A Bigger Splash: Sudbury Common Lands

Floodgates Pool, Sudbury photo by Jo Sinclair

Summer loving, and a bucolic scene at the floodgates pool in Sudbury Meadows, peak heatwave. Two submerged teenage goths stare into each other’s eyes, black garb billowing in turbid water. Swans glide. Shoals of fish dart in the shallows, hoping for breadcrumbs. A man, trousers rolled up, is vaping knee-deep. A doggy-paddling cockapoo displays the duck-hunting side of his genes, and picnicking parents laugh as their child dares herself closer to a herd of inquisitive cows. 

Sudbury, a Suffolk market town on the south border adjoining north Essex, has a rich heritage. It is the birthplace of artist Thomas Gainsborough. Pretty period properties in candy colours overlook water meadows where commoner’s rights date back to 1260. Pedigree cattle graze beside the River Stour winding through classic Constable country. Tourist trails dodge 60s shopping precincts, seeking 242 listed buildings and a parade of bronze statues, telling stories of wool and weaving, silk and bricks and barley. Four silk mills still operate. 

Dog-sitting for a week, I enjoy exuberant scenes as I walk the common lands. The locals paddle, wallow, dive and swim in pool, weir and river with dogs, cattle, swans, kingfishers and swallows. The Valley Way old railway line footpath delivers me to Friar’s Meadow at the east end of town. At this popular picnic and party spot I’ve discovered my only relief from temperatures reaching 33 degrees: an evening swim. The Stour is deep and wide here, and not quite so bovine, the banks being too steep for the pretty cattle grazing the banks opposite.

I feel familiar with this spot from Matt Gaw’s book The Pull Of The River. It’s where he launched a homemade canoe ‘the colour of Mae West’s lips’ for a watery journey through Britain. Like Roger Deakin’s classic Waterlog its pages pull you irresistibly towards the water. 

River swimming is a sensory dip - and a dare. In the swimming pool at Sudbury’s Kingfisher Leisure Centre at the edge of Friar’s Meadow you won't see a kingfisher. In the Stour I tread water, eyeing floating thistledown balanced in a teetering triangle like synchronised swimmers. Fish are jumping and six lads dive off a World War II pillbox. The water temperature is deliciously changeable as I head under the trees. I come nose to nose with aromatic blackberries, imbibing mingling scents of fruit, soil and vegetation. But the waters are dark and this natural element is, in a way, unknown.

During my few days here I find that the jetty in the corner is a launch pad for family forays. A canoeing couple pack up their day, towing tired kids home in a dinghy. Grown-up siblings swim downstream with mother and dog. A dad and daughter coax a hesitant brother to embrace the wild. As roe deer bark at the water-bombing boys, house martens skim close and sundown pinkens the clouds in the water, I eagerly await the thunderstorms.