From A Suffolk Green

One of imprint's contributors finds herself locked down in a Suffolk village and on a crash course on sustainable living. Here, Kate quickly realises how nature can heal and greens can bring a community together.

by Kate Balding

'I was remarkably naive to the impending crash-course on ‘village living’ I was about to receive'

I am locked down in a Suffolk village. This is, in itself, not particularly shocking for those that know me. I've lived in Suffolk for over half my life, occupying its small towns and large, plus a fair few somewhat in between. But a Suffolk village – now that’s a different thing. A land of local newsletters, teeny-tiny primary schools and village shop penny sweets. A land which I had so often driven through, yet until recently never really had a reason to exist within.

I was visiting the family home of my boyfriend when news of quarantine came in. I was armed with just a few pairs of underwear and a couple of T-shirts, and was remarkably naive to the impending crash-course on ‘village living’ I was about to receive. Since that moment, now 12 weeks ago, my world, and indeed perception of space seems to have tucked in on itself. I get giddy with excitement at the prospect of driving across the village boundary (an event which has as yet, only happened thrice), and suddenly find even the most common place things extraordinarily fascinating. Perhaps this warped sense of time and space is also why, after just 12 weeks, I now feel entitled to speak about the idiosyncrasies of Suffolk villages with some authority.

'one feature more than others has shaped my personal Suffolk village quarantine. And that, is the village green'

These include (but are not limited to): the very particular way that conversations are conducted over neighbouring fences, how bundles of asparagus are covertly exchanged, village characters such as ‘Snowy the Sound Man’, houses that look like beehives, aerials weakly disguised as trees. Yet, whilst I could talk at some length about the turbine in the distance, the butterfly woods or the disused windmill over the hill, one feature more than others has shaped my personal Suffolk village quarantine. And that, is the village green. 

To situate this statement I should add that my boyfriend’s parents own the cottage in which I now reside, and have done so for over 20 years. It is a very pleasant sort of home, with low beamed ceilings and rooms of sensible size yet best of all, is the doorway in the hedge at the bottom of the garden, which launches you enthusiastically into a green expanse. With a gentle slope mysteriously mowed (who is doing this? and when? seriously!), I’ve spent a lot of time on this green. It is where I collapse after a cumbersome run and where I recline with a cold G & T. In fact I have spent so many hours in this green’s company that I started to muse about why village greens make me so happy. A bit more musing, and a rabbit hole of reading, I realised not enough people think about the humble village green. Where did they come from, why are they important, what can they do for you as well as me?  Can I share with you, will you stay a while, come on in, nestle down, get comfy - shall we? 

Let’s begin with one of my favourite finds, a study conducted by a man named Roger Ulrich in 1984. He wrote a short paper in the academic journal ‘Science’ and titled it ‘View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery’, ( a very sensible sort of a title but not very pizazz-y… ). Anyway, the interesting thing about this study was not its title but what it found – that patients with tree-facing rooms in hospitals had ‘shorter post-operative hospital stays’, ‘fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses’ and took fewer moderate and strong pain relieving drugs than their counterparts who had rooms which were wall-facing.

'shouldn’t we all be entitled to equal access of the mental and physical health benefits of a ‘green-facing room’?'

Just take a minute here. Imagine that. That all it took was a tree in sight-line for the human body to recover from physical trauma better. Operations! That’s just bones and muscles and cells responding to nature-based stimuli, or at least the state of mind brought on by being able to view such bosky scenes. Amazing! And on top of that it may not just be the state of mind of the patients themselves that improved physical recovery but perhaps those of doctors, nurses and families too. I know I would rather be surrounded by carers in a tree-soothed mood. Now let’s take this idea to quarantine and imagine all our houses are in some sense our own ‘hospital rooms’. Well, wouldn’t you, in the midst of a pandemic, rather have a view of a green? Shouldn’t we all be entitled to equal access of the mental and physical health benefits of a ‘green-facing room’?

So there I begin my appeal for the village green with an example of how nature can heal, but let’s not stop there. There are other wonders to be found in these common spaces and with a little more scene-setting we can explore how ‘greens’ relate to community. 

The Suffolk village I am in actually has three ‘greens’ in a way. There is the large mown field out the back of the cottage, the sports field on the other side of the shop, and then, an allotment, a rough and rolling patch of land bordered on three sides by houses and divided haphazardly. This last square has, however, also been earmarked for further development, about which the village council is decisively unhappy. On one hand you have an influential Parish charity who technically own the land and have a right to develop it (particularly as they support young people’s education in the area financially) and on the other we have the village council made up of residents desperate to get people committed to plots so as to make a point about the land’s social indispensability. To this end quarantine has actually been quite handy, with my boyfriends’ parents being amongst the list of new allotment owners fending off boredom and buildings simultaneously. New plots mean hard turf though, and with that we reintroduce me - a mid 20s, 5 ft 8 freckled stranger standing in the middle of the village digging ardently.

I must have been there no more than 20 minutes when things started happening. First, a middle aged man appeared (at a distance) and offered his compost heap for our excess cuttings. Then came the two ladies with yappy dogs who called across their introductions and declared my labour praise-worthy. After about 45 minutes a village icon, (a figure known even to newbies for being silver-haired, Scottish and dungaree-d), came strolling out of a thatched property to share her buckets, name and life story while in between all sorts of other allotment-tees,  joggers and families each offered their gardening tips and weather-related quips as they made their way across the green. My point here is that the village green is wonderous thing as a space of interaction, sharing and community – activities that combat loneliness and which can exist even in times of social distancing. 

'developers normally scoop up such central locations before a community can stake their claim with 20 years of dog walking, cricket and May Day frolicking'

And then, did you know that there are all these ancient laws dictating the rights and roles of the village greens? Like the fact that to be recognised officially ‘a significant number of inhabitants of the locality must have engaged in lawful sports and pastimes on the land for at least 20 years’ – a definition which somewhat troubled me. Presently this quaint Victorian law defends near 2650 registered English greens against development and encroachment more generally. Which is great – particularly for a number of long standing unconventional sites which remain important to communities (I’m thinking of a Bandstand on the Isle of Wight granted village green status in 2006). However, a 20 year entry requirement to the village green club simultaneously removes the rights of a great deal of valuable community-used land (like the allotment green in my village) which is ineligible for legal protection on account of its year based maturity. Even worse, it poses a direct barrier to the creation of new novel greens - particularly as developers normally scoop up such central locations before a community can stake their claim with 20 years of dog walking, cricket and May Day frolicking.

What we are limiting here is the creation of common land, land which could offer the opportunity to produce and consume from your locality, which could serve as an educational space for developing an understanding of the natural world, and which could help foster practical skills like cultivation. Ultimately, we seem to be limiting our opportunities for learning to live sustainably at a time when paradoxically this is our greatest need. 

For those unable to afford homes with verdant gardens, the green serves other purposes too. Where in cities green enclaves are cordoned off and allocated to the affluent, the green exists to serve the village inclusively. It creates a space for those of all socio-economic standings to meet each other and come together. On the green they play sports, take part in charity fetes, their children mingle and they compete over who can grow the largest marrow/bake the tastiest cake. It is in this humble way that many Suffolk villages have developed a peculiar sense of identity and at least some degree of social equity. 

And then, oh then! There are the environmental perks too – we’re talking ecosystem services like carbon absorption, cleaner air and increased biodiversity. We’re living through a pivotal point in the future of the planet with human induced climate change bringing with it droughts, floods, extinctions and disease (!!) while our litter collects on the curbs and our plastic chokes the seas. It’s overwhelming to say the least but while change must (must!) come from the top (from leaders and industries), shifts in attitude by society at large are also very much in need and this attitude change, like those before them, will have to start from the ground up and spread itself exponentially.

'imagine if suddenly, the people had a space to discuss what they as a community can do for the planet and how to do it'

In other words – we have seen how fast viruses can spread, in human veins and behind computer screens. But imagine a new sort of celebrated meme – a space where children and adults nurture long relationships with the land, in which they grow attentive to its needs, its sensitivities. A space where the affluent and vulnerable have room to chat, to listen to each other and share the seasons, hardships and festivities.  Imagine if suddenly, the people had a space to discuss what they as a community can do for the planet and how to do it. Where knowledge can be shared and ideas voiced, where young and old can exchange energies. I’m talking about a world where there are far more ‘village greens’.

And the best thing is, they don’t even have to be in villages, nor exclusively green! Nature takes so many wild and unruly forms and all promote the benefits discussed above - from rooftop flowerpots  to scrubby hedgerows, riversides and urban trees. In an age where the burden of pandemics is likely to increase, (alongside the relating strain on our mental well-being and bodily immune systems) we need to find practical ways of increasing our contact with wild, nature-based space in towns and cities, and ways to protect these spaces for the exclusive rights of the community. (Do look up Elinor Ostrom’s work on Governing the Commons if you need more convincing!)

On one hand this is a discussion for rural and urban planners, the guys with the big bucks and the planning permissions. On the other hand there are ways you can play a part. For one, you could get in touch with your local headhuncho - be it chair of the village council, town mayor or MP (it’s literally their job to hear you!) - and direct their attention towards new potential green plots in your locality and explain why they are in need. The more publicly you have this dialogue the better - so stalk their twitters/instagrams/local facebook pages and start the debate in the open so other people in the community can contribute and read. 

'life does seem better when there is a space for humans to connect with one another and the natural world'

Alternatively, get hands on yourself, reach out to anyone and everyone in the locality that may know a thing or two about gardening and start your own community garden - this could begin in your own garden or you could try to team up with local charities/schools/landowners who may be happy to have their outside space spruced up for free. Try and gain funding from local authorities to cover your costs or host ticketed coffee mornings/book clubs/other community events for a small ticket fee. Reach out to the community to see what gardening materials/tools people would be happy to donate for free. 

As a common pool resource village greens may be hard to manage and share but they also create space for stewardship and care, for growth and breath – for all those mutual goods best spread liberally. Back in 1984 American Biologist E.O. Wilson suggested that humans are innately attracted to other living organisms. He called this phenomenon ‘Biophilia’. In 2020, from the quarantine of a Suffolk village, half kiwi, half Irish, unemployed K.A. Balding stands by this belief. Life does seem better when there is a space for humans to connect with one another and the natural world. Green space is not simply ‘nice to have’ or a trivial luxury. It is, in my opinion, essential - for the good of our health, our planet and our communities, we need to have space to get our heads clear and our hands earthy.

Resources for further reading:

Losing Eden by Lucy Jones

View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery by Roger Ulrich

Lockdown highlights the value of green space in cities by the Stockholm Environment Institute

Elinor Ostrom’s work on Governing The Commons: An Appreciation by Wyn Grant

Half Irish, half Kiwi, Kate Balding peaked in life when she interviewed Sir David Attenborough for her BSc dissertation 3 years ago. From these heady heights she has descended, taking on an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at Oxford last year and getting to spend 6 weeks on an avian island sanctuary in New Zealand under the guise of “research”. Runner, eater, debate-haver and feminist, you can find out more about her by checking out her environmental podcast or her instagrams @Kate.balding & @katesallforms!