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Word from Wormingford

23 September 2016

Ronald Blythe considers a young map maker who recorded country houses

ROBERT MORDEN was 32 when he published his map of Suffolk. It was covered with a rash of green spots, i.e. the parks of the nobility and gentry. There was no other geographic information. No windmills, no herring boats being blown along by Zephyrus, and certainly no farms. Morden was an ambitious young geographer who was aiming his map at the country house, where such industries had to be beyond the pale. Or out of sight.

Not long after abbeys and priories became palaces, a process of emparadising began, which walled, or fenced off, farming, and the peasantry in general. There was no rough husbandry in the Garden of Eden, just fruit trees and seed-bearing herbs, and a lovely river (the Euphrates). God walked in it during the evening to chat with his highest creation, Adam.

In parks or enclosed, “country house” was a word first used in 1535. To call this house “a seat” first appeared in 1607. Such dwellings became rural hubs of taste and learning, and rural power-bases. Park fences and brick walls ran for miles round them; a Suffolk feature is the serpentine, or crinkle-crankle wall.

Fanciful lodges and gates flaring with heraldry permitted entrance to wonderful horticulture, architecture, music, “society”, local government, and often the parish church itself, this having occupied the holy place since the Saxons cleared the wood to make the first field; and it would still be adjacent to the mansion which occupied the site of the wooden halls.

Most of Morden’s worlds remain in situ, although searching for a few of them would lead to the ghostly grandeur of forsaken gardens and owl-visited ruins, such as the incomparably sad Houghton House, in Bedfordshire, which was said to be John Bunyan’s “House Beautiful”. One finds them by the straight lines of airfields from the Second World War, these telltale fragments of pride driving into the concrete runways.

At Stoke by Nayland, which I glimpse through a framework of oaks as I walk down my farm track, and all of five miles distant, the medieval park remains, but its hall has vanished. The youthful John Constable passed these miles of fencing many times. The gamekeepers were instructed to “Pray permit Mr Constable to draw the trees.”

The hall-owners commissioned Constable to paint portraits of their houses, and were angry when he included farm animals. His landscapes, with their agricultural content, were too “low” for a gentleman’s drawing-room, and were not bought. Having spent a fortune keeping the village out of sight, one was hardly likely to hang views of it on one’s walls. A student of agriculture, however, might equally find a Constable questionable, because it was often emparadising what was happening to the workaday countryside, which was at that moment in starvation and ferment.

And yet the great artist was not deceitful; as a boy, he had witnessed farming harmony and prosperity in the Stour Valley, and his work was a declaration of how things should be. He watched the park-owners run away to their town houses for safety because the haystacks were being fired and the labourers were starving.

The map-maker’s green rings are confident. They declare park rule and park civilisation. They cluster, for the most part, in west Suffolk, and the Blything, a hundred miles to the north of the county, and great stretches of Suffolk, are parkless. The oddest thing about Morden’s map is that many place names are printed as they are pronounced, not as they are now spelt: Laneham for Lavenham, for example.

Park walls are an architecture in themselves, and a vast undertaking. There are still lots of them to walk around, both inside and out. Plants, insects, birds, creatures of every kind occupy them like an abandoned city.

My stackyard was walled in to stop the animals from getting out. A few yards of it remain, and here and there is a stout buttress supporting hanks of ivy. Tall nettles green the mortar. I quarry it for rubble for handmade edging bricks for the garden. Our squire’s hall is on high ground, and is sheltered by trees. Constable’s Uncle Abram rented it for many years. Our churchyard wall leans out — owing, they say here, “to the dead having a stretch”.

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