“IT’S like we’re there, in Akenfield,” a walker declares, mustering cheer as she gingerly steps across the swamp that has spread across the path. We are, in fact, on Hampstead Heath, in north-west London, and the walker is wearing trainers ill-suited to life off the pavement. Aside from the mud, it is a world away from Akenfield — the name that Ronald Blythe gave to his fictionalised Suffolk village in his revolutionary 1968 book of the same name.
Blythe, who died in January (Obituary, 20 January), was known and loved by many Church Times readers for his long-running weekly “Word from Wormingford”; but it was the publication of Akenfield in 1968 that first brought him acclaim. He described this extraordinary book as “the quest for the voice of Akenfield, Suffolk”, which he captured by cycling around two neighbouring villages with a tape recorder, interviewing 50 villagers and writing up what they said, with intermittent accompanying commentaries, and grouping them together under headings such as “To be a Farmer’s Boy?”, “The Craftsmen”, and “The School”.
For the next hour and a half, however, this geographical and temporal distance will be diminished. Every month, I lead a group for a Sunday-morning stroll across the Heath while we talk about a book. Emily’s Walking Book Club has been going for more than a decade, in which time it has gained 1500 members. Most are based locally, but a fair few live outside London, some as far afield as Cape Town, Tel Aviv, and Washington, DC, who combine occasional London trips with walks, enjoying discussions on Zoom in the mean time. This Sunday morning, about 50 of us are tightening hoods and brandishing umbrellas, ready to discuss our 124th book, Akenfield.
We begin our walk by puzzling over how to classify this so-called “portrait of a village”. As we set off across the waterlogged Heath, one walker tells me about the trouble that she had finding a copy in her local bookshop, where the bookseller combed the shelves of the Fiction, History, and Biography sections before locating it in Travel.
Our conversations inspire more and more questions. How did Blythe choose whom to talk to? Why didn’t he talk to more women? Why not more people from the upper or middle classes? What questions did he ask? Did he edit the transcripts? How reliable was his tape recorder? Coming together beneath a tree, its bare branches dripping in the rain, we begin to laugh at how many questions we have, most of them unanswerable.
DECIDING that we need to focus on what we do know, I read aloud an extract from the book. Akenfield’s first section, “The Survivors”, concerns the men who lived through the First World War. The words of Leonard Thompson, a 71-year-old farm worker, make a bracingly powerful start to the book; everyone stands in silence — a few curious passers-by pause to listen, too — as I read them out:
“The first things we saw were big wrecked Turkish guns, the second a big marquee. It didn’t make me think of the military but of the village fêtes. Other people must have thought like this because I remember how we all rushed up to it, like boys getting into a circus, and then found it all laced up. We unlaced it and rushed in. It was full of corpses. Dead Englishmen, lines and lines of them, and with their eyes wide open. We all stopped talking. I’d never seen a dead man before and here I was looking at two or three hundred of them. It was our first fear. Nobody had mentioned this. I was very shocked. I thought of Suffolk and it seemed a happy place for the first time.”
We are struck by the hideously vivid loss of innocence, the childish excitement of a fairground snuffed out by mass death. I keep on reading, relating his account of sentry duty, battle, burying the dead — which made “the bottom of the trench . . . springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath”, the black humour of everyone shaking a dead hand as they passed it, and finally the horror in the stark fact: “Of the sixty men I had started out to war from Harwich with, there were only three left.”
The muddy Heath now seems closer to the trenches than to Suffolk’s fields, as we discuss this passage, which makes the horror of war freshly understood, keenly felt. As the path slopes downhill, I stop to give a steadying arm to the more fragile members of our group who fear a fall.
We meet on Hampstead Heath in all weathers. While I can seek out shady patches to escape the beating heat of summer, or sheltered spots from the rain, there is little to be done against the mud, other than go slowly, urge caution, and offer help. I am touched to see that, before long, many of our group — which ranges in age from early twenties up to late eighties — are linking arms, or offering one another a supportive hand.
WE REACH the ancient double row of lime trees which spans the Heath from east to west, and turn on to the path beside them, sloping gently upwards to drier (for the most part) ground. I find a soaked bench at the edge of the fenced-off Bronze Age barrow, fancifully called Boudicca’s Mount, which provides respite for a few weary walkers, while I talk into the damp wind whirling up the hill and pass pieces of cake round, joking about the moment in the book when a character recalls his childhood desperation to eat cake: there were no ovens; so all Akenfield food was boiled.
One walker, hailing from Minnesota, says that she can’t imagine such rural poverty in the 1960s, a time when she was at college, enjoying the post-war consumer boom. She is alone in her feeling of disconnect from the world of Akenfield: most of us welcome its “familiarity”. One member shares a photo of her grandfather driving a plough in Suffolk; others recognise similarities with their childhoods in Switzerland and Denmark. An Indian member admits, ashamedly, that the experience of the servants in the big house, forced to “face the wall and stand perfectly still” until the “Lordship or Ladyship” had passed, was not unlike the way in which servants could still be treated in India today.
For most of us, there is something uncannily relatable about many of the stories in the book, and we all acknowledge the contemporary resonance of the poverty, noticing the parallel between one old man’s memory of having to choose whether to clothe or feed his children 100 years ago with today’s choice of “heat or eat”.
The book explores an uneasy relationship with the past, in which nostalgia tugs against progress. As we walk, we swap favourite happy moments, enthusing about bell-ringing, gathering in the harvest, the singing in the fields, and the boys who used to love to stand around and talk. We notice what one walker astutely describes as “the contradictions of change”, as many of these pleasures were sacrificed with the advent of farm machinery, cars, and television.
I STOP near the mixed-bathing pond and wait for the rest of the group to catch up. It’s a good moment to scan for the new faces dotted among our more seasoned walkers. I am impressed — as ever — by how easily people manage to fall into step alongside one another, finding a common ground in the landscape and the book, in otherwise very different lives.
As I watch newfound companions walk and talk their way along the path, the contrast with normal London life — in which people walk with their heads down, earbuds in, or phones out, conversations scarce — feels stark.
What is it that makes our walking book club offer such an enticing alternative? At home, I have a file of appreciative notes from book-clubbers, which I open on bad days. What comes across in these emails and letters is just how powerful a process it is to be steered towards the right book at a difficult time, and then to share that intense reading experience with a community.
The inward journey that we travel when reading a book is transformed into a walk that we do together. With Akenfield, we’ve touched on such challenging topics as war, death, poverty, childhood, and change — and there’s a feeling of solidarity in talking them through side by side, on the same path, rather than tackling them alone.
I had always — naïvely — thought of loneliness as a city thing, but reading Akenfield made me see that village life could be intensely isolating, too. So, I launch our final discussion point: the lack of community in the book. As we complete our circuit, we touch on Blythe’s method of capturing individual interviews as opposed to conversations; the Women’s Institute; the astonishing character of the Colonel-turned-pig-farmer who couldn’t get over the “barbarous . . . innate cruelty” of his prying neighbours; and the grim testimony of the Samaritan, in which she explains the high rural suicide rate and points out that “villages aren’t always the cosy, friendly places they are supposed to be, are they? People can be as lonely there as anywhere else.” Not everyone is as surprised as I am by encountering such loneliness in this portrait of village life.
We say our goodbyes and drift off to the bookshop, café, or Tube station, leaving the world of Akenfield and gradually returning to the present. As everyone instinctively reaches for their phones, I like to think it’s only to make a note of the book and date for our next walking book club.
Find out more about Emily’s Walking Book Club at emilyswalkingbookclub.substack.com. It next meets on Sunday, to discuss A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.