The Place That Roger Built

I never had the opportunity to meet Roger Deakin. It always seemed that our paths would cross in mutual literary-environmental circles: I would send him exhibition-opening invitations, but later hear through mutual friends that he was too busy to attend as he hurriedly worked away to finish the writing of Wildwood; and then he became ill, and died quickly. So I only came to know Roger through his work and the stories told to me by those who did know him.

Walnut Tree Farm features prominently in Roger’s writing, highlighting the essential role that the place had in his life. In 1969 he bought the moated Suffolk farmhouse, along with 12 acres of meadows, from a local farmer who had been keeping pigs in the semi-derelict house. Roger stripped the Elizabethan-era structure down to the original skeleton of oak, ash and chestnut timbers — 323 in all, and he estimated that 300 trees would have been felled to build it. Gradually Roger rebuilt Walnut Tree, sleeping in a bivouac with his cats inside the huge central fireplace until he created himself a bedroom.

It was at Walnut Tree Farm that Roger Deakin dedicated almost four decades to the practice of bioregionalism, developing an intimate knowledge of his local landscape and the natural world around him. Here he swam in the moat, slept in the old shepherd’s hut, crawled in the hedge and worked the land: sawing, chopping, raking, hoeing, mowing, scything, planting, harvesting and building. Roger did this because, as he wrote in a notebook: “People ask how a writer connects with the land. The answer is through work.”

The passing of a life brings inevitable change. Following Roger’s untimely death from a brain tumour in August 2006, aged 63, I felt that it was important to document the landscape of Walnut Tree Farm as Roger had known it. So later that year, in November 2006, I headed off to photograph the place, making my way from the Wash across Norfolk toward the market town of Diss, then hopping over the border into Suffolk along the winding road to the village of Mellis. I had been emailed a scan of a map which Roger had once hand-drawn to direct his many visitors to the farm, and I used this to guide me through Mellis common, past the postal box and the church to the willow tree which marked the track to Walnut Tree Farm.

When I arrived, Roger’s partner Alison Hastie sat at the kitchen table sorting through a huge pile of his notebooks, which would be published as Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. We had a lunch of vegetable soup, bread, cheese, and pickled herring; Roger’s two cats gingerly perched on the edge of the table, hoping for a taste. Alison asked about my photographs from rural East Anglia and showed me an exhibition invitation I had sent to Roger, which had been lying on his desk.

I spent the afternoon wandering around the farm, exploring the landscape. There was a quiet stillness to the place — a melancholy of loss. But at the same time, everywhere I looked I could see Roger’s presence: it overflowed from the lush wildness encroaching every inch of the landscape; and in the material objects of shepherd huts, abandoned vehicles, his chair by the moat, the piles of wood he had chopped, and the bath tub in which he wallowed. Walnut Tree Farm is the place that Roger built, created from the deep and mutual relationship of a man and the land, intimately shaping each other.

Along with the landscape at Walnut Tree Farm, it was always my intention to photograph the interior of the house, but it just never happened. I heard that things at the farm had changed, and then it was sold. A photographer’s life is full of missed opportunities.

Justin Partyka, “The Place That Roger Built,” Places Journal, July 2011. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

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