New edition of Julian Tennyson’s ‘Suffolk Scene’ recaptures our county’s heritage
PUBLISHED: 15:38 01 June 2020
A new edition of Suffolk Scene, Julian Tennyson’s book written on the eve of war, recaptures his great love for his county | Words: Tessa Allingham
In a corner of the churchyard at Iken is a simple dark green headstone. It remembers the Suffolk writer Julian Tennyson, whose name is carved on it with the inscription ‘who fought for his country and love’.
In front is a bunch of mauve chrysanthemums and a small wooden cross with a poppy pushed into the ground. Tennyson’s daughter, Pennie, put it there on Remembrance Day.
Tennyson died, aged just 30, in Myanmar (Burma), in the dying months of the Second World War, and is buried in the country’s military cemetery.
But it’s right that there’s also a headstone thousands of miles away on a remote patch of Suffolk. It is what he wanted, as he wrote to his wife, Yve, from camp near Andover in 1942.
“Just in case anything happens, could a headstone be put in Iken church? Sounds absurd, I know.”
Seventy-five years after his death, Tennyson’s love of Suffolk is remembered in a new edition of the book he wrote in his early 20s, Suffolk Scene.
Lyrical – that’s not surprising perhaps, given that Tennyson was the great grandson of the Victorian Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson – but unsentimental and rooted in reality, it tells of one man’s love for his county.
Its publication in June 1939, just as war was beginning, hit a nerve, as local historian Elaine Murphy writes in her introduction.
“The book spoke to the yearning of a nation actively preparing for conflict, reminding them of everything they feared might be lost. A year after publication, the beaches of Suffolk had become inaccessible, covered with barbed wire and gun emplacements.”
The book’s wartime popularity was reignited in 1973 when renowned observer of rural Suffolk life Ronald Blythe fronted a new edition. Elaine’s 2019 introduction, meanwhile, is written in the light of the discovery of letters, over a thousand of them, that Tennyson wrote to Yve throughout the war.
“We discovered them in a cardboard box after my mother died,” Pennie says.
“She had never told a soul about them. She dealt with my father’s death by shutting it away, never speaking of him.”
Transcribed by Pennie’s daughter, Sophie, the frequent letters were scribbled, says Elaine, “whenever he could snatch a moment […] in some inhospitable dug-out or crouching on the slope of a hill”.
In what became a two-year project, Elaine traced the author’s footsteps to give 21st century context, as well as fresh biographical insight.
Where Tennyson travelled on foot, by bicycle or by bus from his Peasenhall home to the Brecks and Constable Country, along river valleys, across marshes and into the heart of towns and villages, Elaine mainly took the car.
She noted that despite the galloping pace of change over the past 80 years, much of Suffolk is indeed, to use that often-used epithet, timeless. There is a lot in today’s Suffolk that Tennyson would recognise, and there is a lot that today’s reader will recognise in the author’s descriptions.
Tennyson has faint praise for larger towns and their spread, though says of Felixstowe “if I ever feel the urge to visit a resort, I shall go to Felixstowe”.
Smaller towns he likes, particularly those in the west. “Give me east Suffolk for beauty and wildness, both of country and village; but when it comes to towns, west Suffolk puts us to shame.”
Tennyson’s description of Lavenham could have been written yesterday.
You may also want to watch:
“The loveliness of this place is almost unreal; the look and spirit of it are purely mediæval […] Leaning backwards, leaning forwards, pink, white and yellow, houses of all shapes and sizes tumble down the hill from the church and up again to the market place; their very disorderliness gives them reality.”
On Bury St Edmunds…
Bury charms Tennyson for its “ancient character” though he would find more change here than in Lavenham, for sure.
Writing in 1938 he said “there are no glaring shops, no farcical Olde Tea Roomes erected in 1937, no roaring trolley-buses; instead, there are wide streets with houses of every period except this one and the last, quiet thoroughfares, and two small rivers called the Linnet and the Lark”.
On Long Melford…
The church of the Holy Trinity is, he declared, “architecturally about the finest building in Suffolk”, but it is a lively description of the three-day Melford Horse Fair, already dwindling when Tennyson wrote, that captivates most.
On the Brecks…
The sparsely inhabited Brecks were a mystery to Tennyson. He talks of a “desolate, primeval spirit”, tracts of heathland “leagues and leagues and leagues of it around me”, and a fading flint-knapping industry.
He describes walking through young Forestry Commission fir trees – now grown into, as Elaine says, the “fully grown, dense black depths covering huge parts of the Brecks” – and listening out for stone curlews, ringed plovers and skylarks whose populations even then were under threat.
On Constable country…
A walk from Manningtree to Nayland along the River Stour is “one of the most perfect I have ever had”, Tennyson wrote.
And at Flatford, where John Constable painted his famous Hay Wain, Tennyson found that “all the beauty of an English river and the whole essence of Constable himself are compressed into a space of three or four hundred yards.”
You cannot help feeling that Tennyson’s heart remains firmly in the rural east. It is where he lived – Suffolk Scene was written at the family home in Peasenhall – and its villages, rivers, marshes and already eroding coastline were the parts he knew best.
He loves the Alde with its “wide, labyrinthine marshes, the long heaths running down past Butley Creek almost to the shores of the Deben”, but shows special affection for the stretch between Minsmere cliffs and East Bridge which concentrates everything he loved about the area – heath, wood, marsh, corn, river, sea – “in two short miles”.
He adds: “This is England’s last offering; she can take you no farther and farther you do not want to go.” The last word should go to Iken, on Tennyson’s beloved river Alde.
“The loveliest part of the whole river is at Iken, where the church and the rectory stand lonely on a little wooded hill at the head of the bay that curves sharply back beneath 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 that gives you in quite the same way such a feeling of security and changelessness.”
If you go to Iken today, you’ll see exactly what he means.
Suffolk Scene, by Julian Tennyson, was first published in 1939. The new edition, with introduction and commentary by Elaine Murphy, is available from Poppyland Publishing (£19.95) and good retailers poppyland.co.uk.