A new book by Ronald Blythe is something of an event. In recent years the bard of Akenfield has mostly published collections of articles, which makes At the Yeoman’s House (Enitharmon £15) especially welcome. It’s an autobiographical meditation on an ancient dwelling-house set in flint-strewn fields: Bottengoms Farm on the Essex-Suffolk border, where Blythe lives. He inherited it from the artist John Nash, and now investigates its history in an enjoyably oblique and fragmentary fashion.
In Cobbett’s definition a yeoman was above a farmer but lower than a gentleman, and Bottengoms has never been grand. It began when ‘a man roofed in a spring and dwelt beside it’, and in 1944 the stream still ran through the kitchen. Blythe became great friends with Nash and his wife Christine Kühlenthal, first visiting Bottengoms in 1947 and minding the place when they went on painting trips.
The writing takes the form of a dozen short chapters or movements, interspersed with poems, photos, meetings with other artists such as Cedric Morris and Paul Nash, instructions for thatching or the celebration of a brick floor. Roaming the byways of history and memory with a poet’s exactitude, Blythe particularises and names. Lists are a feature. At one point he compiles a seven-page record of all the plants growing in the garden and illustrates it with John Nash’s marvellous wood engravings. The whole book is a poem: sheer delight.