I’ve just come back from a holiday in Suffolk. It’s an area I’ve been to several times and one of the places I always come back to is Iken, an isolated hamlet on the River Alde. Its church, dedicated to St Botolph is almost certainly the location of Botolph’s monastery of Icanho founded in the mid-7th century. But for once, I’m not going to dwell on early medieval archaeology. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the particular tradition of ruralist and agrarian writing that emerged in the 1930s – the best known figures of this movement are people such as HJ Massingham and Adrian Bell. However, the cottage where we were staying had a copy of a book I’d not come across before, Suffolk Scene by Julian Tennyson (great grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson). It was a recent edition of the 1939 original and had a forward by Ronald Blythe, which is usually an imprimatur of good writing. The book itself is very much a period piece and contains paeans of praise to Suffolk wildfowling and contains some lengthy passages of rather awkward, light-hearted anecdotes in phonetic Suffolk accent, which seem a little twee to the modern reader. However, the morning before we went to Iken I lay on the beach and read this rather beautiful passage about the church:
“The loveliest part of the whole river is at Iken, where the church and rectory stand lonely on a little wooded hill at the head of the bay that curves sharply back beneath the bracken and oak trees and steep sandy cliffs. There is something very restful about this place; very old and very friendly; there is no church in England which gives you in quite the same way such a feeling of security and changelessness. Behind it our fields, woods and heaths stretching down to Orford, to the right of it are the marshes and distant sea. A huge expanse of river lies before you when you lean over the graveyard wall; the long, dark pinewood of Blackheath and the bay in the corner where the widegeon gather in thousands on winter nights, seem at least two miles off; but wait till low tide and you will see the whole river fall away and it becomes a flat shining ocean of mud with the channel a thin thread through the middle of it. Whimbrel, curlew, redshank, dunlin, shelduck, mallard all the birds of the river come up to feed around Iken flats and their din sets the tame duck quacking raucously in the decoy at the back of the marshes. The noise of the birds is all that you will hear at Iken, except when the east wind drives across the marsh and lashes at the thatch of the church. When I was a child I decided that here was the place for me to be buried. I have not altered my mind. Everyone wants to lie in his own country: this is mine. I shall feel safe if I have the scream of birds and the moan of wind and the lapping of water all round me, and the lonely woods and marshes that I know so well. How can anyone say what he will feel when he is dead? What I mean is that I shall feel secure in dying”
I didn’t know much about the author at that point beyond the fact that he had been killed in Burma, far away from the Suffolk he loved, at the age of 30 during the Battle of Arakan in 1945. It was moving then, when we got to Iken, to find his grave in the churchyard. It seems to be a relatively recent monument, unlikely to be more than a decade or so old. It was really rather touching having read his words about the church to discover that he did, as he hoped, end up there, where he must have lain submerged and unmarked in the turf before someone (who? Family? Friends?) placed a stone for him there.
We placed some shells taken from the beach near the mouth of the river on his gravestone and left him to listen to the wind in the trees and the birds on the river.