The Norfolk Farm
As a young boy of about sixteen Henry had cycled from his home in south London to the Norfolk coast to join his family on a camping holiday near Cromer. It was on this journey that Henry saw his first otter when he stopped for lunch by a mill near Colchester.
At the very beginning of 1936 he was invited to spend a few days in that same village with his friend Richard de la Mare. He confided to his hosts that he felt stale and had outgrown Devon and they suggested he moved to Norfolk, the next day taking him to see a farm for sale a few miles up the coast. Henry immediately determined to buy the property, and so he became the owner of Old Hall Farm, Stiffkey on the north Norfolk coast in the autumn of 1936. The farm was about 250 acres, a lovely looking place with its chalk grassland slopes, hangers of woodland, its marshes and water meadows; but as a farm it was about as run down as it could be. He had not bought the huge Old Hall itself and his plan was to rebuild some old cottages for the family to live in. In the following spring, he and his brother-in-law, Robin Hibbert, went to Norfolk and camped on the farm whilst they began the horrendous task of renovating the roads and the derelict cottages, and the family moved in just before Christmas 1937.
The whole business was the most dreadful struggle. HW was inexperienced but had very firm ideas about how he wanted his farm to be run. His ideas were too progressive for the slow old-fashioned country ways prevalent at that time and place, and he was very impatient with those who would not immediately do things exactly as he insisted.
The Story of a Norfolk Farm tells the struggle of its reclamation. With almost religious zeal the hilly farm was dragged from dereliction to high quality; it being seen by HW as a microcosm of the struggle emerging in Europe.
The locals mistrusted him and, as war broke out, his well-known belief that Hitler was essentially a good man who wanted only to build a new and better Germany, and his allegiance to Oswald Mosley and the BUF, whose agricultural policy was naturally his guiding star, had him branded by the locals (totally falsely) as a spy, with wild tales of signals to the enemy. In June 1940 he was arrested briefly under Defence Regulation 18B, but after spending a weekend in a cell at Wells police station, with no evidence whatsoever against him, he was released. But HW did not repent and went his own way regardless, convinced he was right. An allegory of those years can be found in The Phasian Bird, published in 1949, about a beautiful phoenix-like pheasant which arose in splendour but was shot and destroyed by black marketeers and spivs.
Weekly articles in London newspapers and in the Eastern Daily Press* kept things afloat financially, but the constant deadlines to be met on both fronts took their toll in irritability and depression.
Particularly, Henry found the struggles on the farm interfered too much with his writing. By the end of the war he was exhausted physically and mentally, and his marriage was under great strain, further complicated by the birth, in February 1945, of his and Loetitia's second daughter, Sarah. He decided to sell the farm, now graded A1, and with the war over, in October 1945 the farming venture ended.
* These articles have been since collected and published by The Henry Williamson Society as follows:
1937–1939, Daily Express: Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer; 49 articles. (HWS, paperback, 2004 (out of print); e-book 2013)
1939–1941, Evening Standard: The Heart of England; 33 articles. (HWS, paperback 2003 (out of print); e-book 2013)
1941–1944, Eastern Daily Press: Green Fields and Pavements: A Norfolk Farmer in Wartime; 48 articles. (HWS, hardback 1995; e-book 2013)
1944–1945, Evening Standard: A Breath of Country Air; 82 articles. (HWS, 2 vols, 1990 (out of print), 1991; 1-vol. e-book 2013)