An 80 mile, long distance route from Manningtree in Essex to Brandon in Suffolk.
This blog describes the St Edmund Way from Manningtree to Brandon. It is not a step by step description and if you wish to follow this trail then you will need to ensure that you have a suitable map with you and maybe also download the GPX files provided for each section. You can upload these to a device of your choice such a handheld GPS device, a GPS watch or even your phone. A word of advice – take care not to drain the battery on your phone if using this as your primary navigation device, maybe take a charging block with you as well.
This is a great trail through some really scenic parts of England, it is often overlooked as a long distance path but, having completed all of it, I would thoroughly recommend as either a walk or a run route.
Although this long distance path starts in Essex, after a few miles you will cross the border into Suffolk. Between Bures and Ballingdon (just before Sudbury) you are back in Essex. After that, except for a brief foray into Norfolk as you pass through the market town of Thetford, the rest of the route remains in Suffolk. At each end of the route is a train station so using public transport and doing the whole route in one go is definitely an option. The route also passes close to train stations in Bures, Sudbury, Bury St Edmunds and Thetford so you could make use of these to complete a section at a time.
St Edmund Way is a varied route which starts by following the River Stour through the Dedham Vale to picturesque villages and towns such as Nayland, Bures, Sudbury and Long Melford. From here it traverses farmland and follows disused railway lines to the Cathedral city of Bury St Edmunds. North of the city the route takes you into the forest trails of the Kings Forest and then Thetford Forest and The Brecks before reaching the town of Brandon.
St Edmund was King of East Anglia from 855 until his death at the hand of the Vikings in 870. In 902 his remains were moved to what is now Bury St Edmunds by King Athelstan and this became a place of pilgrimage. St Edmund was known as the original patron saint of England until superceeded by St George.
To walk this long distance trail I divided the 80 miles into 4 legs of approximately 20 miles each. I did this in May and June 2020 during the restrictions for COVID-19. Luckily for me we stayed in Suffolk during lockdown and I was able to complete each leg without too much travelling. I wasn’t able to sample any pubs, coffee shops or tea rooms along the route as they were all closed so I might have to go and review some of those on a future date.
Leg 1 – Manningtree to Bures 19.65 miles
From Manningtree railway station you need to walk down through the new car park to get to the start of the route, then follow the track to pass under the railway line and into the Dedham Vale. This is one of the UK’s 46 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), ‘a designated exceptional landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are precious enough to be safeguarded in the national interest.‘ Starting just west of Manningtree the AONB extends to just before Bures thus covering most of this leg.
This first section is also known as Constable country and after about a mile the route passes Flatford Mill the setting for the painting ‘The hay wain’ by John Constable.
At this point St Edmund Way and the Stour Valley Path combine, the latter starting just north of Manningtree. The paths continue to follow mostly similar routes all the way to Long Melford. The River Stour is popular amongst those who like to explore the river in canoes, kayaks and on stand up paddleboards. There are also regular swimmers who spend time solo or in groups swimming from Dedham to Flatford as well as other stretches.
The route doesn’t go into Dedham so if you feel in need of refreshments you will need to turn left on reaching the road and cross the bridge to go into the village. Shortly after Dedham the route leaves the river and passes through the villages of Stratford St Mary, Stoke by Nayland and Nayland all of which have pubs that you will go past.
At Nayland the trail once again joins the River Stour for a short distance. Again this is a popular section for those enjoying leisure time on and in the river, on a summer day you will find many families having a picnic on the large green area in Nayland village.
From Nayland the route once again takes to field edges, tracks and quiet country lanes. The footpath passes through several areas of woodland which have been created to support the wildlife of the area, such as that just after Wissington. At Wissington Hall you will pass St. Mary’s Church, a Norman church which has some interesting wall paintings dating from about 1280 AD.
At just over a mile before Bures you pass St Stephens Church which is said to be on the site of the crowning of Edmund as King of East Anglia in AD855.
If you walk around the Chapel you will find a quiet, grassy viewing area at the back where the stone is situated. From here if you look across the valley you may also see the Bures Dragon. In the middle ages a dragon was said to terrorise the people of Bures, there are also legends of two dragons fighting each other, each from their own hill just south of Sudbury. In 2012 to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a Dragon was carved into the hillside close to Bures.
After a visit to the Chapel, continue to follow the path to descend into Bures and the end of leg 1.
Leg 2 – Bures to Alpheton 19.5 miles
I started this section from the Church in Bures St Mary which is in Suffolk, then crossed the bridge over the River Stour to Bures Hamlet which is in Essex.
The first part of this leg follows trails and quiet country lanes all the way to the edge of Sudbury.
The picture below was taken in the churchyard at Great Henny, the footpath passes right through the churchyard. At the time we were a bit confused by this wooden pyramid construction on a pole in the hedge at the edge of the graveyard. A bit of Google investigation suggests that it was constructed following the rebuilding of the church spire following damage by Woodpeckers. This construction is supposed to tempt the Woodpeckers away from the main church spire.
As you approach Sudbury the route takes you onto the flood meadows just west of the town. This is the Sudbury Common Lands Nature Reserve and is usually grazed by cows who are used to sharing their space with walkers, dog walkers and runners. They even tolerate the occasional canoe!
If you want to get refreshments here you will need to turn off the route and head into Sudbury where you will find plenty of options for food and drink. Carry on a little further and you will reach Long Melford where there are also lots of places to buy cake and hot or cold drink. Long Melford was one of the Cloth Towns of Medieval Suffolk and retains a historic and classic English feel. Holy Trinity Church is one of the most magnificent parish churches in Suffolk having been built during the prosperity of the wool trade. There is also a theory by a local historian that Edmund’s remains were buried here.
A few miles after Long Melford you will arrive in Lavenham which is yet another quaint and picturesque Suffolk village. Said to be one of England’s best preserved medieval villages, Lavenham is characterised by timber framed buildings many of which have become more and more wonky over time as the wooden structure ages. The route takes you right through the centre of this village so once again plenty of opportunity to find refreshments.
A few miles further on and you will reach the small village of Alpheton and the end of this leg.
Leg 3 – Alpheton to West Stow Country Park 21 miles
From Alpheton cross the A134 and then follow tracks and field edges for several miles until you re-cross the A134.
This section to Bury St Edmunds is mainly arable farming land, at the time of following this route in June there were also many field edges full of wild flowers or, as you can see in the photo below a whole field full of daisies and other flowers.
After crossing the A134 for the second time the path then follows a disused railway line for about a mile. This was the Sudbury to Bury St Edmunds railway which was taken out of use in 1961 and is the same disused railway that the route was on just after Sudbury and also just before Lavenham.
The third crossing of the A134 is in Sicklesmere where the route literally passes through the garden of the Rushbrooke Arms, unfortunately for me this was shut due to COVID-19 but would have been a welcome refreshment stop on a hot day.
From Sicklesmere the route then follows lanes and track slightly uphill from where you get views across the valley to Bury St Edmunds. A few miles further on and the trail takes you through green spaces and enclosed footpaths to cross the River Linnet. Narrow lanes then take you into the city past the Greene King brewery, one of two major breweries I the city, the other being Adnams. Next to the cathedral is the Abbey of St Edmund where King Canute built a shrine to St Edmund which became a major place of pilgrimage. With the dissolution of the monasteries the Abbey was pulled down and the remains of Edmund moved but there is no record of where they ended up.
The Cathedral and Abbey are on Angel Hill where you will find many coffee shops and cafes. As I did this route before things re-opened I wasn’t able to sample any. The route out of Bury St Edmunds is not so scenic, a bit industrial in parts but soon you get onto the golf course of Suffolk Golf and Country Club. Here the path follows the River Lark through to the road at Hengrave.
In the village of Culford the route goes down the drive of the Culford School, through the woods and then back down by the River Lark, from where you get amazing views back up to the main building of the school.
The final section of this leg brings you through the village of West Stow and into West Stow Country Park. The last half mile of this is a little difficult to follow due to lots of people walking in the forest and creating a myraid of small trails, keep heading in the general direction of the car park and you will get there eventually.
Leg 4 – West Stow Country Park to Brandon 19 miles
If you are starting this leg from West Stow country park as I did, you first need to find your way out of the park by following a westerly direction. You can go either north or south of the lake and then join up with St Edmund Way and also, after the road crossing, the Icknield Way. You are then into The Kings Forest, named to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary. The trail is forest drive and its popular with other users on horses, mountain bikes, motor bikes and 4WD vehicles. Queen Mary’s Avenue is a lovely grassy section at the end which brings you out by the memorial stone.
From here the route continues to follow the same kind of sandy trail so is quite soft underfoot. Some sections are woodland and some field edge track until eventually you reach Barnham Cross Common. If you view my GPX file you will see that the route on the ground is different to that marked on the map. If you follow the map to the road and across you will find yourself trying to climb over wire fences! The route on the GPX file will take you to a set of gates where you can cross the road more easily and maintain dignity.
Coming into Thetford the route then joins the Little Ouse path along the bank of the river Little Ouse.
A bit further along the river you pass this statue of Captain Mainwaring as the TV show Dads Army was filmed in and around Thetford. There is also a museum to visit if you have the time.
Out of Thetford the St Edmund Way continues to follow the Little Ouse Trail until they part company just before reaching a section of forest known as The Brecks. Here St Edmund Way continues north of the river whilst the Little Ouse Trail follows it to the south. At St Helen’s Picnic site the river is easily accessible and popular with families for swimming and paddling canoes.
After the small village of Santon Downham the route once again enters the forest and follows sandy trails most of the way to the finish at Brandon. The final section taking you down a tarmac lane into the town itself.
The end of the route is on Brandon High Street and is a bit of an anti-climax after all that distance. There was nothing I could find to mark that this was the end of the St Edmund Way which was a bit disappointing. There are a few cafes on the high street though so it should be possible to get refreshments at the end of your walk. To get to the train station you just need to turn right here and follow the high street down the hill to the station.
Although I divided this route into 4 fairly equal legs of 20 miles each you might find this doesn’t work quite so well with accommodation if you wanted to do this as a through hike.
Camping – there are a few campsites along or close to the route but you might not be able to divide the route up evenly with these. Below are some that I have found whilst researching online but again, due to current restrictions, I have not been able to personally visit any of these. You will need to do your own research to see if these sites are suitable for you.
Rushbanks Farm – close to the route at Wissington after Nayland.
At West Stow there are a couple of options
West Stow pods – these look amazing I think they would be such fun to stay in.
Kings Forest Caravan Park – also takes tents and is just across the road from West Stow Country Park.
Bed and Breakfast – again I have not been able to research this but I would suggest that the following towns would be good start: Bures, Sudbury, Long Melford, Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds and Thetford.
If you have accommodation to recommend leave a comment below and I will check it out and add to the blog.