It was the day of the cello concert in Darsham for which I had been practising duets with Will, a cellist near Halesworth to whom I had recently been introduced. Without extending my journey by more than five minutes, I found I could pass through Charsfield on the way. Its significance to me was as the village of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s ‘portrait of a Suffolk village’, published in 1969. The evening before, the 1974 film of the same name was shown at the Arts Picturehouse cinema as part of the Bury Festival, so, never having seen it or read the book, I decided to go.
I don’t know why I hadn’t read the book – I had found two copies in the bookshelf after my father’s death, and knew that I should read it. I knew basically what it was about, and had taken it off the shelf once and flicked through the first few pages, but for some reason it didn’t instantly appeal – perhaps because I had wrongly taken it for ‘realistic fiction’.
The film was captivating – I loved hearing a personal perspective on the changes in farming and rural life through the twentieth century, and hearing the Suffolk accent which is now so much rarer than it was. It was fascinating to see how the village and the countryside looked more than 40 years ago, and the reconstructions of life in the first two decades of the century. Most unexpectedly, I also found it extremely funny. The quirks of character, the storytelling and the interactions between family members and villagers all contributed to the most wonderful understated humour – even though it was set within the context of the central character’s grandfather’s funeral. The film employed non-professional actors – real villagers from Charsfield – which I am sure largely created its style and humour. On leaving the cinema, a gentleman, probably overhearing my animated conversation with Sam, my friend Penny’s son who had accompanied me to the film, told me that he was from Charsfield and knew many of the people in the film.
Perhaps I also liked it so much because the storytelling – the narrator’s and the other characters’ – reminded me of Jack, my old next-door neighbour. I could almost see the glint of mischief in his eye. I could barely understand the thick dialect of the older men in the film, but somehow it didn’t matter – the glint was there, and listening to them was like listening to music.
Not least in my amusement was the fact that Ronald Blythe himself played the vicar. Having read many of his collections of articles about Wormingford, my friend Mark and I were always laughing about how many village funerals he seemed to take (although he is not an ordained priest). When I said to Mark after seeing the film, ‘Guess who took the funeral?’, he replied, ‘Bless him, he just can’t stop burying people’.
When I got home I couldn’t wait to take Akenfield off the shelf again. I had no excuse for not knowing it was non-fiction: a collection of interviews with a wide range of villagers, interspersed with additional descriptive information provided by the author. I could see immediately that the film did not much resemble the book: it was more like a snapshot of the book, or rather an amalgamation of several snapshots into one. In being dramatised, more humour emerged than is to be found in the book, much of which depicts the harsh conditions of rural life at the beginning of the twentieth century.
This time I struggled to put it down. I think this is as much an indication of how my vision and interests have developed and changed in the several years since I last opened it, as the fact I had previously misjudged the contents of the book. In the last few years, I have become so much more fascinated by people’s stories, and histories, than I ever was before. I have also become deeply interested in the history of Suffolk and its landscape. Part of this is coming to know the landscape more intimately, so that my thirst for knowledge about it and its inhabitants becomes ever greater; the other part is that I am now much more aware of having lost so many stories in the people of whom I can no longer ask questions: my parents and my neighbours, Jack and Doris.
St Peter’s, Charsfield
Much of the ‘present day’ part of the film was shot in May, or thereabouts, when the cow parsley was in full flower, so it seemed a particularly suitable time to visit Charsfield. I was in a state of May euphoria: the first poppies of the season were out on the road verges, and it was a sunny, warm day, with a distinctive light and heavy shadow that we have not enjoyed too much of yet this year.
Not realising that the church featured in the film was in fact Hoo church nearby, not Charsfield (a fact I only discovered by chance when visiting Hoo a week or so later), I was excited to go and see the church, and see how much it had changed, if at all, in the intervening decades. The church and its churchyard were lovely. I noticed that the porch looked different to the one in the film, and thought perhaps another church had been used for the outdoor filming; but inside, the size and feel of the church were so similar to that of Akenfield (the film) that I didn’t realise it wasn’t the same one.
I felt quite emotional when I entered, reminded poignantly of how short a time half a century really is: 43 years had passed overnight and I was quite sure almost nothing about the church had changed in that time, so similar did the interior look to the one I had seen on screen the night before – except perhaps the carpet. When I discovered my error, I was a little alarmed at how I could possibly have been so inobservant, and my memory so poor, that I could have mistaken one church for another. Now, however, comparing photographs of the two churches side by side, I can see how it happened: their interiors (aside from the roof, which we have established I am very good at not noticing; and the carpet, which could have been changed) are as similar in size, shape and character as any two churches I have yet visited.
I thoroughly enjoyed practising in the encouraging acoustic and comforting atmosphere of Charsfield church. My time there passed too quickly; I would have happily stayed all afternoon, but my presence at Darsham church was required.
On leaving, a large broken bell in the porch, dated 1710, reminded me of the huge bellows at Hemingstone. I wondered what oversized curiosity I might find next in a church porch.
The radio came on as I switched on the car engine. Unusually, I didn’t wait to hear what was on before switching it off. The contents of my mind after visiting Charsfield church, as well as the sights, smells and warmth of this precious late spring afternoon, were more than enough to occupy me on the half hour journey to Darsham.
All Saints’, Darsham
Today was my first organised concert in a new church since beginning my tour. It was nice, for a change, to find the church filled with cellists before I arrived. The concert was in aid of Suffolk Refugee Support and included all ages and abilities playing together, with solo, chamber and orchestral items. I was only playing in two pieces, so while they finished rehearsing, I took the opportunity to look at the church, its floor and its churchyard, which was large and wild.
With the warmth of the day, and the advanced state of spring in every other aspect, the large ash tree in the churchyard that was still hardly beyond budding looked somehow out of place. Ash trees are one of the latest to come into leaf, along with mulberries, but still it was a surprise to see an almost bare tree amongst the rest of the churchyard’s overflowing foliage.
I was impressed by the posh shed-toilet in the churchyard. While I was waiting to use it in the interval of the concert, I passed the time by admiring the blocked doorway on the north side of the church. Two elderly ladies behind me commented on how overgrown the churchyard looked. ‘It’s a wildlife sanctuary’, I said. ‘Oh, is that what they call it now?’ they replied. I was surprised. I thought knowledge and understanding about the management of churchyards for wildlife was fairly widespread these days, but clearly there is still a long way to go…
The concert was fun, and I enjoyed visiting Darsham church for the first time in the greatly contrasting context of shared, sociable music making, and playing to an audience instead of to an empty, or nearly empty, church. It felt similar to the difference between going on a walk by myself, or with other people. When I walk on my own, my mind is lost in dreaming and absorbing the tiny details of what I see, hear and smell around me. I am tuned in to my surroundings, and daydreaming doesn’t detract from this. But when I walk with other people, my focus is usually on conversation. Although my senses never switch off entirely – I often still notice more than my companions do and am forever interrupting the conversation by having to point out a tree, animal or flower – I am generally more tuned in to their presence than I am to my surroundings, even in periods of silence.
Both are valuable and enjoyable experiences, but they are not comparable. So it was with the church: I switched from observing and absorbing to social and performance mode, and my experience of the church changed accordingly. One day I will go back alone, to make its acquaintance in a different way.