1760s. This was often called “Pompadour pink”. Could this be Suffolk Pink? Or if Suffolk Pink had come about earlier, could the people of Sevres be taking undue credit for what is not theirs?

The Charitable English

The English give generously. Take the example of the collection after the Knights Templar service. Those sitting next to me at the pew contributed in tens and twenties. I gave less than a couple of pounds. Some weeks back one of my colleagues appealed for sponsorship for a run in London on the 1st of October. This was for Cancer Research UK. Her parents had contributed £50. Many colleagues gave £10 to £20.

Saturday was a special day for the churches of Suffolk. It was the 25th anniversary of what is now called the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust Bike Ride. This explained why the church at Stanningfield was busy on a Saturday morning. So was the church at Lavenham. Entry to this event was free. Participants are expected to get sponsorship and the proceeds go to the trust. I met a couple who had started in the afternoon and had covered twelve churches. Their sponsorship was mainly from friends and family. At Lavenham, I met an elderly man who expected to cover as many as forty-two churches by the end of the day. His was an exception. He knew the country roads and villages well enough to cover that many.

A lot of charitable work in Britain is organised in this fashion. It requires active participation. It appeals to the personal interests and passions in innovative ways that make people want to participate. At the end of the day, money is raised by sponsorship which amounts to begging, coercion or persuasion depending on how one pitches it. However, it rarely happens that sponsorship is obtained from the general public. In so far as I have observed all money is raised within a private circle of friends, colleagues and family members. Within such a circle it is a lot easier to raise money. For the giver, it is like buying a Christmas gift. You know the person and you want to support him in what is seen as a generous act. In some ways, charity has become fashionable.

Yet another method of raising money is one that requires no active participation. One simply contributes for a just cause and a chance to win at a raffle. National Trust raises money in this manner. At Petworth I had observed some volunteers selling raffle tickets. The proceeds will go towards the restoration of one of the paintings in the house.

Travelling through Suffolk

On this weekend I have felt greatly the need for a car. The time and effort spent in getting to and getting around Suffolk would not have been as great. My first intended stop for Saturday morning was Lavenham. I started from Luton at half-five in the morning. I reached Lavenham only at half-one in the afternoon. So the planned visit to neighbouring towns of Long Melford, Cavendish and Clare had to be dropped.

Sure, some of it was lack of knowledge. I could have gone to Hitchin by bus and then taken a train. This way I would have avoided travelling via London. I would have saved both time and money. I had also underestimated the time to walk to the campsite and back from Stanningfield.

Blackberries ripening with the season

Blackberries ripening with the season

Travelling by car is an experience of a different kind. I would probably see more but notice less. I would probably travel faster and farther but be in a state of rush. In any case, I would not have seen the kind of things that were seen in these two days. At a farmhouse, three bottles of milk were waiting at the gate. This is milk delivery in the country. At another farm, eggs were on sale at the price of a dozen for a pound. At Stanningfield, Bramley apples had been heaped up in a cardboard carton by the roadside, all free of charge. At Lawshall, a push-cart was filled with vegetables along with a money box for payment – a cucumber for 30p, a courgette for 20p, a marrow for 50p and so on. Then a sign at a farm read,


Public transport here is not as convenient or as cheap as in the South of England. For example, I needed to take only one bus for the entire Saturday but they did not have any day pass. Getting single tickets for every ride proved expensive. One possible reason is that there are many independent bus operators in this region. Neither Stagecoach not Arriva has a strong presence. This means that if you change buses, the costs add up. Planning has to be exact because convenient connections are likely to be less.

The situation on Sunday was worse. There were no buses from Stanningfield to Ickworth or Bury St Edmunds. So with my tent and backpack I had to walk to Ickworth. Finally I opted to take a taxi from Ickworth to Bury giving myself more time at the Cathedral.

The most difficult situation of the weekend came unexpectedly on Saturday morning. I needed some cash. Usually when I arrive at any place I need a couple of minutes to locate a cash machine. At Bury I spotted one almost as soon as I wanted to withdraw. To my surprise I discovered that my card had been cancelled. A new card had been issued and no reminder had been sent. Fortunately I had twenty pounds with me. I had to spend carefully. The cost of every bus ride mattered. For food, I had to ration with one loaf of bread and a cake. I had packed three apples from Luton that served up the required fibre and vitamins for the weekend. I had to reserve six pounds for the night at the campsite. I still had enough money to pay five pounds for the taxi ride on Sunday. Just two days and the experience had been difficult. What about the jobless, the homeless and the less fortunate for whom everyday is like this? I once spent forty pounds for a meal at London. I know it was a luxury but now I feel it’s almost obscene.

Part1 | Part2




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