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Mr Simpson drinks from a glass boot in Lowland Village

April 2014

Our Film Collection gives an extraordinary snapshot of wartime Britain. Archivist Sarah Cole had a fascinating chance to revisit that time on a trip to the village of Lavenham - the setting for Collection film 'Lowland Village' - where she compared then and now and discovered the back story of the film.

It's dark. An air raid siren wails. A man in a heavy steel helmet walks amongst us.

'Put that light out!' he says.

The audience laughs, the lights come back on, and the man in the Air Raid Warden's uniform takes up position behind a microphone at the front of the packed village hall.

I'm in Lavenham, Suffolk, for an evening of WW2 memories with the local community, and it's off to an atmospheric start. I'm here because Lavenham is the setting for British Council Collection film Lowland Village, which is being shown as part of the evening's programme. Released in 1943, the short 'documentary' looks at the traditional crafts and industries of such a settlement and is part of a small geographical series with the Collection. For the local community, however, it shows glimpses of relatives, friends, and businesses that are often gone but not forgotten.

The community in Lavenham values its heritage, and no wonder — the half-timbered Medieval village has changed little since Lowland Village was made. A few years back some of the residents realised that memories of the village were being lost with each generation and so began interviewing older inhabitants on camera in order to preserve some of the stories.

It is with some of these interviews that the evening really starts. Jane Orbell tells us about the time a Doodlebug crashed in a nearby field, Arthur Sibbons recalls the evacuees (being one himself who chose to stay in Lavenham), whilst Bill Eady who actually worked on the farm where the airfield was built reminisces about the escapades he got into with the American servicemen in the village.

The American wartime presence is particularly strong in people's memories as there was a very large airfield located close to the village which housed thousands of American servicemen from 1943-1945. We hear that a number of these servicemen kept in touch with the village residents, and would occasionally come back to visit after the war.

After the interviews, I am summoned to give a brief introduction to Lowland Village before the film rolls. This isn't a normal screening, though – the usual soundtrack to the film is muted as 75-year-old  David Deacon, now without his warden's uniform, gives us a running commentary instead. It's a mine of information and memories as David tells us, amongst other things, that:

-   Some shots seen in Lowland Village are not Lavenham at all, but are of other nearby villages, such as Kersey
-   The street scenes are also clearly staged because, David tells us, “everyone is looking far too purposeful”.
-   The hall seen near the beginning of the film was being used as a convalescent home at that time, and the delivery we see it receiving would have been coal.
-   The main use of the horsehair woven in the village was in notoriously itchy railway carriage seating.
-   The fish and chip shop seen in the bottom of one spot became incredibly popular with the American servicemen.
-   Villagers remember the milkman’s horse, but not the milkman himself.
-   There’s a bit more skullduggery by the film-makers, as the children seen “going to school” are going completely the wrong way for school.
-   Children were sometimes given extended holidays to help bring in the harvest.
-   The wheelwright seen in the film is David’s grandfather, Bertram Deacon.
-   The blacksmiths in the film are the Huffey family, with Fred making the shoes and working the forge, his brother Bert is shoeing the horse.
-   Mr.  John Bullivant, the saddle-maker, was fond of pigeon-racing.
-   Lavenham didn’t actually get mains water until 1937, only a few years before Lowland Village was made.
-   The gentleman drinking from the glass boot (a local challenge) is Mr Simpson, served by Mr Robbie, the landlord of The Swan.

Sadly, the much-talked about Americans do not appear, the film being made a few months before the Americans arrived in the area. I imagine it's unlikely that they would have appeared anyway if they had been there, as the location of an air base wouldn’t be something the government would have wanted to share during the war.

After Lowland Village there's a brief break for ‘wartime’ sandwiches (though thankfully not literally) and cake before part two of the evening. What follows is an hour of rhyming public information bulletins, lectures, and wartime sing-alongs before the all-clear sounds and we are allowed to leave our 'shelters' for the night.

All in all it was a lovely evening. It's marvellous to see such a strong community interest in local heritage and to know that current residents are doing their best to preserve it for future generations. It's also wonderful to know that Lowland Village forms a part of that heritage and is, like the rest of the British Council Film Collection, now a free online resource that any Lavenham resident can access to relive that little slice of history. 

Sarah Cole is an archivist with TIME/IMAGE, a heritage and collections consultancy, who were responsible for research and digitisation of the British Council's Film Collection.