Suffolk Landscape

Location and relief

Suffolk owes its character to two factors: its position, in the east of the country, and also to its flattish landscape with mostly fertile soils. The highest point is less than 130m above sea level, so it is a county of gentle slopes and slow flowing rivers—and all the land is cultivatable, even though not all the soils are equally fertile.

Felixstowe docks

Facing Europe is good for trade, of course, but it has been a problem for defence at times. Felixstowe, the country’s largest container port, is the first European landing point for many inter-continental cargo ships, and sometimes the only one. Containers are forwarded to other destinations in mainland Europe. Felixstowe was also, however, the site of the last landing of enemy troops in England. In 1667, a thousand Dutch soldiers and sailors had to be beaten off by the local militia, based at Landguard Fort. (more…)

The farming year

Preparing the ground

During the winter months, work was done on draining the land. Special spades were used to dig deep, narrow trenches. ‘Scoops’ were then employed to achieve a slight slope and to clear the channel of stones before the pipes could be laid (originally, ‘bush drains’, filled with densely packed hawthorn, were the norm).

In marshy areas, wind pumps were used to raise water. The pump looking so like a mill, was used to drain the Minsmere Level, near Leiston. It looks similar to a Smock mill, with its 8-sided, wooden tower (tower mills had brick towers, while Post mills were made of wood), and the grinding mechanism, as well as the sails, turned to face the wind.

Light, sandy soils could be improved by the addition of clayey ‘marl’ from elsewhere on the farm. One can still see old marl pits near many Suffolk roads, often occupied now by thickets of trees.

The soil had to be kept fertile as well as free of lying water. Several Suffolk companies were formed to supply farmers with a variety of substances for this purpose, when the use of the farm’s own animal manure proved insufficient. (more…)

All at sea

Introduction

Suffolk has a gentle coast, mainly sand and shingle, with a few low cliffs. It faces the enclosed North Sea, so the rise and fall of the tide is slight—a couple of metres usually, compared with Cornwall’s 13-15m. The beaches tend to be fairly straight sections of coastline rather than picturesque bays, but the bathing is safe and, in the past, the fishing has been reliable.

Being sheltered from the west winds that come off the Atlantic, the shore does not get pounded as often here as elsewhere. When the wind comes from the north, in a winter storm, however, the sand is easily eroded.

The prevalence of smuggling along the Suffolk coastline, often thought of as a romantic interlude in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is also a very real concern for the port authorities at Felixstowe and elsewhere in the present day. (more…)

On the move

Alternatives

Travel by road has not always been the only option for those planning a journey. Until quite recently, going by sea was generally favoured for long journeys. In 1851 Richard Garrett used sea travel to take his entire workforce to see the Great Exhibition in London.

In early times, Saxon and Viking settlers had travelled inland by river, and in the 18th and 19th centuries the Stour, the Lark and the Gipping/Orwell rivers were improved to make them navigable again. The Lark became known as the coal river in Bury St Edmunds, so drastically did the price of the fuel drop when it could be transported into the town by water.

The road

Most of our present roads started as tracks for walking and driving livestock on; only later did they get tarred over. These older roads wound their way round field boundaries and still do, unless they have been straightened out in the interests of road safety.

The upkeep of most roads was a parish concern until the 18th century, and they were often in a terrible state, especially in winter. The situation then improved, thanks to the Turnpike Trusts—companies that were given the right to charge tolls in return for keeping the roads in a good state of repair. The first Suffolk Turnpike Act was passed in 1741 for the roads between Ipswich and Scole—going by way of Claydon, Stowmarket and Haughley. (more…)

Seven ages of man and woman in Suffolk

Introduction

Shakespeare mused, in “As You Like It”, on the seven stages of a man’s life. What can be said about a life passed in the 19th century, say, here in Suffolk?

The infant

First of all, it was important to be baptised. Many infants died young, and the vicar would have you believe that, for a baby, baptism was the only sure passport to Heaven. Assuming that you managed to survive infancy, you would have to be properly clothed. That meant a dress, even if you were a little boy. Boys from wealthy families were kept in dresses longer, but by the 1890s it was rare to see a boy of over 6 in a dress. A rocking chair would keep you out of harm’s way while your mother got on with her many chores.

The schoolboy

A penny a day:
The children of farm labourers were often kept off school, to help with mundane tasks on the farm such as sowing beans, turning the cut hay, or scaring birds. Harry Denny was born in 1895 at Wetheringsett. He is quoted in Where Beards Wag All, by George Ewart Evans:

“I went [scaring] crows but when I went doing this I had to pick stoons as well. We had a pair o’ wooden clappers or an old pail. You’d hit the pail with a stick. We had to shout and run to the other end of the field like when I was frightening linnets off seed. Linnets used to be more trouble for seed than anything I know. [Another job was] to go into the corn and cut out the thistles and weeds.”

Apprentices:
In towns there was obviously a wider choice, with more apprenticeships, and some shop work. (more…)

Made in Suffolk

Village Crafts

The Grundisburgh Smithy can now be seen at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket. The blacksmith made and repaired household implements, machinery for the farm and parts for carts, as well as horseshoes.

There were a few craftsmen that nearly every village needed, before these days of mass production and easy transport—The butcher, baker, blacksmith, carpenter, and miller. The crafts were usually undertaken from workshops in, or next to, their own homes.

The mills referred to in the Domesday Book (1086) are all water mills, including the water mill at Flatford, which was made famous by the artist, John Constable.

Villages would also have had at least one shop, and some ale-houses or an inn, where home brewed beer was sold.

Some trades were related to the needs or products of a particular locality e.g. weavers, brick-makers and shipwrights. Other craftsmen were more likely to be found in larger villages and market towns—men such as the saddler, cooper, cobbler and tailor; women like the dressmaker. These people would also have had their workshops at home. (more…)

Home Front Heroes

Background to project

The Home Front Heroes project was funded by the Suffolk Record Office and a Home Front Recall grant obtained by the Friends of the Suffolk Record Office to ensure future generations find out what their country went through and remember the significant contribution made by British people between 1939-1945. Improved access to original records of the time helps everyone find out what life was really like for those who were evacuated, living in Suffolk, or serving with the Suffolk Regiment at home or abroad.

The Suffolk Home Front Heroes project objective was to create lasting and accessible online learning resources to help everyone explore this period and ‘Discovery Kits’ of local documents and photographs for use in schools to support Key Stage 2-3 students studying History, English and Literacy. These kits will be sent to all primary, middle, high and special schools in Suffolk. They will be available in record offices, libraries, mobile libraries and through our school libraries service and presented to our partners. (more…)

Suffolk History

Suffolk and the Ice Age

Suffolk’s chalky clay soils are formed from ’till’ or ‘boulder clay’—this is material that was scraped up by the great Anglian Glaciation about 470,000–430,000 years ago and then left behind when the ice sheet melted. In places this layer is nearly 70 metres thick. Nearly all of Suffolk was covered by the Anglian Glaciation but no subsequent ice sheets reached this far south—the last glaciation, which ended about 10,000 years ago, only reached the north Norfolk coast. On either side of the clay till are areas with sandy soils. These are the result of ‘outwash’ from the melting glaciers and of windblows from the main glacial deposits.

Early history

Suffolk has the earliest site offering evidence of tool-making in the whole country at High Lodge near Mildenhall. Flint tools made by Homo heidelbergensis half a million years ago, in a warm interval during the Ice Age, have been found there. As the ice sheets melted, the sea level rose and Britain eventually became an island in about 6000 BC. By 4000 BC Neolithic people—who had learned to grow crops and keep animals—had arrived in Suffolk. These New Stone Age farmers favoured sandy soils (which we think of as less productive) because they are easy to cultivate. The heavy clay soils of central Suffolk probably remained largely forested until the latter part of the Iron Age, in the final centuries BC. The Romans landed in AD43 and ruled Britain for nearly 400 years. Boudica’s revolt in AD60-61 is notorious. Her people, the Iceni, lived in Norfolk and the northern half of Suffolk. (more…)