Framsden and Helmingham: Moira’s ‘silver’ gap year in the countryside - snow, cats, cash flow, and a lady from the past
- Credit: Archant
Teenagers don’t quite corner the market on gap years these days, but a ‘silver’ one involving a life-changing 12 months in rural England? Unusual. Moira Coleman’s had one, in her 60s. STEVEN RUSSELL hears about a perishingly-cold winter, feline friendships and a £30k loss as the housing bubble burst
Rural life is not for everyone, admits Moira Coleman. But what other people might have viewed as drawbacks, she saw as a bonus – “as a positive delight, in fact” – when she uprooted herself for a rented cottage deep in the Suffolk countryside. “I value solitude and quiet,” she explains. “Despite years of being surrounded by people in my work, I am not gregarious. This has come as a shock to people who think they know me, but I am not a ‘joiner’, nor one of the world’s confident travellers, even less one of its great consumers, so I chose that ‘gap’ deliberately because it offered so many opportunities for someone like me.”
We featured Moira in 2012, when she published Fruitful Endeavours. It was about the 16th Century culinary skills of Catherine Tollemache at Helmingham Hall, the moated building about nine miles north of Ipswich that’s been the family seat for about 500 years.
Now Moira has another title out – about the year she decamped from Norfolk to rent a cottage belonging to the Helmingham estate and which led to her writing about the ingenuity of Lady Tollemache.
The latest book is a chronicle of new beginnings and discoveries, of “wallnutts artificiall” and gum dragon, and joy found in the past. And lots and lots of research.
What does she say to folk who might suggest she’s, well, a bit bonkers to have spent so many hours poring over aged documents in Suffolk’s record offices, or tapping keywords into search engine in the early hours? “Research IS an obsession, in the nicest possible way. Don’t take my word for it – talk to any passionate historian, amateur or professional, and you will find others who have succumbed to the power of archives and spend their days absorbed to the exclusion of much else,” she tells ealife.
“The first time I handled a 17th Century survey map in Suffolk Record Office, Lowestoft, I tingled with excitement, and I still do.
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“That map – of Somerleyton – told me a story I would not have believed possible on the basis of what can be seen there now.
“History comes alive from the records that convey it, and in the case of the Tollemaches and Catherine, in particular, the link is tangible because the house and the family survive and I am fascinated by survivors, and even more fascinated by what they leave behind.”
Her unusual 12 months begins in high summer, 2008. Moira’s starting her silver gap year, a “bridge between employment and retirement” that isn’t without its risks. The 62-year-old is saying goodbye to her mid-terrace Victorian cottage at Attleborough to rent that house at Framsden from the Helmingham estate. The Norfolk home is up for sale.
Its owner is no stranger to moves. This will be her 21st, and with no “significant other” she can follow her own star. Mobility has brought its benefits. As she explains, her comfortable (though not extravagant) position is down to “my knack for creating homes from houses, selling at a small profit and re-investing in the next move”.
Having suspected the Norfolk cottage would prove her last home, she’s built in as much comfort as she can afford – risky, because it has absorbed all her small pension lump sums.
“I am ever-cautious but readily satisfied as long as my outgoings never exceed my income: a veritable Mr Micawber. I think I have everything under control.” But leaving for a rented cottage in Suffolk is, she admits, “completely out of character”.
It has been easier because there are plans to build new houses virtually on the doorstep of her Norfolk abode. Discombobulated, she’s thought about the future and mused about Suffolk, where she had spent 25 years.
Entering her 60th year, Moira had marked the occasion by attending an all-day event at Helmingham Hall featuring plantsman Roy Lancaster. She knew the Grade I listed gardens well, and Helmingham was where she’d begun to “grasp the meaning and potential of history”.
After Moira had secured an Open University degree in humanities in the late 1970s, after six years of hard slog, she’d joined the Workers’ Educational Association as a part-time tutor. Members had “an insatiable appetite for the history of Suffolk” and, allied to her fascination for rural development, it was the many groups of Victorian estate cottages provided by the first Lord Tollemache that drew her to Helmingham. There, she fell for its six centuries of accumulated archive material.
The Tollemaches had arrived in Suffolk from Normandy in the 12th Century. They settled at Bentley, south of Ipswich, and then in the 1480s one of the Tollemaches married into a Helmingham family. He and his heiress wife built the hall on the site of her family’s older house between 1487 and 1510.
Moira got her first sight of Catherine Tollemache’s 16th Century manuscripts, including recipes. “The instructions are offered with such clarity and economy of language that I am drawn immediately to their author.” Catherine Tollemache was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief fixer after Thomas Wolsey. She married Sir Lionel, 1st baronet, and lived at Helmingham Hall from 1580 until 1612. Catherine had nine children, seven of them surviving into adulthood, and is recognised by historians for her knowledge of botany and medicine, as well as cooking.
Lady Tollemache was, it’s suggested, an early empirical scientist – someone whose efforts were shaped and informed by her experiences and experiments. Moira says 42 recipes survived, many featuring fruit and a lot using sugar, and her domestic philosophy struck “a fine balance between luxury and economy, show and substance”.
Catherine’s output was prodigious, “and my laborious transcription of her recipes fills and enriches my senses. Fruit, hundredweights of it, finds its way into her pastes, preserves and conserves. Flower-petals, roots and seeds are crystallised patiently over many days, some of them used to decorate her home-made marchpane”. (Marzipan.)
Lady Tollemache was widowed in 1612, aged about 55, and lived for another eight years.
Of the time she was doing a lot of research, in the 1980s and ’90s, Moira writes: “I work my way through only two-thirds of her manuscript before my world changes out of all recognition. From being a part-time tutor running a full-time small business, and juggling the two to make ends meet, I become a full-time employee of the WEA.
“The role is new and organisational, designed to support Suffolk branches. Teaching is not part of my remit, but I continue offering courses in my free time. This does not last. The responsibilities of the full-time role expand… I blink, reach my 50th birthday and find that I have a career, not a job; it takes me over because I allow it to.”
Something had to give. “I gave up teaching and put my research papers into storage.”
It took almost a decade before Moira realised “that this peremptory setting aside of my slow-burning passion for history had robbed me of something valuable, something humanising”.
The scales fell from her eyes during a rare visit to one of Helmingham’s plant sales. She finds herself in the parterre, remembering Catherine Tollemache’s 16th Century recipes and how they inspired WEA members.
“What had happened to me since those days of shared discovery?” she pondered, sadly.
Even so, time continued to pass.
When she booked on the Helmingham website for that Roy Lancaster talk in 2007, a “Lettings” tab caught her eye. Yes, you could live in one of those very same Victorian cottages with their arched front doors and an apple tree in the garden. St John’s Row in Framsden – with its beautiful views of meadows and wild flowers, fields and Jacob sheep, boxing hares and strutting pheasants – beckoned.
“I can barely believe my eyes,” she admitted. “For the price of a so-so semi on a forgettable street elsewhere, I could rent a piece of history in the place that ignited my love of history...”
And so followed a moment of madness (or clarity, depending on your point of view).
“To rent at Helmingham meant that I would have no trouble filling my retirement with research activity. Simultaneously, I would buy time in which to re-evaluate my future while planning proposals and property values resolved themselves in Norfolk. The idea of the silver gap year emerged.”
And so she moves in. TV reception is abysmal, and there’s one spot in the back garden (between the greengage and the Victoria plum) that offers a flickering mobile phone signal, but broadband is organised. Technology aside, there’s plenty of grasscutting to do.
A plant like milk vetch reminds her of a Catherine Tollemache recipe. She searches out her 30-year-old notes and is hooked anew on the lady’s achievements. Soon the hands of the clock have passed 2am. The next day finds her yawning but bursting with ideas about ways of celebrating Catherine and her skills. Googling, she stumbles across a book called The Tollemache Book of Secrets: A Descriptive Index and Complete Facsimile with an introduction and transcriptions together with Catherine Tollemache’s ‘Receipts of Pastery, Confectionary &c’.
Glorious… but a secondhand copy will cost £375 – not great for someone on a strict budget and a house that’s not sold. But it’s ordered and “I live on permutations of eggs and baked beans for the next panic-stricken three days”. Unpacking it, when it comes, “is akin to anticipating first sight of the Holy Grail… I have never owned such a beautiful book in my life. I doubt that I ever will again”.
One catch: Money. Knowing her outgoings to the last penny, she needs to tweak her cashflow. A trip to the house in Norfolk garners items to sell. They fetch £94.78 at the sale house in Diss.
To cut a long story short, life for Moira now features a lot of research on Helmingham, the Tollemache dynasty’s ups and downs, and the redoubtable Catherine.
She muses about how her rented home is similar to the tied cottage in the Cotswolds in which she grew up – as “the kid reading too much”, according to members of her family, and “getting above herself”. She went to grammar school but was removed “summarily” at the age of 15 to earn a living and bolster the household finances “like she ought to”.
Moira did her duty with gritted teeth. “My school did not abandon me. They refused to countenance the idea that my first taste of working life would be in the local blanket factory. They used their influence to secure an interview for me with a firm of local solicitors…”
The whole episode “drove a wedge between me and my past. As soon as I was legally able, I moved as far away from my roots as I possibly could. I suspect that is why I have been rootless ever since”. Back in the present day, she agrees to let a family stay in her Norfolk cottage. They’re desperate after having to leave their rented accommodation. In Framsden, meanwhile, the ice-cold landing radiator is fixed – floorboards lifted to reveal sagging pipes.
With quasi-tenants in the Norfolk house, it’s taken off the market. In fact, there’s a major rethink. Moira can meet the rent until the end of the one-year initial agreement in Suffolk and cope, “just about”, with the dual outgoings. Her strategy had been to sell in Attleborough and invest the money to fund an extended stay on the estate. With things having changed, the plan needed revision.
“Perhaps it was just as well that I had to abandon the dream when I did: I could not foresee that interest rates were set to tumble to levels below those of my most pessimistic spreadsheet,” she reflects in her book. “I would have been lucky if my investment had sustained me beyond ten years.”
Meanwhile, her Suffolk household grows by one when she takes on a cat, Jeremy, though the expensive food he prefers dents her budgeting.
Hundreds of volumes from her bulging bookshelves and some household items are carted off to car boot sales to raise cash, and apples and flowers from the garden are other potential sources of income.
Then comes winter – one of the earliest and cruellest for decades. One November evening, she enjoys food and conversation at the Village Feast, in the little village hall. Afterwards, guests emerge to find that while snow has continued to fall gently, the temperature has also plummeted and all is icy. “The chill is so intense that it strips us of speech momentarily.”
As she shivers, Moira doesn’t yet know that that day’s delivery of half a ton of logs from the estate will not see her through winter; or that her ton of coal will need replenishing three times. As the cold persists for weeks, she fears she’s damaged her ribs. An osteopath says one’s been pulled out of place, and clicks it back. He also warns Moira she’s underweight: “You need to build yourself up, especially with your lifestyle, otherwise this will keep happening.”
The following year, 2009, sees the forging of links with The John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, which carry out work in bioscience. They pledge enthusiastic help with her plans for a WEA day-school (“From Plant to Plate”) that will tell the story of Catherine Tollemache and her recipes.
More news: her non-tenants are moving out, into a new home. Moira helps with the logistics. It’s clear being a semi-formal landlord, with all it entails, has been draining. She realises Attleborough will have to become home again so she can get the place sorted for whatever the future holds. So, in early summer, she, Jeremy and furniture leave Framsden.
The From Plant to Plate day – featuring talks, demonstrations and intriguing artefacts, such as a Victorian walnut mould – goes down a storm. Moira makes her last visit to the Framsden cottage in the July, giving it a thorough clean and tidying the garden.
Back in Norfolk, the global financial meltdown is being felt. Her trusty estate agent has shut up shop – one of the victims of the property crash. “While living the dream in rural Suffolk, I had tried to avert my eyes from the gloomy picture the agent had sketched for me 12 months ago,” Moira admits.
She spends the next few months preparing for a heavy programme of historical presentations and getting the cottage looking its best. “That puts off decision-making and keeps me fully occupied.” Eventually she accepts an offer for the house from a young couple. “It is exactly what I paid for the cottage in 2006. I have spent over £30,000 on it since.”
Home for the ever-mobile Moira becomes a separate dwelling created out of the annexe at the house of some good friends in the centre of town. She buys it and downsizes.
Jeremy dies suddenly in November, 2011. Moira adopts another cat within weeks: Blackie. “He settles remarkably quickly... I sing Christmas carols to him and he purrs and sighs with pleasure.” Sadly, before January is out, Blackie too is dead – meeting his end while racing across the busy road.
The positive news is that Moira has been transforming her research on Catherine Tollemache into a book. Fruitful Endeavours: The 16th-century Household Secrets of Catherine Tollemache at Helmingham Hall is published in August, 2012 – its author contributing to the cost of production.
“The piggy bank empties again. As with my silver gap year, I tell myself this is an investment, even though it will take years to recover and is equally full of risk.”
The foreword is written by Lord Tollemache and the title launched at Helmingham Hall, at a fund-raising event for the church.
Reading the publicity blurb on the back cover, several people say to Moira: “Oh! You lived here on the estate for a year. That must have been a wonderful experience. Are you going to write a book about that?” The rest we know.
So, with the benefit of hindsight, what does she think?
“Now, when I reflect on the year, I feel a mixture of sadness and immense contentment. Sadness because the timing was all wrong and I over-estimated my capacity – physical and financial – to live that sort of life. Contentment because for the first time in years I felt that I was where I belonged and that discovery was a privilege that I didn’t take lightly.
“To be in that environment, rediscovering so many things I had lost, including my passion for history, armed me to cope with whatever I would face when the year came to an end.
“And have I coped? Yes. That is the most lasting legacy of my gap year, because I have learned to be satisfied with what I have and where I am.
“The year convinced me also that I thrive on challenge, and historical research IS that challenge. It gives me a reason to get up every morning and to stay up half the night if I want to. History is always THERE, always within reach, so it doesn’t matter where I live.
“I have learned that I can enjoy my research anywhere and, better still, I have learned to take the risk of finding new ways to communicate and share discoveries through writing, which is an ideal occupation for a loner.”