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Sunday, 22 September 2019

In Search of Sizewell Chapel

Broom Covert

A 10 mile walk following the southern side of the parish boundary of Leiston in Suffolk

This walk follows the route of a 17th century perambulation around the southern side of the Leiston Parish boundary. The walk uses the ancient track down to Sizewell and continues down to Thorpe before turning inland to follow the River Hundred through to Cold Fair Green. The details are contained in two articles, this being the first, focusing on the medieval history of Sizewell.

In Search of Sizewell Chapel of St Nicholas - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

  • Start location: Leiston 
  • Distance:   miles (  km)
  • Total Gain:   ft (  metre)
  • Total Descent:   ft (  metre)
  • Min Height:   ft (  metre)
  • Max Height:   ft (  metre)
  • Walk Time:  
  • Walk type: Circular
  • Walk Grade: Easy
  • Terrain: Footpaths, country lanes


The following maps and services can assist in navigating this route. There are links to printed maps and links to downloadable GPX route data for importing into navigational software and apps.


Route Verification Details

  • Date of Walk: 2018-01-14
  • Walk Time: 11:00 to 15:00
  • Walkers: Griffmonster, Kat
  • Weather Conditions: Bright and cold

Walk Notes

This walk continues two previous rambles of exploration (In Search of Leiston Gibbet and In Search of Leiston's Ancient Pagan Sites, the Procession Rayles and Gallows) into the antiquities along the boundary of Leiston parish as referenced in documented details of a perambulation that took place in the year 1620. This specific section follows the eastern and southern boundary which includes Sizewell, Thorpe and Aldringham within its confines. This specific ramble has been split into two separate reports to deal with the amount of information returned from the research and investigation. In this article we will focus on the medieval village of Sizewell, primarily the long lost Chapel of St Nicholas whilst the second article details Sizewell and Thorpe Beacons and the route that leads inland to Coldfair Green along the brook which we know today as the River Hundred.

The details and references that are made in this investigation are primarily sourced from the local history book titled From Flint Knappers to Atom Splitters, which provides a documented history of Leiston parish. A second book, One Man's Dream, The Story Behind G.Stuart Ogilvie and the Creation of Thorpeness provides insights to the area around Thorpe and the final reference is the Archaeological Report from an excavation at Sizewell that preceded the construction of the Greater Gabbard Windfarm on shore installations.

This is a fascinating trek of discovery that reveals much information of the area from bygone times and sheds a whole new light on the hamlet of Sizewell. This discovery starts with the first steps out of Leiston town centre. This specific walk heads straight to the coast where it joins the parish boundary to follow the shoreline down to the medieval outfall of the Hundred River at Thorpe (modern day Thorpeness). The trail we shall take to the coast is the ancient route to Sizewell, the track that was used before the modern road that links Leiston directly with Sizewell was constructed. The route leads away from the town centre along Valley Road, probably the oldest part of the town. It continues under the railway arch and then heads up a narrow lane that is marked as a continuation of Valley Road on maps. The road is no more than a narrow country lane and the section that leads up the hill to Lovers Lane is locally known as Kemps Hill, although it is unknown where the source of this name originates.

At the top of Kemps Hill the road junctions with Lovers Lane, which is no more than a modern day access road constructed for the first Sizewell Power Station in the 1960s when the land was compulsory purchased from a local farmer. Opposite is a cottage associated with Common Farm, a feature in many of the old Sizewell Smuggling stories from the 18th century, as is Leiston Common, where booty was said to be buried that was bought in from ships anchored off shore at Sizewell Gap. Leiston Common is more correctly known as Leiston Dry Common to differentiate it from a separate Leiston Wet Common that was once located around the Sizewell Belts area. A track known as Sandy Lane leads down the side of the Common then bears off to the right alongside heathland known as Broom Covert. The route continues behind the wind farm substations before finally leading out onto a lane from Rosary Cottage to emerge onto the Sizewell road. Originally the path would have carried directly on at the lane, cutting diagonally across Rosary Field, the field with the pill box in the centre, to emerge somewhere around the Vulcan Arms car park area. It is this field and the adjacent field where the substation is located that has led to archaeological discoveries of a medieval community that once prospered here, and, according to ancient records, was said to have been a sizeable and thriving place with both a market and a church, most often referred to as a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas.

By the time of the 1620 perambulation, Sizewell was in already well in decline, floods and coastal erosion forcing its inhabitants inland and making Leiston the principle place of population in the parish. The chapel at Sizewell has become a bit of a folklore tale although there is a lot of evidence to support its existence. Whether the chapel at Sizewell still existed at the time of the 1620 perambulation is unknown although records do indicate its existence in the previous century. No doubt it was claimed by the sea as appears to have been the case with much of Sizewell. Read the main feature for full details of the history of Sizewell.

The investigation and perambulation of the Leiston Parish boundary continues in a separate article titled In Search of Sizewell and Thorpe Beacons.

Ancient Track
Ancient Track


A walk around the southern side of the Leiston Parish Boundary

From the town centre cross road with the White Horse on the corner, proceed into town heading straight on at Barclays Bank, where the road tuns right into the High Street. This is Valley Road which is the route of the ancient track to Sizewell. Follow Valley road out of town. It passes under a railway arch then leads out into countryside up a hill known locally as Kemps Hill. At the top it junctions with the main Sizewell road, known locally as Lovers Lane. Go straight ahead and follow the road past the cottge on the left then take the track on the right before the cottages. Keep to this track. Leiston Common is on the left behind the houses.

Where the track junctions bear around to the right and follow this. There is a kissing gate out onto the heathland. Keep to the main track ignoring a lesser track that leads off to the left. At the end of the heath a second kissing gate provides access to a path that leads along the edge of some woodland masking the Wind Turbine substation. This junctions with a track where Rosary Cottage sits to the left. The original route would have led straight ahead taking a route diagonally across the field. This is no longer accessible so turn right and follow the lane down to the road. Turn left and follow the road to the coast.

The coastal section can either be walked along the beach or along the cliff tops. It must be noted that at the Thorpeness endthe beach is inaccessible at high tide. Do not be tempted to try to get along by the edge of the cliffs at this point as they are extremely unstable. Unfortunately in 2016 they claimed the life of a man who was buried in a cliff fall at this point. If in any doubt follow the alternative route along the top of the cliffs. There is a pathway up to the top of the cliffs before the coast turns. This leads out onto Thorpeness common. Follow the cliff top path which leads out onto a residential road. Keep to the road into the village. Either follow the road around on the right or take the road ahead that leads to the Mere. Either way this is no more than a circular route with The Mere at the far end.

The original boundary cannot be accessed as it passes on the southern side of the Mere so we need to follow the northeern side. This is accessed by following the road around the mere. There is access to the Country Club then a few yards on a track that leads to both Thorpeness windmill and the House in the Clouds. Take this, pass by the two landmarks, continue across the golf club access and follow the path which leads along the edge of the Mere with the Golf course on the right. This path leads out onto the old railway track which is now a permissive path. There is a house on the right, a view of the Fens straight ahead and the permissive path to the left. Take this path, following the distinctive waymarkers for the Sandlings Footpath. This will soon point you down to the right, off the trackbed and into some woodland. Keep following the waymerkers bearing round to the right at the end of the woodland. This leads out onto a grassy path around the souterhn edge of the fens.

At the junction of paths where a bench labelled as Peggys Perch and a metal sculpture reside, turn right and head down this path into the Fens. This leads across the Hundred River and through the marshes along boardwalks. There is a viewing point half way along which provides views across the whole Fens and provides cativation for ornahtogists who freuqent this area.

The path leads up out of the Fens emerging between the gardens of some large houses. Follow the road around to the right and then take the immediate left down to a farm. Keep to the path that leads to the left of the farms buildings. The path then follows the field boundary up the hill. At the top it turns right then leads down a slope on the left to lead across an open piece of land before heading up a hill to Aldringham Church.

Walk through the churchyard passing by the church on the right. Keep to the left hand side of the graveyard. This leads onto a path that heads back down to the Hundred River. It passes over the river and leads out onto the main road. Turn right and follow the verge briefly before a pavement. Walk along the road until there is a footpath sign on the left pointing up a track, known as Fitches Lane. Take this up to the top. A footpath leads down the side of the house at the top. Alternatively take a footpath on the right just before this which leads down to the river. At the end, do not cross the river, instead bear round to the left and follow the path back up to Fitches Lane, this being the old boundary as described in the 1620 perambulation.

Follow the lane and take the first footpath on the right into Coldfair Green, more commonly known as Knodishall these days. This emerges onto the main road, Turn right and then follow the track that bears off to the right which is the old road through the village. At the end, turn left and get back onto the main road to continue back to the start of the walk

Sizewell Beach
Sizewell Beach


The Vulcan Arms, Sizewell: View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
The Vulcan Arms, Sizewell:

Another curious named pub with an award wining sign to match. The history of this establishment goes back many years. It was recorded as being an alehouse in the census of 1540 but then changed to a blacksmith under Cromwell's reforms. Eventually it returned to being a pub in the early 1700's when it took the name of The Vulcan Inn, Vulcan being the Greek god of fire and smithery. It also has a history of smuggling, Sizewell Gap being the haunt of many smuggling operations, including the infamous Hadleigh Gang during the 1700's. Local folklore suggests that there was a tunnel linking the Vulcan cellar to the beach. Unfortunately the original cellar was filled in during WWII.

The pub offers a caravan site, food each lunctime and evening with Saturday evening carveries and Sunday Roast dinners. Ales on offer are Greene King IPA and Abbott and Woodfordes Bure Gold.


Woodfordes Bure Gold is quite exceptional here - a real thirst quencher and hard to find in this part of Suffolk

Sizewel Power Station
Sizewel Power Station


Medieval SizewellView in OS Map | View in Google Map

This research seeks to determine the landscape from the medieval period using the AD1629 perambulation of the Leiston parish boundary as detailed in Rev Sucklings 1846 publication The History and Antiquities of The County of Suffolk. To assist in the research we will make reference to two key documents, namely From Flint Kanppers to Atom Splitters, A History of Leiston-cum-Sizewell by Daphne Yasodhara May and Kenneth May plus Leiston Substation 132kv Cable Route, Post-Excavation Assessment Report , an archaeological report of excavations carried out in 2008 at the field to the west of Sizewell Power Station entrance and this will be referenced simply as the Sizewell Archaeological Report throughout this feature. In addition other old documents have been sourced online and references made at the end of this article.

It is worth quoting the extract of the AD1620 perambulation for the section of the boundary being considered here. This extract does includes the northern side of the boundary to give it some context although the Eastbridge and Leiston Abbey areas will be discussed in a separate dedicated article as will the features from Sizewell to Thorpe and inland to Coldfair Green (referenced by its historic name of St Andrews Green in the perambulation). This specific research is concerned with the Sizewell itself.

First therefore beginning this perambulation at the Est Bridge, leaving the manor on the right hand going after the Brooke eastward, including all the Lady Old Abbey, untill you come to the most northerly end of Syswell shole at the sea side, and from thence going southward after the sea and Syswell shole, untill you come unto Syswell Beacon, and from the same beacon going still southward after the sea side untill you come unto a place called Sea Fell, where the town of Syzwell and Thorpe divide at the fee-farm land of Thorpe, and soe from the said place called the Sea Fell, still following the sea untill you come unto Thorpe Beacon, and from the same beacon going between the sea and Thorpe towne towards the west, after the old ditch that includeth Thorpe fee-farm untill you come unto Thorpe fens, where the brooke divideth between Thorpe and Haselwood manors, and soe following that brooke between Thorpe and Haselwood manor untill you come unto Friday Market Heath, and then leaving the water course following the hedge south-west untill you come unto a green way beyond the Jebott, and so following that way north-west over the heath untill you come unto a tenement called Dearing's, which lyeth in Knoddishall, excluding the same tenement on the left hand going between the heath and inclosiers untill you come unto a cross at St. Andrewes Green, which is made between the manor of Leiston and Knodeshall

The Sizewell Archaeological Report makes the claim that an ancient track linked Leiston and Sizewell roughly following the tracks and lanes that lead out of Leiston town centre then cutting across to Leiston Common and down into Sizewell. The present day road into Sizewell was described in the Report as an insignificant drift way, a short cul de sac prior to the building of the modern road in 1806. The ancient track still exists today although the final section which cuts across Rosary Field to the west of the power station and adjacent to the modern road, has no public access.

It is Rosary Field where the 2008 excavation revealed several medieval plots which are said to have marked the western edge to the town. Discoveries such as artefacts of pottery, part of a wooden platter, buckles, clothing fasteners, fishing hooks, weights and evidence of timber buildings and large scale ovens demonstrated that this was a thriving community that made its living from crop processing and fishing-related activities. It is interesting to note that the fish bones discovered from this period were predominantly freshwater which probably highlights the fact that the coast was some way off during the medieval period. The highlight of the finds was the timber planks from the hull of a 13th century boat that had been reused as a well lining, its original rivets still intact.

The ancient track led through these outer margins of the village to pass over a stream that the report references as Chapel Brook which is presently hidden in the copse of trees by the Sizewell Power Station access road. It is unknown where the name of the stream was sourced from as the report makes no distinct reference. It is certainly not a name commonly used in the area these days, and the stream is all but hidden from the passing view of visiting tourists. Passage across the brook acted as the entrance to the main village and was by way of a bridge which was later superseded by a second bridge further along the Brook, both bridges being referenced by the names of tenants of the land although the report does not provide the names or the reference as to where this information was sourced. Today the stream ends before the road but it could be contested that it may have continued further along the coast if bridges were required at this point, otherwise why build a bridge when one can negotiate a path around its spring.

Local folklore states that Chapel Brook originally flowed around the back of the cliffs and out into the sea at a harbour to the north of the present day Power Station. It has not been determined what age this folklore is supposedly set in. Such a course for the stream certainly does not appear on the first OS maps of the area produced in the 19th century which show it merging in with the dykes and drainage ditches of Sizewell Belts. There may be some confusion in the folklore with historic accounts of Minsmere Haven from the medieval period which was described as a port and harbour and was located close to the modern day Dunwich Heath. This provided an income to the original Leiston Abbey, which was set on the Minsmere marshes, and had the legal power to tax ships passing on the Leiston side of the river channel. The men of Dunwich often took grievance at this as they were entitled to tax the ships that entered on their side of the channel. This caused a lot of friction between the two sides.

The name of Chapel Brook also leads us to another debate, that of the Sizewell Chapel of St Nicholas. It would appear obvious the Chapel Brook is a reference to the stream leading either to or from a Chapel, whether that be the Abbey Chapel at Minsmere or another in Sizewell itself. The Chapel undoubtedly existed, reputedly constructed in 1243, although there is no conclusive agreement on its location. The Sizewell Archaeological Report takes the stance that it was another name for the ruined Chapel that remains on the site of the old Abbey on Minsmere marshes. The report does not state how it came about this conclusion and there are a lot of records that do provide an alternative view. It is well founded that the Minsmere Chapel, during the days of the Abbey, was dedicated to Mary the Virgin, this site being used for the abbey between 1182 and 1363 after which the floods and pestilence of life on the marsh forced the monks to relocate the stone and rebuild the abbey further inland at Leiston where its ruins can still be seen today. The author and English dissenting minister and antiquarian, Thomas Kitson Cromwell, states in his 1819 publication, Excursions in the County of Suffolk, that monks inhabited the Minsmere Chapel as late as 1515.

One of the earliest records of a Chapel at Sizewell can be found in The Bodleian Library, located in the University of Oxford, and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. This library is the source for the 1878 publication Calendar of charters and rolls preserved in the Bodleian library where it makes reference to an entry in Suffolk Ch. 226, Confirmation by John, archbishop of Canterbury, of the appropriation of the churches of Leystone with the chapel of Syswell, Aldringham, Middleton and Colpho, to the abbot and convent of Leystone. and is dated March 1280. This period is when Leiston Abbey was on the marshes, so is this a reference to a separate Chapel at Sizewell? One would think so, as the Abbey was always considered to be in Leiston, it always being referenced as Leiston abbey even during this early period. However, this is far from conclusive.

More recently, a geophysical survey carried out in 2008 by the Suffolk Archaeological Service has shown that the present-day ruin lies within the confines of what used to be a much larger structure which may have been the Abbey church and cloister. It should be noted that in 1362, King Edward III petitioned Pope Urban V with a request to approve the relocation of Leiston Abbey to a safer location away from the ravages of marsh and sea. In 1365, the licence was obtained for relocation on the condition that a church at the old Abbey should be retained and served by a priest. Flooding had already damaged the structures of the old Abbey so could this chapel have been constructed to keep the terms of the agreement. The fact that it lies within a larger structure would indicate this may well have been the case which in turn implies that the Sizewell chapel, which pre-dates the Abbey move, must be a separate entity in itself. This is emphasized in the archaeological report which states:

There was also certainly a chapel in the hamlet of Sizewell in the parish of Leiston which early writers often equated with the standing structure at Minsmere. However, it has now become clear that this was a totally different building, although it was linked to the abbey as is attested in a charter issued by John, archbishop of Canterbury in 1280 confirming the ‘appropriation of the churches of Leystone with the chapel of Syswell’ to the abbey (Copinger). The location of Sizewell Chapel remains unknown as it was lost to coastal erosion.

A further indication of a chapel at Sizewell is found on the 1575 map produced by Christopher Saxton. In 1574 Saxton was commissioned to undertake a survey of England. For the Suffolk county map, there are clear depictions of the coastline, estuaries, hundred boundaries and towns that are marked with representations of churches against each town. This includes Sizewell.

Section from Saxtons 1575 map
Section from Saxtons 1575 map

The only description thus far located of Sizewell Chapel is highlighted by a 1904 archaeological article by V. B. Redstone titled Chapels, Chantries and Gilds of Suffolk which made reference to the Chantry Certificates, which were ecclesiastical inventories drawn up after the English Reformation. In one specific reference to Certificate No.15 he quotes the free chapel of Sizewell was founded by the parishioners who were willing to keep watch and ward if their building might he preserved. The article then goes on to list the Chantry Certificates made on the twelfth day of November, in the 2nd year of the reign of Our dread Sovereign Lord Edward the Sixth which would place this as the Gregorian year of 1548. The entry for Leyston and Sizewell states A free chapel, endowed with 1 rood of ground, founded for ease of the parish church of Leyston. Value 2s. It Stands on the sea banks. The inhabitants are ready to keep watch and ward.

This is an interesting account as it alleges the chapel was founded by the parishioners of Sizewell on a sea bank rather than being a construction associated with the old Abbey. The fact it is described as being sited on a sea bank is also in contention with the Minsmere Chapel which is on natural raised ground above the marshes, often described as an island in historic accounts. Also, the description of 1 rood of land equates to approximately a quarter of an acre and the land adjoining the Minsmere Chapel is well in excess of this. This all points to the Sizewell Chapel being a separate entity to that located in the Minsmere Marshes.

William White, writing in 1855, also notes [Sizewell] had a chapel as late as the reign of Elizabeth [1558-1603], though no traces of it now remain then going on to state, in reference to the Minsmere Chapel, that it was near the Minsmere river, where there are still some small ruins called Leiston chapel, near Minsmere haven thus distinguishing the two distinct entities.

The Flint Knappers book also makes reference to a record from the year 1476 when one William Baste bequeathed money for the repair of the rood-loft of the chapel of St Nicholas at Sizewell which would indicate a substantial building, certainly more than a hut on a sea wall!

Another notable snippet of interest is contained in the Rev Alfred Sucklings Histories and Antiquities of Suffolk where he quotes from the Leiston parish registry, thus Thomas Crower of Walberswick and Agnes Ward of Syswell of the parish of Leiston married in the chapel of Syswell. The cause was, the said Agnes was lame so she could not come to her parish church of Leyston so her husband obteyned license of the Rt Worshipful Mr John Browse esq, under the queens grace, to be married at the said chapel, and so they were married 3rd Sep 1566.

Considering that Minsmere is equally distant from Sizewell village as Leiston's parish church, it would appear inconceivable that such a provision should be granted if Sizewell Chapel was located at Minsmere. If Agnes Ward was able to get to Minsmere then she was surely able enough to get to Leiston assuming her residence was in the vicinity of village at Sizewell Gap, and there is no reason to dispute this. The only buildings located closer to Minsmere were a few houses that once stood close to the modern day sluice which were demolished at the start of WWII. These were thought to be connected with the sluice and would therefore have been far too contemporary for the period of time when Agnes was around. The fact that this was a special compensation may also suggest the chapel was not in regular use at the time and fits in with the final days of the structure in the second half of the 16th century.

So, if there was a chapel in the vicinity of the present day hamlet of Sizewell, we must ask what happened to it as there is no physical evidence of such a structure ever having been in the area. The most likely cause was that it was taken by the sea. We know it stood on a sea bank so must have been in close proximity to the water and, according to the Sizewell Archaeological Report, there are records of incursions by the sea which include 300 houses succumbing to a storm in the 1340's with more flooding and erosion effecting this coastal area during the 16th and 17th centuries. Actual records of these incursions are hard to come by but the 13th and 14th centuries are a well known period when fierce storms reduced the prosperous town of Dunwich from being one of the largest ports in England to no more than a docile hamlet of a few houses. This is only five miles along the coast so there is probably good justification to infer that this whole coastline suffered during that period.

Records and archaeological evidence indicate that Sizewell was a prosperous town in the medieval period with both a market and Chapel. It also had 53 brewers and was described as a port which provided ships to the king in times of national emergency. All this shows that a thriving population must have once inhabited this coastal region. From around the late medieval period, sometime around the 14th century, the prosperity and importance of the village greatly diminished which coincides with the recorded storms that caused so much destruction at Dunwich. Although the Chapel of St Nicholas appears to have survived through to the late 1500's, there is no record of it after that period. The perambulation of 1620 makes no mention of the Chapel but then this only references certain key features associated with the parish boundary. It had most likely been taken by the sea sometime between 1566, the date of the last recorded wedding at the Chapel, and the end of the century. With the population having moved away from the coast, the loss of the Chapel was of little consequence or importance and was not recorded and has become just a legend in the folklore of the area.

Unlike Dunwich, which has much folklore of the bells of long gone church's that ring from beneath the waves, there is nothing to remind us of the old medieval town of Sizewell. Somewhere out there under the waves lurks the remains of a thriving community and the long lost Chapel of St Nicholas, but its memory is always forshadowed by the significance of its renowned counterpart up the coast. Maybe one day a fishing net may capture some evidence but even that is becoming less likely with only a single fisherman working out of Sizewell beach, and no-one to take on the business when he retires.

Therefore the majority of Medieval Sizewell, including the Chapel, is probably beneath the waves of the North Sea. Even today there are constant threats of incursion and locals say that when the sea does break through, do not watch the coast, watch from behind because the floods come around the back, along Chapel Brook and floods the village from inland.

Sizewell Beach
Sizewell Beach


Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on an image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: 2022-01-17

2019-09-22 : Original publication
2021-03-17 : Update website improvements and removal of ViewRanger reliance
2021-12-01 : Removal of ViewRanger links due to its imminent demise
2022-01-17 : Add in Saxtons map

  1 comment:

  1. There have been more documentary studies written on Sizewell than the documents noted above though not all are readily available. Once they are completed they become the property of the contractor not the author. As these have been written for different contractors the author has not had the opportunity to consolidate the research or to present the findings in full. Permission has now been obtain for the author to present some of his findings to the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History in a lecture to be given in January 2020 which you are welcome to attend.


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