SUFFOLK VILLAGE SIGNS by Ken Savage
With over 350 signs, Suffolk has the second largest number in the country after Norfolk and the total is still growing, although understandably more slowly after the surge triggered by the millennium and the Queens Golden Jubilee. The signs within the county are generally of the conventional kind, although that at Milden, in the shape of a melde plant which represents the origin of the village name is a notable exception. There are a few wrought iron and wooden signs which show only the village name, but the vast majority of signs are of the decorative variety which collectively provide an excellent overview of the character of the county and its history.
The county is, essentially, rural in nature and this is reflected by the scenes depicted on many of its signs, those at Alderton, Brockley, Dalham and Wickhambrook being typical examples. They show the village greens, ponds, windmills and thatched cottages which make many of the villages so attractive to the visitor. Others, such as Beyton and Fakenham Magna, which feature geese, Depden which shows pheasant, hare and fox in its design and Coney Weston which has a selection of flowers, prefer to concentrate instead on the varied flora and fauna to be found around the county.
The principal industry of a rural county is likely to be agriculture and Suffolk is no exception. Its farming activities are well represented on the stock of signs. Naturally there are many which show farmers ploughing, such as that at Pettaugh, and harvesting as on the Hepworth and Rumburgh signs. The sign at Hasketon features a ploughing scene, but silhouettes it against the underside of a mushroom to represent the local growers and also to record that the worlds largest example is attributed to the village! A little more unusual are the plough in the round on the Benhall sign and a seed drill similarly fashioned on that at Peasenhall. The latter also represents the firm of James Smyth & Sons which once made such machinery in the village. Engineering too is represented on the sign at Wickham Market, where milling equipment was manufactured by Whitmore & Bynyon, whilst the Leiston and Sizewell sign shows a steam traction engine made at the once internationally-known works of Richard Garrett & Co., depicted in front of its chimney which was a landmark in the small town until the 1980s. A landmark still to be seen now and for many years to come is the dome of the reactor at Sizewell nuclear power station, which is represented on the top of the post of the same sign.
One of the earliest industries in the county was that of flint mining and knapping in the area around Brandon, an activity which began in Neolithic times and continued to flourish until the 19th-century. Before the introduction of the percussion cap the trade in gun flints was a major industry in the town, its products being widely known for quality of performance. The town sign depicts three knappers hard at work. Another product commended for quality were the bricks produced at Luffs yard in Tuddenham St.Martin, for which the company won a medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851, so the villages sign understandably includes a brickworker in its design.
In the north of the county, in the area around Newmarket, the principal industry is, of course, horses. The sport of kings began in the area when it was introduced by James I and the two identical town signs naturally include both the monarch and a horse race in their design. Horse breeding as well as racing is big business in and around the town, but Newmarket is not the only place in the county made famous by such an activity. The sign at Ufford depicts Crisps Horse 404, the first Suffolk Punch which was foaled in the village in 1768, becoming the ancestor of virtually all horses of this breed. Other villages have also included a Suffolk Punch in the designs of their signs, including Bacton, Brantham, Old Newton and Sudbourne.
The long coastline with the North Sea, into which several of the countys rivers empty, resulted in the development of a number of ports, both at the river estuaries and also further upstream, the latter served by the barges which were able to navigate considerable distances into the hinterland. One of the most unlikely was Rattlesden which, until the 13th-century, was the port for Bury St.Edmunds. An anchor, found in a meadow near to the river, is included on the sign as a reminder of the villages past maritime history. A gradual increase in the size of shipping and the silting up of rivers and harbour entrances during the Middle Ages was the death knell for most of the ports in the county, but coastal villages such as Aldeburgh, Dunwich, Southwold and Walberswick have included ships on their signs to recall their long departed sea-based prosperity. Ports which continued to flourish until the present age were Lowestoft and neighbouring Kessingland, the prosperity of which was based on North Sea fish. The decline of the shoals in the latter half of the 20th-century decimated the based fleets and the economies of the two places now depend on the holiday trade. The only success story has been Felixstowe, now a major container port, but until the 19th-century only sparsely populated. The sign at Old Felixstowe includes a ship in its design, but this commemorates only the Kings Fleet waterway north of the town, so named because it was used by Edward III in 1338 to assemble his fleet before sailing to fight in France, some centuries before the huge container ships began arriving at the modern-day port!
The recorded history of the county began with its settlement by the Romans in the 1st century AD. Their presence in the area is recorded on several village signs, including Corton, where there was a signal station and Stratford St.Mary which had a fortified post, as well as Earl Stonham and Weybread which lay on important Roman roads.
After the departure of the Romans in the 4th-century AD the area was settled by the Anglo-Saxons, whose names for the sites which they chose eventually became the village names of today. Thus, Haragraua, meaning a grove of hares, as recorded in the Domesday survey, is the present day Hargrave the sign for which naturally depicts a hare in a grove of trees. Similarly, the holly which adorns the sign at Hulver represents the original name of Holieverd, meaning green holly. Several other villages recall their historical roots in similar fashion, although the sign at Herringswell, which shows two herrings and a well, is a rebus on the present-day name only, as the original village name of Hyrningcwylle meant spring of the Hyringas. The settlement of the region by the Saxons has been brought back to life by the re-erection of a typical Saxon village on the original site at West Stow and this is the subject of the village sign. The Saxons buried ships as memorials to their aristocracy and examples of such burials have been uncovered at Snape and Sutton. The latter is the better known, because of the treasure found in one of the vessels and the Sutton Hoo site is now world famous and a popular tourist attraction. The burial ships are included in the designs of both village signs.
A county bordering the North Sea was always likely to be one of the first to attract the Vikings when their raids began during the 8th-century and those turbulent times are recalled on the signs at Ringsfield, Somerleyton and Ubbeston. They eventually conquered and settled in the area, the names of their settlements also over time becoming the village names of today. An example which is recalled on its village sign is Eyke, derived from the Scandinavian word eik meaning place at an oak tree: thus the oak tree on the sign. The sign at Kettleburgh depicts Ketil the Viking looking out from his hill, which the original name of Chetelbiria means.
Life for the residents of the region changed dramatically after the Norman Conquest, both architecturally and administratively. A number of the churches built during this period have survived at least in part, particularly the distinctive round towers, of which the county has the second largest number in the country. The signs at Bruisyard, Ilketshall St.Andrew, Risby and Worthing are amongst the villages which have depicted such towers on their signs. This was also a period when monastic institutions were founded by the Norman rulers, most of which continued to flourish until dissolved by Henry VIII. The Benedictine nunnery founded by the Count of Guisnes in 1120 is featured on the sign at Redlingfield and Sibton Abbey, founded in 1150 and the only Cistercian house in Suffolk, is the subject of the Sibton sign. Imposing castles also became a feature of the landscape, built by the Norman overlords initially to impose their will on the indigenous population and later as a means of defending themselves from their peers! The Bungay sign depicts the impressive gateway which is virtually all that remains of the castle built by Roger Bigod, whilst even less remains of the 12th-century castle at Offton, its existence visible only in the form of earthworks. Not so the castle at Framlingham, also built by the Bigod family which later became the home and power base of the Mowbray and Howard families. Still a formidable sight, particularly when viewed from the north, a flavour of it can be discerned from its reproduction on the sign which stands in Market Square.
Administratively, the structure of the country was transformed by the creation of manors, parcels of land which were given to the knights and other supporters who had helped William achieve his victory. The overlordships created at this time formed the basis of the aristocratic and upper social strata of the country which lasted until modern times, although in later centuries the merchant classes, the nouveau riche, were able to buy into the system by purchasing land and property vacated by the old rich families. The knights who were originally granted the manors had painted their shields with distinctive devices so that they might be recognised in tournaments and in battle and during the 12th-century these became formalised as arms, issued and controlled by heralds, with each different from all of its contemporaries. Heraldic coats of arms were soon granted to all of the landed gentry, becoming a sort of status symbol, and many signs in the county include one or more shields representing past Lords of the Manor. These include Brent Eleigh, which features the arms and crest of the Colman family and Brome and Oakley, which has the arms of the Cornwallis family from Brome and the Bucton family of Oakley, which were united in 1400 by marriage. The Euston sign which stands outside the eponymous hall depicts the arms of the Duke and Duchess of Grafton who still reside within, the sign at Grundisburgh those of the Cranworths, in particular those of the 2nd Baron, and that at Needham Market the arms of Earls of Ashburnham who are local landowners and have allowed the town to use them.
During the Second World War a number of airfields were built in the county, mostly to base the bomber fleets that flew missions over Germany and other occupied countries. These were largely decommissioned and returned to agricultural use after hostilities ceased, but a small number are still operational. The wartime activities are remembered on several village signs, including Great Ashfield, where the 385th Bombardment Group of the USAAF was based, and Stradishall which had a pre-war airfield which is recalled by the inclusion of an inter-war Handley-Page Heyford bi-plane. Both fields have long been closed but the airfields at Lakenheath and Mildenhall are now major strategic fields of the USAAF, their presence recognised on the signs at Eriswell, Beck Row, Holywell Row and Mildenhall, although not on the Lakenheath sign which instead depicts the village as it was in earlier times, before the arrival of the jets.
Over the centuries the county has been home to a number of historically important individuals, whose achievements are recalled on the signs of the villages where they lived. The sign at Stratford St.Andrew includes the arms of Ranulf de Glanville, Chief Justice of England in the 12th-century, together with a reproduction of the legal treatise for which he was responsible, one of the first attempts to formalise the laws of the land. He is buried at nearby Aldringham, which reproduces his brass on its sign. Another writer of treatises was Robert Grosseteste who became Bishop of Lincoln in 1275, although his writings were concerned more with religious than secular matters. He was a great supporter of scholars and he is depicted on the sign at Stradbroke giving help to James Chambers, a local poet who is buried in the village cemetery.
Several notable seafarers and explorers were born or lived in the county, including Thomas Cavendish who circumnavigated the world in 1586 but was lost at sea whilst undertaking a similar expedition in 1592. He is shown on the sign at Trimley St.Martin whilst the sign at Otley includes references to Robert and Bartholomew Gosnold, the latter being the discoverer of Cape Cod and the founder of Jamestown, Virginia. Robert was responsible for introducing wheat grain into the New World and is represented on the sign by a wheatsheaf, whilst Bartholomew is remembered by a reproduction of the ship which took him on his voyage of discovery. The sign at Wetheringsett cum Brockford depicts Richard Hakluyt, one of the great names of exploration in Elizabethan times, although he himself travelled no further than Paris and achieved fame by talking to the individuals who had undertaken the voyages and publishing such details. Far less dangerous!
The arts are represented on several signs, including the author Adrian Bell on that at Redlingfield represented by his book The Apple Orchard and Charles Dickens on the Blundeston sign. Dickens is, of course, more associated with Kent, but used the village in his book David Copperfield, albeit adding a final e to the name! By way of recognition the villagers have depicted the fictitious character leaning on the rather more tangible church arch. The artist Sir Alfred Munnings was born in the village of Mendham and the village sign recognises this by depicting a scene from his painting Charlotte and her Pony, the sign being unveiled in 1978 by Munnings niece to commemorate the centenary of his birth. Although the composer Benjamin Britten was not born in Snape, he did own The Old Mill in the village for ten years and he is, of course, always associated with the village nowadays because the Aldeburgh Music Festival is held annually in the Maltings concert hall and many of his works are performed there. His association with the village is recorded on the sign somewhat obliquely, by the inclusion of a curlew which represents both the river Alde which flows past the Maltings and Brittens work Curlew River which itself is a celebration of the river. Finally, mention must be made of the cartoonist Giles, who lived in the village of Witnesham. The village sign was designed by him and features a row of typical Giles-style pigs behind a five barred gate. He also designed the Swilland sign, although this has a more traditional theme, showing the local windmill.
The signs detailed above are a representative sample of those to be found in the county, although others contain themes not mentioned in this brief summary. Details of all the signs in the county are contained in the Town & Village Signs of Suffolk booklets produced by VSS member Ken Savage and a good proportion of them in the Suffolk Signs series published by VSS founders Shirley Addy and Maureen Long.