A Norfolk Farmer in Wartime




green fields     

First edition, HWS, 1995

E-book, HWS, 2013


Foreword, by Bill Williamson


Mick Loates's illustrations


List of Contents




Critical reception


Book cover



Henry Williamson Society, 1995, hardback, x, 166 pp, illus.; 700 copies

Edited by John Gregory


Limited edition, 1995, quarter-bound in red morocco with grey cloth boards, 50 numbered and signed copies

The limited edition sheet was signed by Loetitita Williamson and the 'Children of Shallowford': Margaret Bream and Bill, John, Robert and Richard Williamson


E-book edition, 2013



This collection of articles from the Eastern Daily Press, written between 1941 and 1944, was originally compiled by me in 1971, with a too ambitious plan for a privately printed edition with a strictly limited circulation as a successor to the privately printed booklet of Henry Williamson's early articles in the Weekly Dispatch. HW, who had at first agreed in principle when we discussed the project at an Aylesford Review literary weekend, subsequently vetoed the idea in a friendly letter, when I wrote to him for permission in writing:


. . . the printing costs of the proposed (somewhat irregular) publishing venture [must be] totally uneconomic . . . So the little venture discussed at Spode House last Whitsun must, I fear, be abandoned.


And in another letter he added:


I am sorry but it is not practicable to publish the Eastern Daily Press articles. [They] are listed to appear when I collect my newspaper articles, in due course.


Reluctantly, but also a little relieved, I gave up on the idea, instead having my foolscap typescript permanently bound in half green morocco, with Henry's letters tipped in: a grand, and handsome, edition of one.


While HW never did get round to collecting his newspaper articles (a daunting task, in view of his huge output), the Henry Williamson Society published several such anthologies after his death. It seemed fitting therefore that in the centenary year of his birth the Green Fields and Pavements project should be revived, and that an edition should be produced that would mark the occasion appropriately: the Society's first hardback publication, with specially commissioned illustrations by Mick Loates, a noted artist and Society member (some examples of his pen and ink drawings are given below). We were fortunate too that HW's friend, the photographer Oswald ('Ossie') Jones, generously allowed us to use his iconic portrait of HW; not only that, but sent us a special print, saying, 'There will be no charge for the photograph, nor for the use of it. I am happy to contribute to Henry's centenary.' Bill Williamson ('Windles', HW's eldest son) very kindly agreed to write the Foreword.


Green Fields and Pavements was published to some acclaim. The Eastern Daily Press gave it space over several days, printing articles from it that they had originally published fifty years earlier, generating good sales through Norfolk bookshops. There were notices in several local newspapers, and it was also reviewed in Country Life.


Why the title? HW actually wrote two series of articles for the EDP. The first, nine articles written between 19 April 1943 ('War and Peace') and 14 June 1943 ('The Trout Stream'), was 'Thoughts from a Country Window', and written under the pseudonym of Jacob Tonson (an eighteenth-century  bookseller and publisher). With the story of 'Cheepy' (21 June 1943) he reverted to his own name, however, and the regular column was now called 'Green Fields and Pavements'. This was also the title of a series of talks he had given on the BBC's Empire Programme in 1938, and clearly he liked the title enough to re-use it.


John Gregory





green fields frontispiece
Frontispiece: Henry Williamson, by Oswald Jones





Bill Williamson



Upon reading these articles in this centenary year of my father’s birth, I realise that I have forgotten neither the events nor the people who worked for us in those far-off days. I suppose I learned a lot of my growing up from them, working as I did on the farm for some six years, starting in September, 1939, at age thirteen-and-a-half.


I spent the first winter with a very dear man, Jimmy Sutton. Jimmy, a man in his mid-fifties, looked after the cattle, the sheep, and the pigs. It was a full time job, especially in the winter, when all the stock were in the yards, and had to be fed and bedded every day of the week.


The mangolds, used for cattle feed, had to be sliced up in a root-cutter, turned by hand, mixed with chopped oat straw, and some sugar-beet pulp, then carried to the feeding troughs in a bushel measure, called a ‘skep’. Water was laid on to the central yard only. It was carried in pails to each yard as needed. Hay was stored at one end of the ‘premises’ in the large haybarn and had to be carried out either in forkfuls, or in a large net. I accepted it as being the way things were done. Not until later, when I worked for a year on a Canadian farm, where the animals were kept on the ground floor of a large barn, with all the hay, straw, and feed stored above, and dropped down through chutes, did I realize how inefficient and time consuming it all was.


In Spring 1940 I was judged ready for the tractor. Under the watchful eye of Jimmy’s son Bob, I learned how to handle the Ferguson and two-furrow plough. It was then on to seed bed preparation, sowing, and eventually, harvesting.


Everything that first year was an adventure. Helping with the threshing, hauling the heavy watercart to the old Burrell steam engine, moving the threshed grain to the Corn Barn – all was a new experience.


It was sometime in 1941 that Henry began his reclamation of the many ‘marginal’ areas of Old Hall Farm. There are about seventy acres of low lying meadowland attached to the farm, with an extensive drainage system of ‘grupps’, or ditches. These had become choked with weed and silt, and required cleaning. Dick Curzon, ‘Powerful Dick’ of the farm books, was hired to pull the grupps. He worked hard all one summer, clearing many hundreds of feet, thus lowering the water level on the meadows. He stayed on that winter, working in the hay barn, grinding feed, or helping to winnow seed corn. Many of the farm hedges were overgrown, and for about a fortnight I helped Dick cut and lay an old thorn hedge encircling part of the premises.


Once, when it looked like rain, Dick said, ‘Not yet, haven’t seen the Greyhounds.’ Sure enough, soon low grey clouds were scudding over, and it was raining. He didn’t mind hard work, the ‘hard graft’ as it was called, but he didn’t like the stooping, bending work in the root-fields, so when the grupp pulling was finished, he left to work for someone else.


About this time, Bob, the Teamsman/ Steward, decided he would go elsewhere, and then Jimmy left as well. This left us with one good man, Norman Jordan, who had been with Henry since 1937, and stayed to the end. Norman’s nephew, Douglas, came at this time to look after the stock, and stayed until the end of our tenure.


By now, most of the tractor work was being done by myself. The second tractor would be used when someone qualified was available. This would be brother John during his school holiday periods or sometimes an adept Italian P.O.W. Perhaps Kathie, the Landgirl, would help out or even an Army or Air Force type on leave, who had come over on a literary quest and found himself helping with whatever was pressing at the moment.


Nineteen forty-four saw the ploughing of both the Hall Hills and the two far meadows. It was too much. We worked that tough old ground for a month in the spring of ’45 with the result that we never got onto the regular arable until it was too late to expect a proper crop. Labour for the beet-lifting was a problem, and Italian ‘Co-operators’ arriving in gangs of twenty or more, would collectively do about as much in a day as one hard-working village woman.


Small groups were different. For the last harvest, I would pick up a squad of three or four fellows in the Alvis at their campsite on Cley marshes, and return them each evening. Once I was invited to share their supper of spaghetti, with a delicious sauce and bread they had baked themselves.


It was soon after this that Henry decided to sell the farm. I think it was as much a relief for him to leave for his newly found house in Suffolk, as it was for me to leave for a new job, and eventually, Canada.


I saw him not more than half-a-dozen times after that, and both of us were rather restrained and ill-at-ease. Lastly, we met for a few minutes at Twyford Abbey where he spent his final days. Then the telephone call came from John in August 1977, followed by the last goodbye at Georgeham.



Canada, January 1995





Mick Loates's illustrations:


We are fortunate in the Society to have as a member the gifted artist Michael J. Loates. Green Fields and Pavements was the first of the books that he illustrated for us. Mick writes: 'My life has been much enriched through the prose of Henry Williamson. My small contribution to this delightful ephemeris represents nothing further than a modest visual enhancement of a page, but the drawings are a personal tribute to Henry in this his Centenary Year.'


Below are some examples of his drawings that appear in the book:


green fields 3
'The Seed Goes In'
green fields 1
'A Cuckoo Singing'
green fields 2
'Along the Coast Road'
green fields 4
'The Falcon's Flight'








The Seed Goes In The God Gold
Farming in War Time The Magpie’s Nest
War and Peace Little Summer: A Pause
Faith, Hope, and Clarity Pheasants and Partridges
News of England Plowman’s Folly
A Cuckoo Singing The Writer’s Trade
The Little Ports An Old Tractor
Topsy-turvydom Seven Years After
Along the Coast Road The Clodhoppers
The Falcon’s Flight A Hero of Humanity
The Trout Stream Finance and Farming
The Story of Cheepy Local Farming Profits
Peace in War Literary Diversion
Hooly Herefordshire Hops
Of Men and Books Ownership of Land
The Tragic Spirit The Untidiest Nation?
Answers to Correspondents Spit and Polish
On Children Odds and Ends
Harvest Story Journal of a Husbandman
Butterfly Fuel for the Cutting
A Farmer’s Trials Pleasant and Unpleasant
The Corn is Threshed The Task of Sisyphus
Journey to the West Wandering Spirit
Love’s Labour Lost Country Life








green fields 5







Ben the gamekeeper, passing by the overgrown willows of the choked duck-decoy, saw an owl perched on a branch within a few feet of his face. ‘It looked at me, but appeared to take no notice.’ I asked him if he shot it. ‘Certainly not. Owls do good. Look at the rats and mice they take in a night!’


Mr H. J. Massingham, the naturalist, who has written well about North Norfolk, and especially of the Blakeney marshes and the tern sanctuary of the Point, has referred bitterly to the ‘shoot and stuff’ attitude of the county. He was perhaps thinking of the days of his boyhood, when anything with a curved beak or a talon’d foot was knocked over in the interest of the pheasant. Now Norfolk, in my opinion, especially the north coastal district, is probably more like Old England than any other part of the island (or was until the war began to ‘liven things up a bit’), and this has its advantages as well as its disadvantages; but, generally speaking, I should say that the ‘shoot and stuff’ attitude has gone. I knew before I spoke that the question to Ben was unnecessary, for Ben is sensible and obliging, and if he knows that owls and kestrels are especially regarded on this farm, he would be the last to raise that booming double-barrel which at times is to be heard in the woods, as with his son he helps to obliterate the chiselling rabbit.


The owl that Ben saw on the willow branch was, I like to think, a tame owl which we reared in the cottage. How it came to us was this way. One evening, coming in to supper, I saw a small object, looking like a lump of dough excessively covered with mildew, in a basket on the coconut mat of the kitchen floor. Richard, the youngest, explained that it was ‘lost’, and had been brought to the door ‘by a little old boy’. Apparently this ‘little old boy’, aged about five years, had found the object under a tree in the lane. It could not have been lost very long, for it was warm and comfortably covered with flesh. It had a long, thin head and a beak which tried to swallow my finger when I knelt down to stroke it. It chirruped, and was hungry.


There was an air-rifle in the cupboard, and some sparrows on the roof. Not long afterwards one of those sparrows went, piece by piece, into the owlet’s crop. When I went back for more, the sparrows, in a row on the ridge-tile, took immediate evasive action into the unseen road below. Thereafter they were never about more than half a second after the barrel of the rifle had appeared, though many a small silvery mark was left on the ridge just after their legs and tail-feathers had vanished from view. ‘Huh, wise guys,’ said another of the innumerable small boys that haunt our house, watching one such failure. He waited with a catapult round the gateway, but the piece of chalk flipped from his feeble engine sped even more harmlessly through the air.


Thereafter Hooly, as the owlet was called, had to be fed on the flesh and fur of young rabbits. It was my job to procure these little animals. After working and scheming all day (for literary work and farming together require a lot of scheming) I was bored with the idea of having to go out every night to effect the mortification of some miserable little scurrying quadruped. However, duty had to be done; and usually in the late twilight as the cup of tea was cooling on the table, I wandered in with my object of the chase, to be greeted, as the days lengthened into midsummer, and the bombers began to roar in the sky, by the invariable sight of a small monkey-like object apparently doing a tight-rope act on the ridge, and flapping down the tiles to jump on my shoulder and scream for sections of the mortified quadruped.


By this time Hooly had explored the lower parts of the cottage and was used to sleeping on the tallboy, among the caps and gloves laid out there in an orderly manner (at what cost in a family of four boys, only one entitled to the old school tie, I leave it to literary biography to decide). Hooly flapped and hauled his way to the tallboy when he felt sleepy, and, shooting his legs out behind him like a tired spaniel on hot summer sands, closed his eyes and slumbered. Sometimes he played with a green and red glove, relic of peace-time skiing in the snows of New England; in play he was a feathered kitten, throwing up the glove and catching it with his beak. He was a nice little owl, and only once tried to swallow my ear-lobe while I was a bit procrastinating with his rabbit.


Hooly wandered about the roof, and lost the habit of putting himself to bed in his little basket. (From the first he had slept happily in the hot cupboard.) He was a wild-looking bird, with large eyes dark as grapes with the bloom on them, and his fearlessness was an endearing thing. He had never shown fear, but had accepted us all with almost human naturalness. As a fledgeling, crouching in his basket with head bowed in sleep, he had merely chirruped when a slender boyish finger had scratched near his large ear cavities. He had not raised his head with alarm, but accepted the caress in the spirit in which it was offered.


One night, as I was standing immobile on the garden path, looking at Hooly on the ridge tiles of the roof, a strange owl flew a few feet over my head and braked with its wide, soft wings. Seeing the apparition, Hooly snapped his beak in alarm. At the same moment the owl lit on the roof beside him, and turned its head to take in any movement – the quick glance of a wild creature, whose life is one calculation in motion after another. The glance was of a second’s duration before the bird turned to Hooly, revealing that it carried a sparrow in its beak. With a swift movement the sparrow was transferred to a foot. With sideway striking motion Hooly snatched it. The old bird flapped up and away. Hooly stood there, the dead sparrow in his foot. He took the best part of half an hour to break it up with pluckings and pullings; first one wing was swallowed, then another, and at last the skull was gulped down. Thereafter he walked and flapped to the chimney stack, and settled down for a rest; the evening star shone brighter in the sky, and I went to bed.



July 5, 1943




We left Hooly, the young tame tawny owl, settled among the farmhouse chimney pots to sleep, content with his meal of a sparrow. What was the strange owl that brought him the sparrow, we asked ourselves. Was it his mother or father, if so, why did Hooly snap his beak in fear when the big dark wings approached? Had Hooly’s mother known all along that her nestling was in the kitchen? Had she heard him chirruping at night, and with the natural fidelity of most birds waited and watched for her little one?


The next night Hooly was on his roof when the old bird came again, this time with a young rat. Hooly thereupon dropped the stale rabbit pelt he was playing with and retired with the rat to the chimney stack. Soon afterwards the tail of the rat was sticking out of his mouth like a cigar as he huddled himself besides the pale yellow and red pots. During the following day he was missing, but at evening time, as the sun was sinking, we heard his chissiking cries, and I went over to the tall trees behind the wooden Institute hut and he saw me and flew down and sat on my shoulder. I walked across the road and fed him by the draw-well cover. As soon as he was fed he flew up to the roof and climbed and flapped to his favourite ridge.


The next evening when I called him he sailed on broad brown wings over the Institute roof to my shoulder. Two soldiers passed, walking up and down the village street to find something interesting, but they took no notice of an owl flying to a man’s shoulder. Perhaps they were townsmen and saw nothing unusual in such a sight; perhaps they were hurrying to find the fish and chips hut. Perhaps Hooly looked like a cat on my shoulder; perhaps they didn’t like our two faces . . .


Those tall green trees of sycamore and ash became the owlet’s day hide and roost. Every evening I called him; every evening he flew and glided to my shoulder; but one night he was missing.


It was a Friday night. I knew it was Friday by the smell of fish and chips wafted on the western breeze from the middle of the village. No Hooly on Saturday. On the Sunday morning I was awakened by a screaking in my bedroom, and there was a strained oval face on the window-sill, staring with misery in its eyes, a shrill anguish in its thin cries, its feet shifting as with pain. Seeing a grey woollen sock on the chair, the owl flew to it, and standing on it made a hopeless attempt to swallow it.


It was 5 o’clock, it was Sunday, it was the day of rest; but no one could relax while those famished eyes stared so sharply; and getting out of bed I put on dressing gown and slippers to get his rabbit. But a cat had apparently taken it during the night, from where I had hung it on the outer brick casing of the draw-well. Meanwhile Hooly was facing me, dancing like a dervish, screeching like an engine bearing about to seize. I went to the larder, but found only some bacon and the remains of a potato pasty.


Sunday, the day of rest; no matter, the truant must be fed. Ah, the air-rifle, and a sparrow! But the sparrows, those wise guys, were absent. Perhaps they were organised as a sort of avian Home Guard; for when I returned round the corner to the well, to find Hooly, there were a dozen or more of them around him, chattering, and one old cock was actually pulling a feather from the back of his head. Seeing me, they scattered and skulked in the lilac bushes, while the air-rifle phutted in vain.


I went down to the farm and waited in the chalk quarry below the beech trees. Sparrows chirped in their nests under the tiles of the cart-shed, but I would not take a fledgeling direct from its nest. Then a starling flew to a branch of an ash tree, and fell dead as the little waisted pellet of lead spun through its chest. Starlings were rank-tasting, I suspected, as the hawks and owls I kept as a boy never ate them; but Hooly found this one nicer than a woollen sock.


Thereafter he took to being absent at twilight and came instead to my window at dawn, crying and flapping for food and walking over the blanket to yell in my ear if I did not awake. Sometimes he visited other cottage windows, and from one in particular I saw him leaving hurriedly, accompanied by oaths and the slamming of the window. Unfortunately, other people in the village had been trying to feed Hooly, or rather had tried to get him to take pieces of bread, and so his singleness of mind had disintegrated, and he went to anyone and to any open window. Robert, one of the boys, once woke up and found Hooly pulling his hair. Our boys liked Hooly, of course, and welcomed him at any hour of the day or night; but not so all of the neighbours.


When Hooly disappeared I thought someone must have shot him, but he returned after a few evenings, flying down to the top bar of the draw-well. He screaked down at my face, but when I offered my shoulder he edged away. Obviously someone had tried to handle him instead of letting him perch free on wrist or shoulder.


While he perched there nine swallows, with ringing cries, began to ring above and around the circular brick well. First one, then another, ‘peeled off’ and dived at him, swishing by within an inch of his amazed and jerky eyes, to zoom and join again the ring above. One after another they came down, sweeping up again and taking their turn to dive once more. They cut at him from in front and behind, and Hooly did not like it. He flew away. It was then that I heard another owl call, and turning I saw it perching on the chimney rim of my studio stack.


That, then, was the secret! The wild owl was hunting for and feeding Hooly. The next night the two birds came, and while the old bird perched in a damson tree, Hooly flew down to my shoulder. He came by habit; he cried to me by habit, although he was not really hungry. He came because of what a scientist would call an association of ideas; but what I would call friendship. The old owl had accepted the fact that Hooly had human friends and waited quietly until he was ready to fly off again.


About a week later we heard that an owl had been shot in a neighbouring village for ‘attacking soldiers’. Was this the end of our little tame bird that had never known fear of anyone?


I dreaded so; but the very next evening down by the duckpond, I saw him perched on a willow branch. He allowed me to stroke his head while his eyes closed; just like a cat, he liked being scratched about the ears. Hooly looked very handsome in his (or her) new browns and blacks and whites, and the eyes had that full and authentic keenness of perfect natural form. ‘Hooly,’ I said, ‘Hooly.’ He (or she) gave me a long stare; a baby chirrup came from the beak; then, without a cry, Hooly flew into the twilight after a dark, silent-winged form; and so he flew out of our lives. And if you remember the beginning of this little history of an owl, you will recall that Ben the keeper, passing the duck decoy the other day, saw an owl on a branch and passed by it as near as you pass a man on the pavement, and the owl was quite easy about it. So was Ben, and so am I, for I feel sure it was our Hooly.



July 12, 1943





Critical reception:


While the Eastern Daily Press did not actually carry a review of Green Fields and Pavements, they thought highly enough of it to publish a series of extracts as a Saturday feature, using six of the articles, illustrated by contemporary farming photographs, and each promoting the book; they gave the articles new headings, as follows:


19 August 1995    'Shadows of war, but love endures'  Originally 'Along the Coast Road'
26 August 1995 'No longer fine fellows in the front line'     'Farming in Wartime'
2 September 1995    'Little ports of grain and gold' 'Little Ports'
9 September 1995 'The seed and the harvest' 'The Seed Goes In
16 September 1995     'Is ours the most untidy nation?' 'The Untidiest Nation?
23 September 1995 'A land reborn seven years on' 'Seven Years After'


Chichester Observer (Richard Williamson), 4 May 1995:




Country Life (David Edelsten), 20 July 1995:




Cambridge Evening News, 19 August 1995 (the book had good sales in Heffers thanks to this short notice!):




Henry Williamson Society Journal (Richard Williamson), September 1995 (a reprint of his earlier review in the Chichester Observer, with some very slight differences)


Robin Page, in his 'Country Diary' series in the Weekend Telegraph also gave the book a mention in his 'Christmas round-up' on 30 December 1995.






Book cover:


The dust wrapper of the book and the e-book cover are identical:



green fields large









Back to 'A Life's Work'        Back to Posthumous collections