Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).
The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.
Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.
There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.
Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.
Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.
MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.
James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.
He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.
Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’
Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book, Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif. Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’
Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.
Laying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.
The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.
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.”