12. 2 College Street
H. E. Bates
Higham Ferrers, frequently the setting for H. E. Bates stories
H.E. Bates was a prolific author. His best-known works are probably Love for Lydia, The Darling Buds of May, Fair Stood the Wind for France, and My Uncle Silas, as they became successful films or TV series. He also wrote for the RAF under the name of Flying Officer X. He wrote extensively about the Nene Valley in Northamptonshire, an area he knew well from his childhood. After his marriage in 1931 he moved to Kent, where he lived for the rest of his life. His writings reflect his love and knowledge of the countryside and gardening as well as storytelling.
In the Foreword to the Rotary Club’s “Pictorial History of Higham Ferrers” published in 1984, the text recalls that H.E. Bates had written that ‘Higham Ferrers was a fine little town’ and he remembered spending the ‘golden’ years of his childhood rolling down the ‘slopes of the old castle mound’, ‘picking pears’, ‘changing my football boots in the Bede House’, and nostalgically recollects that this ‘was the same countryside that Henry Fifth’s great archbishop, Chichele, knew centuries ago’.
H. E. Bates is the boy in the white shirt standing on top of the hay. To his left is his grandfather leaning on a pole.
Rushden born; Higham raised
Born in neighbouring Rushden in 1905, H.E. Bates lived at the time when Rushden was a thriving boot and shoe town, but in his childhood spent a great deal of time in Higham Ferrers, ‘living in my grandfather’s pocket’. His grandfather Lucas, a shoemaker of some repute, who could create a shoe from the sole upward.
With the decline of the shoe industry, his grandfather became a small holder and he notes; [Every summer] It was my grandfather’s practice to buy up a small orchard or two and occasionally even a solitary tree.’ The tree H.E. remembered most fondly was the pear tree, 'which grew in an old stone-walled garden side by side with Chichele’s charming small grammar school'. The school now belongs to the Church and is known as The Chantry Chapel, and the garden belongs to Church House.
In his first autobiography, The Vanished World1, he writes of the solitary tree;
‘The tree not only appears to me very tall and the pears of a singular juicy sweetness, but the whole garden must have made on my mind an impression at once permanent and endearing, for it is from this garden and its adjoining stone house that the tragic heroine of The Sleepless Moon2, a novel of mine written more than forty years later, walks to her wedding in the neighbouring church and subsequently to a marriage unconsummated’.
The novel traces the disastrous marriage between Constance and Melford Turner, owner of the fictional grocer shop premises and house, ’standing on the corner of the square by the gates of the church’. Constance feels that, ‘The old grey walls were pleasing to her with their sharp masoned stone. The long upper windows were painted white, with black sills’ …
In the novel, Constance, on her way to her wedding sees much the same picture absorbed by Bates as a child and young man, ‘there was only a single moment she could look at the square. The picture flashed past her like something she had seen for the first time and was to lose forever; the stone quadrangle of houses, the market cross in the centre, the little stone town hall that was also the council chamber and lock up jail, the four shops, the line of chestnut trees, the bank that opened from noon to 2.45 on Wednesday and Friday afternoons’.
The description of the shop and the town square leaves little doubt that Bates used the familiar haunts of his childhood to evoke a sense of place for his story. The shop he knew, owned by grocer George Battersby in the 1920’s, when the novel is set, is now a coffee house but still recognisable; the cross, the town hall and two of the houses now boast their own blue plaque, but there is no longer a bank and no-one gets locked up in the town hall.
The garden where he gathered pears, hidden behind stone walls beyond the coffee shop stable yard, which he remembered from so long ago, is now in separate private ownership.
The church itself has a significant symbolic presence, unrecognised by Constance. Shortly after her marriage she appreciates the house and sees, ‘Above it like a great stone pencil that threw a shadow on the orchard, rose the spire of the church ... it was impossible to separate the spire and the clock and the shadow together with the sound of the bells, from the existence of the house and shop on the corner of the square. All that too was wonderfully pleasant’.
There are several factual references to the church in the novel including the height of the spire, which Melford tells Constance is 170ft. Descriptions of the interior also bear close resemblance to the beautiful building as it stands today.
1 H.E.Bates: The Vanished World 1969
2 H.E. Bates:The Sleepless Moon 1956