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So Long, Tom The Sailor

November 21, 2020
by the gentle author

I have to report the recent death of Brick Lane icon, Thomas Hewson Finch, aged seventy-nine

Let me admit, if I had to choose one person who incarnated the spirit of Brick Lane Market, it would have been Tom – Tom the Sailor, as he was widely known – who was to be found almost every day of the week with his faithful dog Matty, stalling out on the pavement with a few bits and pieces for sale.

A distinguished gentleman of soulful character, yet with indefatigable humour and spirit, Thomas Frederick Hewson Finch had been around as long as anyone could remember, although few were aware of his origins or the extraordinary story of how he came to be there.

“In 1941, when the Germans were at war with England, that’s when I came along. My father wasn’t married to my mother. As far as I know, I was born in Goole in Yorkshire, but I don’t know for sure – no-one knows because it was 1941. I don’t think anybody cared about me, I was just a problem. I say my mother died when I was born but I don’t know, and I don’t want to know because I’ve had my life now, and I was slung in a home then which was natural. All I can remember is me lying on a floor and watching a rocking horse.

That home was St John’s in Ipswich, it’s not there any more. You went from baby to cots and then you went to beds, in other words you went through the stages. It was a big place. Loads of people like me needed somewhere to go. Why this place was picked was because there was Yanks all around. Although it may not be true, what I say is that my father was American. My mother went out with other people. She was part gypsy and she had to take care of herself, and naturally she would go with the Yanks who gave her cigarettes and stockings. Why would a woman want to go with Englishmen that were poor and had nothing?

When you sit there as an orphan and see other people being given presents, how do you imagine I felt? One child had an electric train set and I nicked it and buried it, but I when I went back to get it a year later it was rusty and no good. Why take somebody’s train set? It was how I thought. It was wrong, I know this now. I hid above a toilet for three days when they were looking for me, after they thought I had run away. As I got older, they slung me out because I was too unruly, and they put me in a stronger home. It was in East Grinstead, and the one who run it he was – now he would be locked up in  prison – he was very hard.  He used to love hitting me. He used the birch, he kept it in vinegar. He put you over a bench for six of the best. It was always me.

They sent me to a training ship for orphans on the River Medway – the Arethusa – where I reached Chief Petty Officer Boy. We slept in hammocks and you had to climb the one hundred and seventy foot masts everyday and slide down the lanyards. It was sailing ship from Harwich. From there, when you passed out you went to the Ganges in Suffolk where everyone went to go into the Royal Navy. They were training me in Morse code and typing, and I went on HMS Paladin. But I went deaf, on account of the cold weather in Iceland when I was drilling ice off a boat. I was invalided out with a pension of six shillings and ninepence a week which I sold for two hundred and fifty pounds, and with the money I bought a motorbike – a superflash.

I started working with woodworkers, Hollar Bros in Hull where I met my wife. I went in a cafe in Dagger Lane and the chap was doing no good and he asked me if I wanted the cafe for fifteen pounds a month, so I thought, “I’ll have that.” It turned out to be one hell of a place. All the bikers came down and it was packed out with motorcyclists from Brighton and all over England. I was open twenty-four hours and it was so busy you couldn’t park in the street. From there I ended up with seven nightclubs, and ten other cafes with casinos above them. I had dogs on the door, and I had one dressed as a fisherman because they knew me and I went to sea with them.

After that, I was twenty years on the run. I gave up everything when I left, me and my family, we just walked out. All the others ended up in the nick but they couldn’t catch me and I came down here to East End to get away. In other words, I was a bit of a villain. I’ve had a few premises round here, on Great Eastern St, Boundary St and two shops on Brick Lane, and in Cheshire St. I never paid for any of them. I used to have a partner, me and Terry – they called us “Tom & Jerry,” cat and mouse. Our first shop on the Hackney Rd, we sold the shop window just to get going. We used to sell nicked fireplaces, Victorian ranges and marble, you could get that stuff easy when there was no cameras. We sold them at giveaway prices, even the police came to buy from us. The shop was given to me by a Jew that was going to America, I was sitting in the Princess one day and he came in and threw the keys on the counter and said, “Take it, it’s yours!”

A camera crew came round once and asked me to show them how to sell a fireplace. We had one marked at fifteen pounds, so they filmed me and I asked “Thirty pounds” and they gave me the cash. Each time I asked more until it was seventy-five pounds. And when they said, “Can we have our money back ?” I said, “It’s your fireplace!” You can do anything in a market. Me and Terry closed up and went to the stripper pub on the corner. That’s how you sell a fireplace.

All my family are well off, they all made it. My little boy Andrew, he’s my son, he was always with me. He’s grown up now too, but I just carry on in my own stupid way. Why does a man do it?  I can only do what I’ve always done, I know it better than anything. I’ve done it all my life. Old Tom’s still an orphan, it’s the way I was brought up.”

Larger than life yet of this life, Tom the Sailor was the most charismatic rogue you could meet, with his nautical tattoos, weatherbeaten features, white mutton chop whiskers and an endless supply of yarns to regale. He delighted in ruses and fables. With the wisdom and modesty of one who had lived many lives, Tom recognised that the truth of experience is rarely simple, always ambiguous. And if, like me, you are of a similar cast of mind, then there was almost no better way to pass time and learn about the East End than hanging on Old Tom’s ear.

For years, we exchanged discreet greetings every day when I passed him outside the beigel shop and, now he is gone, I shall think of him each time I reach that spot. Brick Lane will be a lesser place without Tom the Sailor.

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Tom’s Van

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List Of Shops Open For Business

November 20, 2020
by the gentle author

These are the essential shops that are open in Spitalfields and vicinity during the lockdown. Readers are especially encouraged to support small independent businesses who offer an invaluable service to the community. This list confirms that it is possible to source all essential supplies locally without recourse to supermarkets.

Be advised many shops are operating limited hours, so I recommend you call in advance to avoid risking a wasted journey. We will be updating and publishing this list weekly, so please send your amendments and additions.

The accompanying photographs are by Shloimy Alman from the seventies.


The Albion, 2/4 Boundary St
Ali’s Mini Superstore, 50d Greatorex St
AM2PM, 210 Brick Lane
Planet Organic, 132 Commercial St
Banglatown Cash & Carry, 67 Hanbury St
Breid Bakery, Arch 72, Dunbridge St
Brick Lane Minimarket, 100 Brick Lane
The Butchery Ltd, 6a Lamb St
City Supermarket, 10 Quaker St
Costprice Minimarket, 41 Brick Lane
Faizah Minimarket, 2 Old Montague St
JB Foodstore, 97 Brick Lane
Haajang’s Corner, 78 Wentworth St
Leila’s Shop, 17 Calvert Avenue
Nisa Local, 92 Whitechapel High St
Pavilion Bakery, 130 Columbia Rd
Rinkoff’s Bakery, 224 Jubilee Street & 79 Vallance Rd
Sylhet Sweet Shop, 109 Hanbury St
Taj Stores, 112 Brick Lane
Zaman Brothers, Fish & Meat Bazaar, 19 Brick Lane



Before you order from a delivery app, why not call the take away or restaurant direct?

Absurd Bird Fried Chicken, 54 Commercial St
Al Badam Fried Chicken, 37 Brick Lane
Allpress Coffee, 58 Redchurch St
Band of Burgers, 22 Osborn St
Beef & Birds, Brick Lane
Beigel Bake, 159 Brick Lane
Beigel Shop, 155 Brick Lane
Bellboi Coffee, 104 Sclater St
Bengal Village, 75 Brick Lane
Big Moe’s Diner, 95 Whitechapel High St
Burro E Salvia Pastificio, 52 Redchurch St
The Carpenters Arms, 73 Cheshire St (Open for take away beers)
China Feng, 43 Commercial St
Circle & Slice Pizza, 11 Whitechapel Rd
Crosstown Doughnuts, 157 Brick Lane
Dark Sugars, 45a Hanbury St (Take away ice cream and deliveries of chocolate)
Donburi & Co, Korean & Japanese, 13 Artillery Passage
Duke of Wellington, 12 Toynbee St (Open for take away beers)
Eastern Eye Balti House, 63a Brick Lane
Enso Thai & Japanese, 94 Brick Lane
Exmouth Coffee Shop, 83 Whitechapel High St
Grounded Coffee Shop, 9 Whitechapel Rd
Holy Shot Coffee, 155 Bethnal Green Rd
Hotbox Smoked Meats, 46-48 Commercial St
Jack The Chipper, 74 Whitechapel High St
Jonestown Coffee, 215 Bethnal Green Rd
Laboratorio Pizza, 79 Brick Lane
La Cucina, 96 Brick Lane
Leon, 3 Crispin Place, Spitalfields Market
Madhubon Sweets, 42 Brick Lane
Mooshies Vegan Burgers, 104 Brick Lane
Nude Expresso, The Roastery, 25 Hanbury St
E. Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd
Pepe’s Peri Peri, 82 Brick Lane
Peter’s Cafe, 73 Aldgate High St
Picky Wops Vegan Pizza, 53 Brick Lane
Polo Bar, 176 Bishopsgate
Poppies, 6-8 Hanbury St
Quaker St Cafe, 10 Quaker St
Rajmahal Sweets, 57 Brick Lane
Rosa’s Thai Cafe, 12 Hanbury St
Shawarma Lebanese, 84 Brick Lane
Shoreditch Fish & Chips, 117 Redchurch St
Sichuan Folk, 32 Hanbury St
String Ray Globe Cafe, 109 Columbia Road
Sushi Show, 136 Bethnal Green Rd
Ten Bells, 84 Commercial St (Takeway beer)
Vegan Yes, Italian & Thai Fusion, 64 Brick Lane
The Watch House, 139 Commercial St
White Horse Kebab, 336 Bethnal Green Rd
Yuriko Sushi & Bento, 48 Brick Lane



Brick Lane Bookshop, 166 Brick Lane (Books ordered by phone or email are delivered free locally)
Brick Lane Bikes, 118 Bethnal Green Rd
Day Lewis Pharmacy, 14 Old Montague St
E1 Cycles, 4 Commercial St
Eden Floral Designs, 10 Wentworth St (Order fresh flowers online for free delivery)
Flashback Records, 131 Bethnal Green Rd (Order records online for delivery)
Harry Brand, 122 Columbia Road (Order gifts online for delivery)
Leyland Hardware, 2-4 Great Eastern St
Post Office, 160a Brick Lane
Rose Locksmith & DIY, 149 Bethnal Green Rd
Sid’s DIY, 2 Commercial St




E1 Dry Cleaners, Cannon Street Rd, E1 2LY
E5 Bakehouse, Arch 395, Mentmore Terrace, London Fields (Customers are encouraged to order online and collect in person)
Gold Star Dry Cleaning & Laundry, 330 Burdett Rd
Hackney Essentials, 235 Victoria Park Rd
Quality Dry Cleaners, 16a White Church Lane
Newham Books, 747 Barking Rd (Books ordered by phone or email are posted out)
Rajboy, 564 Commercial Rd, E14 7JD (Take away service available)
Region Choice Chemist, 68 Cambridge Heath Rd
Symposium Italian Restaurant, 363 Roman Road (Take away service available)
Thompsons DIY, 442-444 Roman Rd


Photographs copyright © Shloimy Alman

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Shloimy Alman, Photographer

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March Of The Monoliths

November 19, 2020
by the gentle author

Tonight at 6pm Tower Hamlets Council meet to make their decision on the monster Bishopsgate Goodsyard scheme. On Monday, Hackney Council decided to ‘support the development in principle’ and on 3rd December the Greater London Authority has the final word. If approved, this scheme will take over fourteen years to build and impose massive towers which overshadow surrounding conservation areas while offering only a pitiful amount of ‘affordable’ housing.

Click here to watch the Tower Hamlets meeting live

All of which makes John Claridge‘s photographs of the construction of monoliths in the East End in the last century especially pertinent. Many of these structures were subsequently regarded as mistaken in conception and have long been demolished. Yet as we embark upon a new wave of taller, meaner monoliths, it seems that no lessons have been learned.

In the Beginning

“The rich got richer and the poor got bathrooms” – this is photographer John Claridge’s caustic verdict upon the invasion of the monolithic tower blocks in the East End of his youth, as recorded in this set of pictures taken between 1962 and 1982.

“In the terraces of two-up two-downs, people could talk over the garden fence but in the towers they became strangers to each other. The culture of how they lived was taken away from them, and I knew a lot of people that got fucked up by it.” John told me, still angry about the wilful destruction of communities enacted in the name of social progress. “It was a cheap shot. People were making a fortune out of putting up crap.” he revealed in contempt, “I don’t think anyone has the right to destroy other people’s lives in that way and tie it up with a silk ribbon.”

While in London’s richer neighbourhoods old terraces were more likely to be renovated and preserved, in the East End and other poorer districts pressure was exerted through slum clearance programmes to force people from their homes, demolishing swathes of  nineteenth century housing in preference to simply installing modern amenities. In retrospect, many of these schemes appear to have been driven by little more than class prejudice and created more social problems than they solved, dislocating communities and systematically erasing centuries of settled working class culture.

John’s photographs record how the monoliths first asserted their forbidding presence upon the landscape of the East End, arriving like the Martian fighting machines in the War of the Worlds. “You made fun of it and got on with your life,” he admitted to me and, with sardonic humour – adopting titles from cinema and jazz – he confronts us in these pictures with a series of mordant graphic images that imprint themselves upon the consciousness.

As new, even larger, tower blocks rise over the East End today, John Claridge’s vivid photographs of the monoliths remain as resonant as ever.

On Dangerous Ground – “They didn’t half put them up quick, I’m telling you.”

Gloomy Sunday

Room With a View – “Which is the view, from this window or from the block?”

The Dark Corner

The Four Horsemen

Foggy Day

Three Steps to Heaven

Caged – “An old lady who lived in a block in which the lift broke told me she felt like a caged animal.”

Freedom is Just Another Word – “Prefabs offered one kind of freedom and tower blocks offered another – but then the word didn’t mean anything anymore.”

Stranger on the Third Floor – “Once the small businesses go, people became estranged from their local environment.”

Odds Against Tomorrow – “There were still a few people left in this derelict terrace because they didn’t want to move out, but the odds were against them.”

House of Cards – “When a gas stove blew up and part of Ronan Point collapsed, my father, who was a qualified engineer, went to check it out – there were bolts missing and it had been constructed on the cheap.”

Dark Water -“These reminded me of apartment buildings in the Eastern Bloc.”

House of Strangers


Out of Nowhere

High Wall

Dark Passage

Lift to the Scaffold

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

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John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

This was my Landscape

John Claridge’s Spent Moments

Signs, Posters, Typography & Graphics

Working People & a Dog


To keep informed of decisions follow @ourgoodsyard on twitter

John Fairburn’s Chapbooks

November 18, 2020
by the gentle author

The Coroner’s jury viewing the murdered body of Margaret Hawse

Between the publication of a print of the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793 and an ABC of the Great Exhibition in 1851, the name of John Fairburn was synonymous with the production of vivid and popular sixpenny chapbooks in London.

“This is English Folk Art of the best kind, dramatic and with a strong sense of good and evil – of ethics behind it,” an authority on Fairburn, Ruth Richardson, assured me when I examined the collection in the Bishopsgate Institute. And, while I was immediately entranced by the lurid and violent scenes tinted in such irresistibly gaudy colours, on closer examination it became apparent that beyond the voyeuristic fascination with extremes of behaviour, there was a certain human sympathy present – exposing injustice and drawing attention to the vulnerability of those at the bottom of the social pile.

“All his work – without exception – was patriotic never seditious, but he was a supporter of democracy and what we would call ‘human rights,’ which he would call ‘the rights of man.’ He’s also quite clear about the equality of the sexes, supports Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and stands against ill-treatment in the Navy.” Ruth explained, articulating the editorial policy that underlies Fairburn’s publications.

A recurring theme in these chapbooks is the abuse of servants and apprentices. In particular, Eliza Fenning, a young servant of genteel manners who was executed upon the accusation of attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in the dumplings, which she also ate. She declared her innocence and retained dignity even to the scaffold. It was subsequently discovered that a psychotic relative had previously threatened to poison the family, but then it was too late for Eliza who – as a servant and therefore the person of lowest moral worth in the household – had taken the fall. Other cases report examples of those who, apprenticed from the workhouse by sadistic employers and denied any protective monitoring, became subjected to horrific abuse. Charles Dickens loved Fairburn’s chapbooks and Ruth believes that he may actually have worked for Fairburn undertaking some of these court transcripts which prefigure elements in his own work, most obviously the apprenticeship suffered by Oliver Twist.

As a printer-publisher, John Fairburn and then his son of the same name, operating from the Minories near the Tower of London and later from Ludgate Hill, produced a wide range of popular publications, all characterised by the same editorial flair.“You get a feeling of the bubbling creativity of their workshop,” Ruth admitted to me,“There is a feeling of joy about them, even when murder is the subject.”

Transcript of the trail for the murder of servant Margaret Hawse, aged ten years, 1829.

Transcript of the trial for the abuse and murder of servant Mary Clifford.

Mis-trial of servant Eliza Fenning, executed upon accusation of poisoning her employers.

Appeal by John Fairburn on behalf of the parents of Eliza Fenning.

Illustration by Isaac Cruickshank (father to George) of the Murder of Mr Steele, 1802.

Transcripts of the trials of John Holloway and Owen Hagerty for the murder of Mr Steel and of Elizabeth Godfrey for the murder of Rd Prince, with an account of those trampled at her execution.

Two East Enders were among those trampled at Elizabeth Godfrey’s execution in 1807.

The Magna Carta.

Exposure of corruption in Parliament and elsewhere.

An attempt to assassinate the king.

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Strange & Terrible News From Spittle-fields

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John Gillman’s Bus Ticket Collection

November 17, 2020
by the gentle author

John Gillman, 1964

Look at this bright young lad in his snazzy red blazer with his hair so neatly combed, how he radiates intelligence and initiative – trust him to come up with a smart idea, like collecting every variety of London bus, trolley and tram ticket so that people might wonder at them half a century later in the age of contactless! Here John Gillman explains his cunning ploy –

“This album has followed me around for more than fifty years and survived house moves, down-sizings and other clear-out initiatives. Unlike other collections of mine (such as stamps & coins), that have long since disappeared, there was something about it that I believed to be important.

I had not looked at it for many years until The Gentle Author suggested the Bishopsgate Institute might like to add it to their archive, which – to my delight – they have. This prompted me to look at it again with a more considered gaze and what I found was quite surprising.

It was a slightly disconcerting but nonetheless enjoyable encounter with my younger self. The album contains a number of tickets that I bought between the ages of eleven and thirteen, along with an eclectic mix of older miscellaneous examples. So it is a like a diary of my youthful journeys taken.

In 1961, some friends and I discovered that there was enjoyment – and occasionally excitement – to be had by buying Red Rover bus tickets. These entitled you to unlimited travel at the weekend and there are seven examples in the album. We would head off as soon after the ticket became valid at 9:30 in the morning and return in the early evening for dinner. Occasionally, we would take a packed sandwich lunch but we would also eat out – usually fish and chips or, on one occasion, pie and mash with liquor in the East End.

We also held aspirations to purchase a Green Rover ticket one day which allowed access to country buses but, since I do not have one in the collection, I must presume we never did this. We planned to head off into Kent and visit Pratts Bottom – mainly because we found the name hilarious and wanted to see it on a signpost.

What strikes me most today are the detailed notes I wrote. Much of it is in my very best handwriting and, in some cases, I used a typewriter (although I have no idea where I gained access to one). I clearly undertook a lot of research and some items I still find fascinating. The ‘Workman’s Ticket,’ for example, with – as I noted assiduously – ‘unusual punch holes.’ And the special editions, such as those for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and Last Tram Week in 1952. Some are even earlier, issued before 1933, as indicated in my meticulous notes. There is also a collection of 1963 Christmas tickets in gay colours. I remember that the yellow version was particularly rare and the one in my album had obviously spent some time on the floor of the bus.

Each morning, on the way to school, we added up the digits that made up the ticket number – and, if they totalled twenty-one, it was going to be a lucky day. Some people believed that the initials next to the number on the older tickets foretold the initials of your future wife, which proved to be something of a challenge if it was just an ‘X’.”

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

(click to enlarge and study the tickets in detail)

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Julius Mendes Price’s London Types

November 16, 2020
by the gentle author

It is my delight to show these examples of London Types, designed and written by the celebrated war artist Julius Mendes Price and issued with Carreras Black Cat Cigarettes in 1919. These are among the favourites in my ever-growing collection of London Street Cries down through the ages. Almost all are men and some of these images – such as the cats’ meat man – are barely changed from earlier centuries, yet others – such as the telephone girl – are undeniably part of the modern world.



You may also like to take a look at these other sets of the Cries of London

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Samuel Pepys’ Cries of London

More Samuel Pepys’ Cries of London

Kendrew’s Cries of London

London Characters

Dennis & Christine Reeve, Walnut Farmers

November 15, 2020
by the gentle author

The Romans introduced walnut trees into this country and they have been cultivated here ever since, but you would have to go a long way these days to find anyone farming walnuts. Before lockdown, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I travelled to the tiny village of West Row in East Anglia – where walnuts have been grown as long as anyone can remember – to meet Dennis & Christine Reeve, the last walnut farmers in their neck of the woods.

Dennis’ grandfather Frank planted the trees a century ago which were passed into the care of his father Cecil, who supplemented the grove of around thirty, that today are managed by Dennis and his wife Christine – who originates from the next village and married into the walnut dynasty. Dennis has only planted one walnut tree himself, to commemorate the hundredth birthday of his mother Maggie Reeve who subsequently lived to one hundred and five, offering a shining example of the benefits to longevity which may be obtained by eating copious amounts of walnuts.

I was curious to understand the job of a walnut farmer beyond planting the trees and Dennis was candid in his admission that it was a two-months-a-year occupation. “You just wait until they fall off the trees and then go out and pick ’em up,” he confessed to me with a chuckle of alacrity that concealed three generations of experience in cultivating walnuts.

Perhaps no-one alive possesses greater eloquence upon the subject of walnuts than Dennis Reeve? He loves walnuts – as a delicacy, as a source of income and as a phenomenon – and he can tell you which of his thirty trees a walnut came from by its taste alone. He is in thrall to the mystery of this enigmatic species that originates far from these shores. Even after all these years, Dennis cannot explain why some trees give double walnuts when others give none, or why particular trees night be loaded one season and not the next. “There’s one tree that’s smaller than the rest yet always produces a lot of nuts while there’s nothing on the trees around it,” he confessed, his brow furrowed with incomprehension.

Yet these insoluble enigmas make the walnut compelling to Dennis. The possibility of ‘a sharp frost at the wrong time of the year’ is the enemy of the walnut but Dennis has an answer to this. “They say ‘keep your grass long in the orchard and the frost won’t affect them,'” he admitted to me, raising a sly finger to his nose in confidence.

“Walnuts are the last tree to come into leaf in the orchard, in Maytime, and you start to harvest them at the end of the September right through to November. I used to climb into the tree with a bamboo pole about twenty foot long and I thrashed them because walnuts are sold by weight and the longer you leave them the more they dry out. We call it ‘brushing.’ Nowadays, I am a bit long in the tooth to get up into the trees, so I have to wait until the walnuts drop and I walk round every day from the end of September picking them up. They get dirty when they fall on the ground so I put them in my old tin bath and clean them up with water and a broom, and then I put them on a run to dry.”

You would be mistaken if you assumed the life of a walnut farmer was one of rural obscurity, celebrity has intruded into Dennis & Christine’s existence with requests to supply their produce to the great and the good. “One year in the seventies, my father had a call in the summer from a salesman in London saying they needed about eight pounds of walnuts urgently,” Dennis revealed to me, arching his brows to illustrate the seriousness of the request as a matter of national importance.

“‘I don’t care how you get them here, but we’ve got to have them,’ they said. They were for Buckingham Palace, but the walnuts on the tree were still green with the green husk around them. We told them, ‘They’re not ready yet and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ They said, ‘We don’t care, we’ve got to have them.’ Now we kept pigs at the time and there was a muck dump where we put all the waste, so we put the walnuts in the muck dump for them to heat, just like in a cooker. After about two days the husks started to crack, and that’s how we ripened the nuts for the Queen, in our muck dump!'”

Christine recounted a comparable story about how their walnuts went to Westminster. “There was a dinner in the Houses of Parliament to celebrate British produce and our walnuts were served,” she explained to me with a thin smile, “and they sent us the printed menu which listed the provenance of all the ingredients, including ‘walnuts from Norfolk,’ which was a bit of a let down – because we are in Suffolk here.” Yet I did not feel Christine was unduly troubled by this careless error. Both stories served to confirm the delight that she and Dennis share – of living at the centre of their own world secluded from the urban madness, in a house they built on land bought by Dennis’ grandfather and surrounded by their beloved walnut trees.

Too few are aware of the special qualities of English walnuts, especially the distinctive flavour of wet walnuts early in the season when they possess an appealing sharpness that complements cheese well. “Sometimes people want them earlier before they are ripe if they are going to pickle them,” Dennis told me, “if you can stick a match right through from one side to the other, that is the ideal time to pickle walnuts.” Over the years, those who know about walnuts have sought out Dennis & Christine for their produce. “We have a regular customer in Kent who found our nuts in Harrods,” Christine informed me proudly, “she rang us and now we send her our wet walnuts every year. She peels them and eats them with a glass of sherry and that’s the highlight of her Christmas.”

The walnut grove

Dennis & Christine Reeve

Dennis with the tin bath and brush that he uses for washing his walnuts

Dennis with his scoop for walnuts

Dennis outside his father’s cottage

Dennis Reeve, third generation walnut farmer

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie