Polstead, this interesting Suffolk village, has several claims to fame. Thatched and colour-washed cottages border the lanes. In May, the cherry orchards are thick with blossom and the ‘Polstead Black’ cherry is renowned.
Polstead is famous for the macabre scene of a crime that shocked Victorian Britain – ‘The Red Barn Murder’. The Red Barn, where 26 year old Maria Marten was shot and stabbed to death by William Corder in 1827, was burnt down shortly after the murder, but Maria’s thatched cottage remains in Marten’s Lane, to the south-east of the village. The farm, where William Corder lived in the centre of the village, is now called Corder’s House. Maria’s father found her body buried at the Red Barn and Corder was arrested in Middlesex, where he had married a woman who had met him through a matrimonial advertisement.
Corder was hanged at Bury St. Edmunds in August 1928. In the Moyses Hall Museum, in the Butter Market in Bury St. Edmunds, can be seen an account of his trial bound in his own skin, together with his skull.
Maria’s tombstone in St. Mary’s Churchyard, was chipped away by souvenir hunters, so that only a sign on the shed wall now marks the approximate place where it stood. The murder still creates interest and the 1935 film, ‘Maria Marten – Murder at the Red Barn’, is occasionally shown on television and can be obtained on DVD.
The Church of St. Mary dates from the 12th century and contains some of what may be the earliest bricks made in England. Its tower is 14th century and is the only one in Suffolk which still has its original spire. The church is at the bottom of Polstead Hill, close to Polstead Pond.
Beside the churchyard, in the grounds of Polstead Hall, rebuilt in the Georgian style about 1819, are the remains of the Gospel Oak. It was said to be more than 1,000 years old, but collapsed in 1953. A small oak tree now grows next to it.