Once more into the Brecks

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Kit Hes­keth-har­vey

IHAVE never seen the trees so gilded in splen­dour. The late leaf fall in Thet­ford For­est across north Suf­folk and south Nor­folk ir­ra­di­ates ev­ery vista from the beet-fields of the Breck­lands. My equally gilded nephew, with his film-star fa­ther’s blond looks, is run­ning this par­tridge day. For me, this is dis­turbingly age­ing—i re­mem­ber warm­ing his bot­tle.

He has re­cently moved into nearby Bod­ney, a tran­quil, 16th­cen­tury manor on the banks of the trout-teem­ing River Wis­sey. Per­haps he might al­low his old un­cle, stum­bling through the sugar beet, to take up seden­tary fish­ing in­stead.

The lit­tle es­tate is sur­rounded on all sides by the Mil­i­tary Train­ing Area, but the oc­ca­sional thud of mor­tar fire holds no ter­rors for Henry. He, along with most of his vi­brant young com­pan­ions to­day, was in the Ir­ish Guards. He di­rects manouevres from an in­ex­cus­able for­mer bomb-dis­posal Jeep, bristling with ra­dio an­ten­nae, flash­ing bea­cons and warn­ings of dan­ger­ous on-board ex­plo­sives.

Apart from the odd pla­toon of route-march­ing squad­dies, the horses of the House­hold Cavalry and the weather-re­sis­tant dog walk­ers in the for­est, this is a land­scape undis­turbed, un­farmed, un­par­al­leled. Ghost vil­lages are re­duced to iso­lated flint keeper’s cot­tages, motte-and-bai­ley earth­works or the skele­tal ru­ins of church tow­ers once used for tar­get prac­tice. The wildlife is Lady­bird-book abun­dant. I think— I hope—that he and his beau­ti­ful wife will rel­ish their move to Nor­folk. It re­minds me, au­tum­nally, of ours, a whole gen­er­a­tion ago.

The Brecks have be­come a brand. The Tourist Board logo pro­claims them now at the en­trance to our lo­cal vil­lage. This for­got­ten land­scape—all twisted conifers, pin­gos, meres that ap­pear and dis­ap­pear, sandy heaths and Vic­to­rian shoot­ing es­tates—is, at last, be­ing dis­cov­ered, and sold, as the con­sid­er­able amenity that it is. It is dis­tinc­tively dif­fer­ent from Broad­land or the coast. Peter Tol­hurst’s rev­e­la­tory com­pan­ion book, Breck­land and South Nor­folk, pub­lished last year as the sec­ond of his ‘Par­ish Trea­sures’ se­ries and ab­so­lutely in­dis­pens­able, is at once an ar­chi­tec­tural-cum-cul­tural com­men­tary and a nat­u­ral­ist’s field guide.

Slip­per moths and stone curlews are cel­e­brated along­side Soa­nian coun­try houses, leg­ends of phan­tom horse­men and the Milden­hall Trea­sure. The young Vir­ginia Woolf adored her one sum­mer at Blo’ Nor­ton Hall, John Cow­per Powys drifted along the Wis­sey amid flow­er­filled mead­ows lo­cally known as The Brinks and L. P. Hartley wrote The Go-be­tween at Braden­ham.

How­ever, we’ve never had a Brontë or a Hardy to burn this land­scape into the na­tional imag­i­na­tion. Although pinkLy­cra-clad cy­clists from Clerken­well are grad­u­ally be­gin­ning to in­vade the droves, it re­mains for just a lit­tle while longer—shhh!— our se­cret.

Which is per­haps why the pro­duc­ers of ITV’S re­cent Tu­tankhamun, in ig­no­rance, badly missed a trick. Lord Amherst, 19th-cen­tury squire of Didling­ton, the haunt­ing Humphry Rep­ton park im­me­di­ately up­stream from Bod­ney, was a keen ar­chae­ol­o­gist and an­ti­quar­ian.

His now-van­ished man­sion was brim­ful with Egyp­tian loot. The col­lec­tion stirred the imag­i­na­tions of two lo­cal lads. One was L. Rider Hag­gard, again at Braden­ham, which fired a lit­er­ary left-and-right—the re­sult was She. The other, from the nearby mar­ket town of Swaffham, was Howard Carter.

Max Irons (who plays Carter) has a splen­did neck and his mother’s mes­meric face. He’s a fine ac­tor who, with that lin­eage, is just as well. He is the very model of a Boys’ Own Pa­per hero: all sweaty mous­taches and stran­gled RP. A bit like me, re­ally, when I was hav­ing my own af­fair with Lady Eve­lyn Her­bert.

How­ever, this pre­pos­ter­ous ro­man­tic tosh would have been more cred­i­ble, his char­ac­ter more three-di­men­sional, if Carter’s back story had been ac­cu­rately told. Lord Carnar­von’s ob­jec­tion to him as a pu­ta­tive son-in-law (all right, let’s go with the fic­tion) was merely baf­fling.

Had Carter been de­picted as he truly was, the son of an artist, liv­ing in a mod­est Swaffham town house (these days, Strat­ton’s highly-to-be-rec­om­mended deli), cof­fin-jawed and speak­ing with a Breck­land twang, this sub­Down­ton Abbey folderol might ac­tu­ally have been in­ter­est­ing.

Not to worry. We are head­ing this week­end to High­clere it­self, for more par­tridges and cel­e­bra­tions of the present Lord Carnar­von’s mile­stone birth­day. He and I will con­tinue our il­licit ro­mance be­neath the desert stars. I’m sure that his fab­u­lous count­ess won’t mind, as she is hav­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ous af­fairs with Mr Carter (Jim) and Queen Hat­shep­sut. I hope to see won­der­ful things.

‘Pink-ly­cr­a­clad cy­clists from Clerken­well are be­gin­ning to in­vade’

Kit Hes­keth-har­vey is a So­ci­ety cabaret en­ter­tainer, lyri­cist, opera trans­la­tor and reg­u­lar broad­caster for the BBC. He lives in Nor­folk

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