Suffolk Summer

            When John Tate Appleby from Arkansas stumbled from a train on to the dark and rainy platform at Cockfield railway station in Suffolk one evening in March 1945, the war in Europe was all but over. During the Second World War, many Americans like him had arrived in East Anglia to serve their country. From November 1942, the US Eighth Air Force had flown 493 operational missions from East Anglia, comprising a total of 94,948 sorties and dropping 199,833 tons of bombs. Nearly seven thousand young Americans serving with the 2nd Air Division lost their lives.

             The last mission of the Eighth Air Force flew in April 1945, however, just after John Appleby’s arrival. During the seven months that he spent in Suffolk, he appears to have had plenty of spare time which he spent travelling around East Anglia, mainly by bicycle. Although he admired Cambridge, Ely and Norwich, John Appleby fell in love with Suffolk and the result was a book, Suffolk Summer, which has charmed its readers ever since. An early paperback edition of Suffolk Summer

            Born on 10th  June, 1907 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, John Tate Appleby came from a rural area himself. His family were Arkansas farmers who owned apple orchards and canning factories. By the time Appleby arrived in Suffolk, however, he had already seen a great deal of Europe. After graduating from Harvard in 1928, he had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then had travelled around Europe working as a reporter for the Washington Post. When America joined the Allies in the war against Germany, he enlisted in the Eighth Air Force as a trainer in celestial navigation. It was this work that eventually brought him to Suffolk. He seems to have become enamoured with the county from his very first morning. “The American eye,” he wrote, “is struck first of all by the dazzling greenness of the fields and by the beauty of the hedgerows.”

            The reader of Suffolk Summer can be forgiven for wondering whether John Appleby had very much celestial navigation training to do. He seems to have spent a great deal of time cycling around the countryside, visiting churches, or socialising at the servicemen’s canteen which was run by the Salvation Army at the Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds. 

The Athenaeum, Bury St. Edmunds

The Athenaeum in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

However, in Suffolk Summer, he states quite clearly that he did not want to write a book about the war. He wanted to write a book about Suffolk. In addition to this, even as late as 1948 when his book was first published, he would not have felt able to write about the military aspects of his time in England. We can guess the location of the airfield where he was based, eight miles south of Bury, but he never reveals its precise location. Wherever it was exactly, it seems to have been the perfect place for John Appleby the medieval historian, set in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, close to Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham and Long Melford, places that were – and still are – steeped in medieval history. One colleague who had worked with him at the American Historical Review after the war, told his obituarist that “he steadfastly maintained that his world ended in 1215” and he found much to fascinate him in Suffolk, including – at Bury Abbey – the place where the barons met in 1214 to swear to force King John to grant them the rights that were eventually written down as the Magna Carta. In Suffolk Summer, he wrote that Bury’s Norman tower was “the most beautiful and satisfying piece of architecture in East Anglia.”

Norman Tower, Bury St. Edmunds

 Appleby took up the hobby of brass rubbing with enthusiasm and cycled around Suffolk pursuing it, but his book is as much about the Suffolk countryside and the people he met as it is about history. He tells us about a sailor who cycled alongside him for a while on his way to visit the parents of a friend killed in action in the Pacific, a “grand tripe dinner” cooked by Mrs. Jarman of Bury, and his good friends, Bernard Cox and Arnold Ellis, also serving their country and idealistic about the future, when the war would finally be over, and the promised welfare state would come to be.

            In October 1945, Appleby was transferred to East Wretham in Norfolk in preparation for his return to the United States. His final departure was postponed so many times and he said goodbye to his friends so often that he began to find it embarrassing. After one such postponement, “in sheer desperation, I sat down under a hedgerow and began this account of my stay in England, and the writing of it, together with long walks in the neighbourhood, filled my days very comfortably.”

            Appleby returned to the United States on the Queen Mary in early November, where he spent some years running one of the family’s apple orchards. It was during this time that he completed Suffolk Summer and when it was published by the East Anglian Magazine in 1948, its profits went to the Appleby Rose Garden in the grounds of the Abbey in his beloved Bury St. Edmunds.

The John Appleby Rose Garden in the Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds

The John Appleby Rose Garden

During the 1950s, John Appleby returned to live and work in Washington where he wrote several other books, academic works on the English kings, John, Stephen, Henry II and Richard I. He was also, for many years, an associate editor of the American Historical Review. A private man, who was a devout Catholic and loved music, he never married and, after he died of leukaemia in Washington in 1974, he was buried alongside his parents in Fayetteville. Although he is remembered in academic circles in the United States, he is perhaps held in highest regard in the county of which he wrote:

            “The English landscape at its subtlest and loveliest is to be seen in the County of Suffolk. I can say this with dogmatic certainty because it is the only county in England that I can pretend to know. Furthermore, the people of Suffolk themselves tell me this, and I know it must be so.”


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