Remembering our time in the mulberry orchards of eastern China, near Hai’an and realising that now is not the climate for further travel with Covid19, we have turned to home. Having moved last year to an old dairy come shop in Ballingdon on the edge of Sudbury, Suffolk, we have been involved with several events in the town. Ruth helped set up the first Sudbury Silk Festival in 2019, with cultural and architectural heritage walks connected with silk, a Silk Fair with stands from the local silk mills Gainsborough Silk Weaving Co, Humphries Weaving Co, Vanners Silk Weavers and Stephen Walters & Sons as well as related textile and conservation stands and talks by a variety of experts on silk. One aspect of the potential development for the festival was to look into the possibility of mulberry tree planting as a visible sign of the town’s rich silk heritage, together with badging silk related buildings and developing a town trail that could be accessed via phones.
In addition we realise what an adaptable space we now have and that we could offer a residency space to artists/musicians/writers/creatives around three times a year, for them to recharge, make work and explore connections with this amazing landscape of historic water meadows, grazing cattle, river access and artistic links with painters including Gainsborough, Constable, Morris, Nash. Although with Covid19 our residencies have been delayed. We are setting up our project space PASTURE to be ready and in the meantime developing a small project ‘Mapping the Mulberry’ to find the locations of existing mulberry trees in the area and map them with any information on their history.
Ruth, with her last house, restored both the house and garden from a derelict state and whilst with young children and without a garden, used to enjoy taking them to Gainsborough’s House where there is a large, ancient mulberry tree, ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ was on a sign hung on the tree and would always open up a verse of that well known nursery rhyme! When Ruth restored the garden, she planted a black mulberry on the back lawn.
There are several other ancient mulberry trees in the area, so we are hoping to publicise our project so that people can help us with the mapping. Already we have had several sites sent in by various people, including mulberries in Boxford, Bulmer, Groton, Lavenham, Preston St Mary, Stoke by Nayland, Colchester, Wivenhoe Park, Ipswich and Haverhill.
Yesterday we visited the Winthrop mulberry in Groton, a black mulberry thought to be one of the oldest in Britain. Planted possibly around 1550 by Adam Winthrop, grandfather of John Winthrop who was the leader of Puritans who were the first to establish a colony in America. He went on to become the first governor of Massachusetts in the 1630s. The Winthrop family maintain contacts with the village and its historic tree. The tree is in a field known as The Croft, where it is beautifully situated in a small field, with mown paths and wild meadow flowers. The tree is recumbent and layering, protected by a fence, with a bench nearby. Apparently local people have old photographs of the tree before it collapsed … it would be great to see these!
We visited the tree on the last day of May, accessing it through the long, narrow path, surrounded by trees and wildflowers. It was late afternoon, after a blisteringly hot day, the dappled shade of the path was welcome and the smell of grass and wild flowers including elderflower and the last of the cow parsley, heady. The croft or meadow opened up at the end of the path, with perfectly cut paths winding around, and patches of wild flowers amongst the meadow. The tree was in leaf and both catkins and fruit were ripening. A large specimen, it looked healthy with vibrant and strong green leaves.
One wondered about the history that it has seen in this idyllic spot – what made the Winthrop’s up sticks and move to America from this timeless and quintessentially Suffolk village? It is wonderful that the ties are still present and the Groton Wintrop Mulberry Trust maintains the tree in its meadow for the benefit of local people. Could this be the oldest mulberry in the area? Will we be able to find any way of dating the trees that we find?