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The walkers reviving an ancient tradition to symbolically mark the boundary of Cavendish, near Sudbury and Haverhill

There was a little blood … and quite a lot of mud. But the hardy bunch of walkers reviving an ancient tradition in a Suffolk village already knew it was not going to be a walk in the park.

And while the words of the man who led the expedition to ‘beat the bounds’ of their parish reveal that it was tough at times, it was also hailed as a brilliant day,

Long grass, tricky terrain, nettles, ditches and quagmires lay in wait for the 18 people and a dog who set out on a May morning to symbolically mark the boundary of Cavendish.

Villagers gather on Cavendish green before setting of to beat the bounds of their parish Pictures: Alison Kenny
Villagers gather on Cavendish green before setting of to beat the bounds of their parish Pictures: Alison Kenny

Seven hours later the finishing line was in sight and those who stayed the complete course – including Freddie the wheaten terrier – arrived exhausted but elated at the village green for a celebratory drink at the Five Bells pub.

Special permission had been given by landowners to walk where there were no public footpaths … which was most of the 13 mile trek.

It was not for the faint hearted, and in places meant scrambling through hedges and across ditches, and even ducking under a barbed wire fence which snagged a couple of victims.

Crossing muddy ditches was one of the hazards of beating the bounds of Cavendish
Crossing muddy ditches was one of the hazards of beating the bounds of Cavendish

But that did not stop determined residents rekindling the custom of walking the margins of their village - which would once have been done every year with people beating landmarks like trees and boundary stones with branches as they went.

It last happened in Cavendish 30 years ago. The idea was revived this year by Peter Walton, secretary of the village’s community council.

“The thing that sparked it off was going to a talk at the history society where the speaker mentioned beating the bounds,” he said.

He first consulted a pictorial map of the village by local artist Judy Kemp that showed old fields and the village boundary.

Villagers beating the bounds of Cavendish
Villagers beating the bounds of Cavendish

In the community council records he found a mention of the last time it was done, and a map with a black line drawn around it, but couldn’t find anyone who had taken part.

Peter and helpers then spent many hours checking the current limits of the parish and contacting landowners to get permission to cross their land.

But before asking people to tackle the challenge he had to make sure the route was still passable.

With volunteers Mark Freeman and Christine and Alan Game three test walks were done – around a third of the way each time,

“We did make one or two mistakes on our test walks, and had to Google ‘where am I?’” Peter recalled. But on the day all went smoothly.

Eight exit points had been identified where the route was close to roads, with Peter’s wife Sue, and Nicky Lee on standby to collect people by car if the need arose.

Beating the bounds dates back at least to Anglo Saxon times, when before the days of maps and written title deeds memorising physical boundaries was crucial.

It was the only way to discourage occupants of neighbouring settlements who might be casting envious eyes over your land.

For inhabitants of Cavendish that would have included potential interlopers from Clare, Poslingford and Glemsford. Essex folk would have been less of a threat as the River Stour stood between them.

Alison Kenny, a keen walker who writes up local walks for the Cavendish Village Magazine, was one of this year’s ‘beaters’.

She says that in past times beating the bounds was often done during Rogationtide, the fifth week after Easter, when prayers could also be said for the crops.

“The priest of the parish with the churchwardens and parochial officials headed a crowd of boys, who beat the parish boundary markers with green boughs, usually birch or willow.”

For the village lads it could be a painful experience. “Sometimes the boys were whipped or violently bumped on the boundary stones to make them remember the route. They were sometimes paid to carry planks to lay down over muddy ditches and open sewers so that the clergy did not get their robes dirty.

“The object of taking boys along was supposedly to ensure that witnesses to the boundaries should survive as long as possible.

“Many English parishes have kept the custom as a way of strengthening the community and giving it a sense of place.”

The 2023 circular route began at the village green and followed the river to the outskirts of Clare.

It then headed up the side of the valley towards Poslingford, skirting past Stansfield and Hawkedon, passing by Glemsford, then home.

“After a chilly grey start, the sun shone and we were blessed with a beautiful day,” said Alison, a retired nurse and midwife who went prepared to treat minor mishaps with a bag of plasters and soothing creams.

Much of the first part of the walk was uphill with some steep climbs. “As we know, this part of Suffolk is definitely not flat,” she said.

“The views were wonderful. Just beautiful rolling English countryside. Because we’d had so much rain it was so lush.

“As the majority of the route was not on footpaths, mainly hedgerows and field margins, it was fascinating to see well known views from different angles.

“The terrain wasn’t always easy, with tractor furrows, and long grass hiding the occasional hole.

“We negotiated deep ditches, found ways through holes in hedges and carefully climbed through barbed wire.

“Some people got mud and water in their shoes. The ground was uneven, with tractor tyre tracks in places, and sometimes you couldn’t see where the ruts were.”

Holes dug by badgers, foxes and rabbits added to the hazards, but she said despite blisters, nettle rashes and aching limbs it was a wonderful, enjoyable and rewarding day.

“Few of us were used to walking 13 miles in a day and we were generally pleased our parish boundary was not longer.

“I’m not saying it was the highlight, but the Five Bells was a very welcome sight after about seven hours of walking.

“My step counter went into shock as it recorded 39,995 steps. A pint of cold beer definitely went down a treat!”

Far from being discouraged, the bounds beaters are now talking about making it an annual event once again.