Caught by the River

A postcard from Deep England

Melissa Harrison | 14th May 2018

Everything is too beautiful now, and I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what to do with it at all.

I moved to Suffolk last December. In the dead of winter my tiny, 300-year-old rented cottage was dimly lit and bone-cold, its garden a dead tangle. The days were short, and firewood expensive. I didn’t have a bed at first; then I had a bed but no mattress, because it wouldn’t fit up the narrow, twisted stairs. The woodburner kept going out. I was tired, and cold, and sad.

But even then I knew that come spring the village would be breathtaking. It wasn’t difficult to picture, though it was frequently hard to believe. As the little cottage slowly began to feel like a home, and I tramped the lanes and footpaths with and without my dog, it became clear that I had somehow found my way to a particularly lovely corner of England: picturesque, steeped in history, protected from development and wildlife-rich. In January the whole village was suddenly carpeted in snowdrops, and I began to ache for spring. I wanted to see it all surge back to life.

But spring was strange this year. There was snow, winds high enough to blow my neighbour’s chimney-pot off, then some mild temperatures – and then snow again, deep enough to cut the village off. We had some really heavy rain, and enjoyed a glorious few days of summer weather – only for it to turn cold and grey once more. But now it’s May, and we’ve just had a record-breaking Bank Holiday weekend: shorts weather, barbecue weather, too-hot-to-garden weather. And suddenly, as everything burgeons, it’s all too beautiful, and I don’t know what to do with it all.

I mean two things by that. I mean that I don’t know what to do with my feelings about it: pure gratitude wells up in me sometimes, though I have nobody to direct it at but myself for taking the blind leap that landed me here, for essentially lucking out. But I also mean that I don’t know what to turn this beauty into, creatively: for beauty is harder to write about without cliché than almost anything else. How can I put my feelings about this lovely village, these richly living fields and farms into words? How could I ever make it come to life in someone else’s mind?

My crooked little cottage is one of a row of three, built 300 years ago for farmworkers. It looks out over a watermeadow sown to thick, lush grass for hay, busy with rooks, rabbits, moles and hares and hunted by an elusive barn owl. On the other side of the meadow runs the A12 – the Boundway, as one of my visitors wryly called it, referencing the long, straight road that cuts past the little village of Lodeshill in my last novel, At Hawthorn Time. I can’t deny that my coming here is related to the dilemma I explored in that book: whether to leave London, whether it was possible to truly fit in in the countryside as an outsider, whether you could really live an authentic, connected life somewhere you had no roots at all, somewhere full of history but that held none of yours.

The village itself is scattered rather than compact, and bisected by the A-road. It once had a windmill and a pub, both now gone; the wonky old watermill, on the other side of the road, is now an antiques place. A few doors down from me is what was once one of the estate farms, now a lovely private dwelling; opposite it there’s a paddock occupied by four rescue ponies and some charming ducks and hens. Further on is a cluster of impossibly pretty cottages, some thatched and many painted Suffolk pink; one was once the village school, and one the cobbler’s workshop. There’s a stream and a ford, a small flock of sheep, a little flint church with a yew and fine Georgian rectory complete with rookery, and on the other side of the A12 graze a dozen glossy cows.

‘I’ve moved into an advert for butter,’ I find myself joking to friends, ‘or perhaps an Enid Blyton book’. Certainly, this is Deep England, that beguiling but exclusionary wellspring of English imagination and identity that’s starting to be explored by some of the writers and artists I know. I feel its siren call, and always have done: it’s been there in everything I write, not least All Among the Barley, which explores its power explicitly. But I am wary of it, too – and of the dangers of nostalgia more generally, whether the collective false memory of a white English Eden that never really existed, or for the ‘happy highways’ of our own lost childhoods, that cannot come again. When in London for work I stay in Bethnal Green, and there I revel in its sheer diversity, a richness I always took for granted before.

On a rise above the village – exactly where you’d expect it – sits the Big House with its cedar of Lebanon, still occupied by our local gentry. They are the reason we have no street lights, overhead power cables, excessive signage or dog bins; a benign form of the feudal system still holds sway here. Again, my feelings about this are complex and ambivalent; but there’s no denying the value of such stewardship, for without it this would not be such a beautiful place. Yet the result is not a village preserved in aspic, as some I visited while house-hunting seemed to be. There are post-war bungalows and some 1970s semis, and the modern farm shop and cafe, on the other side of the A12, is a busy and bustling community hub, complete with free wifi. But it remains somewhere where the past feels very present, and for me that can’t help but add a layer of richness to life here.

The other farm in the village is also now a private home, its outbuildings and barns converted and sold off too. But across the fields Hall Farm (there’s often a Hall or Home Farm on an estate such as this one) remains a going concern. The fields around the village are managed on a mixed rotational system which – so far, to me – seems to benefit wildlife, for it’s not every agricultural landscape that can boast hares and hedgehogs, yellowhammers and stoats, barn owls and kestrels and nightingales. Muck is spread on the fields, as well as nitrogen pellets; sheep graze the fodder beet and then are moved on. It may not be farming’s mid-Victorian golden age, or the old-fashioned husbandry of the interwar period that I’ve been writing about in All Among the Barley, but neither is it brutal, modern agribusiness, and for that I am very glad.

But these are mere facts, when I wanted to write about beauty: about the way mist lies, some mornings, across the watermeadows, crack willows rising from it ghostly and dim; the way cow parsley presses in so thickly at the path edges that the way is almost blocked; the smell of lilacs and cut grass and wisteria sent up by the village gardens; the screams of swifts and the high, reeling song of skylarks constantly overhead. As I write one covert, planted long ago for foxes, is carpeted in bluebells; a little wood bordering the narrow lane to the next village is loud, at night, with the astonishing sound of two nightingales. There are even otters and water voles here, I’m told, though I haven’t yet seen them; the overall sense is one of a community of a great number of living things.

And perhaps it’s in this that the beauty inheres, because it surely isn’t only about the pretty houses, or the fat lambs in the fields. I’ve been longing for so many years to live somewhere that felt in in some kind of partnership with nature, not celebrating a victory over it – which isn’t a town vs country dichotomy, by any means. I’ve wanted a sense of history, too, and one of community – more community than I could find in London – but community for me includes the non-human, too.

This isn’t about over-romanticising the countryside. I know that the crops here are sprayed and pigeons shot, and that the warrens run rife with myxomatosis. There are woods Scout and I can’t go into without risking the ire of the gamekeeper, or disturbing the pheasant poults; others, overbrowsed by deer, are no longer good nightingale habitat. I can see that the hedges have been badly flailed for years, while some of my neighbours cut theirs in bird-nesting season; six weeks ago ‘my’ barn owl was killed on the A12. I’m far from unaware of the loss of abundance that even protected corners of the countryside like mine have suffered in the course of my lifetime, and I’ve also picked up several bin-bags full of litter since I’ve been here.

And yet.

There is still a richness in this fragment of Deep England, and yes: it reminds me of my childhood, when the world felt so much more full of life. It is a privilege – and I am privileged – to be able to enjoy it. It feels like being granted some kind of reprieve.


All Among the Barley (pub. August 23) is set in Suffolk in 1934.