A Year of Suffolk Reading
I have spent 29 of my 33 years surrounded by the countryside around Bury St. Edmunds. My childhood home was almost exactly in the middle of nowhere, on an unnamed road between two villages. Arable and pasture land stretched in every direction and, for my sister and I, this was our playground. At different times, the field next to our house was home to sheep, cows and – during one particularly nerve-racking year – a bull. On hot summer nights, I would camp in the garden with friends and listen to deer barking in nearby woodland.
Buying our first house after returning to Suffolk from university, Elle and I now live within a 5-minute walk of the countryside, and on our lunch breaks we watch the often-conflicting rhythms of nature and agriculture in the fields. On one day we might watch a team of farm workers harvesting a field of potatoes with state-of-the-art potato-sorting equipment, and on another stand in awe as hares race each other around indifferent pheasants.
Yet, despite this proximity to wildlife and farming I can safely say that until last year I had never given the countryside much thought. At school I had friends who were involved in the business of farming, but for me the countryside was just a backdrop, albeit one that I had missed while studying at university.
This year, however, we decided it was time to give the countryside a little more attention. We set ourselves reading resolutions: five rural reads, covering nature-writing and books about rural communities, and I soon fell in love with the books about the people who have lived, worked and farmed in Suffolk.
Partly, this is a very personal love. Over the past year, I have felt a growing connection with the agricultural history of Suffolk, and I have been fascinated to read about the changing fortunes of farming in these parts. It has given me a strange satisfaction to fill the gaps in the narrative, see how each generation continues the story.
In Corduroy, Adrian Bell, moving to Suffolk from London in his late-teens in 1920, discusses farming with Old Mr Colville, one of the last Victorian farmers in the neighbourhood, who had been farming those parts since the 1870s. In his 1969 Akenfield, Ronald Blythe interviews the 88-year-old John Grout, a farmer who had been working Suffolk fields since Adrian Bell’s days.
An unbroken record of farming here in Suffolk reaching back at least 170 years.
I have been trying to fill-in the story since then by questioning my father-in-law, now in his early 70s, who grew-up in rural Suffolk in the 1950s and 60s, when Ronald Blythe was writing Akenfield. I have found listening to his memories of watching his own father working on the fields he can still see from his kitchen window today immensely moving.
Together, this offers an unbroken record of farming here in Suffolk reaching back at least 170 years.
The other aspect of my reading that I have found fascinating is learning about the artistic side of Suffolk. I have always been fascinated by exploring local creative networks – the Bloomsbury Group, the Manchester School – where art and community create the perfect conditions for creativity, and the lines between public and private blur.
We are often told (usually by city-dwellers) that creativity is something that only ever happens in cities (usually London). But many creative people have had to escape from London to find their inspiration - the Great Bardfield Artists and the St Ives School for instance.
I really enjoyed learning more about one of these rambling creative networks here in Suffolk, stretching between the seaside town of Aldeburgh and Stour valley, and including composers Benjamin Britain and Imogen Holst, singer and Britten’s partner Peter Pears, opera librettist Eric Crozier, writers E. M. Forster, Ronald Blythe, and Adrian Bell and artists John Nash, Cedric Morris and Maggi Hambling. Aldeburgh has become something of a second home for us, too, and we are drawn down each year by the Aldeburgh Festival, my love of Britten’s music, and the thriving artistic community.
This year’s reading has helped me rediscover a love for my home county, its history and its culture. And there is plenty more reading planned…
A Suffolk Reading List:
Ronald Blythe, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (Penguin)
Ronald Blythe, Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year (Penguin)
Ronald Blythe, The Time By the Sea: Aldeburgh 1955-1958 (Faber and Faber)
Adrian Bell, Corduroy (Slightly Foxed)
Adrian Bell, Silver Ley (Slightly Foxed)
Adrian Bell, The Cherry Tree (Slightly Foxed)
Adrian Bell, A Countryman’s Winter Notebook, selected by Richard Hawking (Slightly Foxed)
Adrian Bell, The Green Bond (out of print)
Adrian Bell, By-Road (out of print)
George Ewart Evans, The Crooked Scythe: An Anthology of Oral History (Faber and Faber)
W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (Vintage)
John Seymour, The Fat of the Land (Little Toller)