Once more into the Brecks
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