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Oil on Canvas at Sudbury Common Lands

Stroll among the peaceful grazing cattle and visit the home of a famous 18th-century artist.

Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Old railway track, meadows and town streets

Landscape Sudbury and water-meadows of River Stour

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

Start/finish TL 875409

Dog friendliness Off lead on Valley Walk, on lead on Sudbury Common

Parking Kingfisher Leisure Centre

Public toilets Off Market Hill

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

1 Leave the car park through a gate at the start of the Valley Walk, then turn left to walk around Friar's Meadow. Cross the meadow and turn right to follow the bank of the Stour, then turn right alongside a tributary and climb the steps to rejoin the Valley Walk.

2 Turn left and cross a footbridge, noting the Quay Theatre, housed in the town's old maltings, to your right. You now stay on the Valley Walk for a further 2 miles (3.2km). At first the path is enclosed between tall embankments but, after passing a Stour Valley Path sign and crossing Belchamp Brook, it opens out to reveal views of arable farmland and meadows.

3 Just before reaching a road junction, climb the steps of the embankment on the right, cross a paddock and turn right along the driveway to Borley Hall. Look for a narrow footpath between the high garden wall of the hall and Borley Mill, the first of three former watermills on this route. Go through a gate to cross a small meadow, then turn left beside a stream. Cross a footbridge and walk across a meadow to reach a road at the end of an enclosed path.

4 Turn right along the pavement for 250yds (229m). After passing a hotel, turn right on to a gravel lane with views of North Meadow Common to your left. Cross the bridge to pass Brundon Mill and turn left alongside a row of pink cottages. Soon you are on the Sudbury Common Lands among the horses and cattle. Walk across the meadow, passing a World War Two pill box, then cross a footbridge and bear half-right across Fullingpit Meadow. A metal bridge leads into Freemen's Common, where you bear left towards the old mill, now converted into the Mill Hotel.

5 Pass through the gate to walk around the hotel, then turn right and left along Stour Street, passing several half-timbered buildings including the 15th-century Salters Hall. Turn right along School Street past the old grammar school, then left along Christopher Lane to emerge on Gainsborough Street opposite Gainsborough's House. Turn right to reach Market Hill, where a statue of Thomas Gainsborough stands in front of St Peter's Church.

6 Turn right past the 19th-century Corn Exchange, now a library, along Friars Street. After passing half-timbered Buzzards Hall, once owned by Gainsborough's uncle, look for a passage on the left that leads back down to the start of the Valley Walk.

The market town of Sudbury has a unique feature on its doorstep. The Sudbury Common Lands make up some 115 acres (46.6ha) of water-meadows on the flood plain of the River Stour. Cattle and horses graze here, as they have for a thousand years, and the area is crossed by footpaths, making it perfect for a peaceful walk. Anywhere else, the land would have been swallowed up by housing or intensive farming, but here in Sudbury it is protected by ancient right, a large area of grassland close to the centre of town.

The water-meadows of Sudbury were first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Their current status dates from around 1260, when the Freemen of Sudbury acquired grazing rights from Richard de Clare, the owner of Clare Castle. The right to graze livestock on the commons still belongs exclusively to the freemen, passed on over the generations from father to son.

The artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) was born in Sudbury and as a boy he used to wander these meadows looking for inspiration. Both his father, a cloth dealer, and his uncle, who ran the local grammar school, were Freemen of the Commons. It is said that young Thomas would often play truant from school in order to sketch in the countryside. Although he later became better known as a portrait painter, Gainsborough loved to paint landscapes and his society portraits were simply a way of earning enough money to survive.

Gainsborough's House, in a Georgian-fronted brick building close to Market Hill, has been restored and opened as a museum. It contains the most complete collection of his work on display anywhere in the world, including his first known portraits of a boy and a girl, a miniature of his wife, and some 20 portraits of rich clergymen, politicians and landowners. A small cabinet holds Gainsborough's personal items, such as his pocket watch, snuff box, pipe stopper and paint scraper. The walled garden, where exhibitions of sculpture are held in summer, contains a 400-year-old mulberry tree.

The walk begins with a section of the Valley Walk, along the disused railway line to Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. This is not a public right of way but it is maintained by Suffolk County Council and walkers are encouraged. Bramble, hawthorn and oak grow beside the embankments, which also attract a wide variety of birds, insects and wild flowers. Note the contrast between the featureless arable fields to the left and the richness of the water-meadows to the right. It certainly makes you appreciate how lucky the people of Sudbury are to have managed to preserve such a precious landscape.

While you're there

Gainsborough's House is open from Tuesday to Saturday and on Sunday afternoons. Not far from here is St Gregory's Church, where the head of Simon of Sudbury is kept in a glass box. Simon of Sudbury was Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England; in 1380 he introduced the poll tax and the following year he was beheaded on Tower Hill in London during the Peasants' Revolt. His head is kept in the vestry and can be seen on request.

What to look for

In the lobby of the Mill Hotel are the mummified remains of a cat, found buried beneath the building when it was being converted from a watermill. Apparently it was the custom to bury a live cat under buildings as a way of warding off witches and bad luck.

Where to eat and drink

Kinloch's Café, opposite Gainsborough's House, serves a good lunchtime menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and daily specials. The nearby Brasserie 47 is similar, but also offers a more elaborate menu of three-course meals. The Black Boy on Market Hill is a popular pub featuring grills, vegetarian dishes and ploughman's lunches.

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