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Branwen Lucas, Julian Tennyson - Slightly Foxed Issue 23

Silly Suffolk

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The year 2004 was what I shall call my ‘Suffolk Year’, one in which I immersed myself in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes through a workshop and performance at Covent Garden and a concert performance elsewhere. Britten is a magician. He can conjure up the sea, rivers and salt marshes of Suffolk, the battering North Sea storms and the endless blue skies that seduce you into believing the calm will endure; and the isolation too, which is one theme of the opera.

And then there was my ten-day stay in the last of the old timber-built fishermen’s cottages in the remote hamlet of Shingle Street just south of Orford, a strand of shingle, as the name implies, but during my childhood holidays in the 1930s still a small fishing village of cottages built in line behind rising banks of shingle, with huts for fishing nets and tackle, and smokeries for herring. Then the Lifeboat Inn (destroyed by friendly fire in the Second World War – it was used for target practice) kept company with the solid buildings housing the coastguards.

Above all, 2004 introduced me to Julian Tennyson’s Suffolk Scene. It was written in 1938 at the time of the Munich crisis and published in June 1939, just before the outbreak of war. Tennyson called it a book of ‘Description and Adventure’. He was 23, and hoped for a career in writing. In 1939, like many other young men, he could not stand by with war imminent, and so he enlisted in the London Irish Rifles. His optimism that he would survive was sadly misplaced. He was killed by a Japanese mortar bomb at Arakan in Burma in 1945.

Julian Tennyson was one of the three sons of Sir Charles Tennyson, grandson of the poet, and his links with Suffolk began, like mine, with family visits when he was a young boy. These awakened his interest in the county, and from 1930 his stays there became regular, and then permanent when he made his home at Aldeburgh. Subsequently he moved inland (from his writings I suspect to a

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The year 2004 was what I shall call my ‘Suffolk Year’, one in which I immersed myself in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes through a workshop and performance at Covent Garden and a concert performance elsewhere. Britten is a magician. He can conjure up the sea, rivers and salt marshes of Suffolk, the battering North Sea storms and the endless blue skies that seduce you into believing the calm will endure; and the isolation too, which is one theme of the opera.

And then there was my ten-day stay in the last of the old timber-built fishermen’s cottages in the remote hamlet of Shingle Street just south of Orford, a strand of shingle, as the name implies, but during my childhood holidays in the 1930s still a small fishing village of cottages built in line behind rising banks of shingle, with huts for fishing nets and tackle, and smokeries for herring. Then the Lifeboat Inn (destroyed by friendly fire in the Second World War – it was used for target practice) kept company with the solid buildings housing the coastguards. Above all, 2004 introduced me to Julian Tennyson’s Suffolk Scene. It was written in 1938 at the time of the Munich crisis and published in June 1939, just before the outbreak of war. Tennyson called it a book of ‘Description and Adventure’. He was 23, and hoped for a career in writing. In 1939, like many other young men, he could not stand by with war imminent, and so he enlisted in the London Irish Rifles. His optimism that he would survive was sadly misplaced. He was killed by a Japanese mortar bomb at Arakan in Burma in 1945. Julian Tennyson was one of the three sons of Sir Charles Tennyson, grandson of the poet, and his links with Suffolk began, like mine, with family visits when he was a young boy. These awakened his interest in the county, and from 1930 his stays there became regular, and then permanent when he made his home at Aldeburgh. Subsequently he moved inland (from his writings I suspect to a village behind Dunwich, although this is not stated). It must have been very early in the 1930s that he began his detailed exploration of the county. The book that followed is no dry guide, but a sparkling record of his love affair with this often neglected part of East Anglia, the area known in Saxon times as selig, meaning blessed or holy, which was corrupted to ‘silly’ – hence the saying ‘Silly Suffolk’. Tennyson takes you by the hand and gently leads you through inland villages such as Kersey, lying east of Ipswich and built either side of a tumbling stream, then further east to the better-known towns of Long Melford, where the cathedral-like Church of the Holy Trinity stands proud on a hill, and Lavenham, whose great church contains, among many small stone carvings, one of an infant in swaddling clothes. And on to Blythburgh, inland from Southwold and Walberswick, where the ‘loneliest church in Suffolk’ stands on a ‘knoll beside the river [Blyth] in the midst of a great ocean of marsh and heath, brooding graciously over the few cottages that are the pitiable relics of a once wealthy port . . . sublime and dramatic’. Of the many small Saxon and Norman village churches he explores, one of my favourite is the square-towered, flint, plaster and rubble-faced church at Ramsholt, on the east bank of the river Deben, not far from the village of Alderton, home of my grandmother’s family, where she had a cottage and where she is buried. I remember how my mother and I would sneak into the church at Ramsholt, she trying out the organ and I pulling on the bells and then running off before I could be caught by the verger. There was an old pub overlooking the river Deben where I was first given a taste of my father’s beer as we watched the fishing boats sail downriver towards the sea in search of a catch, or upriver to Woodbridge. Tennyson’s favourite village church was a little further north, at Iken, a hamlet on ‘the loveliest part of the river Alde’, between Snape and Aldeburgh. He describes the church and rectory, standing ‘lonely on a little wooded hill at the head of the bay that curves sharply back beneath bracken and oak trees and steep sandy cliffs’. It was here that he wished to be buried. Tennyson guides us through the handsome towns and villages of the west to ‘the real glory of Suffolk, the coast’, and there is much to be seen on the way – the lovely water meadows of the Stour, the towerless church of St Mary the Virgin at East Bergholt, where Constable lived and painted. Cardinal Wolsey undertook to finance the building of the tower as compensation for money he had levied towards the cost of his college at Ipswich, but he died before it was completed. Local myth suggests that each time building began it was knocked down. Tennyson’s informant, an old man, told him it was the ‘Davil’s’ work. And of course there is Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s cottage. Tennyson imagines a conversation between Constable and Willy:
Willy: ‘What be yew a doin’ on, John boy? Be paintin’ th’ould farm agin, hey?’ Constable: ‘That’s right, Willy.’ Willy: ‘Don’t yew niver git tired on it, boy? . . . Don’t yew niver want to be orf and paint somewheres else, like?’ And a few minutes later Willy comes across, sucking the remnants of his dinner from between his teeth, to stand in silence behind the shoulder of the tall intent figure on the bank. Willy: ‘B’aint that a marvellous rum thing!’
Reaching the coast Tennyson comments that along the fifty miles between Lowestoft to the north and Felixstowe to the south, only a handful or two of towns and villages are in fact on the coast itself. Erosion by the sea has taken its toll of many places here, most significantly Dunwich, the chief stronghold of Christianity in seventh-century Britain and a flourishing medieval wool port, gradually reduced to a mere village; Aldeburgh, perhaps Tennyson’s best-loved town, has suffered too, as have Orford, Walberswick and Southwold. ‘To think that the Suffolk ports were once so strong that in the time of Elizabeth they supplied between them one-seventh of the British Fleet!’ Tennyson writes. This ever-changing coast is dotted with Martello towers striding behind the shore, protection against the feared Napoleonic invasion. They were built around 1800 on the lines of the Corsican defences of Martello Point. The fine tower at Shingle Street was a magical playground for my sister and me on our holidays during the 1930s. But ‘they are cold eerie places, these Martellos’, writes Tennyson.
Years ago, when I lived in Aldeburgh, it used to be my delight on Sunday afternoons to sit in the dismal dungeons of the Tower beyond Slaughden Quay and, when I heard a courting couple coming into the hall above me, to send them shrieking and scuttling with a few ghostly notes on my penny whistle.
South of Aldeburgh the coastal waters and the outflowing river Alde are the scenes of Tennyson’s daring expeditions as a child and young man. Here one feels oneself tiptoeing mentally, shielding one’s eyes and holding one’s breath as he tells of near-drowning in a capsized boat or of being sucked down by mud when wildfowling. Without doubt he valued the freedom to make these perilous expeditions, for he expresses gratitude to his parents for ‘an upbringing which made possible my early adventures’. My own holiday adventure – rowing from Shingle Street to Havergate Island to picnic on cold rabbit pie – seems tame by comparison. Tennyson must have been a young man of great sensitivity and quiet patience to observe and write so tellingly of what he found in this county of infinite variety. If I were to select just one section of the book to keep for all time it would have to be Tennyson’s lengthy description of a conversation he had with ‘a bent, ancient man, slowly and methodically cutting the grass of the hedge-bank with a reap hook’ in the village of Hoxne, a few miles north-east of Bury St Edmunds. Tennyson asked the old man if he knew anything about St Edmund, East Anglia’s patron saint, slain by the Danes at Boldbrook Bridge in AD 870. What follows is a detailed description of Edmund’s life and death in Suffolk dialect, which Ronald Blythe (author of another East Anglian classic, Akenfield; see SF, No. 11), in his introduction to the 1979 edition of Suffolk Scene, describes as ‘altogether exceptional. Only somebody very close to the area could have caught the voice so authentically.’ Certainly reading these pages of strong Suffolk dialect is akin to hearing the spoken words. Suffolk Scene is full of these Suffolk voices – voices I knew as a child. It is a haunting book, which sings of the sea and wide open skies. I shall be for ever grateful to Julian Tennyson for sharing the county he loved with me.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 23 © Branwen Lucas 2009


About the contributor

Branwen Lucas’s own love affair with Suffolk began in infancy and extended through childhood when she attended A. S. Neil’s Summerhill School. Regular returns since, if only for a day to eat fish and chips sitting on the sea wall at Aldeburgh or shellfish at Orford, feed her passion.

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