Ronald Blythe’s love letter to the English countryside — Akenfield — is a modern classic. Now, as he dies aged 100, lose yourself in his lyrical evocation of the frozen majesty of January
Ronald Blythe, who died this week aged 100, was one of our greatest nature writers. Best known for Akenfield, his classic portrait of English village life in Suffolk, he lived for the last 45 years of his life at Bottengoms Farm, a house at the end of an overgrown track, inherited from the painter John Nash, whom he nursed until his death in 1977.
In Blythe’s long-running column for the Church Times, Word From Wormingford, he recorded rural life and the beauties of the Suffolk countryside.
Here, in exquisite extracts from his final book, a compilation of those columns, he writes about the month of January, with its bleak but beautiful landscape, his peaceful life both in and out of doors — and the eventual arrival of snow . . .
Approaching snow. I think I can smell it. The fields ache in the cold. A brave band of chrome yellow straight out of my old paintbox streaks across the sky. All the trees are still.
My neighbour David telephones. Have I got bread? He can get down the track to the farmhouse in the Land Rover.
The snow is now very near. Fragments of the Christmas fall wait in the ditches to welcome it. The clouds cannot move. The roses rattle.
The oil tank is full and the log corner high with split ash, and the fridge still mildly bursting. Wonderful leftovers. What is more delectable than a half-eaten pie?
The snow is now very near. Fragments of the Christmas fall wait in the ditches to welcome it. The clouds cannot move. The roses rattle
Distant friends ring. ‘Are you snowed in? We are thinking of you.’
I am past New Year’s resolutions. Or rather, I am more a daily than a yearly resolver, getting up each morning determined to do this and not do that. Sometimes making a little list entitled ‘To Be Done’ and ticking off each achievement by evening. There have been too many New Year’s Days riddled with failure for me to take them seriously any more.
So be it. I have just remembered my most dutifully kept New Year’s task, which is to list what flowers are still in bloom — always an astonishing number.
Diaries begin. First, self-assessments, then by February a comfortable falling back into old habits.
Ah, if only we all performed what we promised, how satisfying this would be. Nature does. Bulbs tip the surface and will bloom, catkin stubs on the January branch will tassel.
The sun just showing above the hill will run up the sky. I observe it, drinking tea by the window through which the old farmers stared, generation after generation. Same sun, same hill, and Shakespeare 60 miles away in London, writing A Winter’s Tale.
The first walk of the year. Over the great field which was once ten fields. Fine flints glitter in the set-aside, fine rosettes of thistle, fine puddles in the ridges to catch the clouds, fine gulls on their way to a bit of ploughing.
My little wood whistles and shakes as I come home to it and I am tempted to do some thinning with a bow-saw. But the cold is taking my ears off, so it must be desk work instead.
The sun just showing above the hill will run up the sky. I observe it, drinking tea by the window through which the old farmers stared, generation after generation.
An appalling thought enters my head. Supposing I had come home to one of those television house and garden makeovers, to tons of decking and a blue pagoda and that wild woman with the Rapunzel hair! But all is well. The postman’s van is the only vehicle in sight.
My brother telephones from Australia. He is homesick for winter. ‘It is 28 degrees here, if this means anything to you. Are you breaking the ice in the water butt?’
A few thin ice needles hang from the eaves. ‘Do I remember skating on the North meadows?’ he asks. Do I! One needs some chilly memories to cheer one up when the stonework round the swimming pool burns one’s bare feet.
It is Twelfth Night. I take down the holly. Log fires have dulled its gloss. The white cat has done for the Christmas cards. No sooner do I stand them up than she mows them down, believing this to be her duty.
I shove crushed wrapping-paper into a sack unceremoniously, empty ashes and remove wizened apples, when, without warning, an Epiphany sun blazes in, making the ancient interior look trashy and in need of a good putting-to-rights.
As children, we took down the paper chains and folded up the paper bells with sadness. We watched the snowman drip into nothing, and witnessed his dying. Everything was different then, as it was bound to be.
We watched the snowman drip into nothing, and witnessed his dying. Everything was different then, as it was bound to be
Many old country people called Twelfth Night ‘the real Christmas’. When ice and snow made it impossible to work, play took over. In freezing Victorian classrooms, the children would be told to stand up and ‘beat your arms’ to get the circulation going. One reason for our present post-Twelfth Night aches is that our blood barely circulates.
Families dine on sofas, not at tables. But then the Three Kings probably dined on a carpet.
I type a page or two, read a chapter, listen to a story on the radio, water hyacinths, answer letters and call it a day. For such is the literary life. All go.
I could pick a bunch of primroses. Not that I will, for their open presence near the house must not be disturbed. But here they are, about a dozen of them, in the Epiphany sunshine, forerunners of thousands.
I could pick a bunch of primroses. Not that I will, for their open presence near the house must not be disturbed.
Late cards continue to limp in. Mourners go about the churchyard removing dead flowers. Sacks of ‘Christmas’ await the dustman.
The lanes are all under water, the skies awash, the river rising — were it not for the elder and willow tree line, who could tell where the river was?
London commuters splash their way to the station. With dawn come mallard and swans, and white water as far as the eye can see. It shines harshly. It has come to rule us.
But the ancient and wily men who built our riverside farms and cottages built them just out of reach of these annually flooding streams. Even where they did get in, they were soon brushed out again and could hardly make the ground floors damper than they usually were — and all the year round.
NEIGHBOURS call. These are neighbourly days. Hugh the vet sits in the guest chair, having sploshed down the track. The ditches roar with rainfall, lakes are spreading across the lanes and the river will be rising under our bridge.
Max, the other cat, gives Hugh a long, green-eyed stare which says, ‘I am a perfectly healthy cat, so none of your tricks.’ He is certainly a perfectly ungrateful cat. Hugh has brought me a summery photograph of the Little Horkesley road, the stretch which I hurry along to the bus, and which at this moment is pretty well immersed, but which in the picture is stripy with sunlight, with towering hedges and leafy oaks touching overhead.
We talk of animals, of the coming and going of herds, of retirement, of a new year.
The Epiphany sunsets are furious, vast blazing caves of lurid light. Each evening they burn the field across which a dog fox trots, taking his time, trailing his brush through the inch-high corn.
At night the stars are extra-shining, making the Stansted planes dim in comparison.
A strange day. Two hours of brilliant sunshine, and many hours of freezing fog. Except it isn’t freezing — just as cold, but liquid, lanes all sloppy mud, and the wetness being blown out of the trees by a slight wind.
I would have stayed indoors, but for urgent business with our village post office — for which God be praised. Heather emerges to sell me three books of stamps, and I find myself remembering a lifetime of country shopkeepers who emerged from a curtained holy-of-holies to serve me; and that never once have I seen inside these secret rooms.
But then their potent mystery would be gone for ever. Heather and I tell each other what a ghastly day it is. And then she’s gone.
Heather emerges to sell me three books of stamps, and I find myself remembering a lifetime of country shopkeepers who emerged from a curtained holy-of-holies to serve me; and that never once have I seen inside these secret rooms
Back at the farmhouse, Jonathan has taken my rubbish up to the top for the dustmen. It sways garishly on his muddy runabout, which looks as if it is constructed out of Meccano. The dustmen are exacting, and have to be waited on hand and foot. It is a blue day: bottles, Whiskas tins and newspapers.
Ten thousand starlings fly over, all talking at once. And then comes the wondrous sight that I could not have seen yesterday, and can only just make out today, as the light is so bad: scores of matt-white snowdrop heads in the mulch below the quince tree.
The white cat sits on a brick surveying them, or rather surveying why I am hanging about in weather like this when it is teatime.
Market day. The village bus twists and turns through the lanes. On it are old folk, students, workmen, the woman who reads paperbacks all the way. In the market town the stone griffins on the church tower maintain their watch. I sense a new feeling of things not being as prosperous as they were.
And, as always, faces from boyhood appear in the old street — not phantom features, but young faces grown old along with my own, especially in Waitrose.
Each near-dawn, tea in hand, I sit watching the great hazel tree filter in the day. Its companion was coppiced two years ago, but, remembering how this tree let in the light with a gradualness that suited me, I stayed my hand.
What petty power, I now think. It shames me to write it down. But there it is, the 40ft hazel with its frothing catkins and fanning boughs.
At first — it is 6.30 and still January — it does no more than shift darkness. But by seven it is a mutation of sumptuous verticals of colour. Then the sun fires it, and the uncurtained window is too blazing to contemplate.
Yesterday, something very odd occurred. Forty or so men trotted over the hill and into the valley. Backpacked, not chattering like the crocodiles of ramblers, they were soldiers getting up steam — maybe for Afghanistan. Easy on their feet, they passed through the hazel screen so quickly that I might have imagined them.
‘What we need is a good hard frost,’ says the unknown rider as she squelches up the track, her horse’s hooves imprinting watery cicatrices in the mud.
‘Yes,’ I say supinely, for to be honest I find these warm January days blissful. I too squelch from flowerbed to flowerbed, from bush to tree whilst a blackbird sings aloft. The air is brand new from whichever quarter it mildly blows.
But ‘good hard frosts’, snowfalls and bitter north winds, and Robin trying to keep himself warm, poor thing, will they be no more?
Don’t count on it. Little Ice Age [the regional cooling of the 16th and 17th centuries] or global warming, winter wild will come again. So make the most of a tropical January.
‘What we need is a good hard frost,’ says the unknown rider as she squelches up the track, her horse’s hooves imprinting watery cicatrices in the mud
Sorting the Christmas cards into piles of needing a reply and not needing a reply, I spend some time admiring the pictures.
Quite a few Dutch villagers in midwinter paintings, dancing about on the snow. And who would want to stay inside during the Little Ice Age in houses without windowpanes? Just shutters, and these blowing open. So put on every garment you possess and frolic by the river, play football —– a favourite pitch was the frozen river —– and drink a malt or two.
Just twice have I been snowed-up down at the farmhouse. The first time I opened the front door on to a snow buttress and couldn’t get out. And both times it was impossible to get up the track to the lane, a distance of about a mile.
The neighbours — people in this country always become frenzied during a big snowfall — were amazed that my telephone still worked and said that they placed food at the top ‘if you can get to it’.
In vain did I describe my deep freeze with its many packages bossily lettered, some of them, ‘expiry date 1997’ etc., and my laid-out apples, and my shelfful of jams and pickles, although I do not tell them about the wine . . .
The village stays hibernatory. Colder weather is coming. I must go out to look at the snowdrops before the snow covers them.
How coming snowstorms thrilled us as children. We would hear the grown-ups say, ‘The sky is full of it’, and we would rush to the hilltop to meet it halfway. ‘Let it snow, let it snow!’ we would holler.
And the hill would be so quiet as it waited for the special snow silence. My snowdrops wait for it now, faintly trembling with pleasure, faces to the earth. Any minute it will fall on them, ravish them. Their name Galanthus means milk flower and it’s milk which describes their particular whiteness, not snow.
The few I gather open in minutes in the warm room. Isolated from the garden drifts, their variant exposures are breathtakingly beautiful.
They drift in my wood, in the orchard, under the roses, along the lane, where the old farm buildings fell down, around the horse pond, where the postman turns his van, countless thousands of them. Snowdrops like to wander about a bit but still keep company.
I know that it has arrived before I open the curtains. Snow. Its silent voice fills the landscape. Snow is weather with a finger to its lips. A faint cold wind will be blowing towards the house in powdering drifts.
Millions of flakes. They dance in the commuters’ headlights and settle on the cats, who for some purpose known only to them have left the warm kitchen to plunge about in the soaking whiteness.
The downfall is exhilarating the horses. They canter across the hillside, one of them sporting her winter blanket.
I sometimes think that God will ask us, ‘That wonderful world of mine, why didn’t you enjoy it more?’
- Extracted from Next To Nature: A Lifetime In The English Countryside by Ronald Blythe, published by John Murray at £25. © Ronald Blythe 2022. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 05/02/23; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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