This is a delightful circular walk but for those who are not equipped with a good map it is probably best to use Derrybrook lane there and back.
One of my favourite places to visit around Debenham is Mickfield Meadow, Suffok’s first nature reserve and one of the earliest in England. A delightful and tranquil place, now a place of special scientific interest and only a little over 3km from the centre of Debenham.
I began my circular walk on Gracechurch Street at the top of the Hilly Filly path. At the bottom of the path turn left on Derrybrook Lane where you can either follow the road cum river bed or take the footpath alongside.
The road is deep and mysterious, arched over by trees. The ancient first element of the name Debenham, Dēop in old English, means “the deep one”. But people who study place names have their doubts. The latest place-name dictionary of Suffolk place-names says: “Though the River Deben rises at Debenham is not particularly ‘deep’ at this point.”
After reading this I suggested to one of the authors of A Dictionary of Suffolk Place-names that if she visited Debenham and took a walk along Derrybrook Lane she would have understood why the early inhabitants might have chosen to call it Dēop.
The alternative to walking along what is reputed to be the longest ford in England is the footpath alongside. It starts along the drive to Derrybrook Farm (well-signposted as a right-of-way) and you can catch the sun and open views.
The two routes converge just before the Groaning Stone where the river is a deep wooded cleft. The stone itself has moved since I was last there (right) and is now deeply embedded in the earth. The stone is an”erratic”, a piece of puddingstone carried from another place by the glacial advance of the ice age.
If you have children with you this may be as far as you get for it is the village’s natural adventure playground. Usually there is water and steep-sided banks to clamber over.
After The Firs on your left the road turns into a bridleway and there is a kink where you keep heading east. About a kilometre after the kink a footpath crosses the track and this is where you turn left towards Mickfield Meadow. There is a way mark but it does not name Mickfield Meadow.
After about 300 metres the path takes you to a foot bridge which is the entrance to Mickfield Meadow. Look to the left when crossing the bridge and the Deben looks like a real river although most of the time this bit is a pond.
The footpath continues south along the hedge but take time to walk around the edge of the two hectare meadow a rare example of unimproved and traditional Suffolk grassland.
The flowers change throughout the year but this video made by Mike Challis in April 2020 is a wonderful evocation of the place.
In 1937 Mickfield Meadow was in danger of being drained and ploughed. but was saved Francis William Simpson, botanist at Ipswich Museum and still in his 20s. He was concerned about the loss of traditional Suffolk meadows and raised £75 to buy the two hectare field. and give it to the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1938.
It was the first nature reserve in Suffolk and one of the earliest in England. Now managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust it is farmed in the traditional way with a hay crop taken after which is is grazed by sheep.
The importance of Mickfield Meadow is recognised in its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is described as supporting “a species rich unimproved neutral flora of a type formerly widespread in Suffolk before the advent of modern farming methods.”
To continue the circular walk leave the meadow at the south east corner. Unless you have followed the route before it is time to check that you have an Ordnance Survey map with you because some of the way marking is unsatisfactory and the path is not always obvious.
The first part of of the path back to Debenham is along a charming southwards track. When you come to a footbridge over a ditch do not cross. There is no way mark but the path turn north east and skirts Greenwood Farm. For the best part of half a kilometre the route is not always clear, including a length where the field margin was ploughed. This is definitely an area where the Paths Project will need to work for improved way marking.
From just past Ulveston Hall the route is clear. First on a metalled farm road and then turning to the left (at the point where the farm road is marked as permissive path) on a track that leads to Esters Barn.
Turn left onto the road remembering to walk on the right facing oncoming traffic until the verge widens just before the Leisure Centre. From there it is a short distance to along Gracechurch Street to the starting poit at the top of Hilly Filly.
For those who cannot walk far there is another way to visit Mickfield Meadow. On the road between Mickfield and Wetheringsett there is a small parking area from where the meadow is a short walk along the edge of a field.