A Countryman's Notebook

In addition to his many books listed in the bibliography, Bell wrote a weekly column - entitled 'A Countryman's Notebook’ - in The Eastern Daily Press (EDP) from 1950 to 1980. Although Bell published a number of books after 1950, these essays - over 1500 of them - were his main literary output during this time. Only a fraction of these essays have been reprinted. The two notable collections include A Countryman's Notebook (1976) and A Countryman's Notebook (2000), the latter published by the Adrian Bell Society to mark the centenary of his birth.

Below is a small selection of these wonderful essays which, I hope, will soon find a new audience... 

                                                        

 A HOPE OF TREES

 

When I look out of my bedroom window these bare, bleak mornings, the first things that catch my eye are certain dark green flecks beyond the orchard, which now have neither long grass nor apple foliage to hide them. These always beget in me a hopeful feeling, with which to start the day, particularly a winter’s day. They are cypresses and yews some 30 inches high; but you must magnify the inches into feet at least, to see the stature of my hope of them.

            Sitting in the barber’s the other day, watching the ever greyer locks rolling down my sheeted figure, I meditated on the quality of hope. For as I go about life’s daily business I do not feel noticeably less hopeful than I did 30 years ago, when life’s horizon seemed as wide as the world. A few ambitions have been realised since then, and many more left unrealised; a few places have been visited, and many I had no doubt I should visit I now know are likely to remain unvisited. Yet travel may be overestimated. In the mid-thirties a young woman just returned from a cruise said to me, “We went all over Athens,” and in the next breath, “Where is Athens?”

 

            Yet horizons we must have in time and space, however the years ahead seem to diminish and possibility to contract. The advantage of living in the country and being involved in growing things, whether on farm or garden, is that you need never give up the excitement of hope. See Naples and die perhaps, but see an iris under your window in December and live. If I live to be 90 I expect to sit by the winter fire in fervent hope of seeing at least one more apple-blossom time. But for a man in his fifties the best of hope is the hope of trees. There is time still to see the cypresses grow, and nothing tides me over the winter so well as the visible presence of those small evergreens beyond the orchard. The yews I admit are a little ambitious for a 50-year-old, particularly as I have no intention of clipping them, but wish to see them rise in their natural form like black mountain ranges.

            I have other children, whom I shall not see them grow to lustihood. Yet they too give me joy these dark days. They are seedling oaks. They seed themselves freely in this clay; all they need is protection from the heedless bladed in summer when long grass hides them. Every winter reveals some new ones. When I find one I plant a stout stake beside it. For three years now, since I adopted this practice, my scythe has dodged round them. A miscalculation of an inch and they would be gone. One has rooted itself beside an apple tree. Another has sprung up among black currants there; so one day it will be goodbye to the black currants there. They are becoming a fetish with me, these seedling oaks. Apple trees and black currants are being planted all over East Anglia. Oak trees are being felled; it is left to them to plant themselves if and where they can. Many have been felled for cash, even more must be slaughtered in infancy unconsciously by the hedger and trimmer and the scytheman.

 

Only the other day a monstrous machine came and tore up a hedge in front of some new council houses, seedling oaks and all. “Why?” I asked. “Visibility,” was the reply. Modernity seems the enemy of trees, It wishes them well in the abstract, yet they screen bends which men lust to travel at 50 miles an hour, they impede the many wires of amenity and have to be hacked into strange shapes to let them through. I have a feeling that some day some authority will decree that my roadside oaks are in some way obstructive to traffic, consoling me with the phrases so often heard in committees that, anyhow, they are “ripe for felling” So every oak sapling which pushes up in the hinterland of my few acres is free to do so. Everything else must give way to it. I hope to expire an eccentric old gentleman in a young oak wood which was once a garden and an orchard.

Alas, one life is too short to protect oak trees. A new owner always brings an axe. There is something about coming to a new place; even otherwise good and kind men succumb to the desire to cut something down. To fell a tree or root up a hedge seem to confirm their sense of ownership. The trees seem to look at them and say, “We have been here much longer than you.” So out with the axe. A friend of mine took an old house and horrified me by cutting down an apple tree every morning before breakfast till he had felled a whole orchard in front of his house, which he converted into a tennis court, then the over exertion brought on a bad attack of sciatica and he was never able to play tennis again. Yet a kind man intrinsically. As I went the round of my little hearts of oak – the one among the roses, the one that’s going to shade the greenhouse, the one dispossessing the phlox – I seemed to hear the axes of posterity, chop-chop-chop, though in fact it was only the tapping of a woodpecker in the orchard.

 

When they have cut down the oaks which have made such pleasant avenues of our upland roads, I notice that they do not fell quite all. Here and there one is left because it had no cash value; a stunted, misshapen tree. It is left to whisper in its thin beard of the noble ones that are no more. And one somehow comes to have a sad affection of these survivors, passing them day by day, to love even their grotesqueness. We all have favourite trees, and now I come to think of it, they are seldom the noble specimens that decorate parklands. I in fact have some three or four arboreal “friends” scattered around this eastern region: not beautiful trees, but trees of queer, almost animal shape. Trees of high places, wind-buffeted; watch-towers of the sunset. I know their voices, the feel of them. One was a knobbly old holly trunk, leaning against which I gazed from Suffolk into Essex. Another a pollard elm, hollow and black, inside which a fire had been lit to try and smoke out a fox. It stood where a view was to be had from Suffolk halfway across the fens. I have seen Ely Cathedral no bigger than a crumb from beside that tree. Another pollard, and oak with a whiskered head like a seal, stand where you may look from Suffolk across the Waveney into Norfolk. These weather-beaten dwarfs and gnomes of trees have been the companions of those moments when the eyes look up at last from the day’s task, hungry for a wider view and the thoughts it brings. Coming home from shutting up fowls on stubbles, or in winter from a job of hedging, I have often paused by one or other of them. The feel of their rough old bark is mixed in memory with far horizons and glorious sunsets.

 

*  *  * 



Spring Storm


It is nearly dark, but the world seems to be all a roar. It is though the sun has awakened a swarm of giant bumble-bees that will not go to rest. Neither will the robin who attends on my digging. He must be full by now. But the tractors are not tired yet, and neither is he. Though his plumage is merged now with the brown earth, I can still see the bright patch of his breast; and the last light of the sun gleams in his beady eye. A slight “ting,” heard even through the tractor-noise, and now he is perched on the old pail which is full of white snakes of bindweed root; a flutter, and he has seized something from almost under my spade.

            Is anything so good as digging in the dusk? There is an object, of course. It is not just digging for digging’s sake. “When I’ve got to the end of this patch,” I say to myself, “I shall be getting on.” Half-an-hour ago I lugged out old kale stalks by the barrowful; the outcome of just the same feelings of spring a year ago, of getting “on,” of getting to the end of a bit of digging, of getting rows planted out, or hoed. Odd that there should be such satisfaction just keeping up with things. I rest and stare at the windy March sunset. It will all end in old kale stalks again. I know. The miracle of spring is, it doesn’t seem to matter. Last summer is dead and gone. This is going to be the wonderful summer, such hollyhocks, and ripe figs and early apples. The runner beans with all that muck under them – they will be brilliant and fruitful. And in the end, when winter comes again – well, they will be bigger and better kale stalks.

            The tractor-driver passes across the sunset, a silhouette, it might be of a pilot, captian of some small craft, muffled in a great coat. I work without my jacket. I remember the first day’s ploughing I ever did with a tractor, my surprise at the almost indecent amount of work it got through compared with horse-ploughing, the stupefying noise of it, the sense of far bodily removal from the furrows that were being turned; and afterwards, the curious longing that came over me to take a spade and dig. And after I had had my tea, out I went and dug in my garden till the moon came up.

       

            The sun blazes like a copper-coloured bonfire on the horizon, casting a flare across the sky. It is gone even as I look, and a heavy cloud, like sudden night, advances with a roar of wind that quenches even the sound of the tractor. I go on digging doggedly till the cloud bursts overhead; then it is too late to get to the house. I storm the tool-shed. The tool-shed resists my attack as only my tool-shed knows how. The door opens inwards: half-way open it grates on the floor. I thrust at it: the weapons which I had all unwittingly prepared against myself come into action. The foot of the door catches against hoes, hay-forks, and rakes which I had left leaning anyhow, and they come flailing down on my head. A shower of wire pea-guards follows. But I get myself past the door somehow and gaze round it at the storm beating in. the wonder of how such a storm is that just when you think it is at its most violent there comes a gust that is more furious still, with a more stinging hail. The storm swallows everything – my wrath at my tools, noise of tractors, earth and sky. It is Night and the End. “Caught in a sudden squall.” How casually such words deal with, say, the death of Shelley, who went down maybe in such a moment as this as to the trumpets of the Apocalypse.  

                                       

            Now night is turning back to day, the storm cloud draws off. A clear yellow light dawns. The whole sky become a primrose. The tractor is heard again, but differently now; sputtering, labouring, firing on two cylinders – rain on the magneto leads. How automatically the farming mind comes to associate that sound with the rainbow!

            I emerge, saying to myself, tomorrow I will make order in the tool-shed. The tide of day brightens yet. There is an intense afterglow; my walls shine, the earth shines, every twig glitters. No more digging today. The tractor explodes, or seems to, but immediately reverts to its normal rattle. Even I feel more comfortable that she has “picked it up.”

            The robin who should be dead is standing dry and dapper on the shoulder of my spade, saying as plainly as that alert eye can, “What – no more digging?”          


            Last night it was all a roar of tractors; but this morning along with the piercing song of the wren come sounds that chime with bird notes; tinkle of chains, a soft rushing noise of corn being poured, low voices of men. The horses are out with the drill, barley brimming the tin “bushel” in being dipped into the seed-box. The driver is getting bearings, peering at his three marking-out sticks, with their tops peeled to show up white, seeing that they are in line across the field. A solemn preparation for a solemn act. The drill-man picks out some foreign body from the seed and throws it away, and looks for any more before he closes the lid of the seed-box.

            They are ready; off they go, pacing slowly, with a sort of suspension of lifted fetlock at every pace; slowly, with extreme keen-sightedness and care, alertness of muscle at the steerage. The spokes of the big, thin, read-painted wheels moving over as though measuring time in seconds; the whole thing something of a procession, something of a rite. There are still farmers on heavy land who use horses for drilling, even though they do all their cultivations by tractor. I am glad to see that these are rather the better than the worser sort of farmer. There is a good reason, of course, for drilling with horses on small fields, where a sharp turn is required for a narrow sown headland; but there is, above all, a grand rightness in the look of them this morning, walking into the distance as though they were going to draw their blue chariot of Ceres away over the woods that stretch to the horizon, beyond the high, flat ploughland.

                                                                                                                             


*  *  * 



Norfolk Pastoral
 

I was sipping a cup of tea in bed the other morning, when “Look! Look!” my wife cried, pointing out of the window. I looked – for crashing aircraft, flying saucers, village on fire; such are the apprehensions of our age. It was a flight of wild swans, a wonder indeed.

            I resumed my book after they had passed (perhaps from Minsmere, I thought, towards the Waveney). I had been reading in Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography his impressions of England on his return from Italy. “It was like a breakfast of milk and cream after yesterday’s wine,” he says.

            As I read, those swans were still in my mind’s eye, their spread wings crossing an April sky of thin-stretched wings of cloud. I imagined them gliding down upon the Waveney and folding their wings in a sudden splash of foam, as I had seen them do often upon the River Stour. There in the broad river valleys are East Anglia’s pastorals, the same kind of scene which made Leigh Hunt, after praising Italy, exclaim: “But in England I was at home.” It was his reason for loving it more than the sum of all that delighted him in Italy. Hunt found that in England the pastoral “is still more pastoral. . . . For Pastoral comes from pasture; it implies cattle feeding . . . . very different from the stall-fed and rarely seen cattle of Tuscany.”

 

            Unexpectedly I had to travel thirty miles through Norfolk that day; it was a beautiful, keen, East Anglian April day, with the East Anglian east wind which deters all but the natives. The wild swans of the morning sky were still gliding through my brain, and Leigh Hunt’s vision of the pastoral with ponds and “very little brooks unknown to all but the eyes of their lovers.” One could not help loving the man, whatever his faults, who could so appreciate the daisies and buttercups of Highgate after the splendours of Italy. True, wild swans might have been seen in Highgate then. The beauty of such a day and such a journey across the Waveney and along the valley of the Wensum would have been sufficient in itself, but how much richer were the associations of water, woodland and pasture that day for me because of Leigh Hunt. Through him also was shed an influence of his associates, Keats, Shelley, Byron – the cloud, the nightingale.

            It seems hardly less fabulous at times (when aircraft roar overhead) that there were Hampstead ponds “in which Shelley used to sail his boats” than that one should view a “dance of nymphs and satyrs” in some Wensum water-meadow; or “here a dance of Shepherds and Shepherdesses,” as Shakespeare would insert. Or again (a stage direction that pleases me still more), “Enter certain Reapers properly habited; they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance.” (Do you remember those smocks in the Castle Museum?) Foolish, perhaps, to let such thoughts live in the same mind that must know that the “proper habit” of the reapers is a boiler-suit; and yet so powerful are the pastoral associations of our English scenery that, banish the machinery of the working week for a day, and in a Sunday calm the nymphs begin to steal back.

 

            I was content that day to let the old spell work, which Leigh Hunt confessed himself so pleased to live with, strolling “about the meadows half the day with a book under my arm” and remembering that “Chaucer and Milton . . . went out of London to lie on the grass and look at the daisies.” The fact that today’s common daisy can link one with Chaucer is the privilege of belonging to so old and nature-inspired a civilisation as ours has been.

            I found my early morning swans again (they might have been them) riding their reflections on a still reach near Ringland where cattle grazed. Cattle and water make the English scene. Hedges and walls and winding roads – all these we owe to our livestock farming. And spring, above all, is a reflective time, literally. In those still waters of my journey, how many blossoming trees I saw doubled in an inverted sky.

            Though the road, even the by-road, was distracted with motor traffic, there was a blessed pause, as I stood and stared, in which nothing but a small pony-trap was to be seen. The tapping of hooves grew gradually louder, but no more violated the singing of birds than the tapping of a woodpecker. The man driving smiled as he passes and said “Good afternoon”; the hooves tattooed diminuendo into complete silence before another car came by. That was all, but it was something wonderful; for had not a fellow traveller on the road assumed an expression of humanity and spoken words of greeting as he passed – audible words from a road vehicle in 1950? And on my way home, a mile from my gate, a grey owl flew softly through the twilight, as expressive of the evening as the wild swans were of the dawn. Yes, it was a good day.

 

            Last night it was all a roar of tractors; but this morning along with the piercing song of the wren come sounds that chime with bird notes; tinkle of chains, a soft rushing noise of corn being poured, low voices of men. The horses are out with the drill, barley brimming the tin “bushel” in being dipped into the seed-box. The driver is getting bearings, peering at his three marking-out sticks, with their tops peeled to show up white, seeing that they are in line across the field. A solemn preparation for a solemn act. The drill-man picks out some foreign body from the seed and throws it away, and looks for any more before he closes the lid of the seed-box.

            They are ready; off they go, pacing slowly, with a sort of suspension of lifted fetlock at every pace; slowly, with extreme keen-sightedness and care, alertness of muscle at the steerage. The spokes of the big, thin, read-painted wheels moving over as though measuring time in seconds; the whole thing something of a procession, something of a rite. There are still farmers on heavy land who use horses for drilling, even though they do all their cultivations by tractor. I am glad to see that these are rather the better than the worser sort of farmer. There is a good reason, of course, for drilling with horses on small fields, where a sharp turn is required for a narrow sown headland; but there is, above all, a grand rightness in the look of them this morning, walking into the distance as though they were going to draw their blue chariot of Ceres away over the woods that stretch to the horizon, beyond the high, flat ploughland.