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Ronald Blythe talks to Paul Handley of the Church Times about a long literary innings

AFTER more than 24 years, 1250 columns, and three-quarters-of-a-million words, Ronald Blythe is retiring from his weekly Word from Wormingford. He has recovered from a recent illness, and is generally fit and well; but delivering his copy, week in, week out, is a task he is now ready to lay aside.

The column began on 19 November 1993, as “Letter from Wormingford”. Ronald had already written several Diary columns for the then Church Times editor, John Whale. His column has been inhabited by a large cast: favourite poets such as George Herbert and John Clare; former acquaintances and employers such as Benjamin Britten; the scores of countrymen and -women with whom he has conversed (conversations that were the basis of his most popular work, Akenfield); and the creatures who shared his corner of north Essex, including the white cat, who died a year or two ago. (Two young black-and-white cats have since taken its place.)

I went to see him last week, in the company of the Revd John Chandler, Priest-in-Charge of Wormingford and Mount Bures with Little Horkesley, and found him in good spirits, and as welcoming as ever. Parishioners regularly make the trip down the rutted lane, which dates from Saxon times, to his house to ensure that he is well.

He spoke fondly but modestly about the column: “I’m just a writer who doesn’t go anywhere nowadays. I’m a naturalist and a poet; rather bookish. I’m essentially a contemplative. If you live alone, you become meditative, especially as you read and write.”

He recalls being pressed to consider ordination, but he has remained stubbornly lay. “I have always enjoyed being a Reader. It has been part of my life. But what I have done is not get caught up with the Bishop. I’ve just lived alone, writing books. “Church politics is not my thing — though it amuses me. But I shall always be grateful to the Church, particularly because of the friendships in it.”

He spoke calmly about his age: “I’m now 94, but feel just the same as I did ages ago. “I am very conscious of the brevity of life, of things coming to an end. I don’t feel remotely unhappy about it. I read, garden, people come and see me, and it just goes on.” “I live very much in the present. I wake up in the morning feeling ever so well, and feeling today is the big day.”

All of Ronald Blythe’s past columns are published in book form by Canterbury Press: Word from Wormingford: A parish year (£9.99); Out of the Valley (£9.99); Borderland (£10.99); A Year at Bottengoms Farm (£8.99); River Diary (£12.99 hardback); The Bookman’s Tale (£12.99); Village Hours (£14.99, hardback); Under a Broad Sky (£14.99 hardback); In the Artist’s Garden (£14.99 hardback); Stour Seasons (£14.99 hardback). In addition, there are his reflections on old age, The View in Winter (£14.99). A final compilation of his columns is currently in preparation.

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