God’s own country

I knew it was going to be a great day out when I got to Halesworth Station: for a start, the sun was shining, and I like that. I’m not one of those brooding types who goes in for the pathetic fallacy of saying, “Ooh, I love cold, rainy weather”, as if this somehow confirms the dank seriousness of their own inner life. No, give me May sunshine, and a trip to a small Suffolk terminus with a museum in the old ticket office, and I’m as happy as a sandy beach boy. And what a museum! Complete with Iron Age artefacts, and a lady at a desk who looked at me suspiciously when I asked her where the public toilets were, presumably because she herself hadn’t had a bodily function since the coronation.

I detoured into the centre of town to perform my offices, then retraced my revolutions — I was on the fold-away bike — and headed for Holton, a mile distant. I’ve known the seaward part of this area since childhood, but I’d never been to Halesworth before. I think of east Suffolk as a landscape of repose and ingress: the lion shall drink Adnams, then lie down in an osier bed and sleep for a decade. It’s not overly oppressive like the breckland of Norfolk, or the fens of Lincolnshire, but gently rolling like the lightly rumpled duvet of a snoozing Ceres. Church spires and the sails of windmills loom above the fields, so that over miles you can orient yourself by the twin — and immemorial — poles of English rural life: God and bread.

The particularly fine windmill at Holton beckoned me into the village, and shortly thereafter I was cycling up the track towards St Peter’s Church — flint-knapped, round-towered, 11th century at a guess — where, in the vicarage, my purchasers were waiting for me. Yes, it was that time of the year again when I spent a day with the successful bidder in The Independent’s Christmas charity auction. This year the Reverend Liz Cannon had bought me, ably assisted by her husband, David, a retired systems analyst, who — among other talents — has internet auctions down to a fine art.

Liz — as did David — grew up in Norwich, and it was to there — after spells in Lowestoft, Ipswich and London — that she returned after her first husband died, in order to raise her son and daughter. She was raised a Methodist, worked in education, and always had a strong faith. However, Anglicanism, like her vocation, seemed to have rather crept up on her: a slow-burning conviction of the universality of God’s love, and the need for her to convey it. She was ordained as an Anglican priest at Norwich cathedral almost 12 years ago.

And after a curacy in Norfolk, during which she and David met and married, they moved to a parish at Cross Roads near Keighley in West Yorkshire. The parish abutted the Brontë’s Howarth, but it was more the experience of working in a hilly, and ethnically mixed community, that struck the couple. That, and the way the position crept up on Liz: “Initially I found the moors very claustrophobic, and the town looked very dour. The Archdeacon said I should take as long as I wanted to think about it, and when we came back again it all seemed completely different.” They stayed for six years. “I remember being at the big anti-war demonstration in Bradford, and feeling quite intimidated by all the chanting, but then thinking to myself: we’re all on the same side here, we’re part of a community.”

Eventually, however, Liz and David returned to East Anglia, and I could understand why as we left the vicarage and strolled down paths, past apple orchards, to the old Southwold railway line, which we followed into Halesworth. Over the Millennium Green (“It was quickly established,” David told me, “to stop Tesco grabbing it for a superstore”) came the sound of St Mary’s Church bells, a carillon being rung — I was told — in my honour.

Well, things don’t get much better than that — but they did: I got to meet the bell ringers, and then, after lunch at the Angel, the three of us strolled back to Holton. Talk had been eclectic: from the Archbishop of Canterbury (Liz’s employer), to Bernard Matthews (a big local employer, until his turkey-processing plant went down with bird flu). And we’d also discussed my pet notion that the places we end up staying in choose us, rather than vice versa.

As we looked round St Peter’s, David said to me, “You know, I’ve been thinking about your idea that places choose people, and I think there’s a lot to it. When I was a boy my parents often drove down this way to get to Southwold, and when Liz and I were first together we did the same thing. I never paid much attention to the area, but perhaps it was choosing us after all.”

That’s east Suffolk for you, a broad landscape of ingress and repose, not unlike the Anglican Communion.

To see Ralph Steadman’s artwork, visit here