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Towns including Bury St Edmunds, Sudbury and Ipswich feature in new book ‘Suffolk Places Behind the Faces’

Which artist famous for her cheeky depictions of larger ladies briefly ran a pub in a Suffolk village? And which two soap stars - one a much-loved character, the other playing a ruthless killer - were born 20 years apart in the county?

What about the identity of the world famous couple who in 1969 booked into a local hotel as Mr and Mrs Smith?

And almost 500 years ago how did Ed Sheeran’s hometown play a crucial role in the struggle for power in Tudor England?

Suffolk Places Behind the Faces book cover
Suffolk Places Behind the Faces book cover

The answers lie in a new book that delves into Suffolk’s links with famous - and infamous - people and events through the centuries.

In ‘Suffolk Places Behind the Faces’ author John Ling combines connections to well-known figures past and present with some of the quirkier facts about towns and villages across the county.

There are numerous links with the world of arts and entertainment, including star names who were born in the county. June Brown, who became a household name as Dot Cotton in TV’s EastEnders, was born in Needham Market in 1927 and went to school in Ipswich. She played the part into her 90s - two years before her death in 2022.

June Brown who played Dot Cotton in EastEnders was born in Needham Market. Picture: BBC
June Brown who played Dot Cotton in EastEnders was born in Needham Market. Picture: BBC

Still in soapland, Brian Capron who as murderer Richard Hillman was one of Coronation Street’s most hated characters, was born 15 miles away in Eye in 1947.

The killer - voted top soap villain of all time in a 2003 poll - left multiple bodies in his wake, and attempted to murder several other characters including his on-screen wife Gail Platt and her family.

At the 2003 British Soap Awards, Capron swept the board for his portrayal of Richard, winning best actor, best exit and villain of the year.

Ralph Fiennes who was born in Ipswich
Ralph Fiennes who was born in Ipswich

Celebrated actor Ralph Fiennes - known as evil Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films and for a host of other roles, was born in 1962 in Ipswich - the eldest of six children.

He brushed up his Suffolk credentials including working with a dialect coach to play archaeologist Basil Brown, discoverer of the iconic Sutton Hoo ship burial, in the 2021 film The Dig.

Also Ipswich-born is Robin Ellis - Capt Ross Poldark in the original 1970s TV adaptation - who returned in a different role as the Rev Dr Halse in the later version.

The Angel Hotel, Bury St Edmunds, where Charles Dickens stayed
The Angel Hotel, Bury St Edmunds, where Charles Dickens stayed

Sir Peter Hall, CBE (1930-2017) founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was born in Bury St Edmunds. During his long and distinguished career he also directed the National Theatre and Glyndebourne, Acting legend Sir John Mills (1908-2005) grew up in Felixstowe where his future career was inspired by taking part in amateur productions.

Sir David Frost (1939-2013) satirist, journalist and TV host, moved to Beccles when his father became Methodist minister there in 1958.

He almost followed in his father’s footsteps but gave up training to be a preacher and went to Cambridge to study English, going on to become an incisive and celebrated interviewer - most famously taking on disgraced former US president Richard Nixon.

Artist Maggi Hambling who was born in Sudbury and grew up in Hadleigh
Artist Maggi Hambling who was born in Sudbury and grew up in Hadleigh

Bernie Ecclestone, billionaire former boss of Formula 1 motor racing, was born in Suffolk in 1930 and spent his early life in the hamlet of St Peter South Elmham, near Bungay.

Renowned artist Maggi Hambling CBE was born in Sudbury in 1945, and grew up in Hadleigh. Her early art studies were at the Amberfield School in Nacton, and Ipswich School of Art.

One of her best-known works is Scallop, the shell-shaped sculpture which stands on Aldeburgh beach in tribute to Suffolk-born composer Benjamin Britten.

Lavenham Guildhall
Lavenham Guildhall

On a different side of the artistic spectrum the much-loved cartoonist Giles, whose work appeared in national newspapers for more than 45 years, lived for many years near Ipswich.

He is commemorated in the town with a statue dominated by his formidable character Grandma in an area now known as Giles Circus.

Centuries ago, two world-renowned master painters whose work now graces museum walls and sells for millions of pounds were raised in Suffolk’s Stour Valley.

Gainsborough's House in Sudbury
Gainsborough's House in Sudbury

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), born and brought up in Sudbury where his childhood home is now a gallery and museum, was one of the 18th century’s most sought-after portrait painters. He and his wife Margaret lived for a time in Ipswich before moving to Bath and then to London as his fame increased.

John Constable (1776-1837) was born in East Bergholt. His father owned Flatford Watermill, later immortalised in several of his works, and the young Constable went to boarding school in Lavenham.

Today he is known principally for revolutionising the genre of landscape painting with his pictures of the Dedham Vale close to his childhood home, including The Hay Wain which shows a wagon crossing the river Stour.

The Bull Hotel, Long Melford
The Bull Hotel, Long Melford

More than 100 years after his death one of Britain’s most popular 20th century artists also found her way to Constable Country. Long before she became famous for her instantly-recognisable female characters, Beryl Cook ran a pub Stoke by Nayland with her husband John.

They took over the White Horse in Stoke by Nayland in the mid-1950s when John left the Merchant Navy.But it was a short stay at the picturesque thatched inn which her son has recalled was neither profitable nor modernised with few customers, and after a couple of years they moved on.

Today, the lure of living in Suffolk has proved irresistible for a number of celebrities. They include Game of Thrones stars Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie who have a farmhouse in the village of Brettenham, south east of Bury St Edmunds.

Author John Ling with the Captain Mainwaring statue in Thetford. Picture: John Middleton
Author John Ling with the Captain Mainwaring statue in Thetford. Picture: John Middleton

Also a few miles from Bury is Tudor mansion Coldham Hall, Stanningfield, home to supermodel Claudia Schiffer and her husband film director Matthew Vaughn.

Actor, comedian and presenter Griff Rhys Jones lives in the village of Holbrook, on the Shotley Peninsula.

Television cook and author Delia Smith has a home near Stowmarket, although her sporting loyalties lie over the county boundary - she and her husband Michael Wynn Jones are major shareholders in Norwich City Football Club.

Drinkstone Post Mill which appeared in an episode of Dad's Army
Drinkstone Post Mill which appeared in an episode of Dad's Army

Suffolk is a popular location for films and TV crews. The TV series Lovejoy, which began in the late 1980s and starred Ian McShane as a roguish but charming antiques dealer, was full of chances to spot local scenes.

They included Lavenham, Bury, Newmarket, Clare, Debenham and Long Melford where the Bull Hotel was often used for interior scenes. The fictional Felsham Hall was Belchamp Hall, just over the border in north Essex.

Dad’s Army - one of the best-loved sitcoms of all time - was filmed mostly in Norfolk and Suffolk. Thetford appeared regularly, and a statue of Capt Mainwaring now sits in the town on a bench beside the river.

Queen Mary I of England, head and shoulders, in a medallian. Engraving by G. Vertue, 1736, after H. Eworth, Wellcome Coleection, PDM 1.0
Queen Mary I of England, head and shoulders, in a medallian. Engraving by G. Vertue, 1736, after H. Eworth, Wellcome Coleection, PDM 1.0

Clover’s Post Mill at Drinkstone appeared in a 1970 episode. But while all four sails were then attached, they were not working, so a temporary hut was put up on site concealing two scene boys pulling the blades around.

Much more recently the pretty village of Kersey was the setting for crime drama Magpie Murders, author - and Suffolk resident - Anthony Horowitz's own adaptation of his book.

Lavenham’s stunning timber-framed buildings have appeared countless times on screen including standing in for boy wizard Harry Potter’s childhood home Godric’s Hollow.

Less well known is that in 1969 John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono chose it as the location for their experimental film Apotheosis, and were filmed climbing into a hot air balloon in the market square.

They later booked into the Bull Hotel in nearby Long Melford - somewhat unimaginatively signing the register as Mr and Mrs Smith.

Authors through the ages have either set their books in Suffolk, or used visits to the county for inspiration.

In the 19th century Charles Dickens stayed at Bury’s Angel Hotel three times and gave readings at the nearby Athenaeum.

His book The Pickwick Papers was partly written at the Angel and Dickens’ account of a corrupt election in the town of Eatanswill is thought to have been based on one that happened in Sudbury in 1835.

Novelist George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) took his pen name from the River Orwell which flows through Suffolk. He moved with his parents to Southwold in 1921 and wrote some of his early works there.

The acclaimed writer of such classics as 1984 and Animal Farm also reported a spooky experience - seeing an apparition of a small and stooping figure in Walberswick churchyard.

Famous author Ruth Rendell (1930-2015), who also published under the name Barbara Vine and specialised in psychological thrillers and murder mysteries, spent many years in Suffolk.

The creator of Inspector Wexford set some of her books in the county in locations including Sudbury, Nayland, Polstead and the Bury area.

She also lived at various times in Aldeburgh, Sudbury, and Polstead, which already had an eerie reputation for the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn in 1827. In 1997 she was made a life peer taking the title Baroness Rendell of Babergh.

In the 21st century Framlingham Castle has been immortalised in a song by Suffolk’s homegrown pop megastar Ed Sheeran. But almost 500 years ago it played a leading role in the future of the English throne.

After the death of Henry VIII his daughter Mary took refuge in the castle during the power struggle over who would succeed him.

Her supporters eventually won through against those who backed the ill-fated teenage Lady Jane Grey, who ended up being executed.

Jane was the granddaughter of Henry’s sister Mary Tudor - briefly Queen of France and later Duchess of Suffolk, who is buried in St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds.

In the 18th century a notorious gang of smugglers based themselves in what seems an unlikely location … the town of Hadleigh almost 40 miles from the coast.

But the ruthless 100-strong Hadleigh Gang, led by John Harvey from the town’s Pond Hall, were a major headache for law enforcers and were thought to have had a string of safe houses along the route.

Rumours still exist of a network of secret tunnels beneath Hadleigh that could have been used by the smugglers, including one from St Mary’s Church to Lady Lane, and others beneath the George Inn and Pond Hall.

Another of the quirkier facts in the book is that Sir Christopher Cockerell, inventor of the hovercraft, carried out the first tests of the craft on a pond at Somerleyton Hall in north Suffolk.

Suffolk Places Behind the Faces is available online from www.amberley-books.com/suffolk-places-behind-the-faces.