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An Excursion To Tudeley

August 24, 2016
by the gentle author

Today I publish an account of my last assignment with Photographer Colin O’Brien, who died last week, a day’s excursion with a coachload of East Enders picking blackcurrants in Kent organised by Company Drinks. Details of a Memorial Service for Colin O’Brien will be announced in the autumn.

Colin & I met at quarter-to-eight, in the cool of the morning, at Empress Coaches in Bethnal Green and were the driver’s only passengers until we reached Dagenham, where he pulled up on the pavement next to the library and eager blackcurrant pickers embarked clutching their pots and bags.

Mid-morning, the coach was winding down a Kentish farm lane and all seemed well until an autocratic landowner driving a four-by-four pulled up beside us, exasperated at being unable to pass. When it was explained that we were a coachload of blackcurrant gleaners, he feigned alarm as if had caught a gang of thieves red-handed and, after a tense conversation with various agricultural employees, it became clear that we were expected at a neighbouring farm. As the coach returned down the lane, Colin & I drew great amusement in imagining this ‘gentleman farmer,’ breathing a sigh of relief that no ‘dirty cockneys’ would get their hands on his blackcurrants this year.

Arriving at our destination, we passed through the tiny village of Tudeley, lined with twisted weather-boarded cottages, before we saw the field of blackcurrants, stretched out in long lines and harbouring their purple fruit beneath dense foliage. These rows had already been picked mechanically several times, as we could tell by the thousands of blackcurrants littering the ground, but since it was no longer viable to harvest the bushes again this season we were permitted to glean the remaining fruit that would otherwise go to waste.

With barely a word, everyone set to work, pleased to be in the fresh air after sitting on the coach and excited by the prospect of blackcurrants. Pulling back branches revealed purple fruit hanging in the shade, sharp on the tongue yet irresistibly tangy. A disparate bunch, we were all unified in our delight at blackcurrants and took the opportunity to taste as many as we could, occasionally whooping with joy to discover branches heavy with fruit concealed beneath the leaves.

Colin worked his way up and down the rows with his camera, and had no problem finding subjects who were eager to show off their precious harvest of blackcurrants, while I picked pint-sized cups of fruit which I donated to boost the haul of some younger pickers.

At lunchtime, while Colin & I took a break from the heat of the sun in the shade of a hedge, eating our sandwiches with the other pickers, I confessed to him that I had spied a beautiful country pub far away across the field and I could not resist the thought that it would be a very attractive prospect to pay a visit for refreshment. Colin confided that to me that the very same thought had occurred to him and confirmed that he had taken his set of portraits. Yet we both agreed that we felt uncomfortable admitting this idea to the other pickers, even though we had effectively completed our assignment.

Consulting the map of Tudeley, while munching my sandwiches, I noticed that there was a church at the centre of the village. ‘Why don’t we go for a walk up the road and visit the church?’ I suggested to Colin and then, with his assent, we made our departure from the group, explaining our purpose and sloping off down the lane. ‘Shall we go in and have a drink now or shall we visit the church first?’ I asked Colin once we arrived at the pub. ‘Let’s walk up to the church first,’ Colin decided, and I dutifully accompanied him up the hill, leaving the pub behind yet hopeful of a swift return.

The first wonder we encountered was Tudeley Hall, a charismatic half-timbered medieval pile with twisted brick chimneys and a line of old red roses blooming in the front garden. Tall trees lined our path upon either side, arching in a vault over the road and filtering the rays of the sun to spectacular effect. ‘You could wait for days for the light to be as it is now,’ said Colin, as he pressed his shutter to capture a picture of the lane shimmering in hazy sunlight.

Turning off the main road, we approached the church up a pathway lined by well-kept cottages with gardens in flower, arriving at the graveyard dignified by ancient yews, and sat there upon a bench to admire the view across the farmland of Kent in the stillness of the summer afternoon. We were ready to walk back down the hill to the pub, when we decided to go inside the church and take a look.

An unexpected revelation awaited us.  Leaving the dazzling glare behind, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the low light inside, where coloured glass gleamed with rich hues illuminating the gloom of the shadowy interior. All Saints, Tudeley, is the only church in the world to have all the windows designed by Marc Chagall.

We learnt the poignant story behind these windows – how local landowners Sir Henry & Lady D’Avigdor-Goldsmid commissioned Chagall to create the east window as a memorial to their daughter Sarah, who drowned aged twenty-one in a sailing accident in 1963, and how, when Chagall came in 1967 to see his worked installed, he fell in love with this small bare church and said, ‘I will do them all.’

Spellbound by the vision, Colin photographed each of the windows, beginning on the north side with the creation of the world from the blue void and culminating in a pair of south-facing windows executed in the golden tones of the sun, with images dissolving into light. Realising that we had to leave if we were not to keep the blackcurrant pickers waiting or miss the coach back, I only persuaded Colin to go once I had taken some pictures of him standing beneath the large east window.

I checked my watch as we walked sharply back down the hill and, when we reached the pub, I realised it was too late for a drink but instead I went inside and asked if I could use the toilet. Once I emerged from the bathroom, Colin was holding two bottles of lemonade with straws in them and we sipped upon them as we walked up the lane to the coach.

The blackcurrant pickers were waiting for us, their lips and fingers stained with purple juice. ‘We know where you’ve been!’ they teased, as we climbed on board the coach, confronting us with the realisation of how transparent our departure from the field had appeared. Fortunately, Colin was able to show his photographs of the Marc Chagall windows, serving as both our alibi and as illustrations of our adventure.

I was thinking what a lesson the day had been – that the instinct to stray was one that should not be resisted because you never know what wonders you might discover – when I fell asleep. Colin & I woke up in London and he descended from the coach at Hackney Downs, where the days’ harvest was delivered to be cooked and bottled with lemon juice, prior to being made into blackcurrant soda. I stayed with the coach until it reached the depot off Mare St beside the canal and walked back from there to Spitalfields, with my plastic box of blackcurrants in my bag.

The excursion to Tudeley was our final assignment, our last day together and the last time I saw Colin O’Brien.

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

Movements, Deals & Drinks is a project by international artist group Myvillages, founded in 2003 by Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra & Antje Schiffers. The project was commissioned by Create and is registered as a Community Interest Company with the name Company Drinks. Company Drinks is supported by the Borough of Barking & Dagenham.

You may also like to read about these other Company Drinks projects photographed by Colin O’Brien

Hop Picking at Lamberhurst

Scything on Walthamstow Marshes

27 Responses leave one →
  1. Kelly permalink
    August 24, 2016

    What a glorious last day to spend with your friend and collaborator. My condolences on your loss. I have enjoyed discovering Colin’s magnificent photography thanks to your beautiful blog. You have both helped to make Spitalfields, the East End, and The Big Smoke come to life for those of us far away who, as yet, have only dreamed such sights. Thank you.

  2. August 24, 2016

    Love the idea of an outing to pick fruit, and glad your harvest included some Chagall windows and lots of happy faces. Valerie

  3. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    August 24, 2016

    One of the best ‘ Spitalfields Life ‘ I remember. A great tribute to Colin and TGA. I was expecting to see a portrait of TGA tucked away under a blackberry hedge. I knew about the small church in Kent with the Chagall Windows. If you should come to Jerusalem there are 12 large Chagall Windows in the synagogue of the Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. Well worth a visit. Thanks for the visit to Kent.
    Melvyn Brooks Karkur, Israel

  4. Eileen Collins permalink
    August 24, 2016

    Thank you for writing such a tender and touching account of your last day trip with Colin. I am very sorry for the loss of your friend, and will not be alone in missing his “contributing photographs”. How his heart (and yours) must have leapt at the sight of the beautiful Chagall windows. A wonderful final assignment.

  5. Ben B permalink
    August 24, 2016

    I’d suggest it’s rather more grand than the lesson just for the day, it’s an overarching drive for this blog:
    “The instinct to stray was one that should not be resisted because you never know what wonders you might discover. ”

    Another wonderful piece that took me back to my happy visits to Kent with friends.

  6. Daron Pike permalink
    August 24, 2016

    Thank you Colin, it has been a pleasure to have shared your photographs in Spitalfields Life and surely a pleasure for many others to come.

  7. annette fry permalink
    August 24, 2016

    What lovely photos of the children from Dagenham, that great tradition of waste not want not, scrumping apples, gleaning onions, I have surely done it all in my time. A perfectly fitting last photography act, full of joy and the lure of the East End of London. Absolutely delightful, I am sure he will be smiling down on this post.

    I visited the church of Tudely with a friend some years ago and was overwhelmed by the beauty of Chagall’s windows, radiant blue light bathing the whole church, you come away transformed.

    Thank you

  8. August 24, 2016

    It must have been the perfect day. I would like to visit this place very much indeed. How well Chagall’s style suits stained glass. Such happy faces in these photos.

  9. kelt permalink
    August 24, 2016

    RIP Colin.
    It would be lovely to see the photo that you took of Colin under the church window x

  10. Sue permalink
    August 24, 2016

    What a wonderful last excursion. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  11. August 24, 2016

    What a beautiful day

  12. August 24, 2016

    A beautifully elegiac and yet uplifting piece. Thank you so much.

  13. August 24, 2016

    A poignant post. Thank you for sharing your last day with Colin.

  14. Sharon permalink
    August 24, 2016

    What a poignant, yet fitting, final trip together. The story moved me to tears this morning. Colin was an amazingly talented photographer, bringing your tales to vivid life. He leaves such a valuable legacy. I never knew him but I feel I share your loss.

  15. David Bishop permalink
    August 24, 2016

    What a beautiful account of a day out in the Kent countryside and of your friendship with Colin. Thank you for sharing this.

  16. Malcolm permalink
    August 24, 2016

    Wonderful piece of writing and a fitting final photographic contribution by Colin O’Brien.
    It must have a been a beautiful day for all.
    All Saints Church is well worth a visit for the Chagall windows, on the right day the light inside the Church becomes almost tangible with limpid blue evanescence.
    I raise my glass to TGA and Colin for bringing us so many brilliant adventures!

  17. Judith Wynne permalink
    August 24, 2016

    Beautiful, both the writing and photos.

    If one must have a last day with a beloved friend, this one seems perfect. The Chagall windows semm so fitting.

    My condolences on your loss.

  18. Milo Bell permalink
    August 24, 2016

    I think that that is what happens when someone close dies. It concentrates one. Probably my favourite out of many excellent posts.

  19. Carol Himmelman-Christopher permalink
    August 24, 2016

    Thank you for sharing this last, very special trip with a very special and extremely talented man. Always such joy and tenderness in his work. Thank you.

  20. Valerie permalink
    August 24, 2016

    Such a fitting tribute to your friend. Thank you for sharing him, and all your adventures, with us.

  21. August 24, 2016

    How beautiful, Gentle Author, that you and Colin were together as he took photos of those windows that let him look onto his next life, the vision of Marc Chagall

  22. pauline taylor permalink
    August 24, 2016

    What a lovely piece GA and such a fitting tribute to your great friend. Thank you for the photos of the Chagall stained glass as well as that is something that I knew nothing about before, but the windows look truly beautiful. There is a magic about the light from stained glass in churches and particularly the blue, and Chagall knew that very well didn’t he.

  23. August 24, 2016

    I absolutely adore your blog, and this is one of my favourite posts so far. What a poignant story and tribute to your friend and associate. Though I live far away in Toronto, your blog will influence so much of what I choose to see and visit when next in London. The vintage collector in me loves how you’ve collected these stories of a place and a past. Thank you for telling them!

  24. Ros permalink
    August 24, 2016

    This post can’t help but be poignant, but it is also so joyful. The shining faces of the children and young people show how much Colin made them feel at ease. They communicate such pride and happiness. The account of the Chagall windows trumping the pub is also funny and just right. I hope you enjoyed your lemonades! I won’t forget this story though of course am so very sad that it turned out to be, as you said, your last assignment with Colin.

  25. JM Parham permalink
    August 24, 2016

    A touching tribute to your fine contributor – always enjoy getting the daily posts and shall miss his work very much.

    Have fond memories of Tudely when I used to do the apple, pear, and hop harvests around the Paddock Wood area of Kent. Remember the lovely church with the Marc Chagall windows especially! One year I spent the whole winter in that part of Kent doing the tree-pruning and other winter jobs, then the hop-training in May – the most backbreaking work ever! Remember doing the black currents as well – up at five and picking till sundown. That was before mechanisation – and hardly any fruit was wasted … Lots of traveller families would turn up with their kids, and all the locals too – one day our field was busted by DHSS officials who’d been tipped off about families claiming the dole and working – suddenly almost no pickers – they’d all run off into the woods once they got wind that the snoopers were about! Our farmer had a hard time to get the blackcurrants in for the next couple of days – but it’s only a very short harvest. I remember I made quite a bit on the piece work in that couple of weeks!

    Best wishes!

  26. August 24, 2016

    Your last day with Colin seems like a kind of special blessing.

    Coming right at the end, the colour and design of the crucifixion window in the last photograph moved me to tears.

  27. August 25, 2016

    A great tribute to Colin. These, his last photographs, are full of joy and humanity. He captures the beauty of the English countryside magnificently. How fitting that they conclude with the dreams and colours of Marc Chagall.

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