Suffolk: a proud county

SHOULD Suffolk be one county, looking after all local government right up to its present borders? Ought the county be split between an Ipswich-Felixstowe authority and the rest of Suffolk? Might Norfolk absorb Lowestoft?At heart, most of Suffolk's inhabitants do not like artificial divisions in their county.

SHOULD Suffolk be one county, looking after all local government right up to its present borders?

Ought the county be split between an Ipswich-Felixstowe authority and the rest of Suffolk? Might Norfolk absorb Lowestoft?

At heart, most of Suffolk's inhabitants do not like artificial divisions in their county. Older residents remember having to cycle or take buses or trains through a town and out the other side to reach offices serving their own official areas.

It happened because administrative rural districts surrounded urban districts or boroughs. In wartime the people of Haughley and Wetherden, for example, had to go through Stowmarket to be issued with their ration books at Needham Market.

At that time too, some Felixstowe children who were not evacuated elsewhere took trains all the way to Stowmarket for their education. They could not stop at Ipswich, the town being a county borough, quite distinct from East Suffolk - as was West Suffolk.

Not until 1974 did all three authorities come together in one Suffolk, where I can change books at any library branch in the county. If Ipswich and Felixstowe hive off, forming their own little “North Haven”, that could no longer be done. Education, social services and much else would also be separated.

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Clifford Smith, who was first chief executive of the new Suffolk county council, has no doubt that continuing and strengthening its unity is the best way forward. “I have spoken to more than 100 people on this matter and have yet to meet anyone who sees any merit in carving up Suffolk,” he says.

“It would mean duplication and extra costs. Conversely, there are savings to be made with a unitary authority serving all Suffolk's 720,000 people.”

Mr Smith points out that nobody proposes that Essex with a population of 1.2 million should be divided in any way. Apart from Suffolk and Norfolk, the only county where such a division is being considered is Devon, where a unitary council for Exeter and Exmouth is an option.

The preferred option for Norfolk (850,000 population) is a county-wide authority plus Lowestoft, an alternative being one unitary council for Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and another for the rest of the county. EADT readers may have noticed that many people in the Lowestoft area strongly oppose being cut from Suffolk.

“Yartoft” is even mentioned as a possibility to describe a union of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The two ports have a common heritage in the fishing industry and the diocese of Norwich, but otherwise compete fiercely.

Yarmouth's outer harbour under construction is publicly funded, Lowestoft (like all other Suffolk ports and Harwich) is not. More importantly, Lowestoft is effectively the capital of north Suffolk and would lose out if turned into a mere outpost of another county.

Back in 1966 the Recliffe-Maud Commission proposed that Suffolk would unite, but lose Haverhill and Newmarket to Cambridgeshire and gain north-East Essex. The EADT optimistically printed a “Colchester, Suffolk” postmark, but widespread opposition caused the wholesale redrawing of boundaries to be rejected.

Majorities of people in villages around Colchester, especially those in “Constable Country”, would have liked to be part of Suffolk. They benefit, however, from being part of an undivided, populous and diverse county that can afford even its own maritime police.

A danger in having authorities too small to function comprehensively is the promotion of regional bodies so remote as to be out of touch with their electorate, if they have one.


IF Suffolk seeks a patron saint to safeguard its integrity and unity, the role could just possibly be filled by Etheldreda, who was born at Exning - the county's most steadfastly loyal parish.

She might also represent the heavenly interests of motorists on the A14, which runs over the site of her royal birthplace, and Anglicans and Catholics who see no objection to women being ordained priests or, in the next decade or century, consecrated bishops.

St Etheldreda founded and ruled a unisex abbey of monks and nuns at Ely. She had kept her virginity through two royal marriages and maintained remarkable strength of will through her exercise of power in both spiritual and temporal matters.

Exning people have showed similar resolution 40 years agoi through a ballot on whether they and their Newmarket neighbours should switch from Suffolk to Cambridgeshire. The townspeople narrowly voted for change while the villagers, though almost surrounded by Cambridgeshire, swung the balance in favour of the status quo.

Some explained, tongue in cheek, that they didn't want to swap the healthy Suffolk breeze for a damp Fenland climate. A more serious reason may have been Exning's a greater sense of history. It hosted the area's market for centuries until plague drove the vendors to a previously empty place that they called New Market.

Etheldreda's marital progress was more complicated. Daughter of Anna , last independent king of East Anglia, she married Tondbert, prince of the neighbouring fenmen. Under the settlement, Tondbert gained the Isle of Ely and she stayed a virgin.

On his death she married Egfrith, teenage son of the Northumbrian king, on the same conjugal terms. After year or so he claimed full marital rights, whereupon she moved back south to concentrate her efforts on the church.

The Mercian king Penda, killed her father in battle in 654. From then on the East Anglian kingdom was subordinate to the Midlands monarchs. Viking invaders martyred Edmund, last of the region's Anglo-Saxon rulers, in the winter of 869/70. He made an ideal patron saint of England until supplanted by St George.

Royal grants meant that both Etheldreda and Edmund left lasting Suffolk legacies in the form of “liberties” that yielded income for their monasteries and helped to establish boundaries within the county.

The Liberty of Etheldreda covered south-east Suffolk, rather more than the Ipswich-Felixstowe area that one current proposal would make a unitary authority on its own. The liberty's jail was still at Melton when hunger caused a mutiny by the garrison at Landguard Fort in 1628.

Six of the leading mutineers drew lots at their trials as to which one should suffer death. The unlucky soldier was to passed from constable to constable from Felixstowe to Melton, but the one at Trimley St Mary thought he had suffered enough and let him go!

Etheldreda was also known as St Audrey, this becoming the name of a pioneering mental hospital at Melton. Her one weakness, we learn, was a love of necklaces.

When St Audrey's annual fair grew at Ely it achieved fame for its necklaces on sale, but their quality fell so much that its name steadily contracted into our word “tawdry”.

The Liberty of St Edmund seems to have been strictly administered from the start. Harsh taxing by their abbey landlord provoked the Bury townspeople to riot and, among other acts, burn down an abbey gate.

An area corresponding to St Edmund's liberty settled down into West Suffolk, a county in its own right from 1889 until 1974. In much earlier centuries the “Geldable,” the rest of Suffolk not within the two liberties, paid all its taxes to the royal treasury.


BOUNDARIES don't always run where we think they do. A good example is the River Stour at Flatford. Nearly every visitor thinks that there it separates Suffolk from Essex. Not so.

Both banks along this reach of the river belong to East Bergholt parish and therefore are firmly in Suffolk. This happens because the boundary follows an old course of the Stour, which was by-passed in the 18th century to help “industrialise” the river by making it navigable for barges and generate more power for turning mill wheels.

In Iron Age and Roman times the Stour was still less of a boundary: both south-east Suffolk and all Essex lay within the territory of the Trinovantes, with the Iceni tribe occupying north Suffolk and all Norfolk. Led by Boudicca, the Iceni easily forded the river when they marched south to burn the Roman settlements of Colchester and London.

A better-known piece of Suffolk south of the Stour extends deeply into Essex from Sudbury's Ballingdon bridge. This came about when Ballingdon parish switched to the then county of West Suffolk in 1896.

Around the same time another land transfer from Essex enlarged Haverhill and Kedington in West Suffolk, a tidying-up process that was to simplify bringing London overspill 60 years later.

Norfolk has annexed large bits of historic Suffolk, starting with Diss in Saxon times. It's a wonder that our northern neighbour hasn't created a buffer zone from Suffolk for Diss to spread over its river boundary. No other town in our region has kept so dutifully within its natural bounds. Perhaps the old East Suffolk planners had something to do with it.

Gorleston, where St Felix founded a Suffolk diocesan church of wood in the sixth century, was attached to Great Yarmouth in 1889. That gave Norfolk both banks of the Yare estuary and made commercial sense. In the same year West Suffolk gained Newmarket All Saints' parish from Cambridgeshire.

Much of Thetford, the Viking capital of East Anglia, belonged to Suffolk until 1894, when its parish of St Mary went into Norfolk along with a tract of Breckland. West Suffolk received a consolation prize the next year with an addition to Brandon.


SUFFOLK, came into being as home of the southern folk of the East Angles' kingdom, Norfolk being where its northern folk lived and Essex an ethnically distinct kingdom of the East Saxons.

Just when county names achieved recognition isn't known. A Saxon document of 895 refers to the Suthfolchi, but according to Dr Sam Newton the administrative status of Suffolk had to wait until the 1020s.

That came about, he says, when King Canute made Thorkell the Tall earl of East Anglia. Both were Danes who had taken part in invasions of England; Thorkell storming Ipswich in 1010 and Canute doing so in 1016. Thousand-year commemorations might be arranged.

Canute later banished Thorkell for challenging the king's authority, but they made up their quarrel and introduced stable government. The famed legend of Canute sitting on his throne and commanding the tide to turn could have an element of truth.

Although the story suggests that Canute wanted to demonstrate his power over the waves, he wanted to show his piety by proving that his royal status gave him no such ability.

Tradition places this event at either Bosham in Hampshire or somewhere on the Thames estuary - or it could just have been the Suffolk coast, the county's definitive eastern limit.

EXTREMITIES of Suffolk to the west, south-east and north-east all had military significance in ages that began around 15 hundred years ago.

Most mysterious is the Devil's Dyke or Ditch that forms the county boundary across Newmarket Heath. It probably barred the way into East Anglia to post-Roman invaders from Mercia (the Midlands kingdom) through an otherwise wide open gap of grassy chalk between treacherous marshes of Fenland and dark dense forest in Essex.

What had been a defensive work of some sort took on a gentler role for centuries when it served as a diocesan border. Nowadays, close to a footbridge spans the busy A14, a sign welcomes travellers to Suffolk before - to the puzzlement of strangers - the road runs back into Cambridgeshire before entering Suffolk again.

Horses do lots of border criss-crossing here as well, as they did when carrying the leaders of warring tribes. Nowadays they race along the Rowley Mile in Suffolk, the July and Beacon (Cesarewitch) courses in Cambridgeshire.

In the north-east, sadly, Suffolk ceded the parish and Roman fort of Burgh Castle to Norfolk in 1974, along with five other parishes. This was a compromise; the whole of what is now Waveney district down to Walberswick was originally intended to go into Norfolk.

Centuries earlier Landguard Point at Felixstowe almost went into Essex. State papers of 1547, the year in which Henry VIII died, two “block houses at Langer” were described as being in Essex.

Landguard Fort was supplied right into modern times from Harwich, ferrying being safer than sending wagons over tide-washed shingle at the end of a long sandy track from Ipswich, Indeed, Harwich stayed the garrison's post town until Felixstowe came into its own well into the reign of Queen Victoria.

“Landguard Fort is still considered as belonging to the county (Essex) … so surrounded by the sea at high water as to become an island nearly two miles from the shore,” recorded Wright's History of Essex in 1836. As late as 1886 the official army list showed a battery of garrison artillery as being quartered at “Landguard Fort, Essex”.

It's a wonder that this scene of the last invasion of England, when we repelled a force of 2,000 Dutch marines that landed in 1667, has stayed so firmly in Suffolk.

RIGHT on the edge of Suffolk, the “Gypsy Boy's Grave” on the old A45 near Newmarket is better-cared-for than most cemetery plots.

To reach it, one turns off the A14 into Kentford and cross the River Kennet and pass a pub that's in Cambridgeshire, but the road itself, here the ancient Icknield Way, stays in Suffolk.

Out in the countryside, at the next crossroads, is the grave that a tiny loop in the county boundary brings into Moulton parish and Suffolk - but only by inches. How that happened is a mystery, like the identity of the boy himself.

Wording on a cross tells us that he was “Joseph the unknown gypsy boy”. One legend has it that he hanged himself when sheep he was tending were thought to have some missing. A count later found the flock to be complete.

Suicides until the 19th century were then buried in unconsecrated ground, often at cross roads with a stake through their heart.

Only certainty in this story is that the grave regularly receives fresh flowers, said to be laid by passing gypsies - or travellers who may or may not be true Romanies. Superstition has it that the absence of flowers predicts that a foreign horse will win the next Newmarket classic.

Turning left at the crossroads brings one into Moulton village and a 14th or 15th century packhorse bridge, looked after by English Heritage. Though well and truly in Suffolk, its crossing of the River Kennet was regarded by drovers as a gateway into the county.