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Friday, July 1, 2022

Why you don’t have to go to Egypt to see the Valley of the Kings

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Sutton Who? The entrance to one of the most important archaeological sites in England (Sarah Baxter)

The field seemed quite ordinary. Short stubble, stunted hedges, bare trees; the River Deben meandered silently to one side, while the square flint tower of Rendlesham’s St. Gregory the Great Church loomed in the distance. But then the low winter sun broke through the bronze clouds, the ravens began to caw, and a mighty gust blew away the centuries. I checked my map. Yes, it was: if I had been here 1,400 years ago, I would have rubbed shoulders with royalty.

Suffolk’s tranquil Deben Valley holds some great secrets. It is where the Anglo-Saxon burial site of Sutton Hoo was found, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. More recently, the remains of a royal settlement were discovered at Rendlesham, four miles to the north, the largest and richest known Anglo-Saxon site in England to date. Considering what has already been found, it is believed that there are probably other cemeteries along this river, earning it the nickname of the Valley of the Kings of England. While 2022 marks the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, those who can’t make it to Egypt should consider visiting the local UK version.

A walking trail takes in Suffolk's Greatest Archaeological Discoveries (Sarah Baxter)

A walking trail runs through Suffolk’s finest archaeological discoveries (Sarah Baxter)

It takes a bit of imagination to appreciate the glories of Rendlesham. But he was following the newly created ‘In the Footsteps of Kings’ walking trail, which he helped. Virtually surveying the ground beforehand also made me alert to every bump and speck: Suffolk Heritage Explorer’s astonishingly comprehensive website maps all known archeology in the county, from the location of the great wooden hall of the Saxon kings to the sites where Roman coins have been deposited. found or where WWII batteries once stood. This land has many stories to tell.

As I walked along the new path, a 9-mile route between Wickham Market and Melton railway stations, I tried to listen to them. Unfortunately, I was distracted by the ghostly sound of the wind through the telegraph wires, the swaying of the reeds, the laughter of the farm animals. It was a beautiful afternoon. The half-timbered houses of Ufford and its rural surroundings were bathed in a golden light that, by the time I decided to continue on to Woodbridge, had turned bubblegum pink.

The half-timbered houses of Ufford and its rural surroundings were bathed in a golden light that, by the time I decided to continue on to Woodbridge, had turned bubblegum pink.

The stories were easier to interpret the next day, as I walked from my room at the old Bull Inn, where archaeologists from the 1939 Sutton Hoo dig had stayed, along the River Deben and around Sutton Hoo. On a weekday in February, the museums were closed and the site mostly empty, but the walking trails were open, as was the observation tower. Opened in September 2021, the 17m-high larch-clad gazebo is hidden in a copse of Scots pine opposite the burial mounds. At ground level, this momentous cemetery seems to barely exist. But looking down from the tower, it makes more sense. You can see its relationship to the river, which helps explain why a ship was buried here. And you can appreciate the long human history of the site: people farmed here 3,000 years ago, long before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, and they continue to farm here now: just beyond the fence, a tractor was working, and pigs were sniffing the bare earth.

Stop by Unruly Pig for a fare fit for a king (Sarah Baxter)

Stop by Unruly Pig for a fare fit for a king (Sarah Baxter)

However, not everything is such an old intrigue. One of the area’s most notorious mysteries is much more recent, dating back to 1980 when RAF Woodbridge, just a few miles east of the seat of those former kings, was the largest air base in Western Europe. On three consecutive nights in late December of that year, US Air Force patrolmen saw unusual and unexplained lights flickering outside the base, deep in Rendlesham Forest. It is considered the most important UFO incident in the United Kingdom.

The mounds at Sutton Hoo date back to the 6th and 7th centuries (Sarah Baxter)

The mounds at Sutton Hoo date back to the 6th and 7th centuries (Sarah Baxter)

In truth, you’re more likely to find Saxon gold than little green men, but that didn’t stop me from following the forest UFO trail. I jumped through the pines and birches to look through the old East Gate, from where the strange rays were first seen; I passed by the place where the patrol cars began to mysteriously lose radio contact; and explored the supposed ‘alien landing site’, where a conical metallic object supposedly hovered above the ground before shooting off, leaving broken treetops and triangular depressions in its wake. Now, the clearing is home to a spaceship sculpture, based on one of the patrollers’ sketches, and to my eyes it’s slightly ship-shaped. I pondered what our descendants might do with it, if it ended up buried somehow and then rediscovered in about 1,000 years…

One of England's most high-profile UFO sightings commemorated with sculpture (Sarah Baxter)

One of England’s most high-profile UFO sightings commemorated with sculpture (Sarah Baxter)

I finished my exploration at the most recently recognized treasure in the valley. In January 2022, Unruly Pig, a 16th-century redbrick inn near Woodbridge, was named the best gastropub in the country in Estrella Damm’s annual list. It was with high hopes that I settled in under the oak beams and pop art, and was not disappointed. The crispy, buttery arancini and Mersea crab tonnarelli, with just the right sweetness and bite, were delightful. A lunch fit for a king.

travel essentials

Stay there

The newly renovated 16th-century Bull Inn in Woodbridge has a welcoming staff and great food; doubles from £109, B&B; bullinnwoodbridge.co.uk.

eating there

The Unruly Pig pub in Bromeswell serves award-winning food; mains £13-30, set lunch £25 for three courses.

More information

Walking information, including a new app dedicated to walking trails, is available on Discover Suffolk. For archeology maps see heritage.suffolk.gov.uk/map.

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