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The Estate Villages of Thurlow

An easy walk across high farmland belonging to one of Suffolk's largest agricultural estates.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 164ft (50m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Country roads, meadows and field-edge paths, 6 stiles

Landscape Gently rolling farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 210 Newmarket & Haverhill

Start/finish TL 678502

Dog friendliness Mostly on lead on farmland

Parking Great Thurlow Reading Room or village hall

Public toilets None on route

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1 Walk north from the Reading Room along the main street, passing the post office and the village hall, then turn right on a narrow path between the houses. Cross a stile and bear left across a meadow to reach another stile. At a junction of paths, go straight ahead across a wide track and keep left to cross two more meadows. Walk behind the school and bear right to pass through a gate. Cross a concrete footbridge and stay on the fenced-off path to reach St Peter's Church, Little Thurlow.

2 Walk through the churchyard and turn left to cross the road and continue on a narrow footpath beside the River Stour. The path is lined with hedges at first but you soon reach open fields. Keep to the right to walk beside the river. Although it rises only a short distance away, the Stour has already gathered pace though it is nothing like the river you will see downstream at Sudbury, Flatford or Shotley Gate.

3 When you come to a weir, turn right along the road into Little Bradley and follow it round to the left to All Saints Church, whose round tower dates to the early 11th century. The road now bends right and climbs gently between farmland to the left and meadows to the right. Turn right at a footpath sign along a farm drive. Walk past the stables and barns of Hall Farm then go through a gate to cross a meadow. Leaving the meadow, keep straight ahead alongside a hedge to reach a road.

4 Turn right to walk along Broad Road into the hamlet of Little Thurlow Green. After passing the green, walk downhill past modern houses and the thatched Old Inn. Turn left on to a concrete farm track with a thatched pink farmhouse visible behind the hedge to your right. The path passes a sewage works then turns right and left around a field to enter a belt of woodland beside the River Stour.

5 Keep straight ahead when you see an arched footbridge across the river to your right. Cross a stile and bear right around a meadow then pass through a gate to enter a small graveyard opposite Great Thurlow church. Turn right at the road, alongside the high brick wall of Great Thurlow Hall, and cross the river to return to the start of the walk.

Haverhill, in the south west corner of Suffolk, gets rather a bad press. It has none of the immediate appeal of the nearby wool towns and its relentless expansion during the last 50 years has diluted any sense of history it may have had and led to endless jibes about 'London overspill'. Yet as those of us who live near Haverhill know, this is not entirely fair. The town is still surrounded by lovely countryside and by villages that have hardly changed for hundreds of years.

This walk is centred on the twin villages of Great and Little Thurlow, which have been called the last feudal villages in Suffolk. Most of the land belongs to the Thurlow Estate, which owns 17,000 acres (6,885ha) of prime arable farmland in Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire, as well as a herd of dairy cattle. Much of this is in the hands of Edmund Vestey of Little Thurlow Hall, whose grandfather made his fortune in the late 19th century when he established Union Cold Storage in Liverpool to import cheap meat from Australia and became known as 'Mr Spam'. The Vestey family is now one of the richest in Britain, with assets of over £700 million and valued at No 35 on the Sunday Times Rich List in 2002.

According to his biography in Who's Who, Edmund Vestey was educated at Eton, owns two estates in Scotland, is a member of the Cavalry and Guards Club and joint master of the Thurlow Hunt, one of the oldest hunts in the country. His son George lives in Great Thurlow Hall. The Vestey family play a key role in local affairs and have provided the villages with facilities including a recreation ground, but there are those who feel it is inappropriate that so many people should be dependent on the estate both for housing and for work.

The Vesteys are not the first great landowning family in Thurlow. Sir Stephen Soame (1544-1619), who built the first Little Thurlow Hall, was Lord Mayor of London. It was he who erected the almshouses for 'eight single persons of honest life and conversation', and the old schoolhouse for the teaching of Latin to boys, both of which are now private homes. A more recent lord of the manor was W H Smith (1825-91) of Great Thurlow Hall, who took over his father's newspaper business and turned it into a household name by securing the rights to sell newspapers and books at railway stations. He later became First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons and is remembered in Thurlow, appropriately enough, by the reading room that he gave to the village.

Where to eat and drink

The Cock Inn is situated on the main street in Little Thurlow, close to the start of the walk. The pub dates from the 16th century and is an old coaching inn, now serving a fairly standard menu of pub food. Children and dogs are welcome in the garden in summer.

What to look for

In spring and summer you may see pheasant coops at some of the farms. The Thurlow Estate has its own pheasant shoot and gamekeepers are employed to rear pheasants and partridges and to manage the land for their conservation.

While you're there

The nearby village of Kedington has been largely swallowed up by Haverhill but it is still worth a visit to see the Church of St Peter and St Paul, situated on a ridge overlooking the Stour Valley and sometimes described as the 'cathedral of West Suffolk'. Among the interesting features of this surprisingly large parish church are a Saxon cross in the chancel and a three-tier pulpit, complete with a 'sermon-timer' to prevent the priest from droning on for too long!

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