Rising and falling over the fields, woods and village rooftops, there is nothing as English as the sound of church bells. Other countries chivy the faithful to church with tuneless clash and clatter or strike the hour with tinkling carillons, but England alone is the home of the ancient art of change ringing, in which the bells are rung full circle in unrepeated and harmonious mathematical sequence. I learned to ring as a lad in Norfolk, at Ranworth church, the ?cathedral of the Broads? and I can still turn the treble to a touch of Kent treble bob. However, my skills pale behind those of Mrs Downing, who rings with the brethren of the belfry in towers all over Suffolk, but not, sadly, at our own little church at Chediston.
For some 30 years the bells in our tower have been derelict and unringable, so 18 months ago, Mrs D. made it her business to launch a project to restore the bells and teach a local band to ring here once more. Bell restoration does not come cheaply, and for a while we mulled over various proposals for fund-raising. ?What about?, I suggested, ?an Old Time Farming Day?? Why not turn our own small farm over to the jingle of harness, the chug of vintage tractors and the clatter of the thrashing machine? Surely that would draw the crowds and make a few bob?
Well, our Old Time Farming Day took place in July, and it did far more than raise money for the bell restoration. For weeks beforehand our village community rallied together, banging in stakes, raising marquees, shifting straw bales, producing plants and vegetables for sale, baking cakes, even building a temporary footbridge over our beck for access to our meadow. It would be the biggest event that Chediston had ever seen.
But would it receive sufficient support from the local farming community to make a show worthy of the £5 entrance fee that we were seeking from the paying public? I need not have worried on that point ? from all over north-east Suffolk came veterans of harvests past. From Leiston to Laxfield, the spruced up old grey Fergies and the bright blue Fordsons emerged from barn and shed, while the stationary engine enthusiasts turned out in their dozens with Lister, Petter and Bentall engines, which puffed and spluttered under the hot July sun.
We had two threshing machines at work and a ?Thatch-matic?, a device used by wartime land girls that wove straw matting for the thatching of old-fashioned ricks. I spent two days turning out our own barns and sheds to assemble and display an eclectic collection of bygones. I also uncovered, to the delight of the Thatch-matic owner, a long- forgotten cache of mint-condition ?Harvest Moon? sisal binder twine, some of which I swapped with him for a roll of polypropylene.
Undisputed stars of the show, however, were the heavy horses: a Shire, and of course our local breed, the magnificent Suffolk punch, brought all the way from Bury St Edmunds by my friend Nigel Oakley. With the permission of DEFRA I had arranged for my summer fallow field to be cultivated early, with the intention of providing the spectacle of a plough team in action. Sadly, with the ground set hard, there was little prospect of that. However, the local tractor boys came to the rescue and spent the morning breaking up the soil, enabling Nigel to harness up in the afternoon and break up the clods with a chain harrow.
What a wonderful sight it was, those two horses working the land at Bridge Farm. It was the first time such a scene has been witnessed here for 60 years. Such things stir the souls of those of us who are too young to have seen the land farmed in such a way. For those of older years they stir the memory, and as the folks from our local villages ? plus a fair number of holiday visitors on a day away from the beach at Southwold ? poured into the car parks and made their way around the show, the stories started to emerge. We learned of the three horses, Siskin, Matchet and Blossom, that had once lived in our own outbuildings, the mouldering remains of whose harness I had rescued from a barn and put on display with the other bygones. Kathleen Thurlow, whose husband, Jack, was captain of Chediston bell ringers and who farmed these acres back in the 1940s, brought a picture of a binder at work during harvest at Bridge Farm just after World War II. It was the first time she had set foot in her old house for 40 years.
During the afternoon an elderly countryman was spotted walking around the farmyard clutching some faded photographs. It transpired that he had worked on our farm in the 1930s. One of the pictures showed him as a youngster standing in front of our barn when it was thatched, before the rickety weatherboarded cow houses were pulled down and replaced with an asbestos-roofed concrete yard. Ironically, in a few weeks the asbestos in its turn will be gone and by next summer the barn will, I hope, be thatched once more.
Some 700 people came to our Old Time Farming Day. They enjoyed the horses and old machinery, bought plants at the plant stall, hooted with laughter at the terrier racing, watched our local sporting artist Simon Trinder work his magic with brush, saw the wood-turner and basket maker, and marvelled at the craft of my violin-maker daughter, Rebecca, before sitting down at the tables arranged on the lawn for farmhouse tea and cake. In the children?s corner rats were splatted, coconuts skittled and the name of Pat Gregory?s ferret was guessed. The whole village was brought together in a real sense of community such as can only be found in a small country parish.
Now, the last tractor has chugged out of the farm gate and our meadow is left once more to the sheep and the rooks. ?When will the next one be held?? is the question which everyone asks. Not next year ? but the year after? Well, maybe. And as for the financial outcome, when the final bills and receipts had been totted up, we found that we had raised just less than £3,000 for the bells. Old Jack Thurlow would have been delighted, and probably amazed too.