Earl Soham campsite
We have a small green field to ourselves. Motorised vehicles are strictly forbidden on site so we make do with a rickety, two wheeled trolley to cart our luggage across the grass from our small green car which is parked neatly on a closely mown corner. The synergy is not lost on our small green tent which we pitch close to the charcoal rubble of an overgrown fire pit. Evidence of not so recent fellow campers.
As the light fades, the gnarled branches of a hundred year old oak spook our imagination. The evening breeze has stirred the silhouetted shapes of wood sprites back into life unsettling us. Dare we leave the confines of our canvas? The camp kitchen lies just beyond the throw of our torch beams. A forgotten kettle, rusting gas burner and a faded box of safety matches are signs of busier days. We stay put. Night falls. Sleep takes us.
Overnight our tent seams strain against strong, south westerly winds. Rain drops bounce off our roof like tiny, glistening marble beads. We remain watertight throughout and our tent pegs hold fast in the turf. Daylight brings a breeze tumbling through a troubled sky. The rain has ceased for now. A stop gap between showers.
Morning is announced by a magnificent cockerel in full ‘Chinese dragon’ plumage who lets us know that it is four-of-the-clock. His determined and persistent ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ sets off the resident wood pigeons who coo reassuringly and repeatedly to their neighbours. This, in turn, awakens a gobbling turkey. Our pillows and sleeping bags are no defence against this dawn cacophony.
On the far side of the field a set of steps lead to a raised wooden platform where a mature lime tree has formed a natural canopy above a row of brightly painted garden sheds. These house the toilet and shower facilities. Their blue and white nautical livery is a hint that the Suffolk coast is not so very far away.
Bubble and fizz
Our water is drawn from a bore hole deep beneath the Suffolk soil. It fizzes into our bottles turning milky white with thousands of tiny air bubbles before clearing miraculously like a freshly pulled pint of ale. Green woodpeckers laugh at us from a distant copse and a wren’s aggressive call jealously guards its territory against our temporary invasion. Turned over tractor tyres line the track to the tap. They have been transformed into a makeshift pumpkin patch whose vulcanized walls nurse succulent orange and yellow globes.
Mill House is a peaceful place… most of the time. We had the field to ourselves during our stay with only the occasional transient neighbour for company. A relaxing, rustic retreat far from the madding crowd.
A windswept heath lurks within the forest. We head for the graves. Thetford’s hidden hollows pepper this lonely landscape. Sheep and rabbits share the chalky craters with us making the best of the scorched summer grass flattened close to the ground. They mined black flint here five thousand years ago and fashioned it cunningly into axe and arrow head. We descend into cool flinty caves pressing our fingernails into the soft calcium. The autographed inner walls reveal the identities of the many visitors to these iron age mines.
On our second morning we listen to the Sunday morning silence of Woodbridge’s medieval timber framed houses. The old Bridewell is our favourite. Its daubed, damson walls, chocolate timbers and intricate strawberry plaster-work patterns look good enough to eat. Across the railway footbridge the tide-mill stands ready for business beside the River Deben’s full flood.
A strong south easterly is put to good use by a gaff rigged skiff helmed expertly upstream. She makes ground on a beam reach skimming past chatty dog walkers and the outdoor yoga club stretching their shapes in the sun. Model yachts on the riverside pond are capsized and flattened by the boisterous breeze. It is a lovely walk and we return to town refueled with fresh air.
King Raedwald’s rusting helmet welcomes visitors to this hallowed site. It guards over his reconstructed longship; a ninety foot, hand crafted, timber skeleton laying close by. The original was unearthed during the summer of 1939 at the instigation of local landowner Edith Pretty whose childhood curiosity got the better of her. She requested the help of Basil Brown, a local archaeologist, whose team excavated Raedwald’s royal resting place revealing his ship laden with a fabulous cargo of grave goods. The treasure had not seen the light of day for over a thousand years.
The site of Raedwald’s ship is an elongated earth barrow marked at either end with a metallic stern and prow. The trove beneath held Sri Lankan garnets set in golden clasps and silver bowls fashioned in ancient Syria; clues to a previously unimagined Anglo-Saxon trading world. Sword, spear and Frankish coin slept beneath the earth in readiness for Raedwald’s final voyage. The high bluffs overlooking the Deben’s blue ribbon to their world must have shed tears as Raedwald’s people mourned a warrior, king and peacemaker.
A boy and his horse
Unnoticed, a royal boy and his horse lay quietly besides Raedwald’s ship. They remained undisturbed during the 1930s dig and were only discovered during the late twentieth century; fourteen hundred summers after their interment. Enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable tour guides add to the drama with sad tales of executed felons found near by. Their captive bodies were thrown unkindly into shallow graves dug carelessly out of the pagan soil; the ultimate ignominy for those daring to follow Christ’s new religion. Today, the gorse bushes grow uneasily among the empty eggs of sacred earth.
Scratch the surface and reveal a land rich in stories where neolithic miners crafted fine flint tools scoured from caves of calcium. Where the beating heart of a Saxon kingdom greeted traders returning from the east with exotic treasures. And where the Deben’s artery to the sea brought people and prosperity deep within this East Anglian stronghold. If you are looking for a staycation, Suffolk will awaken your senses, wash the sleep from your eyes and send you away with a new found appreciation for a sometimes overlooked corner of our green and pleasant land.
© Robin Redfern 2019