Facts taken from,

Life’s all a fragment’ by Charles Tennyson, Cassell & Co London (1953).

‘Suffolk Scene’ by Julian Tennyson, Blackie & Son, London (1939).


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The Ancient House
On the 11th June 1944, when news of the Normandy landing had reached Burma, Julian Tennyson wrote home as an officer dealing stoically with the day-to-day horrors of the Arakan campaign against the Japanese.

“Well its truly under way by now and the tension and excitement are terrific even out here, so what it must be like in England I can hardly imagine. I feel so proud of England and I love it more than ever. I pray for a speedy success for this enormous and dreadful enterprise, so that the world may return to some kind of sanity and decency again.... I've no doubt about the final result, only I hope that it won't drag on. I know that this must be the thoughts of all of you too, and I pray that you will be spared any horror and suffering that is to come. It is difficult for us to imagine the gigantic scale on which it is being done. This little war is so puny by comparison....”

This was a far cry from the cosy environment of the Ancient House in Peasenhall, where ten years earlier Julian was in the habit of calling out of the window of his little solitary room to the owls and make them answer him. It was in Peasenhall that he had begun writing Suffolk Scene, published on the eve of the Second World War, and now regarded as a classic of the countryside. There can seldom have been a book that received more general commendation for someone so young. He was 23 years old.

The following extract is an incomparable word picture of the Alde estuary and its avian diversity. It also happens to have poignancy in relation to the place and circumstances of Julian’s death and burial, which are associated with the Burmese Arakan campaign during the last months of the Second World War.

'The loveliest part of the whole river is at Iken, where the church and rectory stand lonely on a little wooded hill at the head of the bay that curves sharply back beneath bracken and oak trees and steep, sandy cliffs. There is something very restful about this place, very old and very friendly; there is no church in England which gives you in quite the same way such a feeling of security and changelessness. Behind it are fields, woods and heaths stretching down to Orford, to the right of it are the marshes and the distant sea. A huge expanse of river lies before you when you lean over the graveyard wall; the long, dark pine wood of Blackheath and the bay in the corner where widgeon gather in thousands on winter nights, seem at least two miles off; but wait till low tide and you will see the whole river fall away until it becomes a flat, shining ocean of mud with the channel a thin thread through the middle of it. Whimbrel, curlew, redshank, dunlin, shelduck, mallard, all the birds of the river come up to feed around Iken flats, and their din sets the tame duck quacking raucously in the decoy at the back of the marshes. The noise of birds is all that you will hear at Iken, except when the east wind drives across the marsh and lashes at the thatch of the church. When I was a child I decided that here was the place for me to be buried. I have not altered my mind. Everyone wants to lie in his own country: this is mine. I shall feel safe if I have the scream of the birds and the moan of the wind and the lapping of the water all round me, and the lonely woods and marshes that I know so well. How can anyone say what he will feel when he is dead? What I mean is that I shall feel secure in dying'.

‘Suffolk Scene’ was a distillation of his youthful experiences and enthusiasm for all living things and their semi-wild habitats of the Suffolk countryside, particularly along the coastal wetlands of the Alde and in the depths of its heathlands. It was in Peasenhall that he composed poetry in the same vein. As a budding nature poet he was following the tradition of his great, great, grandfather, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Julian’s father was the grandson of Alfred Tennyson’s youngest boy, Lionel.

Julian’s attachment to wildlife and the countryside can be traced to the time he spent growing up during the 1920s at Shiplake Rise, Binfield Heath, close to the Berkshire Thames. There, he and his elder brother Penrose (Pen) ran wild in a 12 acre meadow and adjoining woodlands.

The Suffolk experience deepened between 1925-30 when the Tennyson family spent their summer holidays in Aldeburgh. One of the annual highlights was exploring the Alde and its backwaters in an old converted beach boat named ‘Laura’. In 1931 the family moved to Aldeburgh in rented accommodation, only to leave in 1932 for Farringford, on the Isle of Wight, a house that had been one of the homes of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Julian had a particular passion for the nocturnal life of the riverside. This is lyrically expressed in his poem Moon Ghost, which follows the shifting pattern of wild creatures on a moonlit night at Little Japan, a small sandy beach on the northern bank of the estuary between Aldeburgh and Snape. His budding talent as a poet is evident in the moving declamation of the deep meaning of a lost love in Second Birth.

If you should die,
There’d be no beauty on the earth,
No splendour in the sky
For me, nor love, nor mirth;
The years gone by
Would dwindle to a dream,
To the pin-point gleam
Of a night-cat’s eye.
Thus would it seem,
My life of second birth,
If you should die.

Julian’s family connection with Peasenhall and the Ancient House began in 1935 the year after he left Cambridge without obtaining a degree. He married Yvonne Le Cornu in 1937, and Peasenhall was his home until 1939 when their first child was born. The couple then moved to London, from where at the outbreak of war, he joined the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.

A friend reported Julian’s attitude to the coming conflict:

`I don't care what they do to me-they can tear me to pieces, they can kill me now or next year, but so long as I die helping to stop them taking England, then I am satisfied.' He said this with a vehemence and conviction that amazed his friend and (to his surprise) made him `feel incredibly happy'. But neither this conviction nor his unshakable confidence in England's ultimate victory (in Julian's mind it was always `England' for which he was fighting) could save him from many hours of mental agony.

In a letter he wrote from an officer training camp on the Essex coast he said:

'I do not believe England can ever be beaten. This is perhaps my clearest belief of all; clearer than belief in my own life, clearer than belief in the ultimate security of ourselves. England will not lose. I do not believe in God, but I believe unshakably in the triumph of good against evil. I do not pray to God; I pray to the goodness of the earth and the goodness that is the rock of civilization and the foundation of all that is worth calling progress. These things can never be overthrown. England is the rock of civilization. If the rock is swept away from beneath us, what hope is there for us? There is none; and therefore I will fight and die that the rock may stand firm'.

So it turned out that on 5th March 1945 Julian Tennyson was in command of a mortar platoon of the 21st Indian Division surging north into the Arakan with the objective of seizing Tamandu on the Dalst chaung, which was still strongly held by the enemy. The Japanese defended, as always, with maniacal tenacity, and Julian was sent with his mortars to give support. The mortars were established in what seemed a safe position, and Julian, as was his practice, went forward to make observations and direct the fire. Immediately his 3-inch mortars opened up, the Japanese countered, with their 4-inch weapons. A piece of shell, the size of a little finger-nail, pierced his heart and he fell dead instantaneously.

The fight continued all that day, his two sergeants carrying on with the discipline, skill and courage and it was largely due to their efforts that the position was captured. Then the platoon carried the body of their stricken commander down to the plain, and buried him by the sandy road which passes below the foothills to Tamandu, the capture of which marked the end of the 25th Indian Division's campaign in Burma.


The Moon Ghost

Fantastic moonlight floods the ghostly hall,
The clock ticks on with dim and hollow sound,
The midnight chimes ring out, and all around
Great silence spreads the shadow of its pall.

No sound within, no sound without- the air
Is coldly still; but, suddenly, close by,
The leaves about the lattice seem to sigh,
As if a something stirred the ivy there:

A breath that faintly flares and fades, no more,
A shy, slight motion, trembling tinny,
The murmur of a moment's mystery,
As if some presence, pausing at the door,

Sighed, and passed on; but yet nor beast nor bird
With startled voice betrays the secret night,
No rabbit flashes from the pathway bright,
No creature moves, and not a cry is heard.

Only Orion trembling in the sky,
Only the pine-tree lifting gaunt and tall
Above the starry pool, and over all
The moon in frosted fullness flowing by!

A glorious galleon with a glittering trail,
Streaming her fleece foamed course above the wrack,
While some star-pinnace flying at her back
Flutters a pennant to her silver sail!

But stay! Who moved just now upon the path?
No footstep sounds, nor is there shadow dark
To show his way: the listener fans a spark
To kindle comfort from the dying hearth.

It is the moon ghost: when the moon doth show
Her round, full face, about the countryside
The harmless spirit wanders far and wide,
Nor ever rests until her orb sinks low.

There is a knowledge that his presence brings
A sense, a feeling when he passes near:
A far, faint sound that strikes the watchful ear
As of a breeze that wakens drowsy things:

A whisper that goes sighing through the trees,
A ripple running lightly on the grass,
A branch that bends as if to let him pass
Thus is his spirit felt, in one of these.

Onward he goes now, roaming at his will
Along the highroad, down the shaded lane:
Stays but to watch, to hear, then on again
Across the field and up the high bright hill.

The splendid stallion on his bracken bed
His great hide taut and twitching in a dream
Of chariots leaping to a phantom team
Hears not without the moan ghost's airy tread.

The silent cattle munching in their stall
Fix their slow thoughts with wide, reproachful stare
Of dark eyes deep and dreaming-unaware
Of reedy rustling faint beyond the wall.

The mongrel sleeps with light, uneasy snore,
Chained to his kennel in a curled cocoon,
Who howled a welcome to the waking moon
From that same kennel scarce an hour before.

The moon ghost passes on his noiseless way
And starts no babbling tongue of loud alarm:
Peace lies untroubled on the weary farm
Yet some sweet hours before the glare of day.

On to the forest huge in ghostly shade
No brittle twig betrays his roving feet,
No leveret scutters to a dim retreat,
No shambling badger hurries from the glade.

Leaping and coiling like a wisp of wire
The small sharp weasel chatters at his play:
The heedless dog fox prowls his eager way,
A lean dark shadow swift with hungry fire.

The nightjar tumbles from the thicket deep,
A grotesque shadow flitting through the furze,
Bat-like she wheels, and in her flight she purrs
So faint she scarce disturbs the lightest sleep.

The owl breaks silence with a loud tu-whoo,
His round eyes blink upon the midnight dim,
No laughing echo leaps to challenge him
Unheard, unseen, the moon ghost passes through.

Through to the, fields and past the secret pond
In whose deep darkness dreams the impassive pike:
The bullfrog sports and splashes in the dyke
Twisting and glittering through the marsh beyond.

On, on he goes for many a tireless mile,
Untouched, untroubled in his journeying,
Joyful, exultant in each separate thing:
Sight, scent or sound: and slowly all the while

His mistress moon sinks down: till, far away,
When from the East the first soft shadow breaks,
On his dim perch the red-eyed rooster wakes
And flings a crazy challenge to the day!


From 'Life's All a Fragment' by Charles Tennyson

(Page 199 Penrose and Julian Tennyson)

Another event of vital importance to Julian was the family's return to Suffolk in 1935-this time to `The Ancient House', at Peasenhall in the heart of East Suffolk, half-way between the Alde and the Waveney, a medium-sized house, part of which dated from 1500, and part had been panelled and decorated in about 1700. The greatest charm of the place was its delightful garden, with yew and beech hedges ten feet high, and an old orchard of apple, pear, mulberry, medlar, quince and walnut trees. Julian fell in love with the place directly he saw it and claimed as his own a little room at the extreme end of the house over the kitchen and back staircase, which had been fitted out with bookshelves and a wooden partition as a bed-sitting-room. Peasenhall lies in undulating and well-timbered country, intersected by small streams and dotted with unspoiled villages, in most of which stand noble square-towered parish churches. The variety of material with which these villages are built - brick, in a wide range of colour, flint, plaster, often coloured pink or pale-blue, half-timber and weather boarding, with roofs of tile or thatch (sometimes now, alas! of corrugated iron)-gives the whole land an extraordinary charm and richness; and there are magnificent mansions which recall the county's grandeur in former ages, and beautiful small manor houses and moated farms. Ten miles to the east is the sea coast, with its stretches of wild heath and marsh, and its estuaries teeming with wildfowl.

The Ancient House was only twelve miles from Aldeburgh, so Julian was able to renew his friendship with Jerry and Cracknell, and he made a new friend (the introduction was due to Buster) who was to be more important to him than either. This was Alec Bloomfield, the gamekeeper on a neighbouring estate, a man of tremendous physique and remarkable character, strong, sincere, conscientious, affectionate and open-hearted, with an unrivalled knowledge of English wild life and of the East Suffolk countryside. During the next four years Julian seldom came to Peasenhall without visiting his cottage, and many were the hours that he spent walking with Alec about the woods, fields and marshes and learning the intricacies of a gamekeeper's life.

He soon had an opportunity of putting this knowledge into practice on a small rough shoot, of which it was arranged that he should act as keeper, looking after the nests, campaigning against vermin, arranging for beaters when the shooting season began, and directing the small parties of six or seven guns which he collected to shoot the ground. In this way he began to make many friendships among the village folk, particularly with Harry Baylam, prince of beaters, and Walter Howe, ex-gamekeeper and landlord of `The Swan', in whose bar he became a frequent and welcome guest.