An Affinity of Place was published in June 2021. Here you’ll find out more about the book and why I wrote it:
An Affinity of Place
Reading Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club and The Big Six as a child introduced me to two pastimes which became lifelong enthusiasms: sailing and bird-watching.
I was also intrigued by the setting for Ransome’s stories, the Norfolk Broads. Family holidays on the Broads on hired yachts confirmed to me what a wonderful area this is, and how well it combines those two enthusiasms. In the 1990s my family and I (wife Sheila, son Tim and daughter Mary) lived in north Suffolk, giving us the opportunity to keep an eighteen foot sailing boat at Hardley Dyke on the River Yare; also to visit many of the nature reserves of Norfolk and Suffolk: RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and others.
Among the various reserves visited from our north Suffolk home, I discovered the Ludham and Potter Heigham Marshes National Nature Reserve, and in particular that section of it known as Horse Fen. I started making regular visits and keeping notes of my observations at different times of year. I concluded that other people would be keeping a more scientific record of the reserve, but that another way to celebrate and pay tribute to this exceptional place would be to incorporate it into a story, which would also allow me to describe other parts of Broadland and to draw upon the pleasures of sailing on these unique waters.
Boardman’s Mill (left) and Clayrack Mill (right) near How Hill. David visits in August 1988, and sees a Cetti’s Warbler beside the path, just about where this picture was taken (Photo by Mary Falkner)
Potter Heigham Old Bridge
Cardingmill Valley, Shropshire, which the Marchands take Lorna to see in October 1988. David has a picture by Angela in his flat.
The cover shows part of Horse Fen, as painted (in the story) by Angela.
Hunter half-decker ‘Woodcut 2’ in the dyke beside Ranworth Staithe. See ‘Affinity’ September 1990.
Overview & Preview
An Affinity of Place
An affinity with an exceptional place…
For the last ten years Lorna had lived with her father in a small cottage out on the marshes.
Now Henry Banningham had died, and Lorna was alone.
Would she find companionship? Might she find love?
Meanwhile, the life of this special place –
its birds, insects and flowers, its reedbeds, its flowing waters – ministered to her in her solitude.
The village church, the pub, sailing on the Norfolk Broads, local people and incomers,
provide the wider setting for a story whose focus always returns to this unique environment at the heart of the Broads.
I hope you enjoy reading the first chapter of book!
As she walked home along the riverbank, the frost was again tightening its grip on the landscape. Where the stems of the reeds broke the surface of the water, circlets of ice were forming, and if this weather went on for a few more days the whole width of the river would be frozen. The sun had hardly raised the temperature all day, and was now dipping to the horizon, leaving layers of pink, orange and green in the sky ahead. She had left the road at the old bridge and taken this path heading downstream on the right bank. After passing the boatyard it ran behind the riverside bungalows for about half a mile, the low-lying marshes to the right criss-crossed by drainage dykes. These bungalows, or ‘chalets’, were mostly made of wood, with a variety of roof coverings, their individuality increased by the addition of a veranda, a sun lounge, a garden shed, a boathouse, a flag pole. A few had permanent residents, mostly older people who had lived there for many years. The rest were now holiday homes, either used by their owners at week-ends, or let by the week through an agency. A similar row of bungalows lined the opposite bank.
After the last of the bungalows the path was rougher, more uneven, but she was used to that, and it meant she had not much further to go. The grey-brown River Thurne, moving slowly, heavily, on her left; the wintry meadows on the other side of the path; the line of dark woods over towards Womack, these were daily sights, but this afternoon she hardly saw them. It was as if she were still standing in the churchyard looking down at the grave. She saw again the headstone, ‘Alice May Banningham, 1935 – 1977’ and wondered how long it would be before her father’s name would be added.
On the landward side of the path she passed a small brick-built cottage and the base of an old drainage mill (known locally as Goodwin’s). This mill, strictly speaking a wind-pump, and another nearer to Womack, had formerly pumped water from the network of drainage dykes into the river, maintaining the water level on the fen. These mills had been superseded by electric pumps, and the cottage was no longer lived in, although some building supplies at the side of the cottage suggested that renovations might be taking place. Perhaps she would have neighbours before too long? Just past the old mill was a small inlet in the bank, and to the right a low brick building housing the electric pump. On the far side of the inlet an old rowing boat, beamy, painted grey, had been hauled out and turned upside-down onto low trestles for the winter. This had been her father’s boat – hers now, she supposed – and she went over to check that it had not shifted or been damaged. Fortunately, at the time of the great storm of October 1987, which had done such damage across southern England, the boat had still been in the water, moored close along the bank of the inlet, and had taken no harm. But December had been windy at times, and she had not checked the boat since her father’s illness. Each side of the raised riverbank, or rond, were head high clumps of winter-pale phragmites reeds, the fluttering of their feathery tops indicating a slight breeze down the line of the river. On the far side of the fen, about a quarter of a mile away, a track ran roughly parallel with the river. To the west it reached Womack Water and the lane up to Ludham; at its eastern end it took a sharp left turn and, as Fritton Lane, went up to join the Ludham to Potter Heigham road. A straight ‘cansey’ or causeway, raised a foot or two above the level of the fen and flanked by dykes, linked the mill cottage with this track. A large old willow stood to the left of the causeway some fifty yards along, and beyond it, also on the left, was a small wooden cottage. It was built on a platform or rampart raised above the meadow to the level of the causeway, and gave the impression that one of the riverside bungalows had wandered off by itself and settled down a little way from the river. Its walls were tarred black, its roof brown felt tiles. Facing the causeway were two windows and a central front door, the window frames and door painted cream, and at the far end a brick chimney projected above the roof line. The cottage was approached across the dyke by a wooden bridge with a single handrail.
Having checked the boat, she took a narrow path off the riverbank round the side of the pump-house down onto the causeway. Walking along it, she noticed a female mallard swimming in the dyke, occasionally stopping to peck at something, but generally keeping pace with her. The edges of the dykes already had fringes of ice along them – they normally froze sooner than the river itself. Reaching the bungalow she crossed the footbridge, felt in her anorak pocket for the key, and let herself in the front door. This was her home. Her home. Of course, it had been her home, hers and Dad’s, for some ten years, but now it was just hers. The door opened directly onto the living room. She switched on the light, shivered and went over to switch on the small electric fire which stood in the fireplace. She peered into the kettle, making sure there was enough water to cover the element, and switched that on too, then without taking off her anorak she flopped down into one of the two small armchairs.
‘Oh, Lorna,’ she said to herself out loud. How empty the room seemed now that Dad’s bed had gone. They only had the two rooms, and even as a child she had had the bedroom. It worked out better that way because her father could clear up, read or watch the television after she had gone to bed. In fact he did not often watch television, being a great reader since his schooldays, when there was no television. He liked to listen to the news on what he still called ‘the wireless’ but thought Lorna should not miss out on the TV programmes her friends at school watched. She, however, also caught the reading habit; she would watch a programme that was on, but seldom deliberately chose one. Now that the bed was gone, she thought she ought to re-arrange the room so that the space was not so obvious.
The kettle interrupted her thoughts. She dropped a tea-bag into a mug, poured on the water, and went to the refrigerator in the porch at the back for milk. Returning with a carton of milk, two slices of bread and a tin of baked beans from the shelf above the ‘fridge, she fished the tea-bag out of her mug and dropped it into the teapot to use again later. It was not time yet for her evening meal but she had already decided to let herself off any serious cooking today. Warming up, she took off the anorak and sat down again to drink her tea.
* * *
Henry Banningham had served an apprenticeship as a joiner; his pursuit of his trade had mostly been in the boatyards of Potter Heigham and Martham. As time went on, he adapted his skills to take account of new materials: first marine plywood, later the glass-reinforced plastic now used in the construction of most boats on the Broads, though he still enjoyed the ‘proper’ woodwork involved in the fitting-out of the cabins, and occasional opportunities to work on traditional wooden yachts and motor cruisers. For a few years he went to work at a boatyard in Stalham. This yard was big enough to have office staff handling hire-craft bookings, doing the banking, paying the men’s wages etc., and here he met Alice, who was to become his wife. They were married in 1963 in Sutton Church. Love had come late to Henry; he was just turned forty on their wedding day, and twelve years older than his wife. They rented a small house on the northern edge of Potter Heigham, formerly a tied farm-worker’s cottage. With the increasing mechanisation of arable farming, fewer workers were needed on the land, and the farmer was glad to rent out his cottage to the newly married couple, who were very happy in their new home. Henry had an abiding interest in, and affection for, the countryside of his native area, and over the years had acquired some of the traditional skills of marshland workers, such as reed-cutting and maintaining the dykes and sluices which control the water levels on the grazing marshes through the seasons.
After four years of marriage, Lorna was born, their only child. At the village First School she was quiet and thoughtful; she had friends but was happy alone; she was not unpopular but did not court popularity; she became an avid reader, in which her father encouraged her. Lorna moved on to the Middle School in Stalham, and around this time Alice’s health began to give reason for concern. She seemed to be always tired, yet at night her sleep was disturbed; she experienced muscle aches which gradually developed into more acute pain; she was clearly losing weight. It became obvious to Lorna, approaching her tenth birthday, that something was wrong, something which was not being discussed in her presence. During the school summer holiday she was reluctant to go far from home, and kept going in to check that her mother was there. Alice eventually realised, and confided in her daughter: yes, she was very ill, she might not get better, but nothing would happen suddenly and she would not try to hide it from Lorna if she got worse. Lorna found returning to school in September difficult, having to deal with school work on one level and keep thinking of her mother on another. By the time of Lorna’s birthday in October she could see that her mother was failing, and Alice was on medication which made her drowsy and not always coherent.
After Alice died, Henry felt he needed to leave the cottage which had been his home through fourteen years of marriage. He knew of a small bungalow out on the Horse Fen marshes. It had originally been built there to house a marsh worker, to be on the spot to observe water levels and keep an eye on grazing cattle. When no longer needed for this purpose it had been bought by a keen amateur naturalist who intended to spend much of his free time there, but things had not worked out as he expected; he had hardly ever used the cottage and now wished to sell. With the help of a small inheritance from a distant cousin and a private loan from a former employer, Henry bought this cottage and adapted it for his daughter and himself. As already mentioned, Lorna had the bedroom, Henry’s bed going against the wall of the living room to the right of the front door. A small table and two dining chairs stood by the partition wall, and along the rear wall were a sink and draining board, electric cooker and a small work-top, and the back door. At the back of the cottage Henry had built a lean-to extension, half of which provided a room with toilet and shower, the other half a large porch with space for the refrigerator, hanging for coats and a rack for boots and shoes. On the rear corner of the platform on which the cottage stood was a well equipped garden shed. Part of the field behind the platform had been fenced off by the original resident to provide a vegetable patch. This had been neglected for some years, but Henry had every intention of bringing it back into use.
It was here to ‘Sally Toft’ that he brought Lorna in the spring of 1978. It was in some ways an idyllic place for a young girl. She could wander the paths across the marsh and along the riverbank, watch the boats on the river, recognise the birds of the marshland and the small inhabitants of the dykes. Henry loved this fragile and finely balanced environment and Lorna grew to feel its specialness too, sensing that this was where she belonged. Idyllic – but also rather isolated. School friends who used to call at their previous house seldom found their way down here, and by the same token, once Lorna got home she did not want to go back into the village.
Their nearest relations, in both senses of ‘near’, were Christine and Christopher Knight and their sons, Oliver and Simon, who lived up in the village. Christine was Alice’s sister, younger by nearly ten years, and became a close and trusted friend to Lorna as she grew up. Lorna moved on from Middle School to High School in Stalham and did well in her GCE ‘O’ levels, but did not want to stay on to sixth form. Her form teacher was disappointed: ‘She really ought to stay on and do ‘A’ levels.’ But Lorna was determined, and though proud of her results Henry was not willing to oppose her. So she stayed at home, kept house for her father and looked for some part-time work. This came first in the form of some shifts as a waitress in a new restaurant which had opened in Ludham. Then her aunt Christine, who had a regular Friday and Saturday job at the boatyard during the holiday season, checking and preparing the cruisers for the next hirers to come aboard, arranged for Lorna to be called upon at busy times or when other staff were away.
Henry, now in his sixties and clear of debt on the house, was also working part-time at one of the smaller yards, and supplementing his income carrying out some of those marshland tasks he would have been glad to do just for the pleasure of doing them. He was delighted when, in 1987, Horse Fen was declared to be ‘Ludham Marshes National Nature Reserve’. Then in December he had fallen ill while helping with reed-cutting on Hickling Broad. This illness he had at first tried to ignore, partly because that was his usual way with illness, and partly because he was enjoying the wet work among the reeds. Then one afternoon he collapsed at work and had to accept help. His acknowledgement of his condition came too late and he died after just three days in hospital.
Henry Banningham was buried in his wife’s grave two weeks before Christmas, and Lorna became an orphan at the age of twenty.
Of course, when her mother died, Lorna at ten had little idea what the future would be like without her. But the actual news, she had been expecting; she did not cry; she resolutely got through the early weeks; she accepted and appreciated the support of her Aunty Chris and quietly turned her attention to caring for her father. She offered what comfort she could, learned to cook some basic meals and maintained her mother’s routine with the family wash. In the same way, when her father died, and although she had much less time to prepare herself, still she did not cry. She consulted her aunt and uncle, who stood by her throughout; she valued their presence and their advice; she set herself to do what was needed. Christine felt it would be better for Lorna if she could cry, but she knew her niece well enough not to make the mistake of thinking this a sign of indifference. Lorna’s grief was no less real for not being manifest. Christine and Christopher persuaded Lorna to spend the nights before and after the funeral with them, and again a few nights at Christmas, but otherwise she had been determined to stay in her own home. On Christmas morning she and Christine had gone to church, and after the service had spent a few minutes standing by the grave. This afternoon she had been back there alone.
* * *
The next morning Lorna came out of her front door and stood to look across the frosted marsh. The sky was a clear blue with small high cirrus clouds sketched in randomly. The breeze was still down-river, but felt stronger today. A black-headed gull (in winter plumage, without the dark head) hung motionless, head to wind, over the mill cottage. Lorna crossed the bridge over the dyke, enjoying the frost patterns on the wood but taking them as a sign to walk circumspectly. She noticed that the dyke now had a thin layer of ice all over it. She turned left along the causeway, away from the river, and walked as far as the junction with the track to Womack. Dry leaves of the sedge growing between the causeway and the dyke made a thin rattling noise as they moved and rubbed together in the breeze. Just before the junction was a wooden gate, usually left open, and beyond it a pair of oak trees still bearing some golden-brown leaves. Fewer than usual, she thought, no doubt because of the violent October storm. As she leaned on the gate and looked towards Womack two oyster catchers flew low over the rond and across the marsh, their wings flashing black and white. Slowing, they rose up then dropped down into long grass and out of sight. In an osier bush a little way ahead a flock of house sparrows were twittering noisily but were difficult to see among the branches.
Lorna breathed deeply. Even in January, birds, animals, plants continued the life of the fen. She herself felt part of this place, part of its life. Even in her loss and sorrow, she knew that belonging here, sharing that life, was a promise: for her too there would be life and growth, new seasons, new beginnings. As she turned to walk back to her home she decided to ‘phone the owner of the restaurant and say she was ready to work again when needed. And this morning she would make a start on re-arranging the living room.
The book is available in both paperback and ebook format.