A magical mystery tour through the curious county, including some rather odd Sudbury tales

curious suffolk book - man selling his wife at Sudbury market ANL-161009-160222001
curious suffolk book - man selling his wife at Sudbury market ANL-161009-160222001

Sudbury’s cattle market was once a traditional part of town life ... but on at least one occasion livestock was not all that was for sale.

Local man Henry Frost outraged the women of the town by selling his wife for two shillings.

Author Sarah Doig from Rickinghall
(A-Z of Curious Suffolk) ANL-160909-163523001

Author Sarah Doig from Rickinghall (A-Z of Curious Suffolk) ANL-160909-163523001

They chased the buyer, Robert Whiting, into a nearby cottage where he escaped by jumping from an upstairs window.

The scandalous goings-on are among the stories told in a new book by diplomat turned historian Sarah Doig.

Sarah spent more than 20 years with the Foreign Office in a career that was exciting and demanding, with scarcely a dull moment.

But two decades of globetrotting left her ready for a change,

She swapped exotic locations to return to the county where she grew up and immerse herself in history.

And she soon discovered that Suffolk’s past more than lives up to its tourist industry tag of the “curious” county.

Six years ago Sarah and her husband Michael moved to Rickinghall, between Bury St Edmunds and Diss.

She began doing family and house history research, as well as writing about local social history.

Almost by accident she found herself on the trail of mysteries, murder and mayhem.

Up popped a wealth of eccentric characters, a sprinkling of scandal, and a smattering of the downright weird.

Mix in a generous helping of the quaint and the quirky, and you have the ingredients of Sarah’s new book, The A-Z of Curious Suffolk.

It’s an alphabetical romp through things about the county even people who have lived here all their lives don’t know.

The “curious” title, though, is a coincidence courtesy of its publisher, the History Press.

It is the latest in a series that has already bestowed the name on several other counties.

Sarah says: “The Foreign Office is a wonderful career, but it burns you out rather. It does take over your life.

“I was reasonably successful and had a fantastic time, but something made me want to come back to Suffolk, simplify life and do other things.”

At the same time Michael, a diplomat who she met through her job, decided to take early retirement.

“My last posting was Berne in Switzerland where I was deputy ambassador,” she said.

“I was there four years, and we both decided to do something different.

“The thought of having to move back to London, and commuting, really didn’t appeal.

“I suppose when I look back history has been a long-term interest.

“I grew up hearing all these stories from my father’s side of the family – he’d take us to see our ancestors’ graves.

“I started researching my own family tree 20 years ago. But other people’s family history is far more exciting than mine, which is why I enjoy doing it.

“Quite often they come to me with a family myth or tale that has been handed down and want to know if there’s any truth behind it.”

Sarah’s childhood was spent in Mildenhall and Bury St Edmunds, where she sang in the cathedral choir.

“The cathedral was a very, very big part of my life until I left Bury at 18 to study music at Lancaster University.

“I learned to play the organ at the cathedral, but my first instrument was the double bass and I now play viols in an early music trio,”

But she never planned to have a musical career. “I just decided to do what I was good at at the time.

“Then I made a bizarre leap and did a post-graduate librarianship course. I started at the Foreign Office doing casual work in their library.”

Sarah is also part of a group which writes and researches about Rickinghall, Redgrave and Botesdale.

“Through my research and my articles for magazines I had always been amassing these little snippets, so there was a starting point for my Curious Suffolk book.

“I would go into the record office for whatever reason and start dipping into various things. I also read every book on Suffolk I could get my hands on.”

Some of the characters she unearthed might well have challenged her diplomatic skills.

The brawling clergymen of Little Stonham, for instance, whose feud ended with a policeman stepping in to stop the vicar hitting his curate.

And Bury St Edmunds was not always the genteel market town it appears today. In medieval times it was notorious for riots.

Time and again the feisty townsfolk rose up against the power of the local abbot.

Later, in the 17th century, the army was called in after they defied the Puritan parliament’s ban on maypole dancing.

Suffolk’s adulterers faced a humiliating penance, being made to stand in their parish church wrapped in a white sheet during morning service.

In 1701 Great Welnetham punished six people - including two couples for what appears to have been wife-swapping.

Under M for Misers is John Elwes, MP, who lived a parsimonious life at Stoke College, Stoke-by-Clare, is thought to have been Charles Dickens’ inspiration for Ebeneezer Scrooge.

By a strange contradiction, Elwes was generous to his friends and associates, but lived on mouldy meat and stale bread, while allowing his spacious country house fall into shocking disrepair.

But he is probably outdone in the miserly stakes by William Jennens, who lived a few miles away in Acton.

Jennens, with property worth two million pounds, was reputed to be the richest commoner in England.

He lived as a recluse in unfurnished rooms in the basement of his mansion with his servants and dogs.

And with another Dickens connection, the long-running dispute over his fortune after he died aged 100 is believed to have inspired the plot of Bleak House.

The antics of infamous Henry Frost are not Suffolk’s only example of wife-selling. One man swopped his spouse for an ox.

Another Sudbury area story comes closer to the present telling how in the 1970s Ballingdon Hall was moved to a new site further up Ballingdon Hill.

Ghost stories also feature including a spectral mansion that allegedly appears at Rougham near Bury.

Author Sarah is reluctant to choose a favourite story. But one character she specially likes is Samuel Hart, herbalist and poet who, if his cures failed to work, was equally happy to compose an ephitaph for the gravestone.