Walk 159: Sudbury Town Walk…in the footsteps of Thomas Gainsborough

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 2.23 miles (3.6 km)

Time to walk: Roughly 1.5 hours as I had quite a few stops to look around churches, meadows etc

Difficulty: Easy & all on hard surfaces, so ideal in all weathers

Parking: We parked at the Kingfisher Leisure Centre in Station Road, where we started this walk

Public toilets: At the Leisure Centre & cafes etc on the walk

Map of the route:

Sudbury lies on the River Stour in beautiful Suffolk. Indeed the town was once a thriving port. The name means “southern fortification or manor’

From the end of the 8th century it was occupied by the Anglo Saxons. Its twice weekly market was established in the early 11th century, & thrived from playing a part in the textile industry during the Middle Ages, which funded many of the magnificent buildings we’ll see

The town became known for its art during the 18th century, being the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough. The meadows, which we’ll also see later are the oldest continuously grazed land in England

I did this walk in September 2021. What did I think?

Let’s Walk!

1. The walk begins from the car park of the Kingfisher Leisure Centre in Station Road. Exit the car park & turn right…

At the junction turn left & walk towards St Peters Church

2. Walk around the right side of the church to find the prominent Town Hall.

Following the passing of the Sudbury improvement bill, which received royal assent on 20 May 1825, the new town commissioners decided to procure a new town hall. The site they selected had been occupied by the Exchequer Inn

Construction work on the new building started in 1828, & included a gaol, large enough to hold four prisoners awaiting trail, which was built at the rear & we’ll see this later

3. Continue to the left to the paved area in front of the church…

There’s been a church on this site since 1180, but the one you see before you today dates from the 15th century, but there’s been several updates since then

The statue in front of the church is that of Thomas Gainsborough 

4. Market Hill, the area you’re looking down now was full of timber-framed merchants’ houses. Today the buildings are still there, they’re just covered by shop facades, apart from a few like ‘The Lady Elizabeth”, previously known as ‘The Black Boy’

Market Hill owes its existence to a 14th century woman of nearby Clare. She was a widow & ‘Lord’ of Sudbury. Lady Elizabeth de Burgh invested in an ambitious extension to the east of where you’re standing. Elizabeth was once described as East Anglia’s richest & most powerful woman

5. This really is a lovely area. On the left side of Market Hill is the imposing Corn Exchange, built in 1841 with its Tuscan-style pillars. It’s easy to visualise the hustle & bustle of the trading that went on here on market days…

6. Bear left along Friar’s Street…

I would just like to say that the hairdressers is not a family connection

7. Continue along the street. On the left’s ‘Buzzards Hall’, a fine example of one of the merchant’s houses from the 15th century, although it was altered somewhat in the 17th…

It was owned by one Thomas Gainsborough, a clothier, who helped his better know nephew, also called Thomas, become a painter

Further along is a house with a blue plaque where the better known Thomas lived with his wife for a few years

8. Continue ahead past the picturesque cricket ground on the left & another old house with a blue plaque…

9. Turn right up narrow School Street…

…& then first left into Straw Lane & then right again into Plough Lane. Note how the street names obviously reflect back to Sudbury’s agricultural links 

10. At the top of Plough Lane, on the left’s Salter’s Hall, a stud & timber framed property which was home to an extremely wealthy merchant…

It’s not however until you turn left along Mill Hill that you truly get how wealthy this person must have been

11. Continue down Mill Hill, bearing left into Cross Street…

…passing the rather brightly coloured houses on the other side of the road

12. Further along Cross Street, on the right, are numbers 70-78, comprising of three cottages & a house. All of these were occupied by fabric manufacturers & weavers. The large windows on the first floor are deliberate to let the light in for the workers

13. Retrace your steps back past the coloured houses & bear left down the slope to arrive at The Mill, which is now a hotel

A watermill was recorded here in 1086 & you can still see traces of a timber-framed building, but that dates mainly back to about 1890. The waterwheel of 1889 (which still turns) was augmented by steam powered rollers in the early twentieth century. The mill was taken over by the Clover family about 1850 until it closed in 1964 when it was producing animal feed rather than flour. The property was then developed as the Mill Hotel

14. Go inside to have a look at the waterwheel, but also look straight ahead to see an illuminated hole in the ground with a glass covering…

What you seen beneath you is a mummified cat. There was an old East Anglian tradition of burying a live cat underneath a constructed building to warn off witches, warlocks & fire, due to the cat supposedly having a sixth sense. This one was found when the building was undergoing renovation in 1971. It was removed & installed in a shop but, due to several bad events taking place, including the shop burning down, it was re-interred in the hotel in November 1975

15. From the Mill it’s possible to explore the paths of the ancient Sudbury Common Lands alongside the Stour…

Today though I was short of time so took the quicker route. Firstly though…the mill pond is rather beautiful

16. Walk up the side of the hotel alongside the mill race…

This is a lovely path. Try & spot the walnut trees, some of which are almost in the water itself

17. Cross the sluice & continue past the old open-air swimming pool

…& then turn right over the bridge

18. Continue up the hill & bear right past the beacon & the rather papal looking statue near the church wall

Follow the wall & enter the churchyard of St Gregory’s. First mentioned in the 10th century, most of the present building dates from the 14th & 15th centuries…

19. If the church is open it’s well worth having a look inside

There’s a couple of interesting things to look out for. Firstly it possesses the mummified head of Archbishop Simon Sudbury who was beheaded by rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 

Then try & spot the unusual chest tomb for Thomas Carter, who died in 1706. It has a Latin inscription that reads: “Traveller, I will relate a wondrous thing. On the day which the aforesaid Thomas Carter breathed his last, a Sudbury camel passed through the eye of a needle, if thou hast wealth, go do likewise. Farewell”.

20. Leave the churchyard by the main gate. Ahead’s the war memorial…

Turn left & walk up to the main road. Cross over & turn left, continuing straight & then right down Church Walk…

21. Presently this becomes Weavers Lane as it heads down towards the town centre once more

On the right, just before the junction & currently undergoing renovation, is Gainsborough’s House where the painter was born

The house is now 46 Gainsborough Street and dates back to around 1520. Thomas Gainsborough’s parents, John & Mary Gainsborough, probably moved here in 1722 & the artist Thomas Gainsborough was born five years later. Thomas Gainsborough was the youngest of John & Mary’s nine children. At 13 he went to London to further his studies training with the French painter and illustrator, Hubert-Francois Gravelot

The house remained as a private residence until 1920, after which time it had various functions including a guest house & antique shop. In 1958, Gainsborough’s House Society was formed to purchase the house & establish it as a museum & monument to Thomas Gainsborough. The museum opened to the public in 1961

22. Turn left & walk back up the left side of Market Hill once more, turning left just before the Town Hall into Gaol Lane…

Remember we mentioned the back of the Town Hall housed the gaol? This is now the excellent Sudbury Visitor Information & Heritage Centre. The Centre also has information on other trails in the area

23. Continue along Gaol Lane. There’s an interesting hair salon on the left…not sure if it means you’ll never leave, or is the style of cut!

Further down on the left’s one thing you MUST NOT miss if you come to Sudbury…Weston’s Bakery. This is a bakery with everything on view & the selection of bread & cakes is astonishing, including 5 different flavoured brownies!

24. However, what we’ve really walked down this alley for is to see the small, but wonderful garden that’s on the right…

This enclosed garden commemorates the story of Sudbury’s weaving for more than six centuries

25. And what a great bench & statue where to end this short walk around a rather lovely Suffolk town

And what a great place to eat that brownie! Now…which flavour did I choose?

Sudbury isn’t as well known as its better neighbours like Lavenham or Bury St Edmunds, but it’s well worth a visit

Go Walk!