A few days ago, I did what drunken commuters do. I slept past my station stop. I woke up just in time to see the painted letters STOW-MARKET gliding by. Until the train began to gain speed, I couldn’t tell if I was arriving or departing as luck would have it, my mobile was dead, but a kind, Norwich-bound passenger came to my rescue. I left a message on my waiting husband’s phone and sat back and took in the scenery. I’d never seen the countryside between Stowmarket and Diss from the train and I was amazed to see how much more rural it seemed. Amazed, too, that the harvest had barely begun when ours is finished.
Our farm is in Suffolk, the county of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s portrait of rural life told in the voices of the farmers and villagers themselves. Norfolk begins a mere five miles away, but it looks more remote, more agriculturally archaic with its sloping fields and dense hedgerows. And this week, after days of rain, with unharvested wheat collapsing in the fields and turning the colour of Farrow and Ball Dead Salmon, Norfolk looks forlorn.
Every few years, I pick up my copy of Akenfield, a first edition published in 1969, priced 35s. net (£1.75). When it was published, farm-workers were still paid as little as £11 11s a week. I reckon that few of Blythe’s workers could have afforded it. But I read it like a prayer book. These stories capture the smell of the old Suffolk clay, the life and death of the seasons, the way rural life has defined what is England.
And I read it because we are in the twilight of the second agricultural revolution. Farms on this side of East Anglia are now farmed with machinery, and the few men who drive the machines are technicians. Forty minutes away, in the Fens, farm labourers don’t speak English. They are Chinese, Portuguese, Eastern European, a migrant workforce that bends over the earth to harvest the vegetables that the sons and daughters of Akenfield buy at Tescos. When we contracted out our farm in 1998?sold our machinery, paid off a hunk of our farm overdraft?I worried that life would change in some terrible way. I believed, like E. M. Forster’s Margaret Schlegel in Howard’s End, that ‘in these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole’. But by contracting out, we probably saved the farm, and Will nurtures the land and pushes us into a technological world that daunts us. We began to diversify when there was still enough farm income to invest in the changes. By planting a vineyard, converting a barn into a restaurant and county store, we’ve kept alive a farming community that goes back to Domesday. When my husband’s cousin bought this farm in 1920, 40 men worked here. Now we have 50 people on the payroll. Our weekly farmer’s market keeps four more farmers in business.
This year, Granta published a book by Craig Thomas called Return to Akenfield. It’s the book you always want?it tells what happened afterwards to the rural villages and farms of Akenfield. In the last chapter, he interviews Blythe himself.
The finest rural historian of our time, Ronald Blythe has never romanticised rural life. Thirty-five years after Akenfield, he sees us all living urban lives in the countryside. Everyone watches the same television programmes, buys the same fitted carpets. Harvest doesn’t play a part in rural lives now. It’s like falling asleep on the train. The fields are there, but you don’t see them. And if you don’t wake up, you miss your destination.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 31 August 06, 2006.