Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Witches, Horses and an Abundance of Barley: A Brief History of Great Barton

Great Barton, a village to the north-east of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, has an understated charm. There are some pretty corners of arable land, a handful of historic houses, with the rest mainly dating from the 1950s onwards. Less visible are the secrets and little-known facts about the village, handed down by word-of-mouth or by serendipity.
Although I have lived here for almost 30 years, I am certain there are still more discoveries to make. A walk on a winter’s afternoon with an agreeable companion is the finest way to renew my acquaintance with the stories I know, and find new surprises.

The first known settlement here was in the Saxon era, when Great Barton was known as Bertune, a reference to the abundant production of barley. Circa 950 AD the monastery at Bury St Edmunds took over the land here, until the dissolution in 1539 when it passed to the Crown, and later the Audley family. A Robert Audley was responsible for building Barton Hall in 1572, and much of the current village stands on the hall’s former parkland. Sadly, the hall burnt down in January 1914.

The Bunburys were the last residents of the hall, which was owned by their family from 1746 until its demise. Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury was famous for owning the racehorse Diomed, winner of the first Derby held in 1780, while his nephew, Sir Henry Edward Bunbury, informed Napoleon of his exile to Corsica following his defeat at Waterloo. He also added to the estate, providing the cottages in The Street, almshouses and the pub which still stands, The Bunbury Arms.

 Diomed by George Stubbs

If you’re walking round the village you’ll find it easy to trace the boundary of the estate, as the four gatehouses survive, while several road and house names reveal their original purpose. Just a trace of the original hall remains, tucked away down a private road (The Park), including the old forge, which, though already derelict, was inhabited some 20 years ago by an elderly gentleman. I believe his mother used to work at the hall many years previously.

Carry on down The Park, cross the A143 and walk up Church Road. About half-way to the church, on the right, you will find a small, deep pond where many years ago, according to Winifred Mills, late of this parish, a coach and horses fell in, and they are said to haunt the place ever since, a-clatterin’ up and down that road of a stormy night. Winifred, grandmother of one my dearest friends, was born in 1906 in nearby Fornham St Martin, and later settled in Great Barton. She was a good ol’ Suffolk gal, the daughter and wife of a gamekeeper, always ready with a spooky tale or two about the village or about the houses she worked in during her younger years. I can hear her now, chastising me: ‘You got a ’tater in your stockin’, Emma!’. Bless her Suffolk heart.

The haunted pond

Winifred now rests in the graveyard at the Church of the Holy Innocents, named after King Herod’s slaughter of babies in Bethlehem. It’s a peaceful spot, perfect for a contemplative break. You can find an informative review of Holy Innocents and photos by Simon Knott on the Suffolk Churches website.

The Church of the Holy Innocents 

If, after the visit to the church, you follow the road to the right, you will see a track that cuts through a field and crosses the A143 which in olden days was the main road to and from Norwich. I imagine in days gone by it would be heaving with traffic going about their business, but it is a tranquil (and muddy) walk now that takes you all the way through Barton Stud on the other side of the main road.

The old Norwich Road

The stud was bought by the Broughton brothers—Huttleston and Henry—in 1925, who went on to purchase the wonderful Anglesey Abbey the following year. After a meandering walk through the stud, the track comes out onto Fornham Road. Turn right and you can follow this road along for a half a mile or so back into the village, and veer right into The Avenue. Here, every year on the eve of Derby Day, just before midnight, you can hear old Diomed galloping along the road. 

We have covered just a fraction of the village today…our walk doesn’t cover all of the secrets and stories I have come to learn over the years. I haven’t yet mentioned that somewhere within this parish there remain strange hierogylphs to ward off evil in one of the village’s oldest houses. Timothy Easton’s excellent article Candle Powers explains this queer tale of the effort to deflect sorcery or possession. In the mid-seventeenth century, not long after the East Anglian witch hunt, strange marks were burned on the walls and ceiling of this house, and even the name of the subject of this torment, a Sarah Sugate. Mr Easton explains that she survived this episode of mischief, for she left the house and married, and one assumes went on to live a normal life. How strange this practice seemed to me, when I first heard of it, only to reflect that sentiments change little over the years. Doesn’t anyone with faith ask for protection against ‘conjuring witches…the mischief of the night when she spreads her darkness’? I am not so different to my predecessor.

Travelling a little northwards into the outer reaches of Livermere Road and you will pass a few old farmhouses and cottages until you reach great stretches of agricultural land. Venture further into the parish of Great Livermere, and you will be in the territory of M. R. James—the learned writer of spooky tales, many inspired by the flat, still landscape of his home village.

That’s a journey for another day. Now, we turn the corner to home, and see the tractor and its trailer pull into the field and the flat-capped men jump out. They disperse across the field. The spaniels follow them, sticking to their heels. Before long, calls and shrieks rise up and there’s a flurry of feathers and a low-flying pheasant streaks past us, and another, and another. A few shots and a flash of orange flags and we turn away, homewards.

Inside it’s warm and noisy, coats are flung anywhere but their peg. At sunset I escape upstairs to look out of the window and catch the last minutes of the day. The remnants of snow have settled in the furrows in the field opposite. There are the men and the dogs and their sport, not deterred by the failing light. The long, flat expanse of land is only stopped by a row of trees, a strip of dusky pink above. It’s a still evening; only the clouds move across the sky above. Time to draw the curtains now and wait for darkness, for the show of the moon and the bright stars under the same canopy that was Sarah’s, 350 years ago.