Needham Market to Ipswich

SE England & London, 1 day

A Pilgrimage toward Wellness

St John the Baptist, Needham Market, to St Mary’s, Quay Place, Ipswich.

14 miles – 6 hours – moderate

Recommended Start: 9am – Estimated End: 4pm

Free Parking at Needham Market Train Station

This is a 1-day pilgrimage route designed to promote well-being. Its destination is St Mary’s, Quay Place in Ipswich, a Medieval Church that has been converted into a Centre for Therapy and Healing by the CCT and is run by Mind Suffolk.

You may fairly say that all pilgrimage is a journey toward health and wellness. But the theme is especially relevant here, because the quayside Medieval Church of St Mary in Ipswich has recently been re-purposed as a heritage centre for Well-Being. As a Church building, it has been rescued from swampy ground and non-use, a sure path to decay. Today, it has been architecturally restored with the best of modern traditions – lots of light, clean lines, minimalism plus wood – to complement all the skill of those ancient masons and craftsmen who built it long ago.

The aim of the Quay Centre is to help people meet – discover – and connect. So in many respects it’s not a re-purposing at all, because that’s what Churches have always done.

pilgrims meet parishioners in Sussex

Likewise, this 1-day pilgrimage to Quay Place is no invention, because in the Middle Ages Ipswich was an internationally famous pilgrimage destination. The chapel of Our Lady of Ipswich was hugely important as a centre of healing to which people made pilgrimage. It even hosted royal weddings. Today, it is entirely lost beneath shops. The Reformation was not kind to such powerful places.

But our updated pilgrimage to Quay Place pretty much entirely replicates what many ancient pilgrims must have done – walked down the river Gipping, visiting all the Churches, including the site of the ancient shrine, with an end at the waterside church of St Marys (Quay Place), from where pilgrims would sail away home (water being the equivalent of a high speed train for Medieval pilgrims).

Ipswich Quay today

This pilgrimage connects nine Medieval Churches (expect six open and three locked) along the blue thread of the River Gipping. Like all British Pilgrimage, making this journey does not require participants to hold a religious (or non-religious) outlook. The path is open to all. BYOB – Bring Your Own Beliefs.

But whatever your beliefs, it makes a lot of sense to check out the places that people have visited for many hundreds of years in search of wholeness. For a start, churches are usually the most beautiful buildings in any settlement (especially of those freely open to the public). And churches are community focus points, big stone anchors of local belonging, where people are welcomed, joined and bid farewell – and they have done this for almost 1000 years.

“To meet a place, go to its temples.”

Old allies

You don’t need to read the full description of the route that follows – the ViewRanger app and GPX file are enough to get out and follow the trail, and discover its rewards all for yourself. But for a detailed preview, you can read on. Beware spoilers…

Full Pilgrimage Route Description

The journey begins in Needham Market, a town that grew from the industry of wool-combing, the process of ordering strands of wool to make them more useable. This reminds me of an ordered mind, with thought forms that work toward purposeful progress.

1846 Station Stunner

But Needham Market got ill, and in 1663-65, the Plague devestated the town. Unable to cope, Needham Market chained itself up, and refused entrance or exit. 2/3 of the town died. It is an extreme example of failure to cope. Yet is is also a story of survival – for the town remains alive today, and because of its illness in the past today Needham Market is rich with character, with no big supermarket but its own local butcher and baker (both increasing rarities in Britian).

…the Candlestick maker?

Needham Market boast an ancient Pilgrim pub – The Limes – which just like the Tabard Inn in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, was a place for pilgrims to gather to form a band before proceeding in safe company to their destination – which was either Bury St Edmunds or Ipswich. The pub is worth visiting – not to drink alcohol, because it is yet early in the day and there are miles to tread – but for soda water. The inventor of Soda Water was a Minister here in the late 18th Century. So this is the source of the world’s entire fizzy water phenomenon.

“What, just soda?”

Leaving from the Limes front door, you will see your next destination – the Church of John the Baptist. This has been described as the crowning achievement of the English carpenter.

But before you go inside to see why, walk a circle around the church – clockwise (sunwise/bloodwise). Circum-ambulation is a common pilgrim technology – making circles around something to honour it and increase connection. Like one of the old telephones – or a wind-up torch – it generates the Church’s importance as a central place. In Japanese pilgrimage, holy mountains are always circled and never climbed. Also, think of the Qaba in Mecca. Or the Rosary in Catholicism. Walking around the church reveals the full setting and context of the church. Plus it takes a little longer, so it challenges your automatic desire for shortcuts, and enhances your desire to get inside. This is a good trick for meeting Churches – though sometimes it requires a clamber or squeeze, and other times is simply not possible…

a sign that says you’re welcome

double hammerbeam rarity

Many churches have hammerbeam roofs – but there are NO others in England with a double hammerbeam roof. This is an absolute rarity – probably built by shipwrights, and it really does look like a boat. I recommend you lie down and look heavenward. Settle into the detail for a few minutes. It is illuminated by 500 year old dormer windows in the crown.

On your Way

And then slip behind the church, cross the bridge, and you are out of town, The wonder of pilgrimage is that you leave the tarmac so very quickly, and find yourself immersed in nature within moments of setting out.

This pilgrimage is 95% along footpaths. The truth is that roads are not built for humans – they are made for cars. Tarmac is hard on ankles, feet, hips and knees. But earth is king and giving, and offers far easier walking. Plus, roads are notoriously dangerous, loud, smelly and usually littered with rubbish. Pilgrimage is an opportunity to avoid them, and to enjoy the secret green passages where cars cannot go.

Willow fringe on the pilgrim path

Early Spring along the river Gipping

From Needham Market, the path takes you along the River Gipping past Bosmere House. This whole area was once named after Bosmere, which means the lake belonging to someone called ‘Bosa’. There is a large lake (on private land) just over the river. It is a good opportunity to think on what will remain of us when we die – Bosa left his name, which survives even now. In our own lives, what shall we leave behind that will survive?

Bosmere Manor

At some point after Needham Lakes, you will walk past a river joining the Gipping. This is in fact the original ‘Old River’, the course it used to take before the new main channel was dug for improved navigation.  Sit above here for a while, and consider how the reintegrated river differs from the one that flows before. It is more complete – but it sure is hard to tell the difference.

The first Church you will meet is St Mary’s at Great Blakenham. It also features a tremendous roof, is silent and open and quite wonderful. Don’t forget to walk around it first.

Footpath to Great Blakenham

The first Mary Church

Also, just over the road in that classic combo so vital to an English village, the Chequers Inn public house serves food from midday. It is hearty.

Leaving the pub, the riverside suffers some industrial activity, but it’s nothing heavy. Pilgrimage is good at doing this – it makes us confront the uglier side of reality, usually in terms of human behaviour and environmental impact – but though we must meet this without barriers, we meet it gently, and soon leave it behind.

furniture carelessness

This unsavoury side of human impact will need to be dealt with. We can only meet it, witness it, yet let it go, like water from a swan’s neck. Pick up the litter you can, but pick your battles. Finding the serenity to keep walking on is a vital quality of pilgrimage.

the locals

The next Church you will encounter is St Mary’s, Bramford. It is again a stunner. And it is open. Walk around, go in, sing. Look for the ‘cigarette card’ style war memorial in the very back of the Church.

Soon after Branford comes the riverside village of Sproughton. Here the Church is called All Saints, and is possibly locked – but there are three nearby key-holders, whose addresses are mapped on the main door. It is worth it – inside is the famous Whall Window, an image of St Christopher by a father and daughter team, which was half-finished by father and when he died his daughter took over. In the Medieval pilgrimage tradition, looking at an image of St Christopher guaranteed – all day long – that you would not suffer a violent death.

I don’t know if this protection ran out at sunset, or was a 24hr boon – maybe different windows were rated differently? To modern rational British people this may seem like ridiculous superstition. There have certainly been no peer-reviewed double-blind experiments to test the validity of the claim. But anything that leads toward a lessening of fear – a boosting of confidence – when it comes to social interactions is definitely a good thing. For what is more superstitiously worthless – believing that strangers are going to maybe kill you  – or believing that they definitely won’t? In the vast majority of situations, the former attitude is more appropriate.  That’s why, on pilgrimage, we recommend greeting every person who you pass, and meeting their eyes. It can be weird, but it can lead to great new encounters. Everyone has wisdom to share – even those you least expect…

a helping hand

After Sproughton Church, you begin the approach to Ipswich town. In the Middle Ages, Ipswich (aka Gippeswiche) was a hugely important pilgrimage destination. The shrine of ‘Our Lady of Ipswich’ was world-famous. A Royal wedding even happened here. The shrine – and its statue of Mary and baby Jesus, attracted many thousands of visitors and made the city rich.

1539 Gippeswiche

Until the Reformation, when the statue was removed to Chelsea and burned. Or so people thought – but recently historians believe the ancient Maria of Ipswich was smuggled out (as in, sold) to a monastery in Catholic Italy. Today, the statue stands at Bobbio Abbey, the monastic centre set up by Columbanus the Irishman in the 6th Century, and which formed the legendary site of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The statue of Mary of Ipswich remains in Bobbio today. Recently the Anglos Saxon words ‘Iu Aret Gratiotus’ (‘Thou Art Gracious’) were found carved on it.

After following the river to the inside edge of town, you will double back up the old canal and approach St Matthews Church, which contains a font made only just before the Reformation. It celebrates the Mary Shrine of Ipswich, and includes local celebrities like the Mad Maid of Ipswich – who had fits with prophecies (like Elizabeth Barton of Kent) until she was insta-cured at the shrine. St Matthew’s Church is huge – but locked and chained. Though it may be possible to gain access, you’ll have to make pre-arrangements.

Today, the location of the famous shrine of Ipswich is still named – Lady Lane – but it is now an alleyway with a kickboxing gym.

As for the relevance of Mary to an atheist, I like to think she represents the Love – the undeniable truth that life is actually on our side – that despite everything, all the difficulties, it’s actually a blessed existence. In the Medieval tradition, Mary is shown tipping the weighing scales, like a dishonest miller, so that sinners could get away with their misdeeds and enter the kingdom of heaven. She is the forgiving side of judgement. And whether you are a religious person or not, the idea that Life likes you and wants to help you, that existence is a blessing not a curse, is a good feeling to hang onto. It helps.


Today, there is a statue on a brick wall in an alleyway. It is a model of the Bobbio-housed original.

But walk 2 minutes down the road, and you will see a red-brick towered church where a ‘real’ shrine has been re-instated, with candles and semi-darkness, at the Church of St Mary Elms. When being installed, the Church group brought in the local leaders of every Abrahamic faith – of everyone who has Mary as part of their story. Whatever they have done there, it is peaceful – if not exactly the thriving and powerful holy centre that Ipswich once knew.

Possibly Suffolk’s oldest in-use structure – the door of St Mary Elms

The new shrine

Green space amid Ipswich’s grey

The truth of Ipswich’s Church is difficult – for in the 1960s, town planners cleared the urban centre as a business district. So these ancient Churches, which were once surrounded by houses and people, have become isolated disjointed aspects of an industrial landscape, without the people to fill them.

The next Church you pass – St Nicholas – suffers such an uncertain fate. It is used as offices and a cafe. But Britain hardly has a shortage of cafe facilities. We are often largely saturated by coffee shops. But it can be hard for Churches to see imaginative options. St Nicholas was also locked.

From the high street, where Thomas Wolsey is celebrated with a statue – St Peter’s Church is next to emerge among the confusing skyline. This is entirely de-consecrated – but has been turned into a music venue. Music is obviously another of the great aspects of the Church, and this venue is enjoying success in replicating this in new modern forms. But it too was locked.

old, older, new and oldest

St Peters Church of Music

Which is exactly how our destination – St Mary’s at the Quay – was for a very long time. Locked. And that is why this new development by CCT and Suffolk Mind, turning the Church into a Wellness Centre, is so exciting. Because first of all, it means the Church is open.

It also means the building has been restored and protected. And seeing the lean on the main columns, it was timely work. This church stands on marshy soil – the water used to run right up to the outer walls. But today, the water is further away – and a great doomed car-park, abandoned in the 2008 financial crash, stands between Quay Place and the waters.

St Mary’s not quite by the Quay

But now you have arrived. Inside is a cafe, and various Well-Being pursuits – Qi Gong, Shiatsu, Psychotherapy etc. Whatever you have arranged, be sure to sit awhile in silence, and be grateful for the journey you have made and completed today. You have come a long way. But now, your pilgrimage is complete.

If you carried a stone or shell to symbolise your burden, at the quayside beyond St Mary’s give it to the waters. You may feel overwhelmed by the pilgrimage – there is usually so much has gone on, so many experiences, thoughts and feelings, that it can take some time to decompress, and assimilate the journey. So take some time. Perhaps go and think it over in your local holy place? Because although the destination may seem past, the true destination of a pilgrimage is always home – the place to which you ultimately take the blessings you find on the path. So take it slowly, and let the journey seep in slowly.

To return to Needham Market to collect your car, follow the riverside path to the train station t0 it’s less than 10 mins walk away. And just so you know your pilgrimage has brought you to Well-Being – the river here is no longer the Gipping (as in, ‘giving me gip’) – it has become the Orwell (as in ‘all well’).


All is Well

(Photos © Will Parsons)

No Comments Yet

Give a Brief Review of this Route


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Featured Great Routes