The Unofficial Countryside

The Unofficial Countryside

The Unofficial Countryside cover by Mary Newcombe

The Unofficial Countryside cover by Mary Newcombe

Little Toller Books recently embarked on an excellent project: to republish classics of nature writing.  I’ve just finished reading their new edition of Richard Mabey’s ground-breaking study of urban and fringe nature, The Unofficial Countryside, first published in 1973.  In it, Mabey describes his explorations of crumbling city docks and overgrown bomb-sites, railway goods yards, sewage farms, canal towpaths, and disused factory wastelands, which more traditional naturalists ignored. He tells of his realisation that even the most unpromising, blasted and neglected urban landscape is capable of supporting life.  In a prologue, Mabey remembers that epiphanic moment:

It had been what they call a normal working day. … Driving home in the middle of a creeping three-lane jam was about as much relief as if the office had been towed away on wheels. I was locked-up, boxed-in, and daydreaming morbidly. It was difficult to believe that there was any other sort of world beyond all this.

On impulse, I had snatched out of the homebound crawl after a few miles and headed down a winding suburban lane. It led to a labyrinth of gravel pits, reservoirs, and watery odds and ends that I had often visited during my work on the book. It was hardly the promised landscape, and the whole area was pocked with working quarries and car dumps. But in the mood I was in, just to have seen some murky water lapped by non-air-conditioned wind would have set me right.

What I did find that early autumn day was, I suppose, nothing special … I had parked by the edge of a canal which curled around the western edge of this maze of water, and had stumped off, scowling, along the towpath. I think it was my black frame of mind that made the unexpected late fruitfulness of this place strike me with such intensity. I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows. […]

What had begun as a nervous gallop soon turned into a stroll. My eyes began to relax a little, and following the last swallows hawking for flies over the water, I caught sight of a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance. I had never before seen this plant so deep into suburbia. The towpath itself was festooned with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms and when a bicycling worker bucked past it seemed as natural to exchange greetings with him as if we had been in a country lane. No matter that the place he had come from was the gaunt Water Board pumping Station that stretched along the bank, looking like nothing so much as an oil refinery. As dusk fell and the warning lights on its roof began to flush the bellies of the roosting gulls, I went off home like a new man.

Mabey recalls that nearly forty years before, only a few miles from this spot, George Orwell had written a poem called ‘On a Ruined Farm near the His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ in which he spoke of feeling torn – like Buridan’s ass that died of starvation, standing midway between two kinds of food and unable to decide which it preferred – between two  loves: rural England with its close but dying communities, and the new industrial landscape where the mass of people were forced to live.

As I stand at the lichened gate
With warring worlds on either hand –
To left the black and budless trees,
The empty sties, the barns that stand

Like tumbling skeletons – and to right
The factory-towers, white and clear
Like distant, glittering cities seen
From a ship’s rail – as I stand here,

I feel, and with a sharper pang,
My mortal sickness; how I give
My heart to weak and stuffless ghosts,
And with the living cannot live.

The acid smoke has soured the fields,
And browned the few and windworn flowers;
But there, where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers –

There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel –
There is my world, my home; yet why

So alien still? For I can neither
Dwell in that world, nor turn again
To scythe and spade, but only loiter
Among the trees the smoke has slain.

Yet when the trees were young, men still
Could choose their path – the winged soul,
Not cursed with double doubts, could fly,
Arrow-like to a foreseen goal;

And they who planned those soaring towers,
They too have set their spirit free;
To them their glittering world can bring
Faith, and accepted destiny;

But none to me as I stand here
Between two countries, both-ways torn,
And moveless still, like Buridan’s donkey
Between the water and the corn.

But, argues Mabey, Orwell was  ‘too gloomy’:

The choice was not as stark as he painted it. The trees can live next to the cranes. He forgot that their roots are not just the symbolic ones of our natural ancestry, but real ones of wood and fibre. At both levels they are a goodly sight hardier than the smoke-stained branches. Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of  romanticism and gloom.  We   imagine it to  belong  in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots. An old-fashioned lamp-standard makes as good a nesting box for a tit as any hollow oak. Provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature.

This new edition of The Unofficial Countryside is beautifully produced, with a new cover and plates by Mary Newcomb, the untrained and visionary East Anglian artist (above; image by her daughter, Tessa Newcomb, below).  The book is divided into four sections – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – following Mabey as he rambles along derelict canal banks, through reservoirs and among steaming rubbish tips.  In these unlikely locations he finds a staggering variety of plants, animals, birds, and insects making a living out of human waste, dereliction and disturbance.   In the early part of the book, Mabey challenges the conventional distinctions between flowers and weeds, between native and imported species, and between formal and informal landscapes. Mabey expresses his dislike for the well-manicured municipal parks of the time.

This was a book that changed attitudes, changes that can be seen now in improvements in parks management and the proliferation of urban and semi-urban wildlife sanctuaries, often created out of the derelict landscapes that Mabey describes.

Tessa Newcomb: Small Activities in a Vast Landscape

The new edition has a typically left-field introduction by Iain Sinclair who draws parallels between Mabey’s book and J.G.Ballard’s Concrete Island, published in the same year.  These, he argues, are both key texts of late 20th century English urban neo-romanticism, a meeting-point between the rich tradition of English nature-writing and the Situationist  concept of ‘drift’: to wander aimlessly and without destination through the city, soaking up its ambiences. Psycho-geography was the term that came to be used to describe the study of the urban environment’s effects on the psyche, with psycho-geographical reports compiled fromsuch ‘drifts’.  Both traditions, Sinclair argues, meet on the urban margins.  Mabey was one of the first to suggest that the concepts of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ no longer apply: ‘‘it is not the parks but the railways sidings which are thick with wild flowers’.

Richard Mabey concludes his peregrinations with these cautiously optimistic words:

There is a limit to the recuperative powers of the natural world.  It will always fight back, but it cannot survive outright eradication, as I was to be reminded a few months later. It was late June, and I had tracked down that ruined farm that Orwell had written his poem from, hoping that, forty years later, it would have proved his pessimism unjustified. But it was a crumbling and dejected place, beaten back by the sheer weight of development crowding in on it. There were a few strips of vegetables, but most of the ground had been occupied by used-car dumps and football pitches. Therewere scarcely any trees remaining and the chief vegetation above grass level was a few clumps of elder and hawthorn. That these bushes would soon be draped, not with an honest English climber like traveller’s joy, but with the extravagant trumpet blossoms of an alien bindweed, the American bellbine, would not, I think, havereassured Orwell. This hardy immigrant would live on, I guess, and some greenery continue to brighten this bleak industrial landscape. But it was not the set-piece I was looking for. The odds were too one-sided. Even the factories themselves once ‘white and clear/Like distant glittering cities . . .’ were now dark with grime and age.

I ended up at an abandoned brickyard at the very edge of my chosen area. I suppose that it had ceased to be used about three years before, and it was now a dumping ground for any household rubbish too big for the bin. But successive excavations of the sand and clay for the bricks had left the yard with a legacy of mature waste ground. The abandoned mounds were thick with wild rose, hawthorn and the young shoots of rosebay. The steep-sided pits hadfilled with water, and though they had little or no vegetation in them, they were buzzing with water boatmen, diving beetles and newts. And the paths between, once heavily-used tracks over the light soil, carried one of the most brilliant collections of dry-soil flowers I have ever seen: ox-eye daisies, centauries, vetches, late cowslips, lady’sbedstraw, musk mallow knee-high.

I walked to the very edge of the yard. There was one of the deepest pits here and into it had been pushed and abandoned a saloon car. The air and weather had already begun to get hold of it. The bodywork was rusting and the rubber beginning to peel off the tyres. But there were more miraculous healing forces at work. Sidling over the bonnet and poking through the hole where the windscreen had been, were sweep upon sweep of spotted orchid, in every shade
of pink. This most delicate of flowers, hounded by new roads and car-borne trippers, had found refuge amongst the clutter, and was having its revenge.

Rotting car, Cliffe Lagoon, 1982 – Fay Godwin



A North Downs walk through dandelion lands

A North Downs walk through dandelion lands

After our visit to Down House today, we set off from the grounds on a circular walk along a beautiful stretch of the North Downs which took us through alternating stretches of woodland and traditional meadowland, first descending past Bromley golf course then on through Leasons Wood, up through a truly beautiful meadow thick with dandelions that was like stepping back into childhood, before skirting Cudham and back to Down House.

Meadow North Downs

The Bright Field by RS Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Mary Newcomb – Too much these dandelion lands

Mary Newcomb: the perfect moment

Mary Newcomb: the perfect moment

Today we saw the exhibition, Mary Newcomb’s Odd Universe, at Norwich Castle Art Gallery – an excellent retrospective of the work of the painter Mary Newcomb, who died last year. Some of her most evocative paintings were there: poetic, pastoral and often revealing a quirky sense of humour. Largely inspired by the animals, plants and landscapes of the Norfolk countryside, her work is an intense song of colour, often shading into abstraction, and with some elements of primitivism, particularly in the way that key elements of a painting may be foregrounded without respect to scale or perspective. Two of my favourites, unfortunately not reproduced, were ‘Cowslips in Moonlight’ and ‘Collared Doves Lifted by Light’.

The exhibition was curated by the writer Ian Collins, a friend of the artist for 30 years,  and arranged around the themes of Fire, Earth, Water and Air, moving from early earthy paintings and watery images to end in the poetry of flying things (butterflies, birds, planets, balloons).In her work, Mary caught the essence of the Waveney Valley and the serenity of life on a small, ramshackle farm.

“She wasn’t influenced by existing local landscape painting… she was a visionary. She painted things nobody else saw – small things sometimes. Even though her work is immensely accessible, she was the kind of person who had a vision all of her own. She may have seen a cyclist or a bird wandering across the road or the washing hanging out and its movement in the weather, and she studied it intensively. She brought something so simple to painting that no-one had really even seen before. She points us to things we know all about but haven’t looked at properly. When you look at them, you think, ‘Why didn’t I notice that before?'” Ronald Blythe, East Anglian writer and Mary’s friend.

‘We saw the very brightest lights on the very darkest nights.’

‘The rook remembers the red flower she saw in the earth garden.’

From the exhibition leaflet:

Rural visionary Mary Newcomb (1922-2008) was a self-taught painter whose work is both unique and universal – growing from the soil of Waveney Valley farms in the 1950s to a late blooming in airy poetry.

Trained in science and first drawing birds at Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre in 1945, she met husband Godfrey Newcomb on a bittern-boosting trip to Walberswick. They farmed, potted and restored gypsy caravans as Mary found her vocation as a lyrical painter which she pursued in a series of ancient houses – and on foot, bicycle, bus and train – across Norfolk and Suffolk.

Praised by Ben Nicholson and collected by film stars, Mary Newcomb remained the unaffected poet of the rural scene, communicating the joy of existence in the world of country rites and rituals and the wonders of nature.

Towards the end of her life Mary Newcomb’s paintings became sparer, lighter, larger and ever more abstract; but they always referred back to specific incidents, noted, savoured and remembered.

Mary Newcomb was also a gifted writer. She began a Diary in 1986; the first entry reads:

I wanted to say these things and to record what I have seen to remind ourselves that – in our haste – in this century – we may not give time to pause and look – and may pass on our way unheeding.

The entries in her Diary include observations such as:

Today a man cycled madly down a hill between yellow rape fields, head down, trousers flapping. There was a grey church on a hill, a farm house tucked into a corner of trees – a typical East Anglian scene perpetuated from spring to spring. Time still passes but it passes more slowly here.

A new painting…It will be difficult to do, but I will try…On the common a lady walks stiffly along in her best suit and hat.  The sky is mediaeval blue. The clouds are white. The lady stops and takes off her jacket and reveals a soft yellow blouse. She stoops to smell flowers that have no scent and goes on her way – her stiffness gone.

Mary Newcomb found a kindred spirit in the East Anglian author Ronald Blythe, and his words and her drawings combined memorably in a book of essays, Borderland.

Her art celebrated the rhythms of nature and the rituals of rural life; wildlife and farm animals, village fetes and agricultural shows, incidents glimpsed as she travelled by bus, train or bicycle.

‘If there is a god for our planet, it is the sun.’

Ian Collins, curator of the exhibition, met Mary during one of his first interviews as a journalist back in 1978:

“When I first met Mary at her farm, I left after the interview and looked at the landscape as though it was a Mary Newcomb painting. She has that really powerful impact and yet she paints very gentle pictures too. Some make you feel like you can fly – utterly uplifting. She paints a very accurate picture of the Waveney Valley and its rural history, but she likes to play around with perspective and proportion. She stands out because her paintings are like nobody else’s. She didn’t know where they came from – she didn’t know how she did them. They almost emerged as if by magic. To focus her mind before painting, Mary used to write maxims. One that best explains her inspiration is, “Press close to farms, for all your life comes from them”, which is something many people in Norfolk can relate to. Mary wrote these words in large print on the walls of her cottage and studio to give her guidance. She’s a poet in paint and that comes across in the words and pictures of a very beautiful, but utterly East Anglian landscape”.

Newcomb’s theme is country behaviour: her entire work is like a landscape through which insects, animals, birds and people are continually moving. They come in and out of her vision like entries in a diary; part and parcel of an intense inner life.

There’s a definitive book on Mary Newcomb by Christopher Andreae which introduces Mary Newcomb’s universe, lavishly illustrated with 150 full-colour reproductions. Her paintings and drawings are set alongside extracts from her Diary and an illuminating text by Andreae.

Christopher Andreae’s text is based on conversations and correspondence with the artist as well as close study of her Diary, paintings and drawings. It considers the relation of Newcomb’s work to so-called ‘naive’ painting and to naturalist artists and writers, and analyses the unique self-taught ‘language’ of her art.

Roger Deakin, in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, wrote an excellent account of Mary Newcomb’s work:

Every now and again if you’re lucky, exploring a wood, sitting by a river or looking out of a train, you may experience what a friend of mine calls ‘a Mary moment’. Such minor epiphanies, often apparently unremarkable in themselves, will lodge in your memory and may be recalled in their essentials long afterwards. They are the distinctive subjects of the Suffolk painter Mary Newcomb: a flock of goldfinches dispersing, a magpie flying up from a wet road, a football match seen through a hole in an oak leaf eaten by a caterpillar. These are all actual titles of paintings by Mary Newcomb. Such poetical vignettes are essential to the particular effect of these deceptively modest pictures.

Mary Newcomb belongs firmly in the greenwood tradition, peering unnoticed from behind leaves like the Green Man at things that are very often half hidden themselves. In the Newcomb world, people and plants sometimes surreally hybridize, as in Girl at the Garden Centre in the Rain, in which a woman, mostly hidden beneath an outsized green-and-black striped umbrella, has grown into an umbellifer. And in Lady with a Bunch of Sweet Williams, a woman standing in an exuberantly flowering meadow, hidden from the waist up by her giant posy, seems to have burst into full bloom in sympathy. Such chameleon impulses in many of the paintings come close to a visual expression of Andrew Marvell’s lines in ‘The Garden’: ‘Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade’. They have a notable affinity with poetry. Mary is an admirer of John Clare, whose words ‘I found my poems in the fields and only wrote down what I saw’ describe very well how she paints, and the connections she notices between, say, pylons and cobwebs, or butterflies and bits of torn paper. Indeed, the notes in her diaries are very often written without punctuation in a style that strongly suggests that of Clare as well as the stream of consciousness she wants to express.

I appreciate Mary’s pictures in a way that must be informed and biased by my affection for the part of the world where we have both lived through the poignant closing years of what might be called the old rural Suffolk: the northern stretch of the county broadly defined by the valley of the River Waveney. In her evocation of the natural, mainly rural life of Suffolk, Mary Newcomb is comparable with two other artists of the borderlands, John Nash and Ronald Blythe, whose work is based on their relationship with the Stour Valley along the southern margins of the county. The setting of some of Mary’s work in Ronald Blythe’s book Borderland seems an entirely natural collaboration. She delights in simple, vernacular structures or machines: rowing boats, bicycles, weather- vanes, telegraph poles, bird boxes, lighthouses, windmills, church towers. ‘They serve a purpose. They have a point,’ she writes in her diary. She also loves to travel, in the old, unhurried way on trains, steamers or on foot, and records her excursions in paint.

When Mary and Godfrey first came to Suffolk, they lived at Needham so close to the Waveney that one night two dog otters fought each other right under their window. ‘They were on their back legs, teeth in each other’s necks, and balanced by their tails,’ Mary wrote to me in a letter. ‘In the morning I saw their bloody trails in the dew on the marsh, going in different directions.’ They farmed in a small way along a stretch of river bank with goats, hens and cows. Mary would get up early and paint from five until seven and then do farm work for the rest of the day, scrubbing eggs clean with cold water or milking goats. Now they had moved to Peasenhall, a few miles inland from Walberswick, where they also lived for a while, and I have driven over with the East Anglian painterJayne Ivimey, an old friend of Mary and Godfrey, for tea.

The house is at one end of the village, with a walled garden and a homemade wooden aeroplane on a pole as a weather vane. The first thing that strikes you about Mary is the calm depth and steadiness of her clear blue eyes. She walks and stands stoutly, with definite steps and great certainty about everything she does, looking remarkably young for a woman in her eightieth year. She wears her rich dark-brown hair, which has never turned grey, neatly cropped. Mary Newcomb bears the air of someone who has worked hard, and to some purpose, all her life. Everything about the house suffuses it with a lively spirit of curiosity and inquiry. There is something of or by Mary in every room of the house except Godfrey’s, which houses his beloved Philip Suttons. Godfrey, says Jayne, is a man of sudden strong enthusiasms: the saxophone, the penny whistle, the spinning wheel.

Mary has been painting rooks. ‘A Brooding Rook in its Heaven’ is the working title of her new work in progress. On the floor beside the canvas are haifa dozen of the birds drawn in charcoal on sheets of paper, and on the wall is another one, standing confidently, bald beak raised aloft, about to caw. The poetical titles always come first. They are like haiku. And there is something Japanese about the clarity and profound simplicity of Mary’s work. This has not come about through any deliberate study of such things. Mary has simply arrived quite independently at similar conclusions through her own original route. Every so often, as we have our tea, a live inhabitant of the rookery beside her garden comes down and pecks about on the lawn.

Mary generally places her paintings on the floor and sits on a low stool, bending over them to work. This accounts for the close focus. Sometimes the picture is propped against the wall, and she uses a small step that enables her almost to walk right into the work. At one point in the diary, she describes herself as ‘so tired I almost fell into the canvas’. Unlike most artists, Mary keeps not a sketchbook but a notebook or diary. She fills it with handwritten thoughts and observations that often find their way into the work verbatim. ‘Be sure to put it down,’ she writes in one diary entry, ‘be it squirrel in a woodpile, men with white-toed boots working on a mountain railway, caterpillars hanging stiffly and staring from a laurel bush, the magnitude of the stars — there is no end.’

That reference to the stars inevitably suggests one of the best-known Newcomb pictures, the beautiful watercolour Ewes Watching Shooting Stars: three ewes on a clear, cold night, invite you to identify with the animals inside their warm coats. The painting reminds me of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘The Warm and the Cold’, an evocation of the animal world on a freezing, starry night in terms of the particular form of shelter each one takes, including, by contrast, the ‘sweating farmers’ who ‘Turn in their sleep/Like oxen on spits’. Newcomb and Hughes share an acute awareness of the minutiae of life in the wild, and a deep, affectionate understanding of the lives of farm animals and all creatures. In another picture, Very Cold Birds Where One has Flown Away it Knocked the Raindrops Off the raindrops are drawn very nearly as big as the birds on a tree, so the three drops in mid fall suggest the absent bird. Proportion is very often skewed like this in a way reminiscent of children’s art or ‘naive’ painting, in order to represent the thing that looms large in the artist’s mind at a particular moment.

Years before she eventually began to write in a series of red-bound diaries from W. H. Smith’s, Mary instinctively preferred writing or drawing on separate sheets of a favourite A5 paper, torn from a book and carefully kept in the folder she carried with her. She was well aware that this was the medium that best suited her mode of thought and sudden, crystalline perceptions. To write in a notebook or diary implies a burden of narrative, of things unfolding in sequence through time, which Mary was temperamentally reluctant to take on. Entering one of her paintings, like entering a wood, alters your sense of time. The act of drawing, as John Berger points out in a recent interview, ‘is a way of learning to leave the present, or rather, of gathering the past, the future and the present into one’.

At the head of a jotted list of projected ideas, Mary writes, ‘The lady in her landscape, her rightness, her industry, her involvement, respect and pride.’ It has the ring of a self-portrait. There is a certainty about Mary Newcomb that includes an absolute belief in the importance of the clear-sighted moments that engender her paintings. The impression you often have, looking at one of her paintings, is that ‘Suddenly there it was, and Mary painted it.’ But, in fact, each painting evolves slowly in the studio. Mary paints a first version, blocking out the main elements, then stands it against the wall. Over a period of weeks or months she will then begin to tear out bits of colour or texture that catch her eye in magazines and arrange them on the floor beside each picture. As we move through the house we step carefully around these pools of colour.

At the end of each day’s work Mary also paints out all her brushes on to pieces of hardboard and stands them near the painting in progress. ‘Just now I’m still stuck on green,’ she says. A particular colour will preoccupy her for weeks, and the painting out of the brushes is much more than ‘a good way to use up spare paint’, as she deceptively claims. It is the gradual preparation of the underpainting that gives the pictures such depth and mystery, and often pushes them to the edge of abstraction. Turner did something similar in his ‘colour beginnings’. It is the most profoundly unconscious part of the painting: the music of the song. I notice a predominantly blue work from an earlier phase, a back view of two figures sitting in the garden. Mary often paints people from behind, perhaps shyly, in a way that suggests that they too are lost in their own private worlds. Another example hangs across the room: three female figures leaning over the railings of Southwold Pier, looking out across a sparkling sea with a pair of distant sailing ships on the horizon. One wears a black-and-white harlequin-patterned dress. Wind catches her hair.

The people in these paintings seem to be part of the landscape. They do not dominate it, but take their place in it like any other being. Mary’s Man Cycling Madly Down a Hill seems airborne on his bicycle in an abstract ‘green shade’, his arms and elbows akimbo over the handlebars like wings, cloth-capped head leaning forward like a bird’s. Mary’s men often appear in the cloth caps worn by Suffolk farm labourers or fishermen until recently: a badge of belonging to the land or sea. These anonymous figures are in some ways Green Men, emerging through deep layers of foliage. The just-visible Lady in an Unsprayed Field Seen in Passing, an after-image, might be a corn spirit. Mary Newcomb seems attracted to paint what is half hidden, invisible even. In The Last Bird Home, the small figure of the bird, in a slight halo of warm amber dusk light, descends into a long smudge of dark-grey hedge we know is crowded with concealed birds, all singing. ‘After a long wet evening,’ Mary wrote while she was working on this picture, ‘the birds must sing. They have to get it out and shout insistently.’ Birds are everywhere in the work, yet they are often half concealed, hard to spot, as in a wood or a hedge. A cock pheasant in a field is actually a half pheasant submerged in grass, and in the diary there is a reference to ‘half men’ as subjects for pictures: ‘half men in hollows, in fields, in dips in the road, in long grass’. This is how it is in the fields, hedges and woods: things heard but unseen, or glimpsed, partly hidden. Seen collectively as hedgerow or wood, trees are abstracted by nature into a mass of colour and texture. The experience is distinct from the architectural look of a single tree. And this is what you see in a Newcomb painting.

‘There is no end.’

A river is a fine place to sit. The river is going somewhere and you are not. There is very slight activity all the time. There is a sense of travelling: either you can go with it, conjure up the view around the next corner. Look back and recreate its passage in your mind.

Out into the river when everything else had gone came a small black tub containing a lady and a large black dog. The very slight wash was silver. Her coat was green. The dog sat on. The woman rowed the boat looking round ocassionally to see the dog.

After half an hour when more light had gone she returned past us, rowing slowly, turning to talk to the dog.  The dog sat on like a little black mountain.  Both were very peaceful and companiable to one another.  It was a perfect moment.

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April …with dandelions

Plenty of dandelions around this April, which set me thinking about this  plant, regarded as a weed, hated if you’re a gardener (those damned taproots) and, in urban areas at least, an indication of  unkemptness. Yet subconciously we  recognise the dandelion as a welcome sign of spring, and associate it with childhood memories (blowing on the seed heads to tell the time of day, making dandelion chains). And I remember the wagon that came round every summer delivering dandelion and burdock in great stone jars.

The English name dandelion is a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning “lion’s tooth”, referring to the coarsely-toothed leaves.In modern French the plant is named pissenlit, which means “urinate in bed”, apparently referring to its diuretic properties. In Chaucer’s time the English called it ‘pissabed’ for the same reason.

I came across a book all about the dandelion: The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion by Anita Sanchez.  In it she outlines many of the bene-fits of this plant. It is packed with vitamins and minerals, full of antioxidants, and is great at breaking up poor soil and extracting nutrients from difficult soil. Ecologically, it is an important plant in the recovery of damaged systems, and can serve as a marker for the health of an ecosystem. Dandelions also provide nectar to bees, butterflies, and birds at times when other flowers are not blooming.

Within the context of the debate over whether dandelions are good or bad – whether they are fondly appreciated memories of childhood, pretty yellow flowers, or stubbornly wicked weeds – Sanchez confronts the widespread use of great volumes of herbicides on those recently adopted elements of the cultural landscape known as ‘lawns’. Perhaps no other plant is the target of such a barrage of deadly chemicals, but the herbicides not only fail to eliminate dandelions but also poison birds and other parts of the ecosystem.

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who has utilised dandelions  on many occasions in his work; these were created at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, April-May 1987:

Not surprisingly, John Clare wrote about the dandelion:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass,
Shining like guineas with the sun’s warm eye on–
We almost think they are gold as we pass,
Or fallen stars in a green sea of grass.
They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter’s brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.

Emily Dickinson’s The Dandelion’s Pallid Tube has similair reflections:

The Dandelion’s pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas —

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, —
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o’er.

Looking back on this April, today’s Country Diary in The Guardian sums it up:

April saved the best till last: fine days full of the arrival songs of chiffchaff, blackcap, redstart and garden warblers; orchard blossom, wood anemone and stitchwort; high blue skies zipping with swallows. This has been one of the most beautiful months in a long time and spring is timely this year.

After the winter, spring emerged within the traditional timings of events such as migrant bird arrivals, frogspawn and leaf opening, unlike many previous years when it all went askew. Is this a return to a seasonal rhythm we thought had been lost, or an aberrancy? Time will tell. But for now, the old rhyme about tree leaf opening as an omen of the summer’s weather seems pertinent because it’s raining.

The oak leaves are out before the ash, which means we’re going to have a splash instead of a soak. Heavy rain has certainly been the soaking norm for the last couple of years, when the ash has leafed out before the oak. This year it’s the other way around, so the omens are for good weather.

If the leaves are loaded with omen, there are other auguries and symbols opening within spring wildflowers. As the bluebells and wild garlic flower in the woods, there seems a greater feeling this spring of what the German artists called Stimmung – a perhaps untranslatable word meaning something like sentiment, mood, emotive state which is a tuning of the soul to Nature.

Although many will feel this with birdsong and bluebells, I think it is strongest in more subtle appearances: the pale parasitic toothwort flowers and the deeply exotic early purple orchid. The rain has brought a quickening zing to the end of April as spring careers over hills and woods towards May Day.

Mary Newcomb: Dandelion Lands



After leaving our friends we drove, under a cloudless spring sky, straight to the Suffolk coast at Southwold.  There we walked along the sand, past the multicoloured beach huts, to the pier.

Southwold was mentioned in the Domesday Book as an important fishing port, and it received a town charter from Henry VII in 1489. Over the following centuries a shingle bar built up across the harbour mouth, preventing the town becoming a major port.

Southwold was the home of a number of Puritan emigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early seventeenth century. In 1659 a fire devastated most of the town and damaged St Edmunds Church, whose original structure dated from the 12th century. The fire created a number of open spaces within the town which were never rebuilt. Today these greens, and the restriction of expansion because of the surrounding marshes, have preserved its genteel appearance.

Southwold lighthouse was constructed in 1887 by Trinity House. It stands as a landmark in the centre of the town. It replaced three local lighthouses which were under serious threat from coastal erosion. It began operation in 1890 and was electrified and de-manned in 1938.

Southwold Pier was built in 1900, was practically destroyed by a gale in 1934, and had a major refurbishment in 2001. Whilst many English seaside piers are in decline, Southwold Pier is enjoying renewed popularity. It includes a collection of modern coin-operated novelty machines made by Tim Hunkin.

“The north Suffolk coastal area around Southwold is a land of undulating countryside rich with public footpaths, oak-tree lined minor roads and lanes, productive arable fields, beaches of both shingle and sand, crumbling cliffs, marshland, and heather-covered commons, all under open skies where the star-spangled night sky can be seen in all its glory. Here too are otter and kingfisher at home along river banks, hares, wild deer, a wealth of native birdlife as well as bird migrants visiting by accident or design.

“Scatterings of houses and farms shelter in ancient lanes with villages tracing their beginnings back many centuries before Domesday. The village church stands as testament to past wealth and glories. These churches, rich in an atmosphere of hundreds of years of humble worship, are an important part of the modern-day community. Suffolk’s churches contain notable fonts, screens, pews and all manner of historic interior items of interest and are well worth a visit. Some churches have a round tower, something seldom found outside Norfolk and north Suffolk.

This unspoiled coast can be idyllic at any time of year but Nature can still exert her force at times, whipping the North Sea into a foaming frenzy, or sending an eerie sea mist ashore, dank and cold, or just letting that Lazy East Wind blow (“It blows straight through you being too lazy to go around”). At such times, perhaps surprisingly, it is good to venture out, wrapped up warm, just to give your senses an experience. To see and hear the timeless ebb and flow of the sea can be fascinating at any time but when a storm is brewing and the waves are building, relentlessly driven by a strong wind, these are exciting times.
Explore Southwold

Construction of Southwold lighthouse began in 1886 and took three years to complete. It’s a wonderful piece of classical Victorian engineering.

It took 1,500,000 half bricks to construct. The local coal merchant, Thomas Moy & Co, brought them to the cliff top in a fleet of 15 horse-drawn wagons. The lighthouse stands at 101 ft, making it 120 ft from sea level to the focus of the light. The lantern is reached via two winding staircases and 113 steps.

If you want a good place to eat in Southwold, try The Blue Lighthouse in East Street. We found the food and atmosphere excellent.

Mary Newcomb:  The little lighthouse town