FEATURE: Rickinghall woman’s journey from high-flying diplomat to author of all Suffolk things curious

Author Sarah Doig from Rickinghall
(A-Z of Curious Suffolk) ANL-160909-163523001
Author Sarah Doig from Rickinghall (A-Z of Curious Suffolk) ANL-160909-163523001

Sarah Doig’s 20 years with the Foreign Office were everything she wanted in a career... exciting, demanding, travelling the world, with scarcely a dull moment.

But two decades of globetrotting left her ready for a change,

She swapped exotic locations to return to the county where she grew up and immerse herself in its history.

And she soon discovered that Suffolk’s past more than lived up to its tourist industry tag of the “curious” county.

Six years ago diplomat turned historian Sarah and her husband Michael moved to Rickinghall.

She began doing family and house history research, as well as writing about local social history.

Almost by accident she found herself on the trail of mysteries, murder and mayhem.

Up popped a wealth of eccentric characters, a sprinkling of scandal, and a smattering of the downright weird.

Mixed with a generous helping of the quaint and quirky, they became the ingredients of Sarah’s new book, The A-Z of Curious Suffolk... an alphabetical romp through things about the county even people who have lived here all their lives don’t know.

But the “curious” title is a coincidence courtesy of its publisher, the History Press. It’s the latest in a series that has already bestowed the name on several other counties.

The intriguing characters include the brilliantly named Orlando Whistlecraft – the man who invented the weather forecast.

His headstone in Thwaite churchyard, which describes him simply as a weather prophet and poet, understates his achievements as a pioneer of meteorology.

For 66 years the self-taught scientist kept a weather diary recording barometer and thermometer readings.

But his most famous work, first published in 1856, was his yearly Weather Almanac that forecasted conditions for the 12 months ahead.

Sarah says: “The Foreign Office is a wonderful career, but it burns you out rather. It does take over your life.

“I was reasonably successful and had a fantastic time, but something made me want to come back to Suffolk, simplify life and do other things.”

At the same time Michael, a diplomat who she met through her job, decided to take early retirement.

“My last posting was Berne in Switzerland where I was deputy ambassador,” she said.

“The thought of having to move back to London, and commuting, really didn’t appeal.

“I suppose when I look back history has been a long-term interest.

“I started researching my own family tree 20 years ago. But other people’s family history is far more exciting than mine.

“Quite often they come to me with a myth or tale that has been handed down and want to know if there’s any truth behind it.”

Another strong thread running through Sarah’s life is music, and growing up she sang in St Edmundsbury Cathedral choir.

She did a music degree and now plays viols in an early music trio.

But despite her love of music she never planned to make it her career. “When I went to university I just decided to do what I was good at at the time.

“Then I made a bizarre leap and did a post-graduate librarianship course. I started at the Foreign Office doing casual work in their library.”

Sarah is also part of a group which writes and researches about Rickinghall, Redgrave and Botesdale.

“I’ve done a book about Victorian and Edwardian rectors and their families, and another about schools.

“Through my research and my articles for magazines I had always been amassing these little snippets, so there was the starting point for my Curious Suffolk book.

“I would go into the record office for whatever reason and start dipping into various things. I also read every book on Suffolk I could get my hands on.”

Some of the characters she unearthed might well have challenged her diplomatic skills – like the brawling clergymen of Little Stonham, whose feud ended with a policeman stepping in to stop the vicar hitting his curate.

And Bury St Edmunds was not always the genteel market town it appears today. In medieval times it was notorious for riots.

Later, in the 1600s, the army was called in after townsfolk defied the Puritan ban on maypole dancing.

Suffolk’s adulterers faced a humiliating penance, standing in church wrapped in a white sheet during morning service.

In 1701 Great Welnetham punished six people - including two couples for what appears to have been wife-swapping.

Scratching grafitti onto church walls would be frowned on today but in medieval times was almost encouraged.

Some of the best survives in St Mary’s, Lidgate where walls and pillars are crammed with messages and symbols.

The most fascinating is a puzzle deciphered as saying “well fare my lady Catherine”. Author and subject are unknown but it is thought to be a secret declaration of love.

Sudbury man Henry Frost outraged the women of the town in 1821 when he sold his wife for two shillings at the cattle market.

They chased the buyer, Robert Whiting, into a nearby cottage where he escaped by jumping from an upstairs window.

And it is not Suffolk’s only example of wife-selling. Another man swopped his spouse for an ox.

Under M for Misers appears John Elwes, MP, who lived a parsimonious life in Stoke-by-Clare, and is thought to have been Charles Dickens’ inspiration for Ebeneezer Scrooge.

But he is probably outdone in the miserly stakes by William Jennens, who lived a few miles away in Acton.

Jennens, with property worth two million pounds, lived as a recluse in unfurnished rooms in the basement of his mansion.

With another Dickens connection, the dispute over his fortune after he died is believed to have inspired the plot of Bleak House.

The supernatural also features, including the terrifying tale of Black Shuck, the huge dog said to be the Devil in animal form.

Sarah is reluctant to choose a favourite story. But one character she specially likes is Samuel Hart, herbalist and poet who, if his cures failed to work, was equally happy to compose an epitaph for the gravestone.