Recalling my summers abroad... over the Suffolk border

Suffolk echoes of harvests done. Man and horse, corn and mill in harmony at Thornham Parva

Suffolk echoes of harvests done. Man and horse, corn and mill in harmony at Thornham Parva - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper’s expanding his horizons this week with wonderful memories spent in Suffolk

I still surprise myself by turning over something precious in my mind – and then discovering it belongs to the last century!

Well, at least I can tell the grandchildren I started getting old in a different millennium. If that fails to impress, there’s always a big pile of hand-written articles to prove creative life could flourish before all-powerful technology.

A batch under the heading “A Norfolkman in Suffolk” emerged from a brief skirmish with the past under my study desk the other evening. They were penned in late August, 1997. That sounds much older than just saying 23 years ago.

For the third late summer in a row, the Skipper family took up temporary residence in East Suffolk, swapping homes with friends whose rural retreat had long convinced us that life beyond Beccles did carry real appeal.

We wandered down dusty lanes where haphazard hedges awaited the reds and rusts of autumn. We tiptoed into freshly--harvested fields just to feel and smell the stubble. We sauntered past snoozing villages, some of them clinging to the coastline for a hint of coolness.

We even celebrated discovery of a parking space in Southwold, still managing to be polite and well-heeled for all the August invaders. I couldn’t resist repeating my line about the place merely being “Cromer with an A Level”.

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Of course, my hard-earned reputation as a tardy traveller inspired a few more rounds of old favourites like “Don’t you ever get tired of missionary work?” and “Not like you to venture abroad!”. I reminded them that even the twisting road to Frostenden is paved with good intentions.

This idyllic country base for our family break could have betrayed something of my preoccupation with vast changes on the agricultural scene, particularly at harvest time, since my childhood in the middle of Norfolk.

Some might have considered it mildly perverse that I should use Suffolk to find echoes of those days before mechanical giants took over to beat and sweep and glean in one mighty roar. A mite ironic, maybe, but certain regrets and thanksgivings know no simple boundaries.

I happened to be in Suffolk at the most evocative time of year for someone raised among shoofs and corn stacks, horses and binders, scores of farming men and family fourses under the hedge. Hard graft with a proper community glow.

On the first evening of our 1997 holiday, as the sun died gloriously and a little breeze dared to ruffle taller trees, I stole out alone to laud and lament, to open yesterday’s gate on today’s close-shaved field along the lane.

I chided myself. Sentimental old left-over, chasing imaginary rabbits with a whittled stick! It was nearly dark as I turned away from a rural canvas lit so memorably by Adrian Bell many harvests ago …

“Outside, the moon is up …the harvest moon over harvest field. It casts a sheen upon the empty stubbles, the bare rounding slopes, so altered from the close-crowded landscapes of standing corn. It has glimmering secrets among the trees, and pierces into every entanglement of foliage, and lays faint shadows across the paths”.

“Each finds a ghost of himself beside him on the ground. An elusive radiance haunts the country; the distances have a sense of shining mist. The men move homeward from the field; the last load creaking up the hill behind them”.

He wrote that as a farmer and outstanding countryside scribe in Suffolk. I read it again in Suffolk to prove my harvest of memories may not all be tied up with the bindertwine of imagination.

A valuable bonus came my way on this safari with a reminder how asking for directions in the Suffolk countryside can be just as adventurous as seeking guidance in darkest Norfolk. I was handed this official example of Suffolk support for lost souls:

“Dew yaou goo as far as Wiggses farm, then tarn agin tew haystacks, then howd to the left, past the parson’s, down a hill, over the bridge, then take the second rood to the right, and if yaou keep a’goin right, yaou carn’t goo wrong”.

Norfolk advice can be far more concise on the rural circuit as newcomers and visitors seek enlightenment on a wet day in August: “Excuse me, my good man, but could you possibly inform me where this road goes to?” Obligatory dawdling peasant: “That dunt go nowhere. That stay here where thass wanted”.

Skip’s Aside: After last week’s batch of favourite quotes about Norfolk from more recent times, I have been urged to dip into the dim and distant past. So here are a few gems stretching back to the 17th century:

All England may be carved out of Norfolk, represented therein not only to the kind but degree itself. Here are fens and heaths, and light and deep, and sand and clay ground, and meadows and pastures, and arable and woody, and (generally) woodless land, so grateful is this shire with the variety thereof.—Thomas Fuller, 1662.

The greatest piece of husbandry in which Norfolk excels is in the management of turnips, from which it derives an inestimable advantage – Nathaniel Bacon, 1796.

There is no better playground in England, and certainly none easier of access or more cheaply to be enjoyed. – George Christopher Davies (Norfolk Broads and Rivers) 1883.

So great was the change from the bustle of fashion to this unbroken quiet that I could scarcely believe that I was only parted by a dip of coastline from music and laughter and seaside merriment, from bands and bathing machines, from crochet and circulating libraries. – Clement Scott, 1886.

The little town of Watton left behind, we soon entered upon a wild wooded country where the signs of human habitation were few and far between. – James John Hissey, 1889.

Although Norfolk is one of the driest counties in England because of its extreme eastern position, still it does have rain, and when it is in earnest, it does come down, too. – Ernest Suffling, 1899.

The first sight of Blickling Hall is one of the greatest surprise that can possibly befall the traveller in search of the picturesque. – Charles Harper, 1904.

Why go to the Alps or hanker after the Mediterranean or think of Germany – pshaw! – when a sort of Eden by the Yare winds round the bends. – Arthur Patterson, 1923.

We listened to other boomings as we were quanted home , and as we stepped out on the lodge lawn, in the falling dark of the June evening, there came across the water the calls that I had never thought to hear together – a bittern’s and a cuckoo’s. – Eric Parker, 1929.

It was the least changed part of old England, with only a few visitors in summer, -- Henry Williamson, 1941.