Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Go East

I have said some very unkind things about East Anglia over the years, including a tasteless remark about melting ice caps and rising sea levels to someone who lived on the Suffolk coast. I'm not sure why I feel such strong animosity towards the area as there are far worse places in Britain, but I think that the relentlessly flat landscape, Siberian winds and uninviting shingle beaches represent the antithesis of everything I enjoy about the countryside.

However, I am unable to ignore East Anglia as my mother-in-law lives there. As I have mentioned before, she lives opposite a decommissioned nuclear power station. In her town, every other person seems to have had cancer and yet nobody ever suggests a link with the 'low-level' radioactive waste that was poured into the sea. They must be in denial.

Last week I went back to East Anglia for a few days and decided to explore Suffolk. At first the signs weren't good: Welcome to Constable Country.

Apart from the appalling idea of 'branding' a whole area, I don't like Constable's paintings and had no urge to see chocolate box scenes like The Hay Wain (which is remarkably unchanged since Constable painted the view). However, the landscape soon changed into a mixture of undulating hills, tranquil woodland and beautiful villages. I was completely unprepared for this and soon realised that I'd have to revise my opinions.

I stopped at a village called Stoke-by-Nayland. It was barely a village, with just a handful of houses, many of which looked as if they were at least 500 years old. On the one hand I was impressed by this beautiful Tudor house:

But it was impossible to disassociate this image from the idyllic scenes that feature in jigsaw puzzles, biscuit tin lids and calendars: This England. In reality, all too many English villages are largely made up of cheap, badly designed bungalows, inhabited by neckless locals who have been priced out of the decent houses by 'incomers'. That's progress.

I walked to the local church and was amazed by its size. In Sussex, the Downland churches are generally very small and intimate in proportion to the villages they serve. However in Suffolk the tiniest village or hamlet can have a huge church:

Apparently, Stoke-by-Nayland has a 'wool church' - in other words, a church that was financed by the boom in the wool trade during the fifteenth century.

I love looking around old churches. Apart from the sense of history, they are a bullshit-free environment (if you discount the ultimate bullshit of believing in a non-corporeal creator of everything) in a world that has become demeaned by advertising and branding.

However, although I'd like to claim an interest in ecclesiastic architecture, my main interest in village churches is the glimpses they give of life in the local community. This bulletin board highlights some of the local fundraising events and its star performers:

What is Roy Tricker doing? It looks as though a particularly traumatic episode of constipation has reached its resolution, but perhaps he's just speaking in tongues.

'A Talent to Amuse'? They may not be married but there is some sexual chemistry going on, isn't there?

A big fish in a small stream?

This photo looks as if it was taken in 1975.

Ah, William Fry, the stalwart of the local amateur dramatic society. Who could forget his solo performance of Henry V in 1990, which raised £47.90 for the church roof fund?

I mock, but in fact this was a stunningly beautiful area with an architectural embarrassment of riches. I had no idea that East Anglia contained these hidden gems and from now on, I resolve to be more open-minded.


JRSM said...

Those photos are funny, but also make me sad. They remind me of those displays you see set up in supermarkets by small photography studios, full of huge glossy pictures of people with bouffed-up hair and soft-focus sheets discretely covering their nudity. On the one hand the pictures are bad, and deserve to be mocked, but on the other hand you're uncomfortably aware that the people in the photos were, at the time, probably being made to feel the most beautiful/handsome they have ever felt, and you realise what a mealy-mouthed old cynic you are for sneering at them.

Steerforth said...

That's it in a nutshell.

John Self said...

Yes. This post is very mean, but very funny. I would have annoyed my wife by taking exactly the same photograph of the notice board for future off-site mockery.

It's not clear why the annual golf tournament appears - judging from the faded photos - not to have taken place since 1982. Has one of the bunkers turned radioactive?

The Poet Laura-eate said...

As someone who is both cynical and easily touched by human frailties and failings/equally guilty of them, I appreciate your sublime photos from all angles Steerforth and actually see it as a bit of a celebration of the genre!

I also love old churches and cherish the fact they exist (the worship is in the workmanship is it not?) but don't consider churches of any hue - even those built with ill-disguised contempt for the big G, have a lot to do with the big G at days' end, being as what people worship is a man-made big G of their own making (and in their own faulty image) rather than any spiritual supreme being who might (or might not) exist.

However the ambience of old buildings and the echoes of the past emanating from the walls can be very moving. And even sad old photographs are moving in their own way.

Steerforth said...

Yes. Aside from the obvious humour value of the photos, I was touched by (and perhaps a little envious of) the sense of fellowship and moral certainties that they conveyed.

They evoke a feeling of nostalgia, perhaps for a real or imagined past, or simply a time in one's own life when things seemed less nebulous.

Lucy Fishwife said...

Is William Fry the head of the local Derek Jacobi fan club? I think we should be told. The best thing I ever saw on a church notice board was on the "prayers for" section, where there was a small slip of paper that just said "MY LEG". No name, no pack drill. If I was a prayin' kinda gal I'd have obliged.