Last week I visited Great Livermere, just over the Suffolk border, the childhood home of M. R. James, whose father was the rector of St Peter’s Church in the village. James himself was deeply attached to Livermere, according to Michael Cox’s excellent 1986 biography, and it wasn’t hard on a rain-soaked, ghost-grey November day to see how the atmosphere of the place might have had an effect on the young Monty.
Walking around the churchyard I came across the grave of the Mothersole family – the surnname will be familiar to James’s readers as that of the witch from his story ‘The Ash Tree’.
A friendly and very vocal familiar – the local black-and-white cat – came over to investigate what I was up to, before slinking back through the wet grass.
Various headstones bore suitably gothic reminders of mortality: skulls, bones and the like. Rich pickings, perhaps, for the young Monty to store away for later use? I myself felt a little like the character Viscount Saul from ‘The Residence at Whitminster’, so memorably described as “whimsical” and “given to moping about in our raths and graveyards”. Hopefully though I’ll manage to avoid the boy’s fate! (I managed somehow to miss the headstone of James’s parents, which Monty had erected – that will teach me to try and do my reading before visiting a place!)
A distinctive feature of Great Livermere is the lake just behind the church, which gives its name to the village. I’d never actually visited it before, though knew of its reputation as a good birding site (I remember being jealous of my brother who saw a Black-winged Pratincole – a rare wading bird – there in the 1990s.) On the day I visited there was nothing there so exotic, though a female Scaup (a scarce diving duck on inland waters) was a good spot, and a Kingfisher flashed by. This Grey Heron (or Harnser to use one of my favourite old Norfolk bird names) was sitting in a rather stately fashion in the waterside trees:
The lake itself is made up of two parts: Ampton Water, the narrow snaking and tree-lined southern half, and the aptly named northern Broad Water. With its part-submerged trees and indistinct shoreline this part of the mere struck me as particularly atmospheric, a kind of post-diluvian landscape that seemed to offer a glimpse of a peopleless world in which the waters have overwhelmed the land. (Perhaps that was just the strengthening rain playing with my mind though!)
Leaving the lake behind I felt it only right to see the Rectory itself, the place where Monty spent his childhood when not away at prep school or later at Eton. En route I passed this gate in presumably the wall at the back of the Rectory’s extensive garden (or of another of part of the old Livermere Estate). It brought to mind the scene in Monty’s last published ghost story, ‘A Vignette’ (pub. 1936):
“You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory, adjacent to a park of many acres, and separated therefrom by a belt of trees of some age… A close gate of split oak leads to it from the path encircling the garden, and when you enter it from that side you put your hand through a square hole cut in it and lift the hook to pass along to the iron gate which admits to the park…”
Back past the surrounding scatter of houses and I could get a glimpse of the Rectory itself, long since a rather grand private residence, through a gap in the scatter of trees.
(Looking now at the photo it’s quite a disappointment to find no half-formed faces peering out from the attic window, though perhaps when I look again there will be something – see ‘The Mezzotint’!)
Rather incongruously, parked just oppposite the entrance to the house was this most-unexpected vehicle – a mobile Insect Circus Museum no less! – while adding to the late autumn atmosphere were the various mushrooms poking up through the leaf litter.
Great Livermere is a wonderfully strange and atmospheric place, and certainly somewhere I’ll be returning to in future.
(I should add that I visited Livermere in the wonderful company of my friend, the film-maker Clive Dunn, who made the excellent ‘A Pleasant Terror: The Life and Ghosts of M. R. James’, which is well worth trying to catch up with!)