The middle volume of Adrian Bell’s inter-war farming trilogy, Silver Ley (1931), is, in its quiet, unassuming way, the most poignant memoir I think I have ever read. Picking up where his first book Corduroy left off, it opens in 1921 as Bell wakes up for the very first time on his own Suffolk farm, full of hope, with two newly bought heavy horses, Darkie and Dewdrop, stamping in the yard. When it closes, something under a decade later, it’s with a clear sense of the irrevocable changes that have taken place both in the countryside and the wider economy – and a further, dizzying sense, unavailable then to Bell, of how much more would change in the years to come.
Although part of a trilogy, Silver Ley works perfectly well as a stand-alone book. London-born Bell (who began setting The Times crossword in 1930 and continued to do so for nearly fifty years) had spent the year described in Corduroy apprenticed to a Suffolk farmer and landowner he calls ‘Mr Colville’. Bell’s father, a newspaper editor, seems at first not to have thought a great deal of his son’s agricultural ambitions, but Bell would go on to farm successfully for sixty years, beginning with Silver Ley’s 50 acres. It was no passing fad.
All three books in the trilogy are parochial in the best sense, the sense Patrick Kavanagh had in mind when he called himself a ‘parochial poet’. Kavanagh believed that ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience . . . a gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience’ – and Bell says something similar: ‘There are worlds within worlds, and to know thoroughly the whole of a single acre of my land would have taken several lifetimes.’
But if Corduroy is all about youthful enthusiasm and the thrill of new experiences, Silver
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