There aren’t many people who know where Suffolk’s highest hill is. And I’m not surprised. I looked it up the other day on Wikipedia. It’s a spot in a middle of a wood on the Newmarket Ridge. The Newmarket Ridge? That is a line of chalk that runs from the Chilterns in Hertfordshire all the way to the edge of Sudbury. It’s 136 metres high, which is about the height of a 40-storey tower block. The sort of tower that in the City of London would barely raise a planning officer’s eyebrows.
I hatched a plan to cycle there and back. Google maps said it would take about 1hour 44 minutes.
Perfect day for it, or so I thought, with a sparkling blue sky, and a few puffy clouds. However, a short way into the ride I realised that I was heading northwest, which was exactly the direction the bitter wind was coming from. So I was scaling Suffolk highest mountain against a headwind.
Still most of the way there went swimmingly. I even found time to stop between Lavenham and Bridge Street to take some pictures of the pair of pill boxes still standing sentinel in a field, in case any stray Germans still thought the war was on.
You can just see the other one in the distance. Why two so close together? I don’t know. I hope no one cracks the mystery surrounding these concrete lumps in the fields. The internet if full of pillbox enthusiasts trying to explain their siting and use, but it was all done in quite a hurry and was jolly hush hush. So no proper records remain of the thinking of the harried officers, who spent sleepless nights trying to predict how Hitler would try to conquer England.
These ones are part of the “Eastern Command Line” or “Stop Line” which acted as an inland tank barrier, so that if the Germans took the coast in the East – between Lowestoft and Aldeburgh was the thinking – they would not be able to progress westwards. It ran from Wivenhoe in Essex, to Colchester then via Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds up to Mildenhall and then on to the Wash. The Home Guard were were supposed to huddle into the pillboxes in order to defend the tank barriers. These pillboxes are just north of a disused railway line that ran between Lavenham airfield – a US bombing base in the war – and Sudbury so perhaps this part of the line was also trying to defend the rail track.
On to Bridge Street, a cluster of houses around the confluence of the endlessly droning A134 and the River Chad. There was something ancient about it. It would perhaps have been a major coaching stop on the way to Bury St Edmunds. But obviously no longer. However, Terry and Lynette, I gather, do welcome you to their historic pet-friendly guest house. I fancied a quick stop here but the Rose and Crown looked firmly shut. So I pressed on up the road to Shimpling which meanders in apparently random series of different directions up the hill.
Another stop in the sun half way up to take a picture of this bizarre newly built house, which seemed to have been designed to look like a chapel conversion. A flat roof had been provided, I noticed, to make it more difficult to protect from damp.
From Shimpling the way took me to Hartest, which meant freewheeling down a steep ravine – quite an unusual experience in Suffolk – to the open triangular village green, surrounded by medieval houses.
There is something frustrating about Hartest. There was a deathly quiet in the air. Yet the village with its green surrounded by medieval shops tucked into a secret valley, ought to be bustling with activity and independent shops. But there is not even a village shop, to buy the essentials – scratch cards and fags.
There was a butchers, BS Clarke. I cycled past Mr Clarke’s shopfront on the way back and he was inside with what looked like huge cattle legs, chopping them up with a cleaver.
The Crown appeared to be open, but I didn’t fancy it. I still haven’t forgiven the place for giving us the cold shoulder when we turned up at 2pm with the family looking for lunch. “No we’ve finished serving,” they said.
Hartest, like so many other Suffolk villages, has been hollowed out by axing of buses and the rise of the motorised commuter.
On the way out, on the road that was beginning the ascent to Brockley, I took a snap of the only other apparent business still going. This historic corrugated iron garage on the way out of the village. The owner came out and we had a chat about his pumps.
“Everyone wants to buy them,” he said. “I had someone offer me £1000 for them.” They date, he reckons from the sixties because they were still in use in the 70s when he bought the garage. But there were different pumps in wartime photographs he’d seen of the place.
I suggested the popularity of the TV series Salvage Hunters was making such items desirable . “Drew Pritchard was at my daughter’s school this week!” he said. “Really, what was he doing there?” I asked.
A steady climb to Brockley Green. By now I was starting to look for excuses to stop and rest. Brockley failed to offer any. You have to turn left once in the village alongside a quite pleasant green with an uncompromisingly ugly 1970s village hall on it and a carpark. There were seats here, but they had all been placed on the car park, not close to the road. I started to get annoyed by the lack of roadside seats. If you don’t provide anywhere to sit in a village, you don’t provide anywhere for people to talk to each other. I presume seats would get in the way of people wanting to park their cars, which would never do. Retired people are forced to the seclusion of their conservatories. There to read the Telegraph and learn to hate the modern world.
So swiftly through Brockley pausing only to observe a bare-leaved apple tree in someone’s garden that glittered with shiny red apples, exactly like Christmas tree baubles.
One last push, up to the village of Rede which is at the heady heights of 110m. It appears abruptly at the end of a long road as a cluster of dormer-inserted bungalows.
Checking the map, I noticed an old man staring at me from out of his conservatoried retirement.
Then on up the road – only 26m to climb – and eventually onto the extremely isolated concrete farm track that took me all the way to Suffolk’s highest point, marked with a radio communications tower.
And here it is, Suffolk’s most boring place. The word “ridge” is a misnomer, this was a plateau, and a pretty featureless one at that. Rusting old farm machinery lay mouldering around the cracked up concrete. There was a barbed wire fence, giving away the presence of a reservoir owned by Anglia Water. And that was about it.
And so for the long cycle back. Thank God for those people with the apple tree in Brockley. As if they were making up for the mean spiritedness of the inaccessable village hall seats, they had put out a box of apples for people to take at their driveway entrance. I took one and munched it as a rode – cold, sharp and sweet.
After scaling the ravine at Hartest, there was a fantastic but depressing view of two church towers on two hills – the squat one at Shimpling and just behind it, but far off on the other side of another valley, soaring Lavenham. It seemed so far away. Two more hills to cross and my knees were already aching.
There was no time for photos or dawdling now, it was getting rapidly dark and cold. This was about survival. I wished I’d stuffed my pockets with apples at Brockley Green.
Lactic acid dissolving my leg muscles forced me to walk up the long, tedious hill out of Bridge Street pushing my bike alongside. “One step at a time” I muttered to myself, remembering a self-improvement video I had seen. And I resolved to take a stop at Lavenham.
In that chocolate box village, the door of the newly refurbished Cock, now known as the Cock Horse, was open, I noticed, bravely leaking heat out into the November dusk.
So I parked my bike and went inside. The young bar maid didn’t quite know what to make of me. I could barely speak but I managed to utter the words “A pint of Timothy Taylor – er Timothy Taylor top”.
Barely acknowledging the astonishing £4.25 price of the pint, I collapsed into a chair in front of the fire and drank it all in about 20 seconds, without taking off my coat. It was like the scene from Ice Cold in Alex, except there was no one to watch me apart from a bemused bar maid. And I’m not really John Mills.
Funnily enough, this was not enough to see me back to Bildeston. Fatigue, dark and bitter cold forced me to stop in the Swan at Monks Eleigh for another shandy and a packet of posh crisps. And so home. It had taken about seven hours. Never trust Google maps.
presume was built on the highest place, though Wikipedia describes the high point as being in the middle of the wood.