Discovering the beauty of Suffolk, through a WWII soldier’s eyes

An old travelogue gets a new chapter

A Washington journalist is guided by an evocative memoir of an American who served in England in WWII.

Published on November 5, 2015

In the historic town of Bury St. Edmunds, about 60 miles northeast of London, there is a small garden that is forever a piece of America.

Next to the ruins of a medieval abbey that was once the largest in England is the Old English Rose Garden. Among its stone walkways and manicured flower beds are memorials to the American Eighth Army Air Force, which flew missions against German-occupied Europe from airfields dotted around the Suffolk countryside in World War II and a bench made from the wing of a B-17 bomber. Donated by the Air Force, it is a token of the partnership between the soldiers who were stationed near the ancient market town and the locals who lived and worked alongside them.

Where to go: Bury St. Edmunds Abbey Gardens

Mustow Street, Bury St. Edmunds

011-44-2847-57490

www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk

The ruins of the enormous Benedictine abbey, founded in the 11th century, are the main attraction here, but the Abbey Gardens also include the Rose Garden, established with the proceeds from “Suffolk Summer,” which features a number of World War II memorials. The bowls hut, located on the path between the Abbey Gate and the garden, sells postcards and copies of “Suffolk Summer.” The Abbey Gardens are open from 7:30 a.m. to dusk Monday through Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to dusk on Sundays.

I stood quietly among the roses on an overcast afternoon, looking at the monuments and the spire of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral just beyond the wall. I’d come in an attempt to learn more about the American who made it possible — John T. Appleby, an Arkansas boy who served with the Eighth from 1942 to 1945. Appleby, a celestial navigation trainer who taught pilots to find targets using the stars during nighttime bombing raids, spent eight months at two bases in the east part of England. He wrote a book about his experience called “Suffolk Summer,” which was published in 1948, and ran through five editions in as many years. Appleby donated all royalties to the Abbey Gardens, enabling them to plant hundreds of rose bushes and maintain the garden for the future.

When I first heard of “Suffolk Summer,” I didn’t imagine Appleby and I would have much in common. Then I learned he worked at The Washington Post before the war, as a columnist and book reviewer, and after it wrote four books about medieval English kings. For me, a Post reporter with a lifelong interest in English history, those were interesting connections; when I learned Appleby had spent his last years of life in the very District apartment building where I live today, the coincidence was too big to ignore. I ordered the book.

“Suffolk Summer” is an engaging diary that mostly ignores Army life and instead flits from discussion of the history of the region’s church architecture to the difficulty of finding a good cup in tea in a country beset by rationing. It’s a travelogue that takes readers cycling down twisting lanes alongside green hedgerows, hunting for memorials in centuries­-old churches, and encountering universally friendly people.

The author’s enthusiasm for the countryside and the well-worn little churches of Suffolk, crammed full of stories and memorial stones, began to arouse envy. After finishing Appleby’s book, I decided I wanted to walk in his shoes — or rather, follow in his bike tires. Luckily, my wife agreed to spend a few days of an upcoming trip to England in that part of the country, using my already dog-eared copy of “Suffolk Summer” as our guide.

Knight in repose

We left Bury, as the locals often call it, and pointed our rental car south, along back roads and, occasionally, one-lane tracks, toward the town of Lavenham, near the now-abandoned base where Appleby had been stationed.

Where to go: All Saints Church

Melford Road, Acton

www.allsaintschurchacton.vpweb.co.uk

Unlike some other Suffolk churches, All Saints Church in Acton is kept locked during the day, so it’s essential to contact churchwarden Chris Moss if you’d like to see the De Bures brass. For tours, Moss prefers an e-mail to christopher.moss44@yahoo.co.uk at least 48 hours in advance, but he may also be available for spur-of-the-moment visits if you call or text 07732-700104. Tours are free.

Our first destination was the Norman church of All Saints Hawstead, in what Appleby calls — and which remains — “a lovely little valley rich with noble old trees.” A Catholic, Appleby seemed most excited by the preservation of the medieval sanctus bell, rung to announce the consecration of the host. (These were generally destroyed during the Reformation.) But I was more intrigued by something I’d read outside of Appleby: Historian Clive Paine called All Saints “the Westminster Abbey of Suffolk” because it holds more monuments than any other church in the county.



All Saints Church in Acton. (Fritz Hahn / The Washington Post)

We parked in a shady, lonely little lane near the weathered stone-and-flint church, with a blocky tower and slate roof, sitting in the middle of a slightly overgrown graveyard. Entering under a carved Norman arch, we opened a heavy unlocked door to find the place utterly deserted. Footsteps echoed off the heavy timbered roof and white walls covered with memorial plaques. Everywhere we looked, we found something fascinating: the tomb of a 13th-century knight, lying under an elaborately carved stone arch, his legs crossed at the ankles; the 1610 memorial of the teenage Elizabeth Drury, attended by a life-size stone greyhound; and a lovely mix of Gilded Age and medieval (and reproduction) stained glass. With no one else around, we took time gawking at everything, including the etched brass plaque in honor of Sir William Drury, a 16th-century privy counselor to Queen Mary, which also depicts his two wives, four sons and 13 daughters.

This was our first inkling that the Suffolk idyll that Appleby so loved still existed and was waiting to be discovered — now cleaner and more tourist-friendly. We saw it again in Lavenham, which Appleby admires for its “air of neatness, of quietness and order.” Today, its cobbled streets are lined with charmingly tilting timber-framed 15th- and 16th-century cottages, a scene photogenic enough that it doubled for Godric’s Hollow in two “Harry Potter” movies.

But we were most taken with Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford, a village a few miles west of Lavenham. Appleby gushed over Holy Trinity, praising its stained glass, the surviving brass memorial to local citizens and a statue of the Adoration of the Magi. Everything that caught his eye is still intact: The northern wall is practically covered in medieval stained glass. A 16th-century portrait of Elizabeth de Mowbray, Duchess of Norfolk, is said to be the inspiration for John Tenniel’s drawing of the Queen of Hearts in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” (There’s an obvious resemblance.) Also in glass is a colorful parade of 15th-century saints, hanging alongside portraits of donors who’d contributed to the church, and a tiny window depicting a trio of rabbits with shared ears that is said to represent the holy trinity.

At the other end of the wall, the 15th-century memorial to Sir William Clopton is annually adorned with a red rose as payment for the guildhall and a nearby market — a rent that has been paid for more than five centuries. There’s a 14th-century alabaster panel depicting the adoration of the Magi scene that was discovered hidden under the church floorboards in the 1700s. Nearby brasses set into the floor commemorate other members of the Clopton family, some with inlays of colored metals and surrounded by canopies and heraldic shields, and smaller brasses depicting swaddled infants. Through a door is the Clopton Chantry, with an elaborately painted roof, and a stained-glass window with lilies in the shape of a crucifix that dates to about 1350.

Where to stay: The Crown Inn Hotel

Hall Street, Long Melford

011-44-7873-77666

www.thecrownhotelmelford.co.uk

The family-owned Crown Inn Hotel features 12 well-appointed rooms, including a family suite. The pub’s comfortable atmosphere and selection of locally brewed ales earned it a place in the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual Good Beer Guide. Rooms from about $75 single.

Appleby was proving to be a most reliable tour guide, even if the pub he recommends in Long Melford, the 15th-century Bull, was something of a letdown: We marveled at the exposed beams and huge fireplaces, but came away less than impressed with the generic hotel menu that included “sizzling chicken fajitas.” Fortunately, the Crown Inn Hotel down the street had a selection of local cask ales and a comfortable pub atmosphere.

All in the timing

How did Tech. Sgt. Appleby spend this much time cycling around the countryside when there was a war going on? The answer is timing: When he arrived in England in March 1945, the war was almost over and flights were being conducted during daylight hours, which meant the Air Force had no need for celestial navigators. But because Appleby was already in England, the Air Force made him a glorified clerk with little to do.

“The routine of army life was a part of the mere mechanics of living,” Appleby writes in the first chapter. “I really came to life at the moment I could leave the field, which was the earliest moment possible, every day of the week, and take up the exploration of Suffolk.”

Appleby’s travels were spurred in part by his interest in brass rubbings. The churches of Suffolk are full of engraved brass and metal memorials, set into church floors and walls that honor local knights, ladies and elaborately dressed merchants dating from the 13th to 17th centuries. Since Victorian times, enthusiasts have made wax-crayon rubbings of these images on paper, and Appleby was one of them.

One of the brasses Appleby most sought to add to his collection was the memorial to Sir Robert de Bures at All Saints Church in Acton. De Bures fought for Edward in the 1280s and became lord of the manor of Acton before his death in 1331. But his lasting fame is due to the seven-foot-long brass over his grave, which depicts de Bures in full armor and has been called “the finest military brass in existence” by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The memorial to Sir Robert de Bures at All Saints Church in Acton. (Fritz Hahn / The Washington Post)

Appleby made three attempts over the space of a month to see and capture de Bures’s memorial, but found the church locked every time he visited. After one failure, he wrote that he was “overcoming as best I could my annoyance at the setback, for I always felt, perhaps unreasonably, that churches with brasses should be left open at all times for the convenience of brass-rubbers.”

Like Appleby, we turned up to find the church locked. But we took advantage of 21st-century technology and called churchwarden Chris Moss, who came to show us around.

Once inside, we were initially disappointed. Where Hawstead is sumptuous and Long Melford stately, Acton’s whitewashed walls, uninspired stained glass and austerity of decoration were unimpressive. But the de Bures brass was transfixing: Laid into the floor in the north aisle is a life-size knight in chain mail, hands clasped in prayer. A shield decorated with his heraldry rests against his shoulder; a massive sword hangs from his waist. His legs are crossed at his thighs, and his feet rest on a small lion.

There is some mystery about the memorial’s origins, Moss told us. De Bures is depicted in chain mail that had gone out of use three decades before his death; the shield he holds is cut from a completely different piece of metal than the rest of the brass. Was this an old memorial intended for someone else, but recycled for de Bures by adding his arms? Did de Bures simply commission it decades before he died, in preparation for his tomb, when the armor was in style? We’ll never know.

Moss led us to other treasures: Brasses of 15th- and 16th-century de Bures descendants; the shell of a bomb dropped on Acton from a zeppelin during World War I and now hanging in the bell tower; and a chapel with a rather theatrical statue of financier William Jennens, who died childless and without a will in 1798 as “the richest commoner in England,” setting off the centuries-long court case that inspired Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.”

Less idyllic

Visiting Suffolk wasn’t exactly like taking a Tardis to 1945: Some things had changed, and not for the better.

The 14th-century Peacock Inn in Chelsworth. (Fritz Hahn / The Washington Post)

After wandering the charming streets of Lavenham, we were excited to see Chelsworth, which Appleby describes as “the loveliest village in Suffolk . . . a single architectural whole, without a single jarring note.” The buildings still fit the description: Houses with thatched roofs have names like Tudor Cottage, and half-timbered buildings are covered with flower boxes. There’s a pretty 14th-century church beside a stream. But, as in many Suffolk villages, the buildings are clustered on two sides of a single road — in this case, the busy B1115. With no traffic lights or stop signs, a parade of cars, delivery vans and garbage trucks rattle past at full speed. There are no pavements – “sidewalks,” to Americans — through a good portion of the village of Chelsworth, making it difficult to explore on foot without trudging through grassy shoulders or jumping into someone’s driveway to avoid oncoming cars. So much for quietness, even if the lone pub, the 14th-century Peacock, has a nice off-street garden.

Appleby notes the nearby village of Kersey was “described to me as the most beautiful village in Suffolk,” but he, and we, found it mostly uninteresting. The church of St. Mary’s was “enchanting” to Appleby, and filled with items saved from plagues and the Reformation, but their display made it feel more like a museum than a living, breathing church.

But the biggest disappointment, overall, was Lavenham’s majestic Church of St. Peter and Paul, which Appleby praises for the “soft serenity of the light as it fell on the warm stones, the grace of the tracery in the windows, the effortless ease of the arches, and the soaring beauty of the great tower arch.”

The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Lavenham. (Fritz Hahn / The Washington Post)

The airy chapels still have wonderfully delicate woodwork, and in the choir, the amazing medieval carvings include a man playing a pig as a bagpipe. But in the church’s aisles, a used-book jumble sale and an exhibition by local painters take up far more room than the vaunted chapels. I can understand the need to raise money to keep the lights on and the roof from leaking, but I found the clutter distracting.

One element of Suffolk that Appleby couldn’t have foreseen is its continuing relationship with World War II American airmen. A memorial in Lavenham’s central market square is dedicated to the men of the 487th Bomb Group — Appleby’s squadron — “who sacrificed their lives in World War II that the ideals of democracy might live.”

Where to eat: The Airman’s Bar

The Swan Hotel, High Street, Lavenham.

011-44-7872-47477

www.theswanatlavenham.co.uk

A popular hangout for American servicemen stationed nearby during World War II, the bar’s walls are covered with period memorabilia. Entrees start in the hotel’s brasserie start at $16.

The Swan Hotel on the High Street is home to the Airman’s Bar, which is decorated with photographs and uniform patches donated by Americans, and a wall signed by a series of American soldiers who’d set new records in an ongoing drinking game involving a glass boot of beer.

And just inside the door of St. Peter and St. Paul, the American flag flies above a brass plaque dedicated to American airmen lost in action. It reads, in part, “I remember you, my young brothers, as we were, as it was. This is the resting place of our memory, as it always will be.”

Months after our trip, I’ve pulled “Suffolk Summer” off the bookcase more than once, looking for other churches mentioned in its pages and searching for photos of them on the Web site for Suffolk churches. After all, there are many more parts of Suffolk to explore. Our all-too-brief excursion made me wish could have met John Appleby in the Crown or the Swan for a pint and a debate about the architectural merits of Lavenham vs. Long Melford, or just walked around the grounds of the great abbey Bury St. Edmunds.

But more than anything, I would have liked to show him the rose garden. Although Appleby lived for three decades after the war’s end, he never returned to England, and thus never saw the memorial garden he helped establish. It seems that here, he would have felt right at home.

Information
www.visitsuffolk.com

www.suffolkchurches.co.uk

If you go: Where to stay

The Crown Inn Hotel

Hall Street, Long Melford

011-44-7873-77666

www.thecrownhotelmelford.co.uk

The family-owned Crown Inn Hotel features 12 well-appointed rooms, including a family suite. The pub’s comfortable atmosphere and selection of locally brewed ales earned it a place in the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual Good Beer Guide. Rooms from about $75 single.

Where to eat

The Airman’s Bar

The Swan Hotel, High Street, Lavenham.

011-44-7872-47477

www.theswanatlavenham.co.uk

A popular hangout for American servicemen stationed nearby during World War II, the bar’s walls are covered with period memorabilia. Entrees start in the hotel’s brasserie start at $16.

What to do

Bury St. Edmunds Abbey Gardens

Mustow Street, Bury St. Edmunds

011-44-2847-57490

www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk

The ruins of the enormous Benedictine abbey, founded in the 11th century, are the main attraction here, but the Abbey Gardens also include the Rose Garden, established with the proceeds from “Suffolk Summer,” which features a number of World War II memorials. The bowls hut, located on the path between the Abbey Gate and the garden, sells postcards and copies of “Suffolk Summer.” The Abbey Gardens are open from 7:30 a.m. to dusk Monday through Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to dusk on Sundays.

All Saints Church

Melford Road, Acton

www.allsaintschurchacton.vpweb.co.uk

Unlike some other Suffolk churches, All Saints Church in Acton is kept locked during the day, so it’s essential to contact churchwarden Chris Moss if you’d like to see the De Bures brass. For tours, Moss prefers an e-mail to christopher.moss44@yahoo.co.uk at least 48 hours in advance, but he may also be available for spur-of-the-moment visits if you call or text 07732-700104. Tours are free.

Credits