Peggy Cole: I've never been more content

When a sad Peggy Cole moved out of her country home seven years ago, it was a leap into the unknown.

Steven Russell

When a sad Peggy Cole moved out of her country home seven years ago, it was a leap into the unknown. So how did it work out? Steven Russell has a mardle - Suffolk-speak for a chat - with the long-time EADT columnist

IN the autumn of 2001, with a tear and a heavy heart, Peggy Cole said goodbye to the village that had been her home for 40-odd years. A country girl born and bred, she'd said in the past that the only way she wanted to leave Charsfield was in a box, when her time was up. Now here she was having a last look round, bidding farewell to the chickens, and driving off in her car. (The fan-belt broke just outside Wickham Market; perhaps Charsfield didn't want to give up one of its most well-known residents as much as she didn't really want to leave.) Peggy's destination of Melton, shoulder to shoulder with Woodbridge, wasn't exactly a raging metropolis, but a neat little estate promised a very different life.

One evening that summer she'd watched a barn owl flying over the fields back in Charsfield and thought “God, I am going to miss all this countryside and the country lanes.”

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She'd moved to her council house home, Akenfield, in 1960. It became well known for its thriving garden, which raised thousands of pounds for charity over 28 years. Even Princess Margaret ventured off the beaten track to admire its delights.

The house was named after Ronald Blythe's story about the changing face of life in a fictional East Anglian village. Peggy played one of the key characters, Young Tom's mother, when the book was turned into a film in the early 1970s. She also helped find locations, and supplied and skinned rabbits for the production. She even found a baby for one scene!

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Peggy later became famed for her talks - including some across the Atlantic - wrote (and still writes) columns for this newspaper, brought out books and spoke over the airwaves. There were invites to open horticultural shows and fetes.

Folk lapped up her country lore: sayings about a warm Christmas foretelling a cold Easter, for instance; recipes for walnut liqueur; musings about Stir-up Sunday, when people traditionally made their Christmas pudding.

During her time in Charsfield Peggy had been widowed and also overcame breast cancer. Four decades of memories, then, to consider when her family suggested the garden was getting too much for her and it was time to take things easier.

Seven years on, it comes as a pleasant surprise, then, to have Peggy Cole state emphatically “I can honestly now say I have never been more contented.” It's there in black and white, in the very last paragraph of her new book. Can it be true?

“I am a contented person; very much so,” she smiles. “After the terrible shock of my husband dying, I used to go out and have to smile. People didn't realise what I was going through then. You have to try and cover that up.

“Then I had the opportunity to go to America and meet such a lot of people. Lady Penn (formerly lady in waiting to The Queen Mother) brought Princes Margaret to the garden. The privilege I've had in meeting these people - and all the other people who came round the garden.”

Memories like these are to the fore in Peggy's 90-odd-page book From Akenfield to Pastures New, as she outlines her life since upping sticks and takes a few glances over her shoulder.

The early chapters are touching. It was in the summer of 2001 that sons Allan and David suggested the garden was getting too much for her. And it wasn't fair on her brother Ronnie, who did a lot of the hard work. He wasn't getting any younger, either.

Peggy recalls crying on and off all week with the thought of leaving. Things moved quickly: the estate agent came to see Akenfield, she viewed the Melton bungalow (the only one she looked at) and an offer was accepted.

It was already a difficult time; sister Eileen had died from cancer earlier that month, aged 56, after being ill for about eight weeks.

The next few pages are especially poignant. With her mind in turmoil, Peggy pressed ahead, making jams, pickles and marmalades for shows later that year - and began the monumental task of packing.

There were four sheds, for a start - full of tools that had belonged to her late husband, Ernie; equipment for producing home-made wine; chicken food, seed trays, and flower-pots by the hundred.

The loft had to be emptied of old newspapers, magazines, Christmas cards and much more. They went into black bags, which her boys brought out to her in the garage. “As I went through them I told my sons 'I must keep this, I must keep that.' 'No Mum,' they said, and put them in the skip. I tried to get some out but I could not reach.”

Then there were the books. Sixteen boxes went to charity shops and lots were given away.

Over the August bank holiday weekend a lady made an offer for Akenfield. “I didn't have much sleep for the next few days as I knew now that I would be leaving the village. I was chairman of the parish council at that time, so at the next meeting I had to give in my notice. I felt rather sad about it . . .”

At the end of October, during her first evening in the new bungalow, she looked around and said to herself “Now old gal, you have got to settle down and make yourself contented.”

That's just what she's done. Strangely enough, the quietness of this mini-estate took some getting used to. Even though her previous home was in a rural spot, it was just off the B1078, so there was regular passing traffic. However, Peggy's new life (without a big garden to worry about) has given her the time to enjoy her hobbies: reading books on the Suffolk countryside and the county's history, and visiting local churches.

Then there's her collection of old postcards. Most are between 80 and 100 years old, and show Suffolk churches and village scenes. “I have had a new life, which I wouldn't, probably, if I'd stayed at Charsfield,” she admits. “I've been able to do the things I've always been interested in.”

Her first chapter, entitled A Kindly Push, suggests the notion of moving was a bolt from the blue. Did she have an inkling before her sons broached the subject?

“They said 'Mum, you can't keep it up like this.'” (She'd had terrible problems with leg ulcers.) “I've got a stubborn way, I suppose, like any mother. 'I'll be all right,' I said.

“But I had been bad and they came round one day and 'caught' me, you see. I really was feeling rough. I would never have done the garden without my brother's help. Then the boys said 'It's not fair. Ronnie's getting on. You're not well. Give it up, mum!' I said 'All right, all right,' and never thought no more. And then it all happened very quick.”

If she'd stayed, she'd have been fighting a losing battle to keep the garden up to scratch. “And I'd have hated to have seen it. Also, I'd got to think of Ronnie. It wasn't until he moved that I realised he'd got a terrible leg. He'd got an ulcer, but I didn't realise how bad it was.”

She also feels her breast cancer experience in early 1994, which involved a full mastectomy, had made her sons think hard.

Peggy's still writing and giving talks about her life and country matters. She's cut back, but still reckons to do a couple of dozen talks a year. Once upon a time she'd think nothing of giving three a week, venturing into Norfolk and Cambridge. She still drives a bit, though not at night, and limits journeys to the local area.

She's driven past her old home during the past few years and given it a glance, but has been closer only a couple of times. Once was when there was a gathering for folk who worked on the Akenfield film 30 years earlier.

“When we had the reunion, Rex Pyke, the producer, said 'Peggy, I want to see the sign.' (A pukka-looking one saying “Akenfield” was a familiar souvenir outside.) 'Well, I left it at the house . . .' 'Come on in the car; we'll go and see if we can see it.'

“It had dropped down and looked . . . well, I was a bit shocked, you know. I thought 'I can't go round.'

“Three or four months ago I went to a funeral in Charsfield. Some friends said 'Where did you used to live?' We went up the lane, turned round and came back. I thought 'My goodness! What a difference.' When I left, it was just a three-bedroomed council house; now I think it's a four or five-bedroomed house. It's double size, nearly, I should think.”

She'd bought the council house when Ernie died. “That was always his wish. I couldn't have done it without his little - what do you call it? - gratuity money from the council where he worked, and so I used it as a down-payment. I suppose I'm one of Mrs Thatcher's lucky people. There was just enough money for me to have that and then buy this. I was most fortunate in lots of ways.”

Akenfield has been sold on at least once since Peggy left and she understands it's now home to someone with Charsfield roots. She's pleased it's home to a local family.

“I'm sure they'd let me look at it if I asked, but it's probably best I don't: just keep it in my mind how I remember it.”

Peggy will be 74 in February. For nearly 20 years she worked as a carer at St Audry's, Melton, and admits her biggest fear is growing feeble, losing her independence and having to be lifted onto a chair. She looks askance at stories about old-age care and how more and more people have to sell their houses to pay for it. Her ambition, she says, has always been to be able to pass on her home to her children.

“I think 'Oh my god, I hope they find me dead in bed!' I said to them that if I did have to go to hospital, don't let them keep me going with tubes and things. I don't wish that.”

But she doesn't dwell on it. “If I went tomorrow, as I've said, I've had a wonderful life. It's no good moaning and groaning; you've got to get on with life. I'm still able to get around - and got my marbles! I love doing a bit of cooking still. I am just contented - and every day I think is a bonus.”

From Akenfield to Pastures New is published by Lucas Books at £10.99. ISBN 978-1903797-97-7

IF there's one thing rural England can count on it's change. The transformation highlighted in Akenfield, the book and the film, continues. Writer Craig Taylor's Return to Akenfield, published a couple of years ago and in which he spoke to 21st Century residents of rural Suffolk, told how the countryside was now shaped by intensive farming, globalisation, migrant workers and other factors. It's being turned into a play that will be toured next spring by Eastern Angles.

Peggy Cole regrets the way rural Britain is going.

“I'm very vexed. The post offices and the shops are gone, and a lot of the pubs. I'm not a pub person, but that was a place for people to meet. I'm glad there are still schools in some villages, but you can drive through a village now and you don't see a soul. This is a hard thing.

“There's one old chap still in Charsfield. I still go and see him. 'Gal,' he say, 'I don't see anybody to talk to, only if I go to chapel or the church.' I thought 'Yes, that's very true.' And so many of the cottages are sold. When property was selling, two would be knocked into one.”

She laughs about how her family chides her. “They say 'Mother's harping back again!' But I can't help looking back. I think, in the village, there used to be five or six cottages - even more - on a farm. The women used to take the children to school; they all used to stop outside the shop; Charsfield was a big fruit-picking place and employed all the women. But that's gone, you see. This is the sad thing. It's not just in Charsfield; it's almost all villages now.”

Peggy Cole hails from Easton, the village near Wickham Market famed for its crinkle-crankle wall

She went to school in nearby Kettleburgh

Her father worked on the land. Peggy's mum was in service

When Peggy and Ernie married, they lived at Hoo, where they had a bucket loo down the garden

Sons Allan and David have both had long careers with the police

Peggy has five grandchildren

She laughs about how her family tries to de-Suffolkize her choice of language

“Something they pulled me up on the other day . . . 'I shew them something.' They said 'You can't say that, Grandma! You showed them something.' Well, I always say that. That's my way, and you won't change me now, I'm afraid”

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