True grit town of proud stock

What a cheek! The Lonely Planet travel guide said three years ago that Ipswich would 'barely register on the list of England's most important towns'. If only they knew….

Steven Russell

What a cheek! The Lonely Planet travel guide said three years ago that Ipswich would 'barely register on the list of England's most important towns'. If only they knew….

IT'S time, reckons Carol Twinch, to once again bang the drum for Ipswich and show folk there's more to the place than meets the eye.

Just because there are no imposing ramparts or majestic abbeys doesn't mean the history of Ipswich is as dull as a wet Tuesday afternoon in the House of Commons.


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It might not be named in official documents until the 10th Century, but archaeology proves Ipswich was there almost 400 years earlier, says Carol. Golly, it's one of the oldest towns in England and was the first to be founded in Suffolk and Norfolk, so don't dis it.

The author tells its story in her new book, The History of Ipswich. “You may well ask why it's important to have another history book on Ipswich,” she laughs, “but this one isn't so much 'a history' as a quick romp through history to show how the town got to where it is today.

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“It's usually dismissed as 'a town without history', but I think this means that Ipswich doesn't have its history on show. With Ipswich you have to resort to the written word and try to find clues and traces of its antiquity amid what the planners have left for us to interpret.

“That's mostly the reason for the book: why don't we have town walls, abbey ruins, or grand streets? It will hopefully interest people who wouldn't necessarily pick up a more learned tome but who might want to know more detail once they find Ipswich isn't quite as boring as they were led to believe!

“You can think you've known Ipswich all your life, and then when you come to look at it you think 'By crikey! This goes back to Neolithic times!'

“Ipswich was mercantile. It was a town that lived off its wits and its trade. And, also, we had mendicant friars here; we didn't have Benedictines.”

The former took a vow of poverty, and depended on people's charity. The latter tended to create self-supporting communities. As these grew, they became virtually towns in their own right - often behind huge walls.

“You go to Norwich, you go to Bury St Edmunds, and you can see what they did,” says Carol. “You can see the remains of the fabulous Benedictine abbey. Somewhere like Norwich and Bury had the money. They were the places where the kings and scholars went, and pilgrims in large numbers. It was a whole different atmosphere.

“Ipswich changed because it could; and when it got new money it took down the old and put up the new. It had and has the grit and character of a commercial town.”

The planners haven't helped. They might have been acting in the best of intentions - wiping away fairly grotty parts of the town, for instance - but often the baby was flung out with the bathwater. “In the 1960s we all thought it was a brave new world, and up went the glorious Greyfriars!”

Mind you, there had been other culprits down the years.

“The Georgians did the same. They destroyed the fabulous Market Cross” - an ornamental multi-sided structure from the Tudor period, 27 feet in diameter and about 50 feet high - “because they thought it was rather ugly and stood in the middle of the Cornhill. How glorious it would have it now.” (It, the remains of St Mildred's Church and the Georgian rotunda were removed to make way for the new Corn Exchange.)

Archaeological evidence shows man has lived here since at least 5,000 BC, explains the author, with Neolithic axes found near the town site, and in the late 1960 Iron Age gold torcs were found at Belstead.

By the end of the Roman period, she writes, “there must have already been the nucleus of a town, though not with any formal design”.

After the Roman troops left came the peaceful colonisation of the Angles and Saxons from what is now Germany and Holland. Small hamlets were built along the Orwell and Gipping. Gipeswic, as it became known, was one of the first of any size to be founded. What is today the Stoke area stood at the shallowest part of the river “and it formed the nucleus for what was to be continuous settlement in that precise location, which is what gives Ipswich its claim to being one of the oldest towns in England” - inhabited continuously from at least 450 to the present day.

The discovery of the royal burial ship at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, which probably dates from about 625, “provided a possible reason for the success of the emerging Gipeswic”.

Following Roman emperor Honorius's withdrawal of his army from our shores in 410, the 5th Century saw settlers arriving from Denmark, Germany and the Rhine area. They became known as Anglo-Saxons.

The Wuffingas, rulers of the united kingdom of East Anglia, would have imported luxury goods such as wine, fine garments and so on, and shared some of them among the aristocracy in exchange for their allegiance, says Carol.

She explains: “The king and his retinue at Rendlesham would have needed a port to service the many needs of the royal household for both trade and travel, and this would provide a perfectly respectable reason for the deliberate expansion of Gipeswic.”

She concedes the evidence is circumstantial that Gipeswic was effectively founded by the Wuffingas, “but, nevertheless, financial support from a rich royal could explain why the town prospered when many others failed.

“It was unlikely that the population could have financed the expansion from the potteries and fishing economy, but management from the Wuffingas would have provided the confidence to have established a port of some significance.”

The story, covered in her book, moves on to King John and the Charter of 1200 that gave the town some powers of its own, Elizabethan Gippeswiche and Stuart Ipswich, the Georgian period, Victorian times, the Edwardian era and the two world wars, and into the 21st Century with the revival of the waterfront and initiatives such as University Campus Suffolk.

-The History of Ipswich is published by Breedon Books at £9.99. ISBN 978 1 85983 625 5.

- Carol Twinch factfile

Brought up in Hoxne, near Eye

Her family farmed

As a girl she'd often come to Ipswich on a Tuesday: market day

Carol went to college in Ipswich and then worked for insurance assessors in Museum Street before working in Austria, Canada and Australia

She returned to East Anglia and farmed in Norfolk for 15 years before settling back in Suffolk in 1991

Carol's written books on keeping poultry, sheep, and egg production!

She's also produced a history book on Bury St Edmunds and, in the past couple of years, The Little Book of Suffolk and Ipswich, Street by Street

She's doing a signing session at Ipswich Tourism Information Centre, St Stephen's Church, on Saturday, June 21, from 11am to 1pm

- Ten things you might not know about your favourite town

St Mildred's Church was built on the Cornhill in 700. Its remains were finally pulled down in 1812

St Margaret's Green, Street and Plain were once known as Thingstead - a Danish name for a meeting place

In 1086 Ipswich appeared as Gepeswiz in the Domesday Book

Locals gathered in the churchyard of St Mary le Tower in 1200 to hear details read out of the charter granted to the town by King John

1295: Earliest vessel known to have been built in Ipswich - a galley for Edward I

St Mary Stoke is one of the dozen remaining medieval churches and is near the original site of Anglo-Saxon Gipeswic

Look up at the town hall: medallions on the outside depict King Richard, Cardinal Wolsey and King John underneath figures representing commerce, agriculture, law and learning, and justice

During the civil war in middle of the 1600s Parliamentary troops were stationed at inns such as The (Great) White Horse, the Greyhound and the Golden Lion

1767: First bank opened

The Orwell Bridge is the third-longest, continuous, post-tensioned, concrete bridge in Britain

Source: Carol Twinch's The History of Ipswich

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