TOAST Magazine

Calibrating a Rural Relocation

LAND & GARDEN

In the final weeks of summer I came to inland Suffolk with my wife and six-month-old baby to look after a house and garden once belonging to an artist of renown, and in doing so began adjusting to an unfamiliar landscape. Having never spent any length of time in the East of England, its countryside lay like a heavy open book: inviting, intriguing, and at the same time — for me, at least — daunting.

Uninitiated with new surroundings I tend to retreat inward, but in order to forge a connection here meant overcoming the inescapable fact of this being immensely well-trodden ground. Known and beloved by artists and writers of local and national eminence, and between whom every inch of field, hedgerow, wood and river has been committed to print or painting. This isn’t to say that I expected to put down roots during my stay (perhaps in some way I did), only that prospective intimacy felt somehow predetermined by historic and contemporary footprints. This, of course, turned out to be untrue.

To illustrate just how comprehensive the creative heritage is, however, I’ll begin on the doorstep and move outwards. My desk — set up in the smallest room at the top of the artist’s house — faces a view of the Brett River, painted by Lucian Freud under the tutelage of Sir Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, who together ran the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. The celebrated war painter John Nash, also a frequent visitor, distilled the surrounding fields into works of compelling subtlety including ‘Landscape Near Hadleigh’. Hadleigh itself, our nearby market town, produced the artist Maggi Hambling. Follow the river south just a little way to where it meets the Stour and you’ll enter Constable country, having on the way crossed paths with Gainsborough and Alfred Munnings, and the author Adrian Bell, whose best-seller Corduroy comforted homesick soldiers of the Second World War with its characterisation of rural traditions. Arcing towards the coast you’ll run into the meditative trail of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which haunts Lowestoft and Southwold before turning inland for Bungay. From here you could either continue on to what is now firmly Roger Deakin-land, turn southwest into the falconry flight paths of Helen Macdonald, or head back out to coastal Aldeburgh for E. M Forster, Benjamin Britten and, latterly, Ronald Blythe, writer of Akenfield, which best describes pastoral pre-war Suffolk and whose memoir The Time by the Sea puts into personal context many of the names above.

My intention therefore, was to slip into a natural rhythm of writing early and spending the afternoons in the garden or walking the fields. This is the routine I have long strived towards, perhaps after reading John Stewart Collis who, like Adrian Bell, exchanged a Londoner’s life for the rigours of a rural farm, and claimed he had therein discovered the ideal existence, alternating strenuous physical work, walking and writing. Each activity in theory influences the other in its engagement with the landscape. Days in which this balance is successfully struck are intrinsically fulfilling; the opposite, when neither domain receives fruitful attention, feel acutely disorientating. There is a kind of halfway, too, when the view over the river fixes the eye and, neither working nor going out to meet it, I’ll sit and watch the current for sudden swirls or a resident moorhen, and the alders above for perching cormorants, kestrels and jackdaws; the tractor beyond ploughing perfect lines and greenfinches harvesting the foreground maples. I’ve lost hours to this, but wonder to what extent it progresses my comprehension of the landscape — does it in any way compare with moving physically through it?

Long, deep-rooted tenancies have undoubtedly proven instrumental to the best of what we consider ‘nature writing’. Nan Shepherd in the Cairngorms, Richard Mabey over the Chilterns, J. A. Baker twitching in Chelmsford or Gavin Maxwell, Derek Jarman, Mary Oliver, Gilbert White in their respective home-patch haunts. Conversely, great insights can arrive on the move: Edward Thomas cycling the southern counties in pursuit of spring; W. H. Hudson ‘afoot in England’; Robert Macfarlane’s venturing to the Wild Places of the British Isles. Here, observations and thoughts flow to the rhythm of moving feet. But I find I am drawn most to the works of short-term residencies — immersions in what are for the author distinctly alien environments. Like Neil Ansel as a five-year hermit in mid-Wales or Henry Beston in the ‘outermost house’ on Cape Cod; R. M. Lockley writing letters from his rented island of Skokholm in Pembrokeshire. Unlike the previous categories, these writings are shaped by the immediacy and contrast inherent in adopting an all-new domain, along with a length of time devoted to interpreting it. For all his Chilterns writing, Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure is testament to the powerful jolt of relocation: “Less than six months after moving to East Anglia I felt back in touch … grounded,” and “close to the marrow of things.”

Re-reading some of this much loved prose recently I came to the realisation that the pursuit of a daily rhythm may in fact be misguided. It is not so much the rhythm we adopt but the rhythms of nature that connect us with a place. As Ronald Blythe writes, “the land is all view and I am all viewer, and soon the ecological patterns and colours not only spread before me but permeate me, and I become part of what I am seeing.” When I think about patterns I think of the alternating yellow and purple of willows and alders along the river; the kestrel arriving daily by sunup to map the fields for mice. I try to discern a refrain in the gesticulation of submerged reeds.

In December last year heavy rainfall preceded a sudden drop in temperature, resulting in the overnight freezing of floodwater in the Brett Valley. What could not be drained by the swollen river fastened hard over the adjacent field, and its sycamores, hawthorns and willows, clearly used to wet feet and the pressure of occasional currents, were made islands in a crystallised lake. I watched this from my desk at the high window, some 100-metres from the water, with dawn revealing as a red glow slowly disseminating beneath ice. That day — it lasted only a day — patterns were thrown out; a shift in the rhythmic activity: no kestrels, no moorhens, no herons. In their place, far into the field where the ice was now rippled by shimmering sunlight, a flurry of plovers — or maybe wagtails, they were so desaturated in the brightness — raced about the mirror, stopping only momentarily at protruding tufts of green. They moved with the fluid, unpredictable motion of raindrops down a window pane and were beautiful to watch, which I did until the reflected light became unbearable.

When I later went down to the ice it was already melting; the plovers or wagtails were replaced by a solitary Bewick’s swan floating to the centre of the pool. Rhythms are the currency of nature writers, but spontaneity — moments when the rhythms recalibrate — can reveal a landscape anew for even fleeting or temporary visitors.

Words and images by Matt Collins. 

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