long after I first came to Charsfield,
some twenty years ago now, that I met the
writer Ronald Blythe. Although he lives
in Essex these days, Ronnie has remained
most people's idea of Mr Suffolk, and his
writing is a touchstone to what Suffolk means.
But what is a typical Suffolk village?
Where is it? All villages have their
unique aspects, and those they hold in
common with others. When I first wrote
about this church on the Suffolk Churches
site, I was not the first to suggest that
here, in Charsfield, there is a microcosm
of what it means to be in Suffolk - the
church, the pub, the old cottages, yes;
but also the council houses, the football
pitch, the Victorian school extended with
prefabs. Here are the rural poor, living
cheek by jowl with the incoming
professionals and the County gentry, with
all the diversity and tension this
imparts to village life.
Ronald Blythe wrote
about Charsfield, and called it
Akenfield. To read Akenfield is to read about
any number of Suffolk villages in the
late 1960s - but Charsfield it is,
Not many books
like Akenfield get written today. It is
a rich, surprisingly bleak narrative; often
brutal, at other times very moving, even
painfully so. It is contemporary with other
social dramas like Cathy Come Home, and
it now looks its age. It is no rural idyll. For
instance, we meet the reclusive Davie, living in
a dire, tumbledown cottage. He remembers being
sent off to the First World War; he was given a
gun, which he understood because of rabbiting,
and a New Testament, which he didn't, and used
alternately for rolling cigarettes and toilet
"Did you kill
men, Davie?" asks the writer. Davie replies
"I got several" - the same answer to a
question about how he did on a rook drive.
'Several', in Suffolk, means many. "What was
the worst thing, Davie?". Davie considers.
"Why, the wet, of course".
Thirty years on,
Charsfield is a richer place in broad economic
terms, as everywhere else in Suffolk. But it is
less rich in diversity, in the sheer drama of
human existence. A small price to pay. In the
years after Akenfield, Peggy Cole, who
lives in the village in a house called Akenfield,
broadcast on BBC Radio Suffolk and wrote in the
East Anglian Daily Times about Suffolk folklore
and village life. So the pulse of Suffolk was
still being taken in Charsfield. Both Cole and
Blythe appeared in the award-winning BBC
television production of Akenfield, as
did many other Charsfield residents.
If you visit
Charsfield, you will eventually wander up the
hill to the church. There, you will discover
Suffolk's prettiest red brick Tudor tower and
porch, against the body of an older church. But
the base of the previous tower survives, and it
is really quite amazing. on the west side, either
side of the doorway, there is a dedicatory inscription, and panels around the
other two sides show the emblem of St Edmund, the
Marian symbol, and a eucharistic chalice and
wafer with Our Lady's initials in each corner.
There are others, too; they have done well to
Cotton informs me of a bequest to a
"new" tower in 1454. This clearly
predates the Tudor period, but must postdate the
earlier tower. Perhaps there were still
insufficient funds for the rebuilding at that
time, although Simon found no other bequests.
Take away the tower and the porch, and this is a
very homely little building indeed. Incidentally,
if you have seen the BBC production of Akenfield,
you may be surprised not to recognise the church.
In fact, the graveyard here is so severely tight
that it made filming difficult, and so the church
at neighbouring Hoo was used in the film instead.
Inside the porch,
there is a curiosity. It is a broken bell, with
the inscription sic sacheverellus ore melos
immortali olli ecclesiae defensori hanc dicat
Gulielmus Leman de Chersfield Eques 1710 ('since
Sacheverell's eloquence is so musical, so this is
dedicated to him, the immortal defender of the
church, by Sir William Leman of Charsfield
1710'). Henry Sacheverell was an instrument of
the established church in a now largely forgotten
controversy. He published an attack on those who
defended the rights of non-conformists. When he
was accused of seditious libel, thousands bought
copies of his speech for the defence, and the
government of the day was brought down. The
incoming Tories richly rewarded him, including
the local Leman family.
You step into a quiet,
simple little interior, with no great
excitements, which is just as it should be. The font is immediately opposite, and on one
side, instead of an angel, there is a
representation of St Botolph, a local saint with
connections at Iken and Burgh. The war memorial is
halfway along the north side, and remembers those
who fought and died alongside reclusive Davie.
Further east is the memorial to another William
Leman. It records, grandiloquently, that Here
also mingled with his parents dust sleeps till
the resurrection of the Just of William Leman the
mortal Part. And the immortal? That is gone
to the blest regions of Eternal Light there
waiting for the Lord to reunite and raise them
with his parents up on high to live with him,
memorial, a cheeky boy sits with his feet in the
stocks on an early 20th century bench end. Some
350 years ealrier, another local woodcarver
produced the front of the ringing chamber, and
signed it G S 1587.
So often, out
cycling, I find villages I'd like to live in.
Usually, it is winter, and there's a smell of
woodsmoke in the air. Such villages have no
modern council houses like the ones in
Charsfield; instead, little cottages huddle
together, cosy against the dwindling light and
frost. How idyllic! And then I think of Leonard,
aged 71, recalling his Akenfield childhood:
"It was very hard living indeed... our
cottage was nearly empty, except for people.
There was a scrubbed brick floor, and just one
rug made of scraps of old clothes pegged into a
sack. Six of us boys and girls slept in one
bedroom, and our parents and the baby slept in
the other. There was no newspaper, and nothing to
read except the Bible. All the village houses
were like this.
"Our food was
apples, potatoes, swedes and bread. Nobody could
get enough to eat, no matter how hard they tried.
Two of my brothers were out to work. One was
eight years old and he got three shillings a
week. Our biggest trouble was water. There was no
water near... 'Drink all you can at school', we
were told. There was a tap there.
parents and all the cottage people were
very religious and very patriotic. The
patriotic songs and church hymns seemed
equally holy. They took our breath away.
It was all 'My country' - country,
country, country. You heard nothing else.
There was no music in the village then,
except at the chapel or the church, and
our family liked it so much that we
hurried from one to the other to hear all
we could. People believed in religion
then, which I think was a good thing,
because if they hadn't got religion there
would have been a revolution.
"I want to say
this simply as a fact, that Suffolk
people in my day were worked to death. It
literally happened. It is not a figure of
speech. I was worked mercilessly. I am
not complaining about it. It is what
happened to me."
on, through the narrow lanes to Dallinghoo, through the
fields where Leonard Thompson and his
young brothers slaved. I thought about
how attractive going off to war must have
seemed; of those generations, brutalised