Ronald Blythe was a creative writer with a simple life-style, born and bred in Suffolk, the voice of a vanishing past in these shires of old England. I pay my own tribute to this chronicler of a slower, more gentle way of life who died this year aged 100.
In this secret dell down a track in John Constable’s Dedham Vale, the rural heart of the Suffolk/Essex border, lies ‘Bottengoms Farm’, an ancient yeoman’s house. Half-hidden by trees, smothered with overgrown hedges and rampant rambling roses this is a place full of quietness and character. Just the right place for a creative writer, somewhere the imagination can roam undisturbed by a noisy, hectic world outside.
Ronald Blythe CBE, who lived here in this idyllic spot for 70 years, never had a car, computer, mobile phone or washing machine. Though he lived alone in his beloved house until his death, through his busy life he became known as one of the finest contemporary writers of the English countryside.
I write a bit, then wrap up, go out… come in, type a page or two, read a chapter, listen to a story on the radio, water hyacinths, answer letters and call it a day. For such is the literary life. All go.
As here, his sense of humour, often at his own expense, is everywhere:
“Forget the economy: the big question is: can I say at St. Andrew’s this Sunday what I said at SS Peter and Paul last Sunday? Would this be sloth, or a fair distribution of genius? The white cat sits in the window, grumbling at green woodpeckers devouring Waitrose chicken strips. It really is the limit.
“The day is grey and sweet. The wood is full of snowdrops. The study is piled with books. Epiphany is fading into Before Lent. There isn’t a sound except little animal-grousings.”
Writing of a spring that seems to prefer to keep to its own unpredictable timetable:
Until this week the year has been like some old vehicle lurking darkly in a barn which shows signs of life, but won’t actually start up and emerge.”
His was a full and interesting life. A great listener to others. Always very hospitable, welcoming many guests, all intrigued to meet this remarkable country writer, wonder at his simple life style and learn from his traditional wisdom.
We sit in his garden and gaze at an ash tree instantly recognisable from ‘At the Yeoman’s House’. “The last plough horses drank in its shade about three o’clock every afternoon, hurrying when it came into view. John Constable often walked past it, and probably sketched it. He had a passion for bark,” says Blythe. “Now and then pairs of magpies dive snowily from a particular bough like Olympic youths, white and perfect, to seize crusts.“One visitor’s comment
Just down the track and along the lanes is St Andrew’s Parish Church, Wormingford. Ronald was a lay-reader here until his 95th year. These ancient church bells have rung out for countless services, weddings, funerals, high days and holy days. The tower clock’s constant chimes spell out the village days.
The Wormingford diaries and books, from Ronald’s regular column in the Church Times newspaper, have delighted us all with the account of daily life in a Suffolk village. So too has ‘Akenfield ‘, the story of a typical mid-twentieth century Suffolk village where local folk speak for themselves about country life. I have also enjoyed his Divine Landscapes, parts of the Aftermath collection of his essays over 50 years, his Fieldwork and his Talking about John Clare. He was President of the John Clare Society for many years.
This is a traditional country world of fields and lanes filled with farm workers, ploughmen, horses, blacksmiths, millers and grave diggers. Local people living and working the land. In summer fields busy at hay-making and harvest time. In autumn a lone tractor driver ploughing followed by a flock of hungry gulls. In a world similar to John Clare’s monthly Shepherd’s Calender, no wonder Ronald was such an advocate for Clare.
Though life was often hard, the peace of traditional village life spoke of a gentler world where a sense of place matters, a place of rooted-ness and belonging as part of a living community. We shall miss Ronald Blythe’s ongoing chronicles of the countryside.
You must watch this brief (2 minute) warm tribute by ITV Anglia news:
In this beautiful, classic film ‘Working at Home’ Ronald reads extracts from his books about his life as a writer. It was shown recently on BBC.
8 thoughts on “Chronicles of the Countryside”
This is beautiful! I’ve never heard of this gentleman…now I want to go down a rabbit trail. Thank you!
Thank you, Amy. Ronald Blythe’s simple life-style and championing of the poor was impressive. His delight in the country-side and its people is infectious. Enjoy exploring your rabbit trail!
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Very interesting piece, Richard. Of an older more practical world view that many of us admire and perhaps long to find on God’s green earth. We can only try to find a quiet corner to step from the rapids to the eddy… blessings to you and your home!
Good to hear from you both. We miss so much always ‘rushing past’. If we take notice, the natural world calls us to slow down to a simpler and much richer life-style. Hope you’re both well and enjoying your quiet corner in Arkansas. – Blessings.
Thanks for this post about an interesting human being.
Thank you for visiting, Cynthia. I hope all is well your end. Best wishes.
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He sounds like someone I should read, thanks Richard.
If you like Richard Mabey’s writing, I think you will enjoy Ronald Blythe’s ‘voice’ of the traditional Suffolk countryside. The BBC film gave a good impression – I love Ronald’s description of the peaceful atmosphere in the empty local village church with all its links to past village life. Wishing you fruitful reading, Andrea.
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