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Word from Wormingford

18 October 2013

Ronald Blythe visits the North Sea coast and eats fish pie

TO FELIXSTOWE, named after Felix of Dunwich, not to be confused with the 67 other Felixes in the martyrology. Wild weather. The polite seaside town where we paddled as children is now a European base. Massive vehicles with names in double Dutch crowd our little car. Their drivers look down on us haughtily. To think that our Felix Christianised us from these sandlings! Was it our shortcomings that brought them from Burgundy?

The October trees burn, fired up by autumn. We lunch on fish pie. The North Sea is neatly ruled from the firmament, and balances a little boat on the horizon. Yachts are laid up for the winter. The stony beach rattles. All is as it was - airy, harsh, bright.

Felixstowe brings to mind that touching poem "The Last of Her Order", in which John Betjeman observes a devout old Sister making her way to holy communion. Seaside towns are studded with places of worship - some barely breathing, like that in the poem. Young clergy try to rouse them from their slumbers with clapped hands, startling the retired, some of whom would give their souls for a bit of Merbecke.

Grand hotels have been turned into flats. But tennis thrives. I can hear my cousin Winifred playing for Suffolk. The turbulent October air hurls us along with promises that we shall live for ever. In Felixstowe, of course.

It is Beowulf land: a stretch of Scandinavia discovered in East Anglia - dreadful people, really, all mead and bloody swords. I hope they paused now and then to see the leaves turning. Their deeds come to us in the finest Old English. And just after breakfast.

Seabirds wheel around. It is supposed to rain, but a fierce sun cuts the sky into gold bars. Golfers have turned up in their hundreds, according to the cars outside the clubhouse. Play is now a large part of existence for many people - playing, and watching.

And the Felixstowe lady in the poem kept prayer going. I heard that the churchwardens in a seaside church were now dubbed "greeters" One of the most tender welcomes I ever received from a little congregation was when old hands brushed the rain from my coat as I entered a Welsh church. It was pouring and quite a walk from the car, the bell speaking its final notes, and I was drenched. My companion, too. There we were, being received, touched. And the lovely, unknown-to-us hymn. And the clatter of the storm on the roof. Everything the same, yet "different".

It is a great year for orchards. For falls. Although mind your heads when it comes to my Warden pear. This is a baking pear, said to have been prized by the Cistercian monks of Wardon, Bedfordshire. The artist John Nash planted it at Bottengoms. Henry IV ate it at his wedding, when it would have been served with venison, quail, and sturgeon.

There is no hope of picking it from my tree, which stretches to heaven. Too hard to bruise, it falls into the dying grass. Warden pies were all the rage.

The Canon sigh'd - but, rousing, cried, "I answer to thy call,
And a Warden-pie's a dainty dish to mortify withal!

I stew it gently in its rough skin with cloves and sugar. It is a most distinguished fruit, which a sudden gale is bringing down. A 15th-century recipe says cook it with fish - with anything you like. You will need a strong knife and a strong wrist.

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