A N Wilson might sneer at the genre of nature writing, saying, “Thanks to Wordsworth, we all have the idea that ‘poets’ ought to be country dwellers, ought to live up lanes and use a bucket for a lavatory.” Nature writing of this sort, he says in an interview with the Telegraph, “appeals to all that is gentlest and best in us, the lovers of unwrecked England” but recently there have been signs of vigour, of writings taking a new form and addressing the changing relationship we have with the world around us. These changes may be as a result of us increasingly living away from our rural beginnings, either literally because we migrate to cities or metaphorically as we focus inwardly upon the domestic- a result of economic hardship. Or it might be because nature itself is shrinking, further influencing how we interact with it: our garden birds are disappearing and we are less likely to productively coexist with a wide variety of creatures or meet them in an everyday sense. Nature has become commodified too, partly in order to protect it; we ‘buy’ experiences and visit nature reserves; we go to ‘see’ nature instead of perceiving our lives as part of it. We seem to lack affinity with and self-assurance of our sense of place. Indeed we may lack that sense of place in itself.
The best nature writing is not rooted in conservatism or nostalgia. It possesses political agenda because the personal is the political, wrought from our everyday lives. Driving change yet retaining the ability to cast an experienced eye back to the past, it respects history but does not fetishise it, locating humans firmly at the heart of the natural order whilst identifying our disruptive influence upon it. We cannot separate ourselves from this, no matter how much we mistakenly try to and a wise person recognises nature as a greater life force which nonetheless can be vanquished by human misadventure and downright maleficience. We would do well to re-acquaint ourselves with the Pagan folklore which reminds us of our temporary status, as guests and housekeepers for future generations.
Step into the shoes of other living creatures: the peregrine and the wood louse; a skein of flies above a slow moving river; the badger, fat in his binary colours. As Winter settles into our bones, what better way to spend an evening in front of the fire than by travelling with some of our most evocative writers as they challenge us to think afresh about our surroundings. Here then is our guide to the best of the new nature writing, some recommendations for older, classic texts that have stood the test of time and authors writing about other countries too.
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
American nature writers have a lot of material and it is hard to be parochial and small minded when you have so much wilderness to choose from and Lopez, is one of the true greats when it comes to capturing it on the page. Lopez doesn’t do cosy, tame and comforting nature. His world is a big one that can dazzle, lose, harm and kill. He wants to shatter your complacency and intrude into your contemplations. Listen to him on the Arctic; “It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.” He writes of the confusion being alone in the alone can produce. His hunters muddle the scale of their prey and misunderstand threat, mistaking a marmot for a bear in the light, bright light that should make things clearer and cleaner, but actually does not. His prose is perfectly matched to the natural world he describes, ramming it with information, zooming out over the ice blue yonder then homing in on a tiny detail that interrupts with its difference. He is a human lens. ‘
H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald-
Winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize and deservedly so, this moving and raw testimony to grief and mourning recounts the authors attempts to tame and train Mabel, a wild goshawk after the death of her father and took over seven years to write. A growing fascination with the writer T H White, author of the fantasy ‘The One and Future King’ acts as a tandem narrative. The chair of the panel judge, Claire Tomalin described the book as “an extraordinary book that displayed an originality and a poetic power. None of us on the panel were either naturalists or wildlife enthusiasts but this book just took hold of us.”
‘The Peregrine’ by J A Baker- Finally getting its dues, The Peregrine is becoming recognised as the masterpiece it is- one of our finest examples of nature prose. Intricate, detailed and finely wrought, the intensity of the detail of this book contrasts greatly with the little we know about its author. All we know is that he was born in 1926, worked as a librarian and lived in Essex then wrote two books about the local wildlife. Baker appeared to perceive contact with wildlife as an antidote to humans, it “let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence” and the book goes on to recount his experiences following peregrines along a defined part of the Essex coast from Autumn to Spring. He is often compared to Ted Hughes with a similar muscular sensuality and ability to capture the sheer essence of a creature and landscape with just a few words and when the existing lexicon is inadequate, he is more than comfortable with using neologisms: “The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”.” In doing so it reminds us of our own frequent awe struck lack of words and cocks a snook at those language pedants who cling unimaginately to some ‘official tenet’ that all too often denies us the joy and pleasure of addiing to the lexicon. Baker takes us straight to the place where he goes to observe his beloved peregrines and we stand alongside him, looking at what he looks at, through his eyes.
‘The Fly Trap’ by Fredrik Sjöberg- In which the author, a hoverfly obsessive spends seven years researching them on a picture perfect Swedish island called Runmarö and then pens a memoir about it after finding 202 species of hoverfly in seven years, 180 in his garden..This is a slim book about an obscure branch of entomology that is utterly captivating and brims over with the personalities of these little creatures. The prose tips a nod at Darwin, Shelley and Bruce Chatwin whilst musing on the problems with environmentalism and the meaning of life. As Sjoberg told the Guardian, ” I realised if I’m going to write this book I have to write it for readers who are not interested in flies. Then you have to tell stories about people. Quite a lot of people say they are interested in nature but all people are interested in people.” I love how his own pleasure and bright eyed interest translates to the page– he believes that If you want to change the world, you have to build it on some kind of joy. The book has sold more than 30,000 copies in the Scandinavian market and thousands more in translation across mainland Europe and now, ten years after its publication, The Fly Trap has just come out in Britain.
Landscapes and Englishness by David Matless-
A lot of writing about nature has a gentlemanliness about it, a sense that one needs time, formal education and learning to engage in it and be taken seriously- ie find an audience through publication and be aknowledged as an authority. Indeed this isn’t too wide of the mark as these things also require an income sufficient to fund wanderings and the space to filter ones thoughts and observations before committing them to paper. What is great about Matless is the way he highlights the value of rural knowledge acquired through an everyday working engagement with the land and lived experience, as opposed to a studied and detached eye, acquiline and situationally separate. We see how our national identity, the impressions and assumptions we form about our landscapes developed between the forties and late fifties- entities such as the Country Code, the YHA and Scouts all participated in the way nature was classified for our understanding and consumption. In the post war years we were encouraged to ‘go out to see’ the countryside and the new love of and access to, a family motor car eased us into doing so. And in one fell swoop, we started to detach ourselves from the idea that nature existed all around us in our towns and villages and cities; we ceased to see the Buddleja pushing itself through the tumbled rubble of war ruins, the industry of woodlice under an upturned slate long blown off a roof. The countryside became a theme park and nature its exhibits, and in writing this book, Matless underpins the importance of class, politics and economics in shaping the way in which we are influenced to engage with it.
The Little Toller series of nature writings-
The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell,Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever and I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods’ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Kentish Bluebell woods explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside. In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Finally, Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?
‘Wildwood’ ‘Waterlog’ and ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ by Roger Deakin-
If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers, a lifelong resident of Suffolk and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. His perfectly observed descriptions of swimming in the moat that surrounded his Mellis farmhouse and a view of life from a frogs perspective is utterly beguiling. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.
‘Doubling Back’ by Linds Cracknell-
Described by Sara Maitland as “probably the most physically present to the reader. These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking”, Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. Our favourite chapter? A walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill-fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.
‘The Wormingford Trilogy’ / Borderlands / A Year at Bottengoms Farm by Ronald Blythe-
The well-known author of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe lives near where he was born and brought up, on the Suffolk-Essex border and remains the lay reader to the parishes of Wormingford, Mount Bures and Little Horkesley. More than a diary, not just nature writing and containing meditations and opinions on history, faith and the nature of man, these books are a set of beautifully observed evocations. They mark the changes wrought by time and man in the changing English countryside and collate his ‘Church Times’ columns in one place too. Blythe can be deliciously waspish one moment, warm and accepting the next and he is as rooted in place and Suffolk time as the river Stour that is so beloved to him. If you love the poetry of John Clare, then Blythe will suit- he is the president of the John Clare society and references the poet often.
‘My Year with Hares’ by Martin Hayward Smith-
Film maker and photographer, Hayward Smith has worked with the BBC and the Discovery Channel among many others and this lovely tome records, through words and stunning photography, his encounters with the hares that populate his part of the world in the middle of Norfolk. He was given access to thousands of acres of private land across the region -prime UK hare habitat, from Holkham, The Barshams to Burnham Market and the resulting animal behaviours, many of which were new to him, are told over chapters in the form of diary entries, categorised by season. As well as hares, Martin documents through text and photographs other wildlife encountered while out in the field. Complete with a foreword by Ray Mears, the amazing images were acquired through the employment of a camera carrying drone and remote camera placed inside a stuffed hare. Also documenting his experience of raising a young leveret he rescued from the jaws of his dog, this is an exquisite work and can be purchased via his website- martinhaywardsmith.com.
‘Four Fields’ by Tim Dee-
A meditation on land and the way humans live on it and live with it ranging from the Enclosures Act to the genocide visited upon Native Americans across the grasslands of their ancestral home, this book examines, in fine, meditative detail, plots of land from the grasslands of the Masai to the barren, poisoned fields surrounding Chernobyl, finally swinging back to the authors own stomping grounds- a small Cambridgeshire fenland field. The theme of birds runs through his musings- the healthy flocks pf larks that range over his own home contrast sadly with the genetic mutations caused to swallows by radiation as they flew over Chernobyl on that fateful day and afterwards. More than 20 per cent have been affected and of course if they had any sentient understanding, their return to the eerily quiet forests that surround the radiation blanketed city would not have happened. When Dee writes of the ‘jewelled toolkit of the Kingfisher’ this dazzling language contrasts all the more with his sombre grief at the damage wrought upon the creatures of the world.
‘The Barley Bird: Notes on the Suffolk Nightingale’ by Richard Mabey-
Full Circle editions publishes beautifully designed and printed hardback books by writers and artists of the region, alongside new editions of classics, all with stunning artwork by some of the region’s best artists. This text by well-known writer Richard Mabey explores the nightingale’s links with Suffolk’s culture and landscape, tracing the bird’s course through lore, tradition and myth and packing the 80 pages with historical and literary tit bits. This is a book that is as much a pleasure to own and touch as it is to read with illustrations by Derrick Greaves- a bright green cover with elegant drawings of birds and oak leaves representing the woodland over which our local nightingales swoop. “Below me, Arger Fen arches like a whale-back across the southern horizon. Everywhere, dead elm stumps rear in silhouette amongst the scrub. The light is extraordinary – luminous, dusty, giving every pale surface the lustre of mother-of-pearl. Mounds of cow parsley and scythed grass glow in the moonbeams like suspended balls of mist.” Mabey writes. Having heard Nightingales sing at Arger Fen adds to the thrill of encountering such dreamy and magical descriptions of a woodland I first encountered as a child and now know so well. This book makes a perfect little gift to read on a plane or train journey or to take on a long walk.
‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’ by George Ewart Evans-
I was recently re-acquainted with this pioneering and classic work at Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life which devotes a whole room to this and other local classics of countryside and nature writing. As a result I went straight out and bought myself a new copy. Another book that is as much a pleasure to own, its detailed illustrations are by David Gentleman whose work can also be seen in the rescued Roundhouse, once a part of the Bury St Edmunds cattle market where it served as tea house, which now stands in the meadows at the museum. “If you want to find out about something you ask the people who know; the collier, the countryman, you ask the fellows who cut the hay.” said Ewart Evans and he was correct, this record of life in Blaxhall, a small Suffolk community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stands alongside Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’ as an absolute classic of local oral testimony to a life that disappeared under the might of agricultural mechanisation.
A Blackbirds Year by Miles Richardson
“My new year begins when the blackbird returns to song” says the author and bounded by its song, we find wilderness in places close to home, exploring how mind and nature inhabit one another. Guided by the philosophy of the Victorian naturalist and philosopher Richard Jefferies, Richardson looks at how our minds and emotions interact with, and are affected by, our surroundings through his writings which are in turn informed by his profession as an applied research psychologist. Packed with vivid imagery and a thoughtful, experimental freedom, this is a book to dip in and out of as you ponder the questions it asks of you.
Birds and People by Mark Cocker
Mark Cocker makes it clear that the low priority we afford to nature and the environment and the manner by which we separate our human culture from the natural world is absolute folly and, in this book, seeks to reunite both. A compendium of ornitholology and anthropology, Cocker weaves in history, culture, mythology, language and lore alongside soci-politics in a detailed study whilst sumptuous photographs taken over ten years by award-winning wildlife photographer David Tipling show us the roles that birds play in our lives across every continent. Birds have haunted, obsessed and inspired humans, feeding and working for us, inspiring great art, offering companionship and an early warning system for danger. There are lyrical examples of how birds habits and traits are interpreted by different cultures- the hummingbird that represents rebirth to Peruvians because of its ability to enter a hibernation like torpid state closely mimicking death, interspersed with other more disturbing stories. Our British love of owls (in part down to Harry Potter) is not shared by other countries who regard them as terrifying omens of death, spitting at owls incarcerated in zoos and killing them, a sharp and necessary counterbalance to any tendency to anthropomorphise. It isn’t only Cockers voice either: the prose soars in and out of anecdotes and stories from more than 650 individuals all over the globe. From academics to hunters, their stories cannot be separated from the birds they live alongside.
Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
Better known for writing ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’, Sacks has another passion alongside his well documented one for the human mind- ferns and the fern allies, horsetail and selaginella among them. He is fascinated by their ability to grow and survive the most hostile climates and terrains and their constitution, as the three main lineages of vascular plants, all presumably evolved from a Silurian common ancestor. Oaxaca Journal is the account of his trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts to a part of the world that is well populated with these tenacious little plants. Ferns filled Sack’s childhood too, from the awareness that the coal that warmed his house contained the remains of greatly compressed fossilised ferns, to the seemingly filmy, delicate plants that filled the conservatory. Their apparent delicacy gives no clue to the reality- that ferns prevailed where the dinosaur has not and have outlived all manner of extinctions. We are reminded of the place of ferns in art and literature and of their mystery: their reproductive systems lined along the undersides of foliage, of underground furry rhizomatous runners and the hidden secret heart shaped sex contained deep within the plant. Their invisibility was believed to be conferable, inspiring Falstaff to say “we have receipt of fern-seed. We walk invisible.” A mere 152 pages long, this is a book for jacket pockets, for short journeys, for dipping into and out of.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
Shifting our attention to make us re examine the landscape of our lives, Jamie telescopes us into the more intimate of perspectives: there’s the encounter between Jamie and a cluster of malignant cells under a miscroscope lens in a hospital path lab; the storm grey wink of a petrels corpse, found on a beach and now in a plastic bodybag on her desk; and then out it pans, taking us up to the heavens and the aurora borealis and back down into the depths of the sea, carved up by the binary sleekness of the killer whales as they range along the cliffs, hunting and travelling. As we travel with her, we find that the more isolated the place, the more effort it is to quieten a mind, “clamorous as a goose” but her writing slowly drills down and cancels out the superfluous row. She is highly attuned to noise, telling us of the mineral silence of an Arctic landscape and the days immediately following the death of her mother which have “a high glassy feel, as though a note was being sung just too high to hear.” Jamie felt compelled then, to reconnect the weird intimate and inner world of human nature and when it goes wrong (cancer), with the nature talked about at environmental conferences. “I’ve never thought of that as nature” says the pathologist and alongside him, we too accompany Jamie on a beautiful and challenging redefining of what we class as nature in fourteen, near perfect little essays.
Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver’s nature writing sometimes gets overlooked because of her vast talent for fiction and this appreciation of America’s virgin lands, the remnants of the once vast wilderness that has survived man is one of them. Barbara Kingsolver and award-winning photographer Annie Griffiths Belt roam far and wide over the great untamed tracts of land that have somehow slipped through the net. From wetlands, woodlands, coasts, grasslands, and drylands—and the pioneering, often ornery environmentalists who worked to save them- Kingsolver adds her voice to the chorus calling for better protection and veneration of them. She writes. “Here, in these lost corners, are the reserves of species abundance and strength for a continent that once roared with wild grandeur; they are its swan song. This book is about them.”
Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of New York City by Robert Sullivan
From Jimmy Hoffa to the myriad animals and plants that survive and thrive in close proximity to one of the worlds great concrete jungles, the Meadowlands, these man made and undervalued lowlands across the Hudson River from Manhattan are a revelation. This post glacial meltwater landscape extends nearly forty miles from Staten Island’s southern end to the southern end of New York’s Rockland County and is now a brackish, low lying saltwater breckland. Hoffa’s corpse may or may not be buried here alongside the granite corpse of Penn Station in the city after it was razed to the ground and transported here for interrment in this mingling of the disposable and the natural. Sounds not available on a CD emanate from the commingling of traffic on the New Jersey turnpike and the rustling reeds of Snake Hill, a marshy terrain through which he canoes. We accompany him to Waldens Swamp, a boggy festering morass of cigarette butts, rubbish and collapsed plastic bottles which, nonetheless, provides a home for carp, muskrat and wildfowl. The place is a paradox, reflected by the juxtaposition of an egret on a giant pylon and Victor, the mosquito inspector. Victor’s landing counts and detailed zoological knowledge are both used for the purposes of exterminating a creature which sticks two fingers up at all our attempts to control it. In the epigraph, Hopkins says, ”And for all this, nature is never spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down thing” and Sullivan ensures that we do not forget this, that nature exists in spite of man and not because of it. What we do about this is our call.
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
When Steve Sillett was nineteen years old, he tree climbed (with no safety ropes) one of the worlds tallest trees, becoming one of only a handful of people who have climbed them and know of where they can be found. Thirty storeys above the ground, surrounded by the crowns of the giant redwoods all around him, Preston was privy to a hidden eco system that would change the way he viewed the world. Preston seeks to connect these trees and their suroundings with the people that yearn to climb them, weaving personal testimony into a narrative that guides us through the intricate ecology of the canopy and the forest. He explains how the climbers developed technique and how they cope when one of their own ‘takes a dive into a dirt nap’ aka falls off. We meet the bride who very nearly did after she made an error attaching a descender device. Had she not checked it before the ceremony, her lichen decorated gown, redwood wedding ring and geologist minister willing to conduct the ceremony harnessed, in mid air, would have all been in vain. They sound barking mad? Well before the end of this book, the author himself ‘goes native,’ joining the cast of characters in their oddness and ‘redwoodphilia’- a state that truly presents as an addiction to these huge titans of the forest.
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes
Aged twenty five, Fiennes was convalescing from a serious illness in the middle of his postgraduate studies and, during that half life state as recovery approaches, passed his time by rekindling an interest in ornithology.This was inspired by his fathers own interest and Fiennes favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Duly compelled to follow a related species, the lesser snow goose, as it migrates between its wintering areas in southern Texas to breeding grounds near Churchill on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, Fiennes set off in pursuit with an ambition to write a book that would be part travelogue, part nature writing and part meditation upon the nature of home. Journey as metaphor is a long established theme and it suits Fiennes book perfectly, acting as bedrock for his musings on what homesickness is, why do we yearn for home and how does this relate to the long and tortuous migration of these beautiful creatures. Full of intricate and finely observed descriptions of the geese, the land over which they pass and their manner as they settle each night at a fresh overnight site, set centuries ago as their compass point, and a transitory place that is, and yet is not, home.
A Study of Blackbirds by David Snow
This beautiful monograph on the birds he studied in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in the 1950s, remains one of the loveliest pieces of nature writing I possess. Snow may have spent a great part of his life in the study of tropical, fruit eating and nectar feeding birds, taking him all over central and south America, accompanied by his wife, but the humble blackbird is as enthralling a specimen as the most brilliantly hued hermit humming bird in his writerly hands. He tells of blackbirds returning to old nests, of older male birds singing lustily in the evenings as night approaches and how successful first time parenthood increases their chances of retaining their mate for a second brood in the same year. Here is Snow on their courtship behaviour: “The displaying bird has a curiously wild, staring appearance.[…] The whole time, with his beak held open, he usually utters a low ‘strangled’ song, made up of chattering alarm notes, rough warbles and subdued snatches of what sounds like true song.” Snow then goes on to tell us that during mating, other males will jump at the unfortunate male, barreling at him, aiming to knock him ignomiously off his perch and take his place themselves. The cover of this monograph is a linocut by artist Robert Gilmour whose first commercial use of the technique it was and his line drawings in the text offer a clear interpretation of Snows prose.
Apple Acre by Adrian Bell
As a nation, we British are prone to parochialism and an associated sentimentality about the countryside and in some ways, Apple Acre illustrates this. Despite rationing, black outs and austerity during the Second World War, Adrian and his family lived their lives in the Suffolk farming community where they remained for decades, happily absorbed in the daily tasks of rearing their three children and struggling against those farming eternals, the weather and the land. The rhythms are ones that cannot be modified- the seasons that have dominion over planting, cropping, preserving and storing and the church festivals that mark the arrival of each. There is nostalgia for a life that would soon change and a little pomp and circumstance surrounding the reasons why the war was fought. Yet Bell is a realist and warns us that we risk becoming separated from the land and the origins of our food. He advocates recycling and reusing and of retaining a realistic grasp of what you are capable of managing farm wise. He is no idealist and he espouses many of the values that we are now sadly having to relearn.
Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye
For over three decades, John Lister-Kaye has been cpativated by the spectacular seasonal metamorphosis at Aigas, the world-renowned Highlands field centre overlooking a loch and encircled by the untamed glens of Scotland. Gods of the Morning takes us through a year, following the turn of the seasons and their unpredictability which he fears may be due to global climate change. Birds are his Gods of the Morning and a particular passion: the book opens with a mournful tribute to the blackcap which crashes into his patio windows and subsequently dies. Reading this, we are immediately reminded that the rhythms of nature include death and subsequent regeneration- the corpse of the little bird is placed under a pyracantha bush to return to the earth. His descriptions are vital: the blackcap with its “cap as dark and glossy as liquorice”; the winter sun “power vanquished, enfeebled by the years reeling”; the wood mice with underbellies ” as white as the Rose of York” and tails flowing “with all the elegance and style of Elizabethan calligraphy.” Lister-Kaye reminds us to seek out that lost connection with the natural world and embrace its rhythms.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy
“I could smell it myself, honey sweet but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants” writes McCarthy as he describes his first encounters with the winged jewels as they fed on the buddleja which populated every crack of post war Britain. Arguing that we cannot be fully human if we are separate from nature and the intense joy it can bring, McCarthy proposes this joy as a defence of a natural world which is ever more threatened, and which, he argues, is inadequately served by the two defences put forward hitherto: sustainable development and the recognition of ecosystem services.Drawing on a wealth of memorable experiences from a lifetime of watching and thinking about wildlife and natural landscapes, The Moth Snowstorm not only presents a new way of looking at the world around us, but effortlessly blends with it a remarkable and moving memoir of childhood trauma from which love of the natural world emerged. It is a powerful, timely, and wholly original book which comes at a time when nature has never needed it more.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen
I’ve always been interested in the edges of things, whether that be a person, a landscape or a subject and in Common Ground, Cowen takes us to a scrap of land near Harrogate when he moves to the area from London, itself a rich source of scrubby edges and half crossed- out margins. The gift of a second-hand Ordnance Survey map helped him find his imperfect Valhalla: “strange, scrubby spaces in the shadow of a thousand houses where human and nature intermesh. Blurry collisions of meadow, pylon, wood, river and old railway, of industry and infrastructure”, or, as the Celts say, a ‘thin place’ whose history fans up and out. Thus follows a kind of lyrical portrait, similar to what AA Gill once said, of what might result if a place interviewed itself. It is beguiling and compelling and doesn’t depict the natural world as other and for that reason, I recommend it highly.
Reading What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge as a child, I was struck by Katy Carr’s determination to embark upon a literary tour of England and Scotland in 1886, when she came over here via steamer on a trip given as a gift from a benevolent family friend. Describing us as ‘storybook England’ Katy paid tribute to our great writers by planning pilgrimages to many places associated with them. Visiting the grave of Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey and travelling to Winchester Cathedral so that she might have the privilege of seeing the grave of her beloved Miss Austen, Katy’s chance meeting with an oddly Dick Van Dyke like cockney verger by Austens grave, deals with a favourite cathedral legend- that the staff had not a clue who Jane Austen was, although if they’d read their own 1854 handbook all would have been clear. Katy’s outrage at our lack of appreciation for a writer she deemed the greatest of all was very amusing to me and a great twist on the popular misconception that Americans have little awareness of anything outside of their own national boundaries.
Our beautiful, historic countryside under wide East Anglian skies have seduced many a writer and artist. Writers such as Rafaella Barker claim the peace of the Norfolk countryside allows her a creative space she would struggle to find anywhere else “I live near the sea and I like the limitlessness of the horizon and being on the edge of the British Isles” and many local artists have placed East Anglia firmly as subject and theme of their work (Constable and Gainsborough). Cedric Morris, the famous painter and horticulturalist was co-founder of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Dedham in Norfolk. Morris took over the lease on The Pound, Higham, Suffolk, in 1929, and acquired the freehold in 1932, creating one of hismost accomplished gardens. A number of artists stayed there, including Francis Hodgkins, Barbara Hepworthand John Skeaping and their costumed parties were legendary. They remained there until 1940 when, after the fire at the Dedham Art School, they moved to Benton End. Morris inspired and supported Beth Chatto to develop her beautiful garden in Elmstead Market, now world famous and was a collaborator and peer of Ronald Blythe, writer of ‘Akenfield’ who now lives near Wormingford.
Blythes subsequent body of work draws deeply upon his surroundings, his home ‘Bottengoms Farm’, his position as lay reader at local churches and love of nature, history and theology. Meditative, opinionated and thoughtful, his “Word from Wormingford” diary for the Church Times has been written every week for two decades. Blythe was born in Suffolk. His family has lived here for centuries; even his surname comes from one of its river’s, the Blyth, and his farm was once owned by the painter John Nash whose wife invited him to see the place in 1947. In ‘Akenfield’ Blythe gave voice to a people previously neglected by nature and social history writers- the working class countryside folk. Blythe stated; “If you read John Clare, he makes you realise that they weren’t just lumpen creatures, even if they couldn’t read and write. They had dreams and visions which we don’t know about.”
The wheeling gulls and tandem cries of children; the eddying of water through sandy rills, fingered inlets and maram grass covered islands at low tide…. Arthur Ransome has a long association with both counties, first visiting the Norfolk Broads in the thirties and using it as inspiration for his children’s books Coot Club (1934) and The Big Six (1940). These two books centre upon the Broads village of Horning and touch upon the coming of change with the increasing use of motorised boats. In Coot Club, the ‘Hullabaloos’ on their motorised craft The Margoletta’ are the villains in the story and Ransome makes no bones about letting us know his opinion of their actions. Spending too much time in the riverside pubs, they ignore speed limits,make a lot of noise, are racketty and uncouth as they chase the gentle wind powered boat, ‘Teasel’.
“‘And so, rejoicing in their freedom, the outlaw and his friends sailed on their way, through a country as flat as Holland, past huge old windmills, their sails creaking round, pumping the water from the low-lying meadows on which the cows were grazing actually below the level of the river. Far away over the meadows, other sails were moving on Ant and Thurne, white sails of yachts and big black sails of trading wherries.’
We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water are set in coastal Suffolk and Essex, with the former involving a voyage to Flushing in the Netherlands and the latter the exploration of the islands of Hamford Water near Walton-on-the-Naze. Made famous in ‘We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea’ the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the River Orwell overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if the beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.
Occasionally Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brings it to Suffolk for events (Felixstowe Book Festival on 28th June being one of them) and people can see for themselves the craft that inspired his writing craft.
The very famous I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has its origins in her glimpse of an ancient medieval moated castle in 30’s Wingfield, Suffolk and her love of the classic Suffolk pink wash thatched cottages, the ruined manor houses that were once the heart of our villages and the families living in gentile penury- trying to maintain an appearance of a life they can no longer afford. Describing life for these families as one where ‘the past is like a presence, a caress in the air’, presumably a comfort in the hard times of the present, all is ‘drear, dank, depressing, boggy and raining’– an image of Suffolk we have little truck with. Even in the colder months, there is a seer, monochromatic and dramatic beauty; the moving tracery of bare tree branches as the unforgiving winds straight from Siberia swipe across the fields; the standing black edge of copses on a ridgeline beneath a dome of slate sky; the soft swells of fields and deep cuts carved into the earth by the many rivers and streams feeding them. It is a different kind of beauty to the bucolic and abundant green of summer but it is still beauty nonetheless.
We East Anglians have found easier and more functional ways of living with a past that is often wrought vividly upon the present- our surroundings are full of history which still impacts today. We find it less oppressive than Smith’s protagonists although accounts of beaurocratic skirmishes with local planners are writ large upon our regional newspapers each week. Does anybody recall the saga of the lilac painted house in the village of Clare which went on for months, divided villagers and caused no end of fury among historical purists?
Many places in Suffolk are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment. Their stories tells themselves, stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place. In 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaelogist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and complete feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum. Tiny fragments showed that rich textiles once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen overshirts to shaggy woollen cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the acidic soil, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship and extensive international connections, spanning Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of great halls, glittering treasures and formidable warriors described in Anglo-Saxon poetry was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s story Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister story about a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world.
The dry and sandy Brecklands yielded treasure of their own, inspiring Roald Dahl to travel to Mildenhall to interview the Ploughman who unearthed the remarkable find of Roman silver, now displayed in the British Museum. This formed the basis of a subsequent story ‘The Mildenhall Treasures’ where Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. The curator of the British Museum, Richard Hobbs writes about his association with the story and the treasure- “I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.” Dahl’s account is now accepted as a true account of their discovery.
Arguably the most famous visitor to Aldeburgh, (even more famous than Sir Michael Gambon who tried to solicit one of my chips whilst sitting next to me on the benches of the White Hart Pub next to the famous chip shop), Orlando the Marmalade cat was the star of a series of books written for children. Written by Kathleen Hale, who spent holidays in the town, Aldeburgh is renamed ‘Owlbarrow’ and many of the illustrations in the books feature landmarks in the town, most notably the Moot Hall. In this charming series, based in 1952, Orlando brought his wife Grace and their kittens to stay on the beached ship the Iona, now no longer in existence but depicted in the illustration below.
Kathleen Hale’s books have been treasured by children and grown-ups since they were first published; the illustrations being rich in detail and painterly enough to appeal to parents too. Only two of the many titles are still in print: A Seaside Holiday and A Camping Holiday, both stocked by the Aldeburgh Book shop which now owns the merchandising rights from Kathleen Hale’s publishers Frederick Warne at Penguin.
With its setting in the deepest reaches of the mysterious and watery Norfolk Fens, The Future Homemakers of America’ is the story of six young women in postwar Norfolk by Laurie Graham. Five are US Airforce DWs (Dependent Wives) living on the Crampton base, baking cookies, cakes and pies while crew-cut, square jawed All American husbands master the skies in fast and horribly unsafe machines that were deemed to be at the cutting edge of war machine technology. With dependable narrative tropes in its women, including Kath, a doughty Fenland woman alongside an historical background of those turbulent post-war years, illustrated by facsimiles of newspaper pages including some scarily lurid Jello salad and cake recipes, this is an easy read of a book that does manage to capture some of the culture shock felt by our USAF influx and those who came into contact with them. The Future Homemakers of America officially began in June of 1945, working to combine and unify hundreds of home economic clubs in high schools across the US and sought to unify young Americans across the land to become strong leaders in their families, careers and communities.
In 1945, when the first Future Homemakers of America chapter was founded, the mission and curriculum were basic: preparing young women to be homemakers. In recent years, more males have become involved and interested in the organization and finally, in 1999, the organization’s national chapters voted to change their name to Family, Career and Community Leaders of America to more accurately reflect the organization’s mission and to disassociate its leadership-building programs from societal stigma that the term “homemaker” has developed over the previous five decades. .
The historical connections between Norfolk and North America began in the 17th century, when a large number of migrants moved together to the newly-created colonies including the family of US president Abraham Lincoln who came from Hingham. Actors James Stewart and Walter Matthau were both stationed in Norfolk whilst serving for the United States Army Air Force (USAF) during World War Two and Reis Leming, a member of USAF personal based at RAF Sculthorpe, saved the lives of 27 people in the Norfolk Floods of 1953. He was awarded UK and US medals for bravery. The Eighth in the East’ project was established to document the story of the 8th United States Army Air Force in the East of England and is a great place to start should you wish to find out more about this fascinating period of history.
In complete contrast to this cosy tale of young American women going about their domestic (and not so) lives is the ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by the writer M. R. James. The story tells the tale of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery. When blown, the whistle unleashes a supernatural force that pursues and terrifies its discoverer.
From the age of three (1865) until 1909 the home of MR James, if not always his residence, was at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk. This had also been the childhood home of another eminent Suffolk antiquary, “Honest Tom” Martin (1696–1771) “of Palgrave.” Several MR James ghost stories are set in Suffolk, including “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (Felixstowe), “A Warning to the Curious” (Aldeburgh), “Rats” and “A Vignette” (Great Livermere). The wild, unearthly and limitless skies, beaches and horizon of the Norfolk and Suffolk coastal areas are effective backdrops for what James described as “putting the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me.” The shifting clifftops and shingle beaches, eroded by winds and tides and dunes that appear and disappear as if they were in the Sahara, often form the most incongruous of obstacles to total annihilation by the waters. Danger is covert and safety is illusory on the literary frontier of the British continent- the shoreline.
This oddly porous and shifting boundary between land and sea inspired author Jeremy Page to write ‘Salt’ and set it among the Blakeney saltmarshes of North Norfolk and the fens near the Wash. What forms a person, the surge and ebb of family history as it reaches into each new generation, shaping and eroding, forms the broad theme of this novel. Here, the sea gives up the half drowned body of a young German soldier after the Second World War where he is rescued and sheltered by Goose, a reclusive and mystic who predicts significant events by cloudwatching. Fed on Samphire, a coastal plant with spears that carry the essence of the sea, he impregnates her and sails away on a boat after she gives birth to their daughter. The repercussions permeate the story as do the other worldly descriptions of a landscape that gets under the skin of all who encounter it with its tangled and indistinct boundaries between land, water and sky.
Saturated with another kind of Norfolk- that of an 80’s childhood in the neon brashness of a seaside resort is ‘Weirdo’ by Cathy Unsworth, believed to be based upon the popular holiday destination of Great Yarmouth with its thin veneer of holiday gaiety. Think gaudy funfair, amusements and wide promenades festooned with bags of candy floss and racks of striped rock; the Harbour, model village and the dunes; Bernie Winters, Tarbuck, Orville the Duck and Jim Davidson appearing on the pier. Gaggles of teenagers fizz with the anticipation of kissing under the pier and can be found dotting the sea, top halves visible as they sway, buffeted by sand brown waves and cries like seagulls; their limbs yet to be bronzed by the sun and held aloft the water, pale and supplicant.
There is another side to all towns though and revisiting Great Yarmouth through Cathi Unsworth’s narrative introduces us to the seamier aspects of seaside life – the pubs, the bed and breakfast DWP benefit residents, the bail hostels, drugs and the prostitution. This crime story, switching between events in the early 1980s and 2003 where a former cop turned private detective, Sean Ward, is hired to look into a brutal murder that occurred two decades previously, really hits home. Seaside towns have always attracted a transient, migrant population and Gt Yarmouth is no better or worse than any other British town in this respect where hard working residents have just the short summer season to earn enough to sustain them economically through the other six months of the year. When you find yourself living in a town on the edge of the country, the sense of having nowhere else to turn is brought into even sharper relief and, should life not have gone the way you intended it to, the sense of being washed out to sea by rivers or washed up onto the shoreline by the tide is intensified. This is depicted perfectly by Kazuo Ishiguro’s in his novel Never Let me Go, which ends with Kathy in a Norfolk field, “thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.”
Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of ’22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here. “Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.” With a well established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says; “I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”
Appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for many books set locally and in ‘The Swimmer’ by Roma Teague we are thrown straight into the tale when 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain. While he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair. When tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.
The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around Orford where the book is set with this becoming a stunningly beautiful and brooding backdrop to the story. Shaped by conflict, affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum.
Former resident of the tiny Suffolk village of Mellis, situated on the ‘High Suffolk’ claylands where Oliver Cromwell once exercised his troops on the largest English area of unfenced common land, Roger Deakin was one of the Worlds most respected nature writers. Part of a distinguished group of East Anglian writers, artists and aesthetes that includes Richard Mabey, Adrian Bell and author of ‘Akenfield’, Ronald Blythe; J A Baker (author of ‘The Peregrine’) ,Cedric Morris the artist and plantsman based in Hadleigh, Robert MacFarlane, Mark Cocker and Patrick Barkham, Deakin sadly died in 2006 leaving a wealth of archived material and three stellar books- ‘Waterlogged’, ‘Wildwood’ and the posthumously published ‘Tales from Walnut Tree Farm’.
In Waterlog, he writes of his watery journey around Britain: an attempt to discover the country afresh by swimming through its seas, rivers, lakes, fens; its swimming pools and secret bathing holes in a manner both earthy and highly aesthetic. Deakin has the soul of a poet and writes so beautifully that I grieve his loss afresh with every word. Inspired by a rain splattered early swim in the moat surrounding his Mellis home, he experiences life through a ‘frog’s eye view of rain on the moat” and watching each raindrop as it “exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst” which inspires this watery odyssey.
Deakin swims the Hampstead swimming ponds also frequented by an eclectic group of dedicated wild swimmers from ladies left over from more genteel times and people having a pre or post work swim to young university students. He recounts a chasing off by an angry Winchester College river jobsworth and crawls along the brackish creeks of Cornwall like a cross between a mudlark and a catfish. And weeps over the brutal concrete incarceration of the River Lark upon his arrival in Suffolk ‘I stood outside the Bury St Edmunds Tesco. Here, the Lark had been treated with something less than reverence as it flowed through the forecourt car park […] The hapless Lark, which once meandered gently through water meadows here, had been neatly packaged in an outsized concrete canyon. No water vole would dream of venturing here, nor otter, purple loosestrife or figwort’.
From dreaming about water to dreaminess once in the water, Deakin expounds upon an alien and magical environment within which we are all at sea despite having spent forty weeks gestating with no need of lungs or gills. As he says “No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born.” Then he contemplates the strangeness that can be found in the water as opposed to our strangeness within it- ‘In the night sea at Walberswick,’ Deakin observes, ‘I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through neon waves like dragons.’ This other worldliness and an existence of which we retain no conscious memory of is shot through with a more practical acceptance of these mysteries- “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,but there is also a third thing, that makes it water and nobody knows what that is.” He is content to not know.
Sadly not all have found the watery, flat and strikingly desolate scenery of the Fens inspiring or feel their peculiar beauty. Author Anthony Trollope painted a grim and unforgiving picture of them in his novel ‘Beltons Estate’ (1866). His heroine, Clara Amedroz, has to chose between a wealthy suitor and a distant cousin called Will Belton. Belton owns a farm near Downham Market but is keen to leave the Fens and take up his inheritance in the West Country. Trollope was familiar with the fens through his work as a surveyor for the Post Office but was not enamoured by the landscape. In the book, Belton walks to Denver Sluice and back and Trollope writes ‘a country walk less picturesque could hardly be found in England’.
Historically the Fens were regarded as a disease ridden place, haunted by witches and Will o’ the Wisps, rippled through with superstition that barely went challenged because of a largely intransigent and static population, hampered by the difficult undrained marshes, reeds and drains. Travel had to be by water or along roads that could be treachorous at night. Even today the Fens have retained a reputation for witchcraft. In his series of books, Phillip Pullman sets some of the action in the Fens (‘Northern Lights’) where at a great gathering of the Gyptians, they decide to mount an expedition to head to the Arctic where they have discovered the missing children are being taken. He clearly sees the potential for gatherings going unnoticed and undisturbed in such an isolated landscape; in addition it would be most easy to see threats appearing on the horizon from afar. The flat light and relatively few trees render movement difficult to hide.
In the prelude to ‘Hereward the Wake’,Charles Kingsley (author of ‘The Water Babies’) highlights the sky made larger and more dramatic because of the stubbornly flat topography- no hills or mountains interrupt the vast watery terrain and dark silty earth is punctuated by sere reeds and ink black slow moving waters:
‘Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the open sea; and that vastness gave, and still gives, such cloudlands, such sunrises, such sunsets, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles.’
The poet Edward Storey is equally appreciative, noting that;
“You walk the roof of the world here. Only the clouds are higher And they are not permanent. Trees are too distant for the wind to reach And mountains hide below the horizon. The wind labours through reed As though they were the final barrier. Houses and farms cling like crustations To the black hull of the earth. Here, you must walk with yourself, Or share the spirits of forgotten ages.”
His books include: Spirit of the Fens (1985) and In Fen Country Heaven(1996). In Fen Boy First (1994) he gives an account of his childhood growing up in Whittlesey (which is actually in Cambridgeshire). Fen Country Christmas (1995) is a collection of stories, legends and Fenland superstitions in which he takes a look at skating; a popular sport in the region and one which Roger Deakin mentions in ‘Waterlog’. The speed skating races held along the long and straight dykes and inlets of the region were hugely popular and the blade sharp winds fresh from the Russian Steppes and Siberia froze the water hard. Heads low and well muffled against the cold, skaters sped along, cheered by locals who gathered at accessible points along the way and warmed afterwards with mugs of spirit spiked tea. Graham Swift’s novel Waterland (1983) is also set in the Fens, influenced by George Elliot’s ‘Mill on the Floss’, with a narrator Tom Crick, who lives in a lock keeper’s cottage on the bank of the (fictional) River Leem flowing out of Norfolk. It may be that the river Leem is modelled on the Little Ouse which flows between Thetford and Brandon, discharging into the Fens and is possessed of some truly beautiful banks along which many locals picnic and paddle off in warmer months. The names of local villages, of the Fens themselves and rivers are curious, poetic and usually explanatory of their location and their people who lived among them: Prickwillow, The Hundred Foot Drain, March, Ely (‘Isle of Eels’), Crowland (One of the five Fen monasteries) and Black Sluice.
As a child of sixties and seventies Suffolk and Norfolk, I can attest to just how off the beaten track it was. Although a map from 1766 shows a route from London to Great Yarmouth which follows much of the current A12, there was a sparse transport network and communities therefore remained nuclear, remote from each other and the rest of the British landmass. Added to this the network of marshes, waterways and fens and you can see why travel was difficult and transport development expensive when you take into account the population- which remains small to this day. In her novel, ‘The Twins’, Saskia Sarginson talks of her decision to set the book in a Suffolk forest (Rendlesham or Minsmere are the most likely inspiration) and about her love of our county; ” In 1972 there was little TV and no computer games and at that time Suffolk was off the beaten track and unspoilt – the perfect place… for the girls to run wild” The dense pine forests, starkly shingled beaches that are difficult to traverse and the mythology and history all drew her towards Suffolk as a setting and into this pot, she set the story about another of life’s mysteries- twins.
Forests are a trope that gives on giving. Their psychogeography is magical, foreboding, filled with threat, promise, light filled glades and crepuscular mysteries. From fairy tale filled childhoods, we are conditioned into an overwhelmingly emotional relationship with these disappearing habitats: they are both familiar in the nightly telling of stories set in them and terrifyingly strange in their potential for causing us to become lost and disorientated. Rendlesham Forest compounds this with an additional history of strange nightly events when a group of American servicemen stationed at military bases in Suffolk went into the forest to investigate mysterious lights.
What occurred next has been the subject of debate, but some of the servicemen have since said they saw an alien spacecraft, with one of those involved later claiming to have touched it. Attempts have been made to explain the incident, with theories ranging from an elaborate hoax, to the men being confused by lights from a nearby lighthouse. The closure of the woods at the time of the incident only added to the conspiracy theories among locals who have the most familarity with the forest and are therefore well versed in detecting usual happenings from unusual ones. However, it remains a source of fascination for Ufologists and among the newly released National Archives files is a document – which the MoD says insists is a fraud, describing aliens encountered in the forest.
The document, on what appears to be official departmental paper, reports that the “entities” were “approximately one and a half meters tall, wearing what appeared to be nylon coated pressure suits, but no helmets”.They were apparently “hovering above ground level” and were recorded speaking in an “electronically synthesised version of English, with a strong American accent”. They were said to have had “claw-like hands and with three fingers and an opposable thumb.” Whatever happened (or not), the forest authorities have not been slow to capitalise on something that sets them apart from other British forests, setting up ‘UFO walking trails‘ and other seasonal attractions designed to appeal to the thousands of tourists to the region.
Benjamin Britten had a long and productive association with Aldeburgh, inspiring artist Maggie Hambling to design the Aldeburgh Scallop on the shoreline with an edge pierced with the words; “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, taken from Benjamin Britten‘s opera Peter Grimes. Not without some controversy (the Scallop has been defaced with paint thrown over it in the past) we nonetheless think it is moving and dramatic; we cannot imagine Aldeburgh beach without it. Christine Nash, wife of artist John Nash found Ronald Blythe a cottage near Aldeburgh and Blythe was introduced to Britten, becoming friends and editing festival programmes for Britten while trying to write his own first novel. Blythe recalls returning home one day to find a note pushed under his door inviting him for a drink at Britten’s house. It was from EM Forster.
Charles Dickens has stayed at the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds while giving readings in the nearby Athenaeum, inspiring a mention in ‘The Pickwick Papers ‘ (the hotel offered a resting place to main character, Samuel Pickwick) and the hotel retains the room with the original bed in which Dickens slept;
“The coach rattled through the well-paved streets of a handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance, and stopped before a large inn situated in a wide open street, nearly facing the old abbey.”
Around 1910, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, the Barrister-Playwright owner of nearby Sizewell Hall had a brainwave. He bought an area of coast and dunes and in 1910 set about establishing a purpose-built resort based on the fishing hamlet of Thorpe, changing the name to Thorpeness. The Meare, a man made lake covering 64 acres with scattered islands, is no deeper than one metre at any point and is a very popular place to sail boats upon whilst on the shore, black clapboard buildings cluster the edges of a village green. The islands feature playhouses and characters from children’s books, in particular ‘Peter Pan’ because Ogilvie was a friend of J M Barrie. The tiny islands contain locations found in J. M. Barrie’s novel such as the Pirates Lair, Wendy’s home and many others which children are encouraged to play on. Thorpeness, like Aldeburgh is described as having ‘it’s back to the sea’ and this is deliberate. Ogilvie deliberately used the Meare as an alternate focal point for his seaside town and rejected the Victorian/Edwardian fondness for promenades which he thought were vulgar.
Opened in 1913, many of the original boats are still in operation. The author made regular visits to the village and was pictured outside the country club in 1919, even helping to design parts of Thorpeness. His model resort might have been influenced by Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Utopian garden city movement, but it became an exclusive home away from the main home for the wealthy and artistic. The famous ‘House in the Clouds’ was one of Ogilvie’s creations; an attempt to disguise an utilitarian water tower as a house. It is now a private holiday rental although the child in me will always imagine Peter Pan swooping in through the front door at dusk. What better home for a flying boy than a house in the clouds?
Much speculation can be found as to the possible real life location of Hell Hall, home to Cruella De Vil and the place where the abducted puppies were taken in Dodie Smith’s book, ‘The One Hundred and one Dalmatians’. We know that Smith was a frequent visitor to Suffolk and Sudbury is mentioned in the book and Hell Hall is described as in the village of ‘Dympling’. No village of that name exists or ever existed although the hamlet of Shimpling can be found at a rough midpoint between Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, just off the A134.
“Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury.Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk,’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square.They had hoped they’d meet some dogs and hear if any news of the puppies had come at the Twilight Barking, but not as much as a cat was stirring. While they were drinking at the fountain, church clocks began to strike midnight.”
A memorial plaque on a water fountain by St Peter’s given by Alice Mary Brown features an excerpt from the book as above and the original Johnstone Twins illustrations from the book are owned by Ipswich Art School. Sudbury also has some charming Dalmatian topped posts marking the Old Marketplace behind St Peters as you face the end of North Street and has staged festivals celebrating the book.
We hold the animal characters in our favourite books from our youth close to our hearts- ask any adult what his favourite book was as a child and you will be able to pinpoint his decade of birth with relative ease. Some books transcend the generations though, either because they are continually reprinted and turned into films (Roald Dahls canon) or parents pass them onto their own children. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is a case in point in a country that is both horse and dog mad -this story of a horse and its child owners has timeless themes. Sewell was born in Great Yarmouth into a devoutly Quaker family and it is possible that her determination to feature an equine hero was born of her own accident in childhood that left her unable to stand without a crutch or to walk for any length of time. For greater mobility, she frequently used horse-drawn carriages.
Sewell’s only published work was Black Beauty, written during 1871 to 1877, after she had moved to Old Catton, a village outside the city of Norwich. During this time her health was declining and she was often so weak that she was confined to her bed, making writing a challenge. She dictated the text to her mother and from 1876 began to write on slips of paper which her mother transcribed. Sewell sold the novel to local publisher Jarrolds on 24 November 1877, when she was 58 years of age. Although it is now considered a children’s classic, she originally wrote it for those who worked with horses. She said “a special aim [was] to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”.
She died aged 57 and was buried on 30 April 1878 in the Quaker burial-ground at Lammas near Buxton, Norfolk, not far from Norwich, where a wall plaque now marks her resting place. Her birthplace in Church Plain, Great Yarmouth, has been the home to a museum and, as of 2014, a tea shop.
We will leave it to Norfolk writer Malcolm Bradbury to have the last word:
“A sense of place is fundamental to the writer. Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.”