This Happy Place by Julia Jones

In the latter part of this strange summer my son Bertie and I have been working on a history of Waldringfield. A k a ‘Wunnerf’l’ as the Suffolk pronunciation has it – which the locals are quick to point out is almost indistinguishable from the correct way to say ‘wonderful’. ‘Wunnerf’l Wunnerf’l’ runs to 314 large and glossy pages with somewhere in the region of 618 photographs and is a tremendous achievement by the Waldringfield History Group -- and also by Bertie who was responsible for design and typesetting. At the outset, however, I wondered where we would ever reach our collective goal of publication by Michaelmas (Sept 29th).  The two pages of foreword entitled 'Wonderful Waldringfield' went through a larger number of politely argued re-writes than any other section of the book. Everyone had their view on what precisely constitutes the particular wonderfulness of this Suffolk village.

The answer, of course, is the Deben. 'The River Deben means many things to many people, From its source to the sea it offers pleasure, challenge, inspiration, livelihood and a home’  -- as the back cover of the 30th Anniversary Issue of the Deben magazine will confirm as it begins arriving through subscribers' letter boxes early next week. After the major challenge of the history book, Bertie and I assumed that the 40 page River Deben Association magazine would be a breeze. We reckoned without the enthusiasm of some of our contributors - a one request for a 600 word piece evoked 2700 words -ALL of them good and with half a dozen detailed diagrams to accompany them. It happened to be an expert article on fish conservation and, as Arthur Ransome writes, 'Good fishermen know that in talking about fishing there is nothing more interesting than the truth'. That's a piece of wisdom included in the Waldringfield book (of which more below). It was obviously impossible to cut. Instead the River Deben Association has set up a new on-line journal to all experts and enthusiasts to have all the space they need. 

Meanwhile Waldringfield: A Suffolk Village by the River Deben took a firm and focused line. It ignores matters such as education, agriculture, village politics, religion  to focus almost entirely on the area of the village which borders the river: water-borne trade, the boatyard,  the sailing club, the foreshore, the anchorage; the liminal area which is sometimes water, sometimes earth.  'This happy place where almost everybody wore sea boots and land, in comparison with water, seemed hardly to matter at all.'  As the book's self-appointed copy-editor I tried  to ration the number of Arthur Ransome quotes that each contributor was allowed to use but I had to admit the man was right time and again. The five wise saws that made it into the final version are all included here.

Ransome is known to have visited Waldringfield in 1936 and again in 1951. However, his description of 'This happy place...' come from the first chapter of We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea and was written for the 1930s Suffolk sailing village of Pin Mill on the neighbouring river Orwell. There were obvious links and rivalries between the two villages, especially between their racing aficionados. There was the time a Waldringfield  Sailing Club member allowed his boat to be taken round to Pin Mil without a mast, giving the impression that he wouldn't be competing. Then, just before the race was due to start, a new mast was towed out by dinghy, stepped, rigged -- and the challenge cup duly won for the Deben. Miss Poppy Orvis. a keen lady racer from Pin Mill, came to the Waldringfield regatta to take on the Deben’s finest. She ended up marrying the successful amateur helmsman Dr Ken Nicholls Palmer who put Waldringfield Sailing Club on the national map when he and his teammate Cyril Stollery won the first National 12 championship, held in Poole in 1936 - in a Waldringfield-built dinghy.

'They all went out together into sunshine that seemed extraordinarily friendly. A light breeze was stirring the river and they could see the water sparkling through the trees... (The Big Six  

Miss Orvis was the daughter of a renowned Ipswich boatbuilder whereas the Palmers exemplified the keen amateur yachtsmen. There’s a rather endearing anecdote told by James Palmer (grandson of Kenneth and Poppy) of his great grandfather Ernest Palmer who had sailed to Harwich to watch the royal yacht Britannia racing. When the King came on deck, Ernest Palmer was so overwhelmed that ‘he didn’t know whether to salute or raise his hat. In his confusion he tried to do both simultaneously embarrassing himself and amusing the rest of the family greatly.’ James Palmer who told this story is (like his other great-grandfather) a skilled boat builder and owner of one of the oldest and loveliest yachts on the river – a contemporary of Britannia.

Grandson or great-grandson...? Do I have the degrees of relationship exact? It’s been a constant worry in the compilation of this book. People come to Waldringfield and never leave. As Bertie and I laboured to get the mass of detailed local knowledge and historical research into an accessible format, we had to learn our way round a complex intergenerational, frequently intermarried community. Bertie recklessly took on responsibility for the index. 'Do you think that’s ‘young’ George Turner, who has become old, or is it ‘old’ George Turner when he was young? Or could it be Master Mariner George Turner, venerable ancestor of them both? we asked one another with furrowed brows. As well as Turners and Palmers, there were Frasers, Ogdens, Nunns, Quantrills and Stollerys all competing keenly on the water and making lifelong friendships as they returned to land.

As that man Ransome said 'The Klop klop of water under the bows of a small boat will cure most troubles in this world' (Coot Club) .

When the index reached letter W Bertie needed to tackle the Waller family. They were landowners, farmers, sailors, developers, benefactors as well as providing Waldringfield with an unbroken line of Rectors over 151 years. Thirty four members of the family merited an index entry. Problems of identification were thrown open to the committee and it was felt as a collective failure that we never did finally managed to decide whether the young chap in the boater on p 144 was Arthur Pretyman Waller or Alfred Whalley Waller. I shake my head and sigh...

I was a child at Waldringfield myself. My mother met my father there when she came to buy a boat and one of the beach huts was their first married home. My grandmother and uncle lived in a house called the Old Maltings which had once belonged to the Cobbold family (Suffolk brewers). From this book I learned the story of Thomas Cobbold, a son of that affluent Ipswich family, who loved Sarah Elliston  the daughter of a labourer who died in the workhouse. His family did not approve. Thomas and Sarah had their first child together in 1830 but it was 1861 (thirty years and nine children later) before they were finally able to marry. Then they came to live in that Waldringfield house to make a new life for themselves.

When I knew the Old Maltings best my uncle had a yacht design studio on the top floor with an unmatched view across the river. All he and my father really talked about was boats -- but in Waldringfield that seemed perfectly normal. It was only occasionally, when editing this book,  that I wondered whether a wider readership would understand that boats have at least as much individuality and stories to tell as the human amphibians who design and build them, cherish, abuse, abandon them... 

The Deben was slow to fill up this summer -- boats, like people, were in lockdown. Then, as people returned to the 1950s style riverside holidays they thronged to Waldringfield. People took to the water in kayaks and paddleboards instead of the sensible rowing dinghies of my youth. There was Suffolk's first ever Pride Paddle -- how uncle Jack and his all-male circle would have cheered. 

But now it's October and the nights are drawing in. The Waldringfield boatyard will soon be filling up. Peter Duck, Nancy Blackett and many of the other Deben yachts will go up river to Woodbridge for their annual hibernation.  'Dark at teatime and sleeping indoors, nothing ever happens in the winter holidays'  It feels depressing. But even Arthur Ransome wasn't always right ... 



Umberto Tosi said…
Sounds wonnerful, the town and your lovely tome. Good luck to you and your son with it!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Julia, completely agree with Umberto. The place sounds amazing!

julia jones said…
Happy indeed - thank you
Paul Mullings said…
I wish it wasn’t so jolly far away!

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