Goodbye, after 30 years

Moving on is hard for anyone. Steven Russell spoke to ‘The Hen Lady’ during her final week in Suffolk, as she prepared to leave her home of nearly 30 years and bid farewell to an adopted county she loves

IT comes to us all: a painful realisation that time has marched on, circumstances have changed, and that a fresh start is due. For Francine Raymond, swapping rural Suffolk for coastal Kent means giving up quite a lot, though it makes complete sense in the cold light of logic. Her home – in the shadow of Troston church, near Bury St Edmunds – is not your average detached house. She and late husband Jean-Francois, a designer and painter, transformed “a funny little bungalow with no style” into a family home and created a garden that runs to about three quarters of an acre and has been open to the public under the National Gardens Scheme. Visitors were able to enjoy vegetables, fruit, flowers and herb gardens in their glory, along with wild areas, chicken runs, perennial beds and yew-lined alleys.

For many years the house has also had a little shop called The Kitchen Garden, selling a range of useful products for hen-keepers and gardeners: from corn scoops and gardening gloves to brushes and scrapers and spotty egg-cups.

The building in Church Lane has, too, hosted courses on Christmas decoration-making, keeping poultry and the like.

Francine herself began keeping fowl about 17 years ago, and on Easter Saturdays regularly staged a “Hen Party” in conjunction with neighbouring St Mary’s Church, featuring an amateur show of pure-bred hens, an egg hunt for children and a sale of locally-produced crafts.

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Then there are the family memories, of course. The couple bought the house in 1982, the day before their younger son was born. They initially enjoyed it as a weekend and holiday home. It wasn’t long, though, before they made a permanent move from London – rural Suffolk being a much safer place for young Jacques and Max to ride their bicycles.

The strip of south-facing garden had just an apple tree and a few yellow roses when they took ownership. But they bought extra land and poured time, money and effort into improving the garden and house – in the dim and distant past the church’s cart-house.

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Since the death of her husband about a decade ago, the house and land have been Francine’s means of making a living. As she herself acknowledges, the garden particularly has been a constant during life’s ups and downs.

“Gardens are like that. Every year it carries on, doesn’t it? You’ve still got to cut the grass, and the leaves drop in the autumn, and it all starts again. I think that’s why gardeners are so long-lived: they’ve always got something to look forward to.”

Lots of links to sever, then . . .

“I am very sad to be going, really, because it’s been my life for so long. It’s not just a house and a garden; it’s a house we both turned into a family home and it’s a garden we started from scratch.

“I’m looking out the window now at the church . . . it’s such a wonderful spot here and I shall miss it hugely. But I’ve done other things like this in my life – I went out to Milan and lived there for five years, and we came here from London. I think change is often a good thing.”

We mustn’t forget Francine’s gaggle of chickens: a cockerel, one little Old English Game bantam and the rest golden-coloured Buff Orpingtons currently sheltering from the January rains on this gloomy morning. They will be staying put in Troston as part of the fixtures and fittings.

“That was quite a difficult decision, but I’ve got quite a lot of elderly ones and I wouldn’t have been able to take the cockerel, anyway, and so ultimately I said ‘It’s the place they love, really, rather than the person.’

“I think sometimes I go out with a hat on and they don’t recognise me! I don’t think they’ll notice the change in who’s feeding them for very long!”

Francine – who has a series of books under her belt, such as The Big Book of Garden Hens and All My Eggs In One Basket – is off to Whitstable, where she will be close to son Jacques and her daughter-in-law. They’re expecting a baby – a first grandchild – so there’s much to look forward to.

It was damaging ligaments in her back last Easter that made her realise the time to go was sooner, rather than in five years – the vague date at the back of her mind. “I just thought ‘No, let’s go now.’ It’s quite a big house, too; I rattle around in it.”

She adds: “I couldn’t move at all for a while and it makes you realise you’re not quite as bionic as you thought you were. I can imagine in 10 years’ time it would become impossible – and then to make the move becomes like a high mountain to climb, because even doing it this time has been jolly hard work.

“It’s a good idea to go when you’re on top. I think if I’d waited I’d eventually get moved by somebody else, basically! I think I’m being sensible, but being sensible is often quite painful.”

Ironically enough, it was most likely the Easter Hen Party that did it for her. “We have to move a lot of furniture around. The build-up to something like that is quite hard work, really, and I think I probably overdid it and damaged the ligaments.”

Francine laughs, croakily – the legacy of a festive-season virus that’s delayed her packing. Having a shop and garden open to the public was always a good opportunity to show off. “It’s good for the ego, but you pay quite a high price!”

She says the “myth” she created became something of a millstone. The pretty garden might look natural, but achieving that “effortlessly charming” look paradoxically requires hours of hard graft on hands and knees.

That look perhaps fuelled the notion that Francine was a kind of rural superwoman: an East Anglian Barbara Good. Many times she had to point out that she was not self-sufficient, she did not have a smallholding, and she most certainly did NOT run a farm!

“I think people assumed that if I kept chickens I had a farm. But that was really what I was trying to prove to people: that you don’t need a farm to keep them. You can just have a couple of hens in your garden and it doesn’t ruin your garden – that you didn’t have to look like Cold Comfort Farm! People always assumed keeping chickens was a scruffy, not-very-visual thing to do. That was why we opened: to try to prove to people it wasn’t the case.”

Francine admits: “I shall miss Suffolk a lot – it’s special – but I’ve been here for nearly 30 years and I’ve loved every minute of it.

“Looking into the future, it’s just too much work for one person. When you’ve seen it looking lovely, it’s quite hard to imagine it not looking like that. I think I’d find that very frustrating.”

Highs of the past 28 years?

“I think ultimately it’s probably the people and the landscape. Suffolk people are very special – very honest and friendly. And the landscape is also very special. It’s peaceful and relaxing – a beautiful county,” she says, walking around the house as she talks, putting belongings in boxes and taking things off the walls.

Anything she won’t miss? There’s nothing Francine can think of. Well, perhaps the time having to be spent in the car to get anywhere. “I’m going to enjoy Whitstable from that point of view. It’s got the most varied high street in England, with more independent shops – which is something to look forward to.”

Her new home is a little Edwardian house, “with a couple of bedrooms up in the roof. It will be more manageable”. The garden is smaller than the one she’s leaving behind, though still quite a reasonable size: about 150ft by 50ft.

Does she have plans for it?

“Sort of!” She’s waiting until she gets there before making firm decisions, but there are definitely musings. “It’s a blank canvas, really – grass and a few shrubs. There’s plenty of opportunity there.”

Last summer – decision made and just the details to resolve – Francine made what she called “a heartbreaking tour” of her garden to identify what she simply couldn’t leave behind.

The list included a cutting from a jostaberry bush; a nut from a walnut she planted and which had grown into a majestic tree; a ruby-coloured pelargonium brought by her late friend and fellow gardening enthusiast, Elspeth Thompson, on her last visit; a sucker from the Russian Silverberry near the swimming pool gate; some pods from a Judas Tree; root cuttings from the Oriental poppy Beauty of Livermore, and an artichoke offshoot.

Also heading south, she decided, would be a few bags of her own compost – made from grass cuttings, henhouse flotsam and jetsam and kitchen waste. They justified their seats on the journey because they held the promise of a ready-made garden – containing, as they did, hundreds of seeds: poppies, love-in-a-mist, feverfew and marigold.

What about chickens in the new place?

“I hope so, yes. I don’t think I will be allowed to have a cockerel, but I’ll certainly have a couple of hens.”

The Henkeepers’ Association, an organisation she set up, will continue. It’s a health-and-management information network to support folk who keep poultry for pleasure. It also lobbies on their behalf for the protection of small garden flocks, and campaigns for better welfare conditions in the poultry industry.

Francine will also carry on writing. (She pens a weekly column for a national newspaper, for instance.)

“I wouldn’t get away with having a shop at home again, but the rest of it will be pretty much the same. I don’t intend to slow down too much!

“I think the future looks kind of bright, really. I’m not depressed about anything at all; just sad to be leaving here.”

When the time comes to walk out of the door for the last time, how does she expect to feel – and will she have a final sentimental stroll?

“I try not to think about it. I’ve said goodbye already, really. Once you start to move things around, you’re going, aren’t you? It’s a slow process. I think at the last minute I shall just go; I don’t like to drag it out. I’ve ‘been leaving’ for a long time.”

An urban/rural hybrid

THE teenaged Francine Raymond had her heart set on art school. Her mother was thinking more about a flower-arranging course. The outcome was a frustrating year at the London College of Secretaries.

Later she did take an art course, and then studied for a degree in fashion and textiles. Francine worked for boutiques before moving to Milan as a fashion illustrator/stylist for a chain of department stores.

After returning to England she illustrated children’s books and instruction leaflets, got married and became a mother.

The permanent move to Suffolk in the 1980s saw a dyed-in-the-wool metropolitan-type morph into a rural/urban hybrid. She worked in book-keeping, helped in a hospice and in a school, and became a buyer for Wyken Hall – the stately home, vineyard, caf� and country store nine miles outside Bury St Edmunds.

Later, she set up her own little shop at home, had her own chickens and opened her garden to visitors.

There were the books, too – getting on for a dozen. In an article last year, Francine wrote about the philosophy behind that venture.

“Most books on chickens presumed a degree in agriculture, acres of land and ambitions to supply eggs to Sainsbury’s. I wanted to inject a little common sense and style into a hobby previously dominated by the male-held bastions of breeding and the show bench. An heirloom was sold to pay for the printing, and the Chicken Woman was born.”

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