Long Sutton – its story is written on the landscape

Words by:
Kate Chapman and Stephen Wade
Featured in:
May 2011

With an illustrious past boasting links to Dick Turpin and lost treasure, Long Sutton is a thriving market town with designs on the future.
Nestled in the heart of the Lincolnshire Fens, near the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire borders, its origins can be traced back to the Normans and the ninth Century. Set on the fertile silt lands, Long Sutton grew and prospered throughout the Middle Ages and by the mid-fourteenth Century it had become one of the richest communities in Lincolnshire.

Today, Long Sutton is home to a population of approaching 5,000 and offers a wide range of facilities including parks, a library, medical centre, sports centre, primary and secondary schools and a multi-use community building for its broad demographic mix.

It is also home to a fine array of independent shops and businesses, visitor attractions including the Long Sutton Wildlife and Butterfly Park and a bustling market is held every Friday hosting stalls by local trade and craftsmen.

And if that isn’t enough the town is also making a name for itself at the forefront of the green revolution. SEArch (Sustainable Ecological Architects) Architects is dedicated to environmentally responsible development and research and has called the town its home since 2001. The firm has an entirely green portfolio, which includes the innovative adaptation of existing properties to make them ready for a low carbon future and the design of new homes and offices that will drastically reduce the user’s reliance on fossil fuels in the coming years.

The majority of SEArch’s exciting projects have been developed in Long Sutton, including its own flagship earth-sheltered office in Hoddins Way. Described as a ‘carbon neutral business zone’, it is the first of its kind in Europe and is being hailed as the model for future commercial development. The site is still under construction but promises to bring another five offices, a cafe and a classroom alongside a ‘living laboratory house’, where visitors will be able to see low-carbon living in action.

And there’s more, SEArch is also behind the UK’s first autonomous social housing scheme – six earth-bunded bungalows in Unity Gardens – designed to specifications that mean they require no heating, have natural ventiliation and will generate all of the householders energy requirements – reducing energy bills in the process. The firm has mooted more projects for the town too, with plans for a settlement of fourty-nine eco homes in Bridge Road; leaving no doubt that Long Sutton’s future is as assured as its past.

Long Sutton was first referenced in the Domesday Book as Sudtone, Stith and Tite and settlement began to gather apace from 700-800 AD, following improved flood defences and northward reclamation of the land. The shoreline was gradually pushed back leaving what was to become Long Sutton several miles inland.

Talk to anyone locally about Long Sutton and they can’t help but mention the town’s beautiful church, which rises majestically up from the corner of the Market Place. Today, as it has done throughout history, St Mary’s Church dominates the town’s skyline from all angles. Built in the second half of the eleventh Century it is as architecturally significant as it is historically. At 162ft, the lead-covered timber spire is the focal point and with its oblong flats laid in a herringbone pattern it is believed to be the highest, straightest lead spire in the country.

But the most famous name in Long Sutton’s history book is undoubtedly that of notorious highwayman Dick Turpin, who is believed to have stayed in the town for nine months in 1737. After complaints Turpin was not the experienced horse dealer he claimed to be, but a rustler and sheep stealer, he fled when an arrest warrant was issued. A year passed before the law caught up with Turpin, ‘a highwayman of extreme daring and most certainly a murderer’, and he was ordered to stand trial in Beverely. Despite only being found guilty of horse stealing he was sentenced to the gallows. In memory of the rogue’s links with the town a street has been named in his honour and Dick Turpin Way is now home to Long Sutton Primary School.

Long Sutton embraced the Industrial Revolution and looking around in 2011 much of the fine architecture is Georgian and reflects the prosperity of that time. Between 1830 and 1870 the town flourised and with the advent of the railways in the 1860s it found itself on a main trade route to East Anglia. Opportunities for increased trade led to the building of a place to market local produce and a Corn Exchange to trade grain. It went on to become the hub of community life with daily markets but sadly declined in the 1920s when agriculture was hit by an economic crisis and community needs were met elsewhere. The building became a car showroom and was then used by a stonemason until 1999 when it was bought by South Holland District Council for a group of residents who vowed to bring it back into community use. Now run by volunteers the story of the Market House has gone full circle – with its original use finally restored. A thriving community hub once more, today it offers access to a variety of services and groups for crafts, photography, migrant language courses and even rural cinema.

There is no denying that community spirit is alive and well in Long Sutton; the town has a dedicated band of volunteers who tend numerous floral displays, which have earned it accolades in both regional and national ‘in bloom’ competitions. And looking round today it is easy to see why – this pretty market town has so much to offer residents and vistors alike.

Sutton Bridge has been many things, but will always be Lincolnshire’s border port.

In 1934 at the High Court of Justice, Edward Ponsonby sued James Boone over a service agreement; Boone had paid Ponsonby the huge sum of £2,000 to search for the lost treasure of King John. The King’s baggage had supposedly been lost in the Wash when the royal party was passing through the area in 1216. The King came close to death that day at Sutton Bridge, and ever since the mystery of his lost treasure has been a subject of great interest. Clearly, Mr Ponsonby had persuaded Boone that he had methods of locating the hoard, but they had fallen out. Ponsonby was sacked for ‘disloyalty and disobedience.’

The case indicates the attraction of a lost treasure tale, and Sutton Bridge claims a high place in that category of mystery. As for King John, he was under a dark star at the time, dying a week later in Newark, apparently of dysentery. But there is far more to the port than King John: its history is packed with drama, with accidents and disasters being commonplace through the years. It has struggled, as have all border locations to find an identity, but one constant factor has been the river Nene and the drainage around the area, completed in 1832, following the creation of a high embankment. Sutton Bridge stands close to Norfolk, and is the gateway around the Wash, prominent and grand on the landscape.

By 1875, Sutton Bridge became an independent parish, separated from Long Sutton, and just six years later the council tried to develop an important harbour, but as one writer noted in this magazine, ‘Unfortunately the council did not take into account the shifting sand of the area and scarcely a month after opening, the docks collapsed.’ Nevertheless, the ambition was there, and compared with the few farms and cottages there around 1820, Sutton Bridge was moving with the times. The railway arrived in 1862 and in 1875 the Sutton Bridge Dock Act was passed, establishing the construction of the dock and related works.

Achievements in civil engineering surely stand out as one of the most impressive features of the village, but the first dock ended in failure: the creation of the dock was a massive challenge, with 1.5 million bricks being used for the entrance. Work began in January, 1878, with a work force of 100 men, fifty horses and carts , several barges and a steam dredger. It was not finished until May, 1881 and the first ship to enter, the SS Garland, after some difficulties, was towed in by tugs. The grand opening had to be delayed because of sinkage by the lock, and a further setback occurred when a large area of concrete facing collapsed; concrete pressing down on silt was not the ideal foundation, and there were great losses, casualties included the railway company. It was not until 1987 that the Port Sutton bridge was opened. The port has always been an ‘NAA’ one (‘not always afloat’ – meaning that ships have always had to rest on silt in the river at low tide, as there is no deep water anchorage).

More successful was the swing bridge. There has been a bridge there since 1831, and that was to a design of the great engineers Rennie and Telford; that was made of timber and cast iron. This first bridge was unstable, being supported by piles driven into the bed before the new channel was properly scoured by the tides. All that could be done was to place stones around the piles, but clearly that was no solution. In 1850 the second bridge was made by Robert Stephenson, for road traffic until 1864 when the Midland Railway was allowed to have control of road traffic. Finally, in 1897 the Crosskeys Bridge, which is there today, was built. For a while Stephenson’s bridge was maintained alongside the new one, but finally it was demolished.

The East Lighthouse is also a notable engineering achievement, built in 1831, and surely most famous as the home of the naturalist Sir Peter Scott, who created a nature reserve in a stretch of the Ouse Washes. This is today the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Nikolaus Pevsner commented that the Lighthouse at Guy’s Head looked like a flour mill with its ‘tapering sides and octagonal tops.’ The Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre at Welney was Scott’s brainchild, and today there is the RSPB centre at Welches Dam, and the reserve is managed and regulated, so that bird-watchers may have ample opportunity to see lapwing, snipe, redshank, swallows and martins when they visit. Today we also have the Peter Scott Walk, which goes from the old sea bank along the Wash from King’s Lynn to the lighthouse at Sutton Bridge, with a car park at each end of the trail.

Other buildings are of great interest: the Church of St Matthew, built in 1843, has an attractive appearance, with knapped flint and ashlar dressings; Pevsner liked the ‘funny square top’ on the stair-turret and the tall and slim diagonal arcade piers. The decorative font is particularly appealing. The church was designated a grade II listed building in 1966. There is also Park House, built by the Guy’s Hospital Estate who owned a large amount of the village in Victorian times, and who established the house for their steward. The house has fluted Doric columns and plain pilasters, and has been re-roofed. Unmissable for all travellers is the New Inn, built in the early nineteenth century, with its six-bay front. This was an old coaching inn, with two storeys, a slate roof and ridge stacks. The Georgian terrace in Bridge Road has the simple elegance of its period: imposing and dignified.

Of special interest to local historians is the toll house. At the time of the first bridge, travellers had to pay a toll; so-called ‘Lynn boards’ were in place at the Clenchwarton and Walpole toll gates to show people that it was safe to cross at certain times. That meant that there was a curious and annoying situation in which travellers had to pay a toll but still had to travel on perilous sands. The property known as Bridge House East is thought to be the toll house.

There have been many disasters and dramas in the history of Sutton Bridge, notably in 1893 when there were nine deaths in an accident on the Nene when even a local boatman of considerable experience, Edwin Burton, lost his life. The Times reported: ‘At the time a strong breeze was blowing. When they had gone about three miles from Sutton Bridge the party decided to return, owing to the force of the wind, and when about a mile and a half nearer home the boat capsized and all the occupants were thrown into the water…’ Of course, people alive now will recall the horrors of the 1953 floods when, as one journalist reported, ‘for the first time in living memory’ the Nene overflowed at Sutton Bridge and a granary on the river bank was severely damaged: forty tons of wheat in the basement were submerged.

Looking at a more pleasant side of the village’s social history, one remarkable saga is that of the small holdings for ex-servicemen established during the Great War. There were voices of dissent regarding the cost of the cottages, but in 1921 an inspector went to visit the workers and said that it had been his privilege to visit small holding colonies across the land but he added, ‘…I have visited none with economic merits that impress me so favourably as those at the Sutton Bridge settlement.’ Settlers were ‘lavish in praise of their new home’ he added. By 1924 there were 10,645 acres of such settlements across the country, including a Holbeach one also, and good progress was being made by then in the settlers becoming farmers. In some ways, this was a quiet revolution: something that was looking forward to a better time when the world descended into chaos.

There is also the success story of Wingland Marsh, which was taken on by Julian Proctor in 1974: a 400-acre area which added to the 600 acres he already farmed then as a tenant. With a sea wall for protection, he told the press back then that he expected a cash crop of cereal from the marsh by 1977 and root crops a few years later. This was all made possible by the work of the Crown Commissioners, who supervised at that time plenty of reclamation work around the Wash, where it was seen that the area had one of the most promising retrievable acreage at the time.

Hand in hand with that initiative was the regime of experimentation conducted in the 1960s by the Potato Marketing Board: it established a station at Sutton Bridge in order to help growers reduce wastage and to give information on packing and grading costs. The new station, in place by 1964, cost the huge sum of £275,000 and was officially opened by Mrs Christopher Soames, the wife of the then Minister of Agriculture. In a series of tests, the station was part of a programme to cater for the demand for different varieties of potato, including one then called a ‘super class,’ and this was all part of the advancement of soil science then burgeoning, so Sutton Bridge played a major part in that experiment.

Sutton Bridge will always attract the hunters of lost treasure, but its story is also written on the landscape, and travellers will continue to pause there with pleasure and with relish for the imposing border bridge. The village is in good hands, as the active Bridge Watch group are working hard to preserve the place, provide flower displays and clean up litter. Their web site, www.bridgewatch.org.uk/town is highly recommended for more stories of the Sutton Bridge, and the group are working hard to resolve a variety of local issues which perhaps hint at much social change, such is the strength of local pride here.

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