Lavenham Stories - Made in Suffolk
As part of our #MadeInSuffolk series, we’ve sought out not only the people and places that define our county, but also the landscapes and walkways that make Suffolk so unique.
We were lucky enough to bend the ears of the writers and walkers responsible for Weird Walk, an independent magazine about British folklore, history and geography. Although they’re not based in Suffolk, the lads have trod many an East Anglian path and are well-versed in local lore. We spoke to them about treks, traditions and Suffolk’s extraordinary psychogeography.
Hello, Weird Walk. What led you to explore walking through writing?
The three of us have been friends for years and we went on our first long-distance walk on a bit of whim. It turned out to be a great way to unite our interests in landscape, history, music and folklore, and Weird Walk came out of that quite naturally. On the walks that followed the vibe was consolidated: we had become weird walkers without realising.
What kind of ‘wanderings and wonderings’ can readers expect to find in your zines?
We have described weird walking as an active engagement with the landscape, its histories and mysteries, and we dip into all kinds of things that connect with that philosophy in the zines. You’ll find megaliths, folk horror, strange music, haunted pubs and, of course, walks expounded upon within.
Which walking routes have you explored in Suffolk? Do you have a favourite Suffolk landscape?
We have written elsewhere about Rendlesham Forest, which is one of our favourite places in Suffolk for a wander, and the site of much UFO-related lore. Our other pick would be the area around Dunwich, which is a fascinating place. Dunwich was once capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles and an international port not far off the size of medieval London, but coastal erosion and a series of catastrophic storms meant that much of the city was lost to the waves by the end of the Tudor period. Many churches and grand houses were taken by the encroaching North Sea – legend holds that at low tide the lonely tolling of sunken bells can be heard across the beaches. All Saints church was one of the last to fall into the sea, in the 1930s. Last time we checked, one solitary grave remained in what is left of the churchyard, the headstone of Jacob Forster, buried in 1796.
Nowadays, the city is a village of some 120 people, with a museum, a pub and a nineteenth-century church built a sensible distance from the shoreline. Dunwich museum is something of a time capsule in itself – you can easily imagine it featuring in a lost 1970s children’s TV series about occult goings on beneath the waters (or maybe that’s just us). As well as being drenched in history, the whole area makes for good walking country. Our favourite route takes in heathland, woods, monastic ruins and two cracking pubs –
the Westleton Crown and the Ship in Dunwich itself. The latter has an epic beer garden which is home to Britain’s oldest fig tree, said to have been a sapling in the time of Henry V, and is the perfect spot for a few summer ales.
In your zines you also write about local traditions and rural rituals. How important do you think traditions are to a sense of place?
Traditions can be very important to a sense of place. We see this in communities everywhere, and some rituals are truly ancient practices, such as the scouring of the Uffington White Horse, which has taken place, in some form, for thousands of years. For us, the most interesting customs are those which constantly evolve while maintaining a link to the past, rather than being preserved in aspic. New customs are always developing, and always will, as long as there are people and stories. Who knows which of these will survive and be seen as venerable traditions in a few hundred years?
There’s certainly good evidence of traditional customs across Suffolk, especially in times past. One that caught our eye was a peculiar ritual associated with bees that Dee Dee Chainey recounts in A Treasury of British Folklore: Suffolk tradition teaches that bees are intelligent and hard-working creatures that should be treated as members of the family. In Suffolk and elsewhere there was a superstition that when there was a death in
the family it was necessary to engage in the tradition of ‘telling the bees’ of the loss so they could mourn, otherwise they would become angry and desert the hive.
If you were to analyse the psychogeography of Suffolk, what would be your diagnosis?
We should defer to M. R. James here, who nailed Suffolk’s psychogeography in many of his tales; the contrast between picturesque countryside and eerie, wind-blasted coast is a powerful one that makes a great setting for ghost stories. Edward Parnell writes about James’s Suffolk brilliantly in Ghostland, one of our favourite reads.
In previous articles you’ve extolled the pleasures of pairing walks with music, and of course one of Suffolk’s most celebrated residents is the DJ John Peel. What Peel-esque soundtrack would you recommend for a ramble across Suffolk?
Stone Angel’s self-titled 1975 LP would be a great pick. This acid folk gem was recorded in an East Anglian teacher training college and has gradually accrued a cult following far beyond the North Sea coast. The band conjure up their native landscape and draw on local lore on cuts such as The Bells of Dunwich, which would be a fine thing to blast out while yomping between pubs on the walk mentioned above. You can listen to some Stone Angel and lots more top-notch acid folk on our Weird Walk playlist here.
Gilets aside, what kind of kit do you recommend for long country walks?
If you are walking in Britain the main thing is staying dry, so get a decent waterproof jacket and pair of boots. Gore-tex is the watchword here. A top layer that’s breathable and keeps you dry can be the difference between a mega stroll in the countryside and a depressing trudge, so don’t economise. Likewise on your feet you want something keeping your socks dry that feels comfortable to walk in. A hardcore leather Hillwalker will likely cover you for all four seasons, and last for several years, but keep in mind how long they take to break in, and the additional weight. If a shoe is waterproof and feels comfortable straight out of the box, that’s the one.
A good cup of tea is most welcome out on the trails at the moment: a hammertone Stanley flask for long treks or a Yeti Rambler for shorter jaunts has us sorted. OS Explorer maps are a backpack essential and their app is pretty impressive, too. We’ll usually take some reading matter, although from experience of hiking the Coleridge Way with several hardback tomes of poetry, we’d suggest paperback if possible.