THE RETAIL RURAL: SUFFOLK FIELD NOTES

In the corner of the pub, a group of old men begin to play, folk music with a tinge of the sea shanty. I want to say the instrument one holds is an accordion – but is that right?

There’s no given cue. They all just seem to know what to do. The girl at the bar tells me this is just what the old fellas do of a Friday night. It’s a sight only familiar to me from the old films I watch, a scene from weird landscape novels. Here it is, everyday and unassuming. I’m happy just to listen.

All the ales on offer are Adnams. I’m loyal to my Fullers and Shepherd Neame, but it’s an Adnams part of the country. The layout of the pub is odd, and tables have been shifted and rearranged to allow for the performers to perform. We ask if there’s space on a table where a man in fleece and walking boots sits sipping a pint and reading something on an iPad. He nods.

I’m with Nina and her dad. Somehow conversation strikes up (we don’t do this in the city, but when in Suffolk, etc.) Turns out the guy is up for the weekend on a birdwatching trip. Spending two days out at Minsmere, camping at Lonely Farm (real name) with a sleeping bag and ‘half a bottle of good scotch’. He’s come up from Bedfordshire. I feel weirdly jealous. I don’t even currently own a tent. We all chat quietly while the old men play in the background. I talk to him about the bitterns to found out on Minsmere. We have both heard, but never seen, them.

To go for a piss means striding through their circle and into the gents. I feel awkward, but they seem to not notice. 

This part of Suffolk is so quiet. Though it’s late March, the rain is still heavy and persistent and the temperature cold. The rain makes a quiet place quieter still. Land so flat I imagine it having been ironed out. 

In this place no real narrative presents itself, more a jumble of images sticky with strangeness. They remain after any attempt at the story has gone. 

Nina’s dad drives in his van through the narrow and muddy lanes. Through the rain flecked grass I lose count of the dead pheasants smashed and mangled at the roadside. 

I count instead the badgers. One two three, blood pooled on cracked tarmac, an animal I’ve never seen alive but so many dead. Their bodies are big doglike. There are unpleasant facts I’ve learned about what looks like roadkill could be something else; a cover up for brutality. I push the thought away.

We pass pig farms, the earth bare and brown, stark metal sheds giving the whole place the feel of some forgotten internment camp. Sows with swinging swollen teats dive faces into feed troughs. Rooks and carrion crows hop about scavenging what falls to the compacted earth. 

In a field growing some crop that I cannot identify, two curlews hop around. So much written about them; but still a thrill.

In Saxmundham, we park up by the Tesco, a trip to stock up on bottles of wine and the other necessary items for a family meal. This mini-retail park, the supermarket, a Costa Coffee, etc. to infinity. In the trees that mark the perimeter of the car park, a settlement of rookeries, the birds cawing loudly as punters pack the boots of their four by fours with blue-and-white plastic bags. Retail rural, you could say. 

We take a short walk through the town. In the town hall, we find the shittest jumble sale I’ve ever seen. The highlight, a complete collection of the works of Jeremy Clarkson, in creased paperback editions.

On the way to Lowestoft, a bird of prey darts across the road, a merlin or a hobby, perhaps. Too quick to tell, just a blur.

In Lowestoft I take a solo walk down to the seafront, confront the cold North Sea, the coast inspiring in its bleakness, how it curves elegantly and sensuously away into the distance towards towns or villages I’ve forgotten the name of. I sit on the wall and smoke a rollup, look at the prints of dogs and walkers in the damp sand. As I walk back, past some old bandstand, I get that sticky sweet smell in my nostrils, see a group of teens huddling out of the rain, passing a joint amongst them. 

That night, returning to Snape in the van, in inky blackness, the vehicle’s lights catch the eyes of a hundred rabbits that hop around the small gorse-heavy common. Spectral and unnerving. 

Near Minsmere, the rain coming down hard, the remains of an abbey, now partly converted into some events space. We pass a drainage sluice. Find an Adnams pub on the edge of the reserve. Through the trees and obscured by the rain I can see a herd of deer moving through grassland. 

We head to Orford. The rain is endless. Down by the water, fierce wind whipping water into our eyes, I feel at home. Rusted boats and ground slippery underfoot. 

We look at Orford Castle, balk at the entry price. Something to do with Henry II, great views over Orford Ness and so on. A few other tourists in cagoules debate whether to bother to go in. We head off and find another church, ruined arches, the graveyard peaceful and timeless.

At the town hall, I see a recent Arts Council funded play has been on:

Oysters: A Tale of Sex, Boat-Building and Bivalve Molluscs.

I wish I’d seen it.