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Murder Most Foul at Polstead

On the trail of a grisly Georgian murder in the deceptively green valley of the River Box.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 394ft (120m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field-edge paths, meadows, country lanes, short section of busy road, 8 stiles

Landscape Farmland, woodland, parkland and villages

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 196 Sudbury, Hadleigh & Dedham Vale

Start/finish TL 990381

Dog friendliness Farmland - dogs on leads

Parking Lay-by beside duck pond at Polstead

Public toilets None on route

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 Walk up the lane opposite the duck pond towards St Mary's Church. From the churchyard there are views across the valley to Stoke-by-Nayland and its prominent church tower. Leave St Mary's churchyard through a gate on the left-hand side to enter an area of pasture called The Horsecroft. Cross the meadow and bear right towards a white house. Pass the house, go through a gate and continue along the road for ¼ mile (400m). After crossing a bridge, turn left on to a footpath that runs through a meadow with a hedge on the right-hand side.

2 Turn right at a junction of paths and climb over a gate to enter the field to your left. The path climbs steadily around the edge of the field before turning right through a small wood to reach a road. Turn right and stay on this lane to walk into Stoke-by-Nayland. If you don't want to visit the village, take the short cut between the houses to your left after about 200yds (183m).

3 Turn left at the crossroads and walk along the B1068 for 350yds (320m), then turn left when you see a Stour Valley Path waymark. The path descends alongside a tall hedge to meet up with the short cut, then crosses undulating farmland and heads diagonally left across a field. At the far corner of the field, turn sharp left and walk along the edge of the crops before crossing a stile to reach a road.

4 Turn right to cross the River Box, then turn left across a footbridge and pass through a kissing gate. Follow this path across the meadows, then fork right over a stile and immediately left to enter a belt of woodland. Leaving the woods, cross another stile and turn right along a wide track towards Marten's Lane.

5 Turn left along Marten's Lane. Opposite the entrance to Cherry Tree Farm, turn right on to a footpath that crosses parkland and goes around a meadow. This is the Red Barn Path that leads to the murder site. Instead, turn left through a kissing gate on the edge of the meadow, passing a small pond on the right. Stay on this enclosed path to pass through another kissing gate and cross a meadow where horses graze. Turn right when you get to the end of the meadow and climb between the houses to reach the village green. Turn left to walk downhill and return to the duck pond.

A sensational murder in 1827 brought notoriety to the small Suffolk village of Polstead. With a young squire, a femme fatale and tales of dreams and disguise, the 'Murder in the Red Barn' had all the ingredients of a grisly melodrama and it was soon appearing in 'penny dreadful' scandal sheets and popular plays.

The two main characters were William Corder, the son of a tenant farmer, and Maria Marten, the pretty daughter of the village molecatcher, with whom he was having an affair. The 26-year-old Maria had already had two children by different lovers, one of whom, William's elder brother Thomas, had since drowned after falling through ice in the village pond. Maria and William would meet each night in the Red Barn, so called because of the way it glowed red in the setting sun. Eventually she became pregnant, though the baby only survived a few weeks and was buried secretly in a nearby field. Maria's parents demanded that William marry the girl, so he arranged for her to arrive at the barn disguised in man's clothing in order that they could elope to Ipswich out of sight of his disapproving parents and the village priest. Maria went to the barn for her assignation, but she never came out.

William Corder moved to London, where he married a woman he had met through a 'lonely hearts' advertisement and set up a boarding school for girls. A year later, Maria's stepmother Anne dreamed that Maria had been murdered and buried in the Red Barn. Her body was discovered beneath the floorboards. She had been shot, stabbed and strangled for good measure. William was arrested and charged with her murder, and despite protesting his innocence, he was found guilty and hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1828.

The full story of the murder can be found in a booklet on sale at Polstead Community Shop. This walk passes close to several of the sites associated with the crime - though the barn itself is no longer there, it burned down in 1842. William Corder lived at Street Farm, the large farmhouse seen on the left as you descend to the duck pond from the village green. Brook Cottage, where Maria Marten was born, and Maria Marten's Cottage, where she later lived, can both be seen along Marten's Lane.

Maria's grave in the churchyard has been plundered by souvenir hunters but St Mary's Church is still worth a visit to see the 12th-century Norman stone spire and the brick arches in the chancel and nave, two features that make it unique among Suffolk churches.

Where to eat and drink

The Cock Inn, on the village green at Polstead, serves good meals or you can pick up a snack at the Polstead Community Shop, situated in an annexe of the village hall. The Crown at Stoke-by-Nayland, at the mid-way point of the walk, has a wide-ranging menu and has a large garden and children's play area.

What to look for

Polstead is known for a particular variety of cherry, the Polstead Black, which is made into a potent cherry brandy. A Cherry Fair used to be celebrated on the village green each July, and you can still see the cherries on sale at local farms and garden gates in summer.

While you're there

Although the walk skirts Stoke-by-Nayland, it is worth continuing into the village to visit St Mary's Church, whose 120ft (37m) brick and flint tower, featured in a painting by John Constable, dominates both the village and the surrounding area. Across the road is the 15th-century timber-framed Guildhall, once used as a workhouse but now converted into three cottages. Note also the former village lock-up on the edge of the churchyard..

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