Bernardine (Coverley) Freud was our Tree Warden. She was also a writer, lecturer, gardener and mother to Esther and Bella Freud and Noah. This is the draft of chapter one of her book, Eve's Apprentice, which she was working on at the time of her untimely death in 2011. Our thanks to her family for kindly permitting it to be published here.
Chapter One Pig Cottage
‘many a fine sight for those with eyes for such things' from Beowulf
A dim black and white photograph showed a cottage behind an overgrown hedge. It had waited two years or more for a new resident to step straight through the front door into a south facing kitchen, warmed in winter by an old solid fuel Rayburn. It was a bad time to sell, and those owners who were determined to capture the best buyers and a good price, announced fitted kitchens, double glazing, central heating.
I wanted to avoid all these double barrelled modernities, wanted to find something plain, plain with a pantry, and outbuildings. I wanted somewhere where I could step out and see hedges and fields. A friend reported that I should avoid this cottage, a few yards away were pigs, she said, and a notice that warned, ‘high risk'.
This was the house I bought. The first and only home I have ever owned. And where I still live and called, with great affection, Pig Cottage. The chorus of squealing and snorting at 7 am, as Marcus the pig man drove up, was a reliable wake-up call and reminded me that here there were more animal than human neighbours.
The move took place in Spring, the beginning of April, bright and icy from the wind that reputedly blew across the North Sea from Siberia to penetrate East Anglia and shiver the daffodils lining the farm road. The hill of Hill Farm was tiny, a Suffolk hill, a mild contour above a wooded river valley settled and named by a Viking. Ubbeston. Ubba's place.
Ubba's long boats sailed up the Blyth in the 9th century, their shallow draught and oar power making it easy to strike inland but within swift reach of the estuary and the open sea. The River Blyth, whose description as ‘river' tells how it must have been, runs across the field I can see from Hill Farm. It runs under one bridge and then back under another. It has since silted up until much of the length that runs through Ubbeston resembles a ditch or a stream more than a river as it borders fields or trickles under the overhang of twisted hornbeams in the wood. It is hard to imagine the tall sea serpent heads of the Viking prows terrifying the Angles as they swept up from the sea.
My founding Ubbe may not be the same one that, with his brothers, Halfdan of the Wide Embrace and Ivar the Boneless, destroyed the kingdom of King Edmund at the battle of Thetford. But I like to think it is. …
The Blyth was as wide as the water meadows now at the very end of the parish, where willows love the wet ground, and the water swift and full from Autumn rain. as the maraudering ships skim upriver powered by strong arms. The ‘harbour' lies close along the Low Road, where the Blyth's bed curves just before the church, and makes a big open pool. I've seen the fox run to drink river water from among the fallen branches that stick up like the bare ribs of an abandoned longboat. The harbour is so called because Viking ships are reputed to have stopped there. ..
My allegiance is with Ubbe though, not with his brutal conquest but simply a land loyalty, an attachment to this parish just inside the designated coastal district along the North Sea. ..
Ubbeston in the 21st century is a quiet place for the 37 households scattered along the Low Road and behind the Green, the peace of a few farms and cottages and the odd bungalow, marred only by small neighbourly feuds over boundaries or dogs. Ubbe's memory is his name, the ‘harbour', and the longboat emblem on the parish sign. ..
Clusters of ladybirds accompanied that first cold Spring in Ubbeston, hibernating in the corners of the window frames and in the crease between the wood and the frame, falling out when I lifted the metal arm to push the window open. I found the shiny red and black spotted creatures creeping over my bedclothes in the bedroom next to the hot water tank, and I picked them off replacing them among the encampment in the hope they would survive, wanting them to migrate outdoors and tell me it was going to be warm.
The first summer produced swarms of flies, one of those gluts, a burst of fly fertility. Arriving home, the kitchen buzzed with bluebottles and black houseflies, and heaped corpses cluttered the window sill. I hung amber fly strips from the light cord and bought a swatter. The friend repeated the pig warning, with a hint of triumph, which I resisted, insisting the flies were unusual, a freak surge. The sheep in the fields were as thickly spread as the flies in the house and I looked for the flocks as I drove back at night. Sheep stood wreathed in vapour like a Samuel Palmer drawing, a big moon above, and my heart lifted to come home. I was in love with Pig Cottage.
The garden of the house stretched out in front and I sat on the doorstep with my morning cup of tea and saw plants I didn't know at first because my gardens had always been vegetables, and traditional herbs, lavender and rosemary or well known shrubs like lilac. There was a lilac here too, white, but I had to find names to match up with the magenta trumpets and the various tall blue blooms, and the names were lovely, gladioli Byzantium, iris sibirica and delphinium. The gladioli were mixed in with clusters of purple foxgloves and all among a sea of creamy iris type plants that I later identified as sisyrinchium. Delphinium, the word so familiar but I had never seen it attached to the plant it described. And hundreds of striped dull pink flowers, - granny bonnets someone said, - drooped prettily in the bed on the other side of the path that ran from the front door to the gate, and love in the mist lived up to its name, individual blues, pinks, lilacs fading into one another.
I sat there admiring my own huge and extraordinary garden, left to me in a deceptively weed free state. Who had weeded it in the last two years? From the stored and piled objects around the place, like any good home, I made a bench from two breeze blocks and an oak beam where I could sit and lean my back against the warm housebricks. This was my spot to throw pellets into the ponds gleaming with goldfish among waterlilies. So naff, so suburban, I thought, but each morning I stepped out of bed and looked down from the window to see the fish sunbathing at the surface and I changed my mind. Their intense velvety orange and languorous fin waving began my day with a moment of still attention.
Further away to one side of my half acre plot, the vegetable patch sprouted rows of cauliflowers, spinach, potatoes bordered by strawberry plants. It looked so easily abundant. Late mornings I walked barefoot among the rows picking what I fancied for lunch and supper, harvesting the crop left by the previous owner, granting myself a reward for sitting at my desk.
At the side of the cottage, there were fruit trees, the remnant of a commercial orchard. Pig Cottage was part of a fruit farm years ago and I found myself mistress of five big apple trees, two pears, two plums and a Bramley cooking apple. I lay in the hammock resting, reading, thinking about the future here, an apple tree at my head and a plum at my feet. The orchard was enclosed by a hedge on three sides, two old field hedges mainly of elm but thickened with self-sown hawthorn and blackthorn.
The third hedge was a typical garden hedge, to separate the orchard, where I knew the previous owner kept chickens, from vegetables. The last side was the end wall of the house and that desirable double barrelled word, an ‘out building'. An out building meaning a shed and the outside toilet to remind me that it wasn't so long since plumbing moved indoors. The gap between house and privy had become a garage made of wood and corrugated tin. The roof pitch was steep and the Rayburn chimney made a dark outline running down the wall.
I knew very little about fruit trees. However, I did know that plum trees were susceptible to silver leaf if pruned at the wrong moment because the one I planted in a London garden had developed this sad disease, its leaves curling up and branches dying back. ‘Between flower and fruit,' said Mr Middleton's Garden Book, which I read when searching for the reason behind the damaged tree.
Arriving in Spring, I didn't need to think about pruning yet. The orchard was established, here long before me, and grown past the age for much pruning. The trees were mature except for one young plum, so I thought about what I wanted to add. I lay there in the hammock imagining another Bramley cooker, a late fruiting eating apple and a quince to have bowls of those bulbous fruits scenting all the rooms of my house.
Those first few months were spent taking in what I found there. It was good to stop after the search for a house, months of driving up from London and looking, parking by the beach and sleeping in the back of my van. In the end my first owned home looked very much like the one I had always wanted when the children were little and never had. I gardened in my nightie straight from breakfast, the pig farm manager was here only for a few hours morning and evening, the turkey farm was hidden away behind my neighbour's house and the birds were left to eat and get fat. No one was around in the main part of the day. My only visitors were family, and friends curious to see where I had fetched up. …
Solitary Suffolk days came to an end when Marcus and his family moved into the bungalow. Children played in their garden, Marcus was full time at Blyth Breeding, waving as he walked past my gate with his dog. He told me the story of the previous pig man, who when sacked refused to move out of his home. The bungalow was the modern equivalent of a tied cottage.
‘If you don't work for the owner, then you have no right to live here. He got the sack, he had to go.' explained Marcus. ‘He wouldn't go and when the bailiffs came he barricaded himself in. It was the talk of the area, even in the paper.'
I listened, wondering if I'd ever understand every word of that Suffolk accent with its long os, goo for go and follow those curving rhythms. He laughed at me the first time we talked when I asked if he was Australian. How ignorant I was.
Those first months were accompanied by a gradually rising strength in sounds and smells as poultry and pigs grew big and fat. It wasn't worse than the traffic and the fumes from Holloway Road which I had taken longer, much longer to adapt to and where, after fourteen years away from the countryside, I was still possessed by the need to step outside my door onto grass and see a hedge, trees.
Here I had my door onto grass and the big Suffolk sky. I was compensated by the plant life around me and getting to know the few Ubbeston residents that lived hidden among woods and hedges grown so tall they turned into lines of trees.
Regular collections of piglets and fattened turkeys marked those months. Every morning loud squeals rose above the ‘pig unit' from enormous sows, each with a troupe of piglets. At two months old these piglets went off to a fattening unit, and I saw the arc lights on at midnight ready for the lorry to back up on the road below and the little ones take their first steps outside the pen. Surprised from sleep, they ran down the metal corridor from the yard to the road and into the open doors.
The turkey exodus also took place in the early hours, large lorries passing my gate on their way to the sheds, an ominous drone penetrating my sleep. In the morning a few white feathers drifted about, and the sound of massed fowl that usually came from the field at the back was gone...
[Allan, Chair of Ubbeston Parish Council, had asked Bernardine to become our Tree Warden.] I began to look at the trees differently, noticed their colours and shapes and where they grew. I knew that the big spiky tree that loomed up behind the garage, was a dead elm. It was in the field bordering my orchard and was the only large tree near the house, its beautiful bleached grey giving it a sculptural quality. The self-seeded elms that grew by the bungalow were young and thin, springy adolescent types that reached a certain height and then began the slow death from Dutch elm disease. I could see that a few of the topmost branches, about 18 feet up, had skeletal twigs while lower down leaves were still plentiful.
Three walnuts grew on one side of the concrete farm road that led up to Hill Farm. They grew on the wide verge among the giant burdock and nettles and below the bank where black slurry dripped from the overflow pipe of the septic tank the two cottages shared with the pig unit. I could see that this affected the trees, leafless branches at this, the most intense moment of early summer abundance. Elm disease and toxic residue: the trees needed protection…
Immediately around Hill Farm there were no trees, plenty of hedges, but trees were at least a field away, and so at night there was no whispering and blowing of a thousand million leaves…
The two of us took the old Saxon road that led, as its name indicated, along the valley bottom for about a mile and a half. On the Low Road you were hidden, not only was it the lowest part of the parish but the hedges on either side had been left to grow and at the widest place met overhead as large trees, some slender grey hornbeams, others thick ash and oak. At first Allan made the work of a warden sound easy…
We crossed the bridge, stared into the mass of overgrown brambles and occasional self-seeded or even surviving hawthorns, where Allan had planted the row of hedging. There wasn't anything more to say. A row of oaks grew opposite the church, which was now somebody's home…
Further along the Low Road, three mature limes like giant siblings spread shade for a herd of black and white cows in a long meadow. On the other side of the road a herd of golden brown mares and their foals grazed, their field also home to a long established horse chestnut and an old oak. The road ended where Ubbeston met Heveningham and Allan's last planting success marked the boundary, a strong, young oak enclosed by a robust square that no animal could reach over to nibble. Passing through Heveningham, a few yards of it only, we returned to Ubbeston on the high road, a B road and more dangerous for us foot powered folk but Allan had one more tree. ‘Last one, I promise, I want to show you the native black poplar along here. There are lots of poplars but black and native to Britain is rare. Unfortunately, it's in an awkward place, hard to say if it's on Green Farm or Mill House land, then again it grows up into the electricity cables.'
Ubbeston's rare tree Ieant out from the edge of a pond and over the road, its branches dipping and the ends turning up gracefully like a ballet dancer's gestures. I looked up into the heart shaped leaves and saw how the upper part had been lopped to accommodate the overhead lines and saw that this would be a permanent clash.
Allan and I parted at the top of Clay Hill. He to take the rutted path to his farm on the southern boundary of Ubbeston and me to walk down past another turkey farm, to the steep drop where the roots of old hornbeams twisted among the cut away banks, ending back on the Low Road a short mile from home. This was my road, the most beautiful and secret way, along which each tree displayed itself to me in one long triumphal arch. I was captive.