Last weekend we did what we do many weekends. We headed to the Suffolk coast.
There in Aldeburgh, in a small second-hand bookshop, I picked up a book that I’m amazed I have survived without for these past 20 years in Suffolk. It’s a 1954 publication by AOD Claxton called The Suffolk Dialect of the Twentieth Century.
On the cover, inevitably, is a picture of a pair of heavy horses pulling a bearded farm worker through a half-harvested field.
You look at the book – its title, its photograph – and you know you are looking at Suffolk as it was. Inside we read Suffolk’s words and phrases just as they were and possibly still are.
Thus I learn that a mouth is a ‘tater trap’, that a ‘swimmer’ is a dumpling made from flour and baking powder, and that ‘dreening’ means to sweat profusely. There are words to describe nature, so a ‘dickey’ is a donkey and a ‘botsy’ a rabbit. There are words to describe the intricacies of sailing, such as ‘weasel’ – a small buoy fastened to a vessel’s anchor chain. And there are words to describe the quirkiness of people: a ‘numb chance’ is someone who doesn’t answer when spoken to, a ‘slummocks’ is an untidy person, and a ‘finnicks’ is someone who fusses.
How have I got through 20 years in Suffolk without AOD Claxton’s book of dialects?
It’s not just the use of words I like about this part of the world. It’s also the attitude with which those words are sometimes used. When I was deputy headteacher at Thurston Community College, the History department organised an annual field trip to Haughley. Alongside the village’s rich history, it was known for its magnificent bakery.
Most years, the team would bring me back an enormous Eccles cake as a treat – fat with currants, pastry that was buttery and light. I remember one day a student came to see me in my office, spotted the pastry in its paper bag, and said: ‘What’s that, Mr Barton? It looks like a cowpat in pastry’. Suddenly my snack looked less appetising.
I was thinking of all of this over the past few days because from April I have a new job. Elected General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders – a union representing more than 18,000 members – I will be working chiefly in London and Leicester.
‘Are you leaving Suffolk?’ people ask. To which the answer is no. It would be unthinkable to me to leave this magnificently under-recognised county of ours. The secret charms of Suffolk are so great that I can’t imagine leaving them behind.
I was talking about this at a meeting this week with Lee Walker. He’s my successor at King Edward’s. Currently a deputy head in Cambridgeshire, he will step into a long tradition of headteachers stretching back to the opening of our school in 1550.
Lee and I talked about Suffolk, and he described spending the past few days with his family deciding where in West Suffolk they are going to live. He articulated precisely the emotions we felt when we moved to Suffolk in 1997 after years of living in Leeds and York. As we drove around, one beautiful village followed another, one brilliant house after another. Undiscovered Suffolk suddenly revealed itself.
Lee and his family have already fallen in love with Suffolk, just as we did all those years ago.
So wherever my future travels might take me – and they will entail travelling across the UK and occasionally abroad – I couldn’t imagine not returning regularly to our roots here in Pakenham, the place where our children grew up, where many of our friends are.
Anyway, I can’t leave Suffolk. As AOD Claxton’s book demonstrates, I haven’t yet learnt the language.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds