Fascinating history of the Pye Road inns

Stonham Magpie with its unique gallows sign over the A140.

Stonham Magpie with its unique gallows sign over the A140. - Credit: Archant

Three ancient inns between Norwich and Ipswich have reopened after closing for ownership changes and refurbishment. Don Black relates their extraordinary stories.

Scole Inn pictured on a fine day his month, looking no different than it did in the 17th century.

Scole Inn pictured on a fine day his month, looking no different than it did in the 17th century. - Credit: Archant

For the first time in several centuries the old Buck's Head at Thwaite served no beef or turkey on Christmas Day.

It's now The Walnut Tree on becoming vegetarian, new owner Jan Wise believing the old name to be inappropriate.

Her decision is even more justified by the fact that the inn was a Suffolk centre for cock fighting, one of the cruellest and bloodiest of creature 'sports'.

Cockerels often fought to death or injury, usually with metal spurs augmenting their natural weaponry. Winning owners earned prize money, spectators profit on their bets.

An old print showing the Scole Inn sign that had no equal in England, according to Sir Thomas Browne

An old print showing the Scole Inn sign that had no equal in England, according to Sir Thomas Browne. - Credit: Archant

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This sample advertisement in an Ipswich newspaper probably attracted scores, if not hundreds, of punters:

'At Thwaite Buck's Head, on Wed., 8th Feb, 1749, there will be a Main of Cocks, fought between Edw'd Corbould of Thwaite & Paul Perkins of Blakenham, to shew eleven on a side & to fight for two guineas a battle . . .'

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Cock fighting was made illegal in England and Wales as early as 1835, Scotland as late as 1895, but continued illicitly for a while in remote places.

On a gentler note, Leonard P Thompson, an Ipswich Town FC stalwart and pub connoisseur, commended the Buck's Head in 1946 for serving tea and coffee when few other licensed premises did so.

The WalnutTree, formerly the Buck's Head, at Thwaite.

The WalnutTree, formerly the Buck's Head, at Thwaite. - Credit: Archant

For that and other reasons of good hospitality he judged it he 'most heartening' pub on the whole A140 Ipswich-Norwich road

Edward Corbould, owner of the home-side fighting cocks, was probably both a meat eater and poor accountant when it came to tax matters.

Landlord of Thwaite Queen's Head, which has long since disappeared from the scene, he was taken to Ipswich gaol in April 1740, 'charged with a debt to His Majesty of 500 pounds.'

We don't know any more about him, but the final story of the Queen's Head is well documented. Closed and derelict for many years, it was advertised for sale in 1910.

New York architect Phelps Stokes bought the timber-framed building and had its beams numbered and shipped in 688 crates across the Atlantic.

The rebuilt Queen's Head became part of a mansion that now looks down on Long Island Sound from a hilltop near Greenwich, Connecticut.

Writing from memory, a similar building was taken from Stoke Ash to Massachusetts, its site eventually becoming the recently-improved car park opposite the popular White Horse.

Cruel by the standards of today, a succession of living magpies spent their lives in a cage attached to the outer wall of the Stonham Magpie at Little Stonham.

This is the only one of our trio of inns not to have changed its ancient name. It's also, I believe, unique in the British Isles to keep a lofty gallows sign across the road.

In 1939 the then magpie escaped from its cage and defiantly resisted all efforts to recapture it from a nearby tree until a banana did the trick.

As a boy, journalist David Henshall fed the magpie while coming home from family trips. I knew it as witnessing meets of the Sproughton Foot beagles before they pursued hares across the Stonham parishes.

The one-time escaped magpie may well be the stuffed specimen preserved in a glass case inside.

The pub has always been known locally as the Stonham Pie, the highway itself, which was originally Roman, as the 'Pie Road'.

Its traceable history goes as far back as 1481 when 'the Rev John Beale bequethed his tenement called the Pie (and other land) to feoffees in trust that out of the rents they should keep the premises in repair and lay out the remainder in repairing the highways in Little Stonham.'

Trouble caused by careless talk was recorded in May 1600 when a traveller calling at the Magpie heard allegedly treasonable chat between locals concerning Sir Walter Raleigh.

He notified the authorities at Norwich and litigation followed. The landlord complained bitterly to the trouble-maker that he should not 'betray speeches that were spoken in his house'.

New owner Verve Hotels has officially renamed Scole Inn, otherwise the White Hart, the Diss by Verve.

So another chapter begins in one of the most remarkable histories of any Norfolk inn. Its 10-week closure was much shorter than these others went through, but made a noticeable gap in Diss area hospitality.

According to one of many legends, a group of choirboys stayed at Scole to sing Christmas carols in the late 18th century. Two died in a fire that broke out in the middle of the night and guests reported their cries in later years.

Though bypassed by a dual carriageway, Scole keeps its strategic importance, roughly 20 miles from Norwich, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. Horses, especially those drawing coaches, needed resting every 20 miles.

Wealthy Norwich merchant John Peck saw the potential of the site and in 1655 built the White Hart, which survives with its tall chimneys and fine brickwork intact.

He also employed an artist named Johannes Fairchild to create an elaborate wooden archway, comprising classical figures with a white hart at the top, which crossed the road until about 1795.

Peck paid £1,057 for what Sir Thomas Browne called 'the noblest signepost in England'.

Charles II saw it when he breakfasted at the inn on September 27 1671 on his way from Great Yarmouth to London. Local resident Lord Cornwallis paid the bill for the king and his entourage.

Sleeping acccomodation at Scole Inn reputedly included a very large round bed big enough to hold 15 or 20 couples. That was probably an exaggeration; the famed Great Bed of Ware, which still exists, could take just 12 people in discomfort.

A near-certainty was that the inn hosted the most cock fights of any venue in East Anglia. Our evidence comes from Norwich and Ipswich newspapers of the time.

One, on January 5 1740, told punters: 'On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of January, at Scole Inn, will be a Maine of Cocks fought between Mr Charles Harrison and Dr Rust, shewing fifty-one on each side and to fight for five guineas a battle, and fifty guineas the odd battle, to be on the Pit in the forenoon by eleven o' clock.'

A smaller programme advertised for three days in March 1741 promised a contest in the cockpit between birds owned by 'some gentlemen in the county of Norfolk' and 'some gentlemen in the county of Suffolk.'

Their 'sport' has been replaced by a kinder rivalry between footballers of Ipswich and Norwich.

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