I could feel goose bumps on my arms as the huge wooden axles began to turn and the large wooden wheels began to revolve. The Tide Mill in Woodbridge, Suffolk was milling flour as it has done for centuries. There has been a corn mill here since at least 1170. It uses the water from the tidal River Deben to grind flour between its huge mill stones, hence the name tide mill. As the tide comes in water enters the mill pond adjacent to the mill and is trapped there when the tide goes out. When the sluice gates are opened the power generated by the water rushing through them generates the energy to run the mill. When the mill ceased to operate as a commercial enterprise it was given to the town council by its last owner. The original mill pond was sold and is now a marina for yachts. A new and much smaller mill pond is now in use. A time-line inside the mill relates its history.
The whole operation takes place on the three floors of the old mill and I raced up and down the narrow wooden staircases after Dan, the ‘miller’. Dan is one of the wardens who runs the mill and that morning he was assisted by David Malpass and Mary Shuttleworth. The latter two are volunteers and the mill relies on people like them to keep it running. They made me very welcome and I felt honoured to be there and to watch the whole process. I was able to climb in amongst the machinery and also to feel the texture of the finely ground powder (after washing my hands) which is soft and cold. Too fine and the stones will grind to a halt. A phrase that is commonly used in many other contexts. A small working model in the museum demonstrates the flow of water and information boards explain the components of the mill and the job they do. It truly is a ‘living’ museum.
After the flour has been ground the volunteers pack it into small bags and it is on sale in the mill. It is also sold in the Cake Shop in town. Honey + Harvey, a popular coffee house in the centre of town uses the flour to bake its pastries. I remembered passing this place the previous day and being tempted by the pile of delicious scones on the counter. But time was of the essence and there was a queue so I had moved on.
As the milling process lasts an hour there was time to take in my surroundings. Across the water beyond the wooded bank is the ancient burial ground of Sutton Hoo. Although it may be possible to walk across there at low tide I decided to take the more conventional route and drive there the next day. Sutton Hoo is famous for the artefacts that were found in the mounds there. Its story is told in a museum on the site. On the other side of the river I could see various boatyards and early morning walkers on the path that follows the river. Once the milling process had finished I made my way over there, via the bridge over the railway, to join them. There are some lovely, flat walks in this area. As I strolled along the River Path I came to the Model Boating Pond in a serene woodland setting next to the Tea Hut. This pond is where the local Model Boating Club is based and offers a fascinating diversion for young and old alike. The Tea Hut was busy with dogs and their owners. They had probably just finished a class at the dog training centre close by. The dogs were certainly very well behaved. As well as dog training the town also has a canine crèche for dogs in case owners fancy a dog-free day – or vice versa.
I made my way back into the centre of town and the main square, Market Hill. This square is home to the Old Shire Hall and Corn Exchange a Grade 1 Listed Building. Behind this building is the old town pump, also a listed building. Thomas Seckford the town’s most generous benefactor built the Shire Hall on top of the original Corn Exchange around 1575. The arched windows were once arches that led into the one-storey Corn Exchange. The hall was built to house the Quarter Sessions a court of law that met four times a year. Seckford, a local man, was a very successful lawyer. The Shire Hall now houses the town council. The Victorian Gothic pump is inscribed ‘erected 1876 and was provided by the Seckford Charity, named for Thomas Seckford.
Across the road is the Woodbridge Town Museum. Currently housed in a sixteenth century building it will soon be moving to a modern building by the River Deben. Its curator, John Hampton, showed me some old black and white photographs of Market Hill in its heyday when it was a regular cattle market. During the Middle Ages an annual fair was held here on St Audry’s Day. Gaudy souvenirs of this saint were sold at this market. It is possible that the word tawdry is a corruption of Saint Audry. Markets and other events are this held in this ancient hub of the town. When I visited the museum it was still housed in one of the sixteenth century buildings on Market Hill but next year it will re-open in its new home by the River Deben.
Close to the museum I found some steps that went down to the medieval
church of Saint Mary. Built during the early fifteenth century this impressive church reflects the prosperity of the town during that period. Today it is considered to be one of the best examples of a medieval church and of particular note is the flint-stone exterior.
The fine, grand Victorian interior of Saint Mary’s, the work of Richard Phipson, is a striking contrast to the modern of Saint John’s Parish Church on the outskirts of the town. During the 1830s it seems that Woodbridge was enjoying a period of increased prosperity and with its military barracks an increase in population. As Saint Mary’s church was overflowing a project was launched to build a ‘plain and moderately sized’ building to house the growing congregation. It took several years to complete the building which was finally consecrated in 1846. Since then it has undergone many alterations. The most recent changes took place in 1997 with a view to increasing the possible uses of the church for a wider variety of events.
I left Saint Mary’s through the cemetery. On the left is a war memorial including a statue of Queen Victoria erected in 1887 to celebrate her diamond jubilee. On the left is the building that once housed the free school established in 1662 by the last member of the Seckford family, Dorothy Seckford. This building was donated by a local citizen, Robert Marryott. After two centuries the school moved to new premises and the Thomas Seckford foundation took over the building. This foundation was established to administer the bequests to the town from Thomas Seckford (1515 – 1587). A local man, Seckford became a prominent lawyer, politician and member of Queen Elizabeth’s inner circle. His bequests to the town of Woodbridge still have a significant impact today and are the responsibility of the foundation, a five-hundred-year-old charity.
By this time, I was ready for a break and treated myself to tea and homemade Bakewell slice at the Wild Strawberry Cafe. It was a chance to peruse some self-guided walks I had found in the Tide Mill. This café is one of many independent enterprises in Woodbridge including some interesting shops such as Granville’s Old Fashioned Sweet Shop on the Thoroughfare and Woodbridge Violins on Market Hill. I decided to indulge in some retail therapy after visiting one of the town’s most historic public houses.
Ye Olde Bell and Steelyard Pub is a black and white timber frame building on New Street. The cage on the side of the pub houses the Steelyard or weighing machine that was the forerunner to the public weighbridge. The steelyard was introduced after the government passed a Road Traffic Act introducing a toll for carts carrying loads over 2.5 tons to protect road surfaces from damage from their steel banded wheels. According to local records this steelyard was added to the original pub around 1680. As it could take some time to weigh the loads the cart drivers would go into the pub for a drink. The most common cargoes would have been grain, hides or wool.
Where to stay in Woodbridge
During my visit to Woodbridge I stayed at The Crown. This sixteenth century coaching inn has been tastefully modernised and successfully serves two purposes – an elegant hotel and a popular meeting place for the locals. It is conveniently placed for walks around the town and strolls along the River Deben nearby. A real highlight of my stay was dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, recommended in the Michelin Guide. The head chef, Darran Hazelton, produces delectable dishes using local produce from land and sea.