A Stroll Around Old Freckenham
Freckenham is a conservation village, one of the few in the Forest Heath district. It is not one of Suffolk's prettier villages but it does have a quiet charm, unspoilt by housing estates, infill building or encroachment into the surrounding countryside. It used to be very picturesque, with a number of quaint old thatched cottages but, sadly, many of them were demolished during the 1960s and those that do remain have lost their thatch. But an idea of how the village appeared seventy to a hundred years ago can be seen from old photographs.
Entering the village from the south, from Red Lodge, we come to the Junction of Elms Road, Mildenhall Road and The Street where one of the village's Pounds was situated. This was a lock-up for livestock found straying or illegally grazing on the commons; it was demolished in 1948 but the tree remains, at least in spirit, having been replanted a few years ago. The picturesque cottages behind the pound were typical of much rural housing in that their charming appearance belied the reality of damp, overcrowded, insanitary conditions. As late as 1933 these cottages still lacked a water supply, water for all purposes had to be fetched from the parish pump or from the river.
Moving slightly forward to the far side of The Pound, its wall to our left, we command a good view of the steep rise of Castle Mound with the church beyond. On this ancient earthwork are the remains of a motte and bailey castle. Its precise date and function are unknown, but it may have been one of the 12th century castles which were thrown up around the fens to contain the rebel earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mortimer, who was harrying surrounding towns and villages loyal to the king from his fenland stronghold at Ely. The motte is heavily shrouded in trees but there is evidence of substantial stone and flint foundations below ground. Sledding down the earthwork was a winter pastime enjoyed by generations of Freckenham children.
From the bridge over the Lee Brook we can see the Bell Inn on our right and part of The Street. In 1873 the population was 412 and the village enjoyed the services of a grocer & draper, whose can be identified by its distinctive awnings, a butcher, two other shops (unspecified), a sub-post office, two other Inns, a blacksmith and the school. Now the village has just one pub and a non petrol selling garage-cum-shop to serve a population of around 367. Apart from the tree, the view is much the same today.
Opposite the Bell is this attractive house and garden. The covered wagon travelling westwards towards the Fordham Road is a gypsy caravan. At the time this photograph was taken local travelling families worked a circuit from Thetford to pick carrots, to Outwell for the strawberries, Chatteris for potatoes and Freckenham for the beet. Until recently these caravans were a common sight in the village but the dualling of the A11 forced them to find less dangerous routes. They still come through but infrequently now. Sadly both the cottage and tree have disappeared.
Straight on at the crossroads at the end of The Street is the Fordham Road. On our right is the Wesleyan Chapel, a utilitarian building erected in the early 20th century. Many villagers enjoyed going to Chapel because the singing was better and the hymns were jollier but as they did not want to upset the parson, a major employer in the village, they made sure they went to Church as well. Before it was built meetings were held in a large room in the cottage next door. The Chapel was converted into a private house about twenty years ago. Opposite are Shores Allotments, part of a charity endowed by Katherine Shore of Lincoln in 1710 to provide stuff for making gowns to be distributed to poor women of the parish.
A bit further on and we come to one of Freckenham's two windmills. Both were smock mills, built within sight of each other, but on different routes out of the village, on high ground to catch the prevailing winds. Domesday records Freckenham as having one mill, but this would have been water or animal powered. There had been successive wind mills on the Chippenham Road from at least the early C18. In 1736 it was recorded the mill had lately been demolished and by 1757 a new one had been erected. The last mill on that site was demolished sometime around 1910, although its base was still being used for storage seventy years later. This one was on the Fordham Road and was built around 1823. On the ground floor was an inscription which read: 'THE FIRST GRIST GROUND AT THIS MILL WAS MR INO (JOHN) NORMAN, FRECKENHAM, JUNE 30TH 1824.' The mill was demolished in 1967.
Retracing our steps to the crossroads we turn left into Mortimer's Lane to admire this charming old cottage. In 1885 a labourer working in his garden uncovered a hoard of over 90 Icenian gold coins, circa AD 0-25, of a rare or formerly unknown type. Most of the coins were sold off but the British Museum did manage to obtain a few. The cottage still stands but the house just visible behind the trees at right no longer exists. If we were to walk down to the end of Mortimer's land and follow the track we would pass the site of a moat, once a 5 metre ditch surrounding a 30 metre platform, but now ploughed out, and eventually reach the Isleham Road. If we were to turn right and right again we could return to the village via a parallel track leading into North Street. This used to be a pleasant circular walk until a few years ago until, for some unexplained reason, the landowner refused to allow access to the paths. Both paths were once, prior to parliamentary enclosure in 1824, important thoroughfares leading to the River, the fens, Beck Common and Beck Bridge, the Chapel of the Blessed Mary and the headlands to the open fields.
Back to the crossroads once more and a right turn takes us into Chippenham Road and Freckenham School, a national school built in 1840 at a cost of £120. The school was closed in 1970 and the building converted to a private house. The Golden Boar can be seen across the river to the right, to its left is the row of cottages with the crooked chimney which we saw at the start of our tour.
Beyond the school we come the Lee Brook and a view over the water meadows to the Church. Here we can see the ditches and diverted watercourse which facilitated the creation of a 'floated' water meadow. Artificial irrigation of the ground in winter prevented frost penetration, raised the temperature and so stimulated the growth of grass. It worked by a leat which 'fed water into channels running along the top of parallel ridges, superificially resembling the "ridge and furrow" of former arable fields. It flowed smoothly down the sides of these and into drains (located in the "furrows") which returned the water to the river.' Sheep were turned out to enjoy the early grazing and when they were moved onto summer pastures the meadow was reflooded and produced a substantial second growth which was cut for hay. This increase in animal feed encouraged larger flocks which resulting in more manure for the fields which in turn increased arable yields. It was the adoption of such innovative techniques that was so crucial to the succes of the 'agricultural revolution'. Terriers and surveys from as early as 1699 call this meadow Trenchers or The Trenches which would place this as one of the earliest examples of a 'floating' in the region, as the technique was not widely adopted in East Anglia until the end of the 18th century. Most of the ditches were ploughed out to create the village playing field, but some can still be seen to the left of the entrance path.
Returning to the crossroads we retrace our footsteps along The Street . The third building on the right is The Reading Room. It was erected in 1894, at the instigation of Wm. Victor Paley and paid for by subscription, as a place where the men of the village could congregate and read the freely supplied newspapers, in a bid to lure them away from the demon drink. It later housed a lending library and by 1908 it was in general use as the Village Hall. Four years ago a new village hall was built and the old Reading Room was converted into a private house. We can just make out the old forge on the bridge in the centre of the photograph.
Closer to the bridge and we get a better view of the old forge. Fourteen Tolworthys were blacksmiths here from 1844 until 1879, the last named was a Mrs. Susan Tolworthy but whether she actually wielded the hammer is unclear. The forge went the way of most of its kind with the demise of the heavy horse and it took to servicing machinery instead. It was rebuilt as a two pump garage when the bridge was demolished in 1954. In the centre is the Golden Boar, a sixteenth century timber framed building with a brick skin and later additions. It is one of the oldest buildings in the village. Recent refurbishment to the fireplace uncovered three large dressed limestone blocks, decorated with armorial bearings, which were probably taken from a church or an altar tomb. The stones may have come from a medieval chantry or pilgrim's chapel which existed between the 12th and the 16th centuries but disappeared from documentary sources at about the time the Boar was built.
We rest for a moment on the bridge and admire the view of the church. Once a favourite spot for villagers to gather and gossip on the long summer evenings. The earthworks on Castle Mound are visible to our left. The River Kennet, which divides the county boundary, becomes the Lee Brook on entering Suffolk. Now merely a stream, it meanders through the village to join the River Lark on Freckenham's northern boundary, but once they were both major East Anglian rivers, the latter navigable inland to Bury St Edmunds and seawards via the Ouse and Lynn and vital to the economy of the parish. Swimming in the Brook (still deep enough forty years ago) was another pastime enjoyed by the village.
Returning to The Pound we bear right into Church Lane. The church, rectory, manor house and several fine old houses are clustered together above the village within the safety of the castle confines. This part of the village was formerly known as Church Square. The house on the left was once a substantial gentleman's residence but by the time of this photograph had been converted to house five village families. This and its neighbour are distinguished by decorative bargebording. Sadly both these beautiful buildings have been demolished and replaced with modern houses.
This imposing building is the rectory. The rear range has a timber framed core dating from the late 16th century, the main body dates from the mid 18th century, and it was enlarged and improved in the early 19th century. Successive incumbents have spent considerable sums on its improvement: in 1699 Benjamin Castell (1696-1705) spent £120 or 'three years income or four upon the vicarage house', between 1760 and 1765 Michael Smith D.D. (1760-1773) spent over £640 on building the north front and essential repairs, Henry Bates (1773-1816) built 'the small study or wing on the North Front' and in 1829 Samuel Tilbrooke spent £1,180 on 'the whole of the South Front and the offices', including £104 on plumbing, £65 on wallpapering the rooms and 16 guineas for the installation of a kitchen range. When the church commissioners sold the rectory in the 1970s one of the wings was demolished to make it more convenient for modern living.
We end our stroll around Freckenham with a visit to St. Andrew's church, seen here from the Rectory lawn. This lovely old building was built between the 13th and 14th centuries in Barnack stone and flint, with a chancel, nave, north aisle and chapel. The west tower was added in the 15th century. The Rev. George Paley undertook substantial repairs and alterations in 1867-9, including rebuilding the south porch. The thatch was replaced with in 1870 and the tower rebuilt in 1884, two years after it collapsed, thankfully without causing other damage or injury. Its bench ends are interesting illustrations of the medieval woodcarver's art, including a lady telling her beads, a pelican in her piety, a devil thrusting sinner into the jaws of hell (a monster). On the north wall is a curious 15th century alabaster plaque of St. Eligius shoeing a horse. The full beauty of the church can be appreciated during Freckenham's annual flower festival.
© Sandie Geddes, 2000.
A Forest Heath District Council (Suffolk) Project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the Millennium Festival ©2000 Designed by ArtAtac