The ancient market town of Woodbridge was once a major ship building town providing for the English fleet fighting the Spanish Armada. Just a few miles from the sea at Bawdsey, smuggling boats would have travelled up the Deben Estuary to land their bounty at Woodbridge or beyond. Today, there are still many boats on the river, with some working but the majority are leisure crafts.
Woodbridge really is a fascinating town, well worth spending time in. If you are visiting rather than staying in Woodbridge there are several car parks close to the river on either side of the Ipswich Road - the Turban Centre, the Station car park and the Leisure Centre car park. You might prefer to take the train to Woodbridge, and the ride well worth it as there are splendid views across the estuaries and the sea along the East Coast line from Ipswich to Lowestoft.
Work began in 1856 to create the railway line; the Eastern Union Railway owning the line to the north of Woodbridge and the East Suffolk Railway owning the line to the south. The level crossing on Tide Mill Way was the actual boundary between the two companies' railways. The line finally opened on 1st June 1859.
Starting your walk from the front of the railway station you can either follow a walk through the town or beside the river. The more energetic might prefer to do both.
From the station turn right beside the Riverside, a cinema and theatre with a lovely restaurant, and follow the river walk around to the Tide Mill.
Tide mills are reliant on the movement of the tides and as such operating hours are short, just two hours either side of the low tide, a maximum of twenty eight hours a week. The incoming tide opens lock-type gates in the banks of the pond and fills the pond. As the tide falls, the first out-flowing water closes the gates which are held in position by the pressure of the trapped water. Once the water wheel is completely clear of tidal water, the sluice gates can be opened so that the released water rushes out turning the wheel and in turn the machinery.
There has been a mill here since the twelfth century, the first reference dated 1170, giving one Baldwin of Ufford easier access to the building. During the middle ages, the mill was owned by the Augustinian Canons, the tithe of the mill in 1340 being valued at three shillings per annum. Two hundred years later the sea-water mill (molendinium aquaticum marinum) was described as being in a ruined state.
With the dissolution of Woodbridge Priory the mill reverted to the Crown who promptly sold it to Sir John Wingfield, a member of the local gentry. With the death of Sir John the Tide Mill became the property of Queen Elizabeth who, in 1564, granted it as part of the manor of Woodbridge Late Priory, to Thomas Seckford.
In 1792 the present building was constructed, improvements made to the quay along with the creation of additional warehouse space. The work finished, it went up for sale in January 1808. By 1968 the Woodbridge Tide Mill was near collapse and only through the efforts of a lot of dedicated enthusiasts did the slow and laborious task of renovation get under way. Work took fourteen years and now Woodbridge Tide Mill is up and running again. Open to the public, a trip around the mill is a fascinating experience. There is much to see but do note the mill wheels only work for two hours either side of low tide.
The river front has changed considerably over the past 100 years. Today this is an area largely devoted to leisure, although there are still boat builders, sail makers and chandlers scattered along the riverbank. From here there are superb views both along and across the river to Sutton Hoo.
Facing the Tide Mill, turn left up Tide Mill Way until you cross the railway and reach Quay Side. Cross Quay Side and turn right along the far pavement, soon you will see see Brook Street on your left, with its pretty little traditional cottages. Walk down Brook Street and then turn right through the Turban Centre Car Park and follow the signs for Elmhurst Park. A quiet haven, Elmhurst Park was given to the town by the last Lord Woodbridge in 1935. The gardens are beautifully kept and great for picnics. Look out for the summer concert programme.
Follow the path across the top of the park and you will come to the Red Lion Pub. From here turn left along the Thoroughfare. Take a right turn past Woodbridge Fine Foods and Woodbridge Library and then follow New Street, said to be the oldest street in Woodbridge. There are several interesting buildings on your left including Bridewell, a delightful timber framed house and one of the few exposed timber framed buildings in Woodbridge. The original arched tops to the doorways and windows remain.
Close by is The Bell and Steelyard, a building that still sports its original industrial machinery. The Steelyard was used to weigh loaded carts on their way down to the river from the market and empty carts on their way back.
The old market was in Market Hill which opens out before you, at the top of New Street.
Attractively framed by some really beautiful buildings, a number dating back to the early medieval period, Market Hill is dominated by the magnificent Shire Hall. The Hall was built at the behest of Thomas Seckford, who used it for court sessions, and its exterior was meticulously renovated in 2004.
Now used for civil weddings and council meetings, the first floor houses the Suffolk Horse Museum. The museum houses an exhibition devoted to the Suffolk Punch, a rare breed of heavy working horses.
Before the Shire Hall stands the Town Pump.
Built in 1876, again from funds provided by the Thomas Seckford Foundation, the pump and drinking fountain provided much needed water for the old thriving livestock market.
On the north of the square is a plaque commemorating Edward FitzGerald, famous for his translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, while to the south of the square is the Woodbridge Museum. A timber framed building with a later Georgian brick facade, the Woodbridge Museum is a treasure trove of information on the history of the town and Sutton Hoo, the Saxon burial ground.
To the west of the square is the King's Head, have a look at the small carvings on the exterior cross beam on the Seckford Street side. Seckford Street also includes a number of medieval buildings as well as at least three old pubs, now houses.
At the end of the street and beyond the Fen Meadow, once home to occasional fairs and circuses, are the Seckford Almshouses which were substantially improved in the mid-1800s to include a hospital, chapel and the laying out of terraced gardens. The grounds are enclosed by magnificent iron palisading and two sets of iron gates bearing the arms of Thomas Seckford.
If you turn around now and re-pass the Fen Meadow you will see Queen's Head Lane on your left which leads up to Theatre Street (a steep hill!) and, directly in front of you, the grounds of Woodbridge School. Turn left and walk along Birkett road, with the School's grounds on your right, and on your left, just past the primary school, you will find the second remaining mill in Woodbridge, Buttrums Mill.
Well-known Suffolk millers, the Buttrum's took over the mill in the 1860s, George Buttrum introducing an auxiliary steam drive in 1886 allowing work to continue whatever the weather. Buttrumís Mill worked until 1928, when the stones turned for the last time. The tallest surviving windmill in Suffolk, the tower is built of red brick laid in Flemish bond. It is 24ft 6ins outside in diameter at ground level with two feet thick walls. The height to the top of the brickwork is nearly 50ft and to the top of the cap 61ft. When the mill is open you can now see whole meal flour being ground and purchase flour and bread mixes.
Walking back along Birkett Road and on to Theatre Street you will find, on the right, the remains of another old windmill. On the left of Theatre Street is the old House of Correction, on the right an attractive carved wooden arch leading to what was The Old School.
Back in Market Hill and past the Hall you will see an alleyway on your right. Take the path through there and down the steps to the magnificent entrance to St Mary's Church which has to be one of the most attractive approaches to any church. There has been a church here since before the Norman Conquest and when a priory was founded in the late 12th century the old building was used by both the canons and the people. Work began on the current church at the beginning of the 15th century. The splendid 108 ft tower and flushwork base, display crowned 'MR's for the Blessed Virgin Mary.
There is much to see in the spacious stately interior, including the rather battered but beautiful Seven Sacrament font and a delightful medieval brass.
Thomas Seckford built his own chapel north of the chancel where his tomb lay until the Victorians purchased a new organ and the tomb was moved.
If you leave the churchyard via the main entrance you will see Church Street with its pretty Georgian Terrace opposite beside the Bull Hotel. At one time a coaching inn, the Bull Hotel's most famous landlord was John Groats who bred horses and sold them to the King of Italy and the Viceroy of India.
Church Street includes a wide variety of buildings of various ages and styles. The Abbey, once an Augustinian Priory, now the Abbey School, was renovated and made into a family home by Thomas Seckford and is a good example of early brick building; the pinnacles are later additions.
Opposite the Abbey you will see a shop front with what looks like bricks above; look carefully, for these bricks are, in fact, tiles hung with mathematical precision.
Follow Church Street down to Turn Lane on your right. On the right is a Quaker graveyard where Bernard Barton is buried; banker, poet and another of the Woodbridge wits. The bottom of the lane opening onto Cumberland Street contains the most fantastic and ever growing collection of plants, lovingly cared for by one of the cottage owners.
Just to the right are some early Victorian houses with large glass panes and recessed windows and doorways. Note the fine Victorian toothed detailing to the fascia and bargeboards on No.29, the building itself is a much older timber framed construction, with a jettied first floor.
Barton's Cottage, which he described as 'My little nut shell of a house', is well worth a look.
Cumberland, Marston and Gordon Houses form a very fine group with their Georgian exteriors, doors and door cases; they were named after officers who lived in them during the Napoleonic Wars.
At the junction with Quay Street you can either take a diversion along the Thoroughfare and enjoy the shops or make your way back down towards the station passing the old Customs House on your way.