Walking the Deben Way: Part 1 – Mickfield to Kettleburgh

By Nick Cottam

Distance: Approximately 16.8 km or 10.5 miles
Time to complete: 3.5 to 4 hours

Head north from Woodbridge and you can broadly follow the upriver Deben, non-tidal from Ufford, more reclusive and often hidden altogether along tree-covered brooks and meandering streams. The source of the river above Debenham, lies a twisting 25 miles or so from its Felixstowe mouth but who knows which field-side ditch or hidden culvert really is the source.

One way to find out, or at least take part in the debate, is to start walking what I’m calling ‘The Deben Way’, the route which most closely follows the course of the river from its source to the sea. The terrain is pretty and flat, the river itself is steeped in history – Saxons, Vikings, boat builders et al – and the route can be split into four not too exhausting walks – or two longer trails if you’re feeling fit and energetic. In this article I’m going to cover the first of two non-tidal sections of the river, a stretch of just over 10 miles from Debenham to Kettleburgh.

The walk starts about a mile north of Mickfield on the road to Brockford to the west of Debenham (Grid Ref TM 140 629). You will need a kind person to drop you and any walking chums off as you set out on your quest for a first glimpse of the Deben. Follow the footpath sign and walk east to the seasonally very pretty Mickfield Meadow and Nature Reserve. Spring is a good time but any non rainy day will give you a sense of tranquility in these pre-Deben uplands. The meadow is rich in wild flowers as it has never been sprayed or fertilized. Continue to head north along the field edges and then turn right to join Stoney Lane which at about two miles long is reputedly the longest ford in the country.

Stoney Lane during the wet season.

Away from those first trickily culverts is the start of the Deben proper. Stoney Lane can be a lazy trickle or a gushing torrent depending on the time of year. If it’s dry you can walk along the stony bed of the ford while there is a path above if it’s too wet. Look out for the Groaning Stone, a smooth riverbed rock which is said to turn over and groan at midnight when the moon is full.

Continue along this very dramatic section of the early river until you reach Derrybrook Farm and then press on to the Aspall Road where you turn right towards the centre of Debenham, full of pretty period houses and quaint shops, more like a small town than a village but village it is.

At Water Lane – the clue is in the name – you can carry on following the river by turning left. The clay soil above Debenham has historically left the village vulnerable to flooding. Statistics confirm that summers and winters are getting wetter and that rainfall can be more intense. In fact six of the 10 wettest years have occurred since 1998. Old records in the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library hint at a more fulsome upstream Deben with a note that “ships of considerable burthen came up to the Town…”

Floods aside, there’s a great café for refreshments at the end of Priory Lane before you head south towards the village of Cretingham. Note the river on your right as it wanders bashfully through water meadows, keeping you company as you turn right and then left, following field boundaries to Potash Farm. Turn right at the main road and then left, passing an old outbuilding, crossing a field into woods before reaching the road. Then on you go following the course of the river to the rolling greens and wild edges of Cretingham Golf Club.

Feel relief perhaps that there is no need to stop for a nervous swing as you pass golf club buildings and keep going past streams and tributaries of the main Deben and on to Kiln Wood. Now head for Brandeston and stride (rather than wriggle) along Wriggle Street to the centre of the village. Enjoy the village sign with its surreal mosaic of a Viking ship and further downstream there’s Brandeston Ford, an idyllic spot where cattle and other animals have been able to cross the river. Nearby, hidden in the undergrowth, is what locals claim to be a smuggler’s hole, used for hiding contraband such as tobacco and brandy.

On we go through Brandeston, straight on past the village sign near the popular Brandeston Queen, staying on Low Street to get back into the countryside. There’s the Deben still lurking to our right as we head for The Street, Kettleburgh (TM 267 604) and the end of this first leg of the Deben Way. Time to take a deep breath and ideally enjoy refreshments as you wait for your lift or if you’re really feeling energetic, press on for the second leg towards Ufford. Whether you carry straight on or wait to walk another day you have a treat in store.

Waypoint 1 – Start on Mickfield to Brockford road Grid Ref TM 140 629Start where the footpath sign leads to the east away from the road towards Greenwood Farm before following field boundaries to the rear of Mickfield Meadow Nature Reserve. This meadow is rich in wild flowers as the hay meadow has never been fertilised or sprayed, but managed by a summer hay cut and later grazing. Continue to head north along the field edges until coming to a junction of pathways, turn right to join Stoney Lane and the course of one of the sources of the River Deben. Continue along the riverside through the woods until reaching the far side of Derrybrook Farm, join the larger path that leads onto a road that will bring you to the junction with Aspall Road. As you pass along The Butts you will cross over another of the River Deben sources as it descends from the orchards around Aspall.

Waypoint 2 – Aspall Road, Debenham Grid Ref TM 173 638At Aspall Road turn right towards the town centre, at Water Lane continue to follow the river by turning left. At the road junction turn right along Priory Lane and cross over the river again. On reaching the end of Priory Lane turn left towards Kenton, until the next road junction where a right-hand turn towards Ashfield is taken. The river runs in through the water meadows on the right between the road and town. Continue along Thorpe Lane towards Ashfield, leaving the town of Debenham behind as you venture out into the countryside. The river continues on your right as it slowly wanders through the meadows and fields on its journey to the sea beneath the wide Suffolk sky. Eventually you will arrive at a track with a fingerpost footpath sign.

Waypoint 3 – Leave Thorpe Lane for footpath Grid Ref TM 187 622Turn right along the track and over the still small water course that is the River Deben, remain on the farm track as it gradually rises above the river to give beautiful views of the Mid-Suffolk countryside. Where the track comes to a T-junction with another, turn left and follow another track that gives views across Malthouse Farm and the river below. Just after passing Malthouse Farm the path forks, take the left fork and pass through the small wood. Follow the field boundaries until the path takes a right-hand turn towards Potash Farm then pass through the farm. When you reach the A1122 Stowmarket – Yoxford road turn right and then left after passing the old outbuilding. Follow the hedge until reaching an open field, cross the field into the woods where you follow the path to the right. On exiting the wood follow the field boundary until reaching the road.

Waypoint 4 – Join Cretingham to Ashield road Grid Ref TM 210 609On getting to the road turn right and again follow the course of the river as it gently winds down the valley, this time it is on your right, as you make your way towards Cretingham. However, at the road junction into the village itself continue straight and go along the driveway into the golf club. Make you way through the club buildings then directly across the course to woods and streams that are tributaries of the main River Deben. After the woods pass through a couple of fields then along a path across the north side of Kiln Wood. Just after the wood you will see the road after a stile in the hedgerow.

Waypoint 5 – Join Brandeston road near Wriggle Street Grid Ref TM 242 608Climb the stile, turn right along the road, passing the intriguingly name Wriggle Street, heading into the centre of Brandeston village. Pass through the village enjoying the eclectic style of houses that typifies this part of Suffolk. Continue straight at the junction with the village sign, near The Queen public house, remaining on Low Street at the junction then back into countryside. Ignore the first path signed on your left near Brook Farm, continue to
the second path signed on your right, opposite the second entrance to Home Farm. Take the path through the wood, then at the end of the field turn right and meander into the village of Kettleburgh, passing St Andrew’s Church on your left as you enter the village. Take the footpath that forks right opposite the church that will bring you to The Street.

Waypoint 6 – The Street Kettleburgh Grid Ref TM 267 604

On reaching the centre of this small village you have completed the first part of the River Deben Walk. It is your decision as to whether to keep walking, or rest and leave the next leg of the walk for another day.

Nick Cottam

Nick’s book Walking the Deben Way is a work in progress. If you’re interested in this walk and the three others which take you to the mouth of the Deben email Nick at [email protected].