My frog’s eye view takes in a carpet of duck weed, turquoise damselflies and a retreating newt. The water is dark and cool, and the temperature turns head-chilling when I dive to touch the soft clay and decomposing leaves at the bottom.
My first question for my hosts at the ancient Suffolk farmhouse that was author and environmentalist Roger Deakin’s home for nearly four decades was: can we swim in the moat? The answer is yes, and on a blistering summer day I discover my own version of the magical experience that opens Waterlog, Deakin’s account of swimming through Britain – a book that frog-kicked wild swimming and nature writing into the mainstream.
In the 13 years since Deakin’s death, devotees have found their way to Walnut Tree Farm, the 16th-century timber-framed house rescued from dereliction by Deakin in 1970. The low building, its spring-fed moat (not as grand as it sounds: as Deakin notes, yeoman farmers in Suffolk followed a Tudor fashion for ornamental moats) and fields totalling 12 acres nourished his soul and his writing. Place and person grew together.
When fans come, they’re often allowed to wander around the farm by its current owners, Jasmin Moss and Titus Rowlandson, who are childhood friends of Deakin’s son, Rufus. For much of their 12-year residency, the couple have lived with the reverberations of their famous predecessor – “Rog” as Titus calls him.
“Over our first few years at Walnut Tree Farm, we found that most of the jobs that needed doing around the place entailed an unspoken dialogue with Roger,” says Titus inLife at Walnut Tree Farm, a new pictorial biography of the place he has written with Rufus Deakin.
The couple have just put two of the farm’s old cabins on Airbnb. I suspect they agonised over this move, because they clearly want to honour Deakin’s legacy and retain the spirit of a place that so strongly bears his imprint. But I think it makes sense, given the yearning of Deakin pilgrims, and others who might find joy or inspiration staying in a cabin where he lived and worked.
Like every admirer of Deakin, I’ve formed a vivid picture of Walnut Tree Farm and the real version does not disappoint. Down a rough track near the village of Mellis, the farmhouse is hidden by vast, overgrown hedges. Deakin practised rewilding decades before it was fashionable. Its walls are covered in climbing plants and shaded by the walnut tree Deakin named it for. Meadows are neck-high in grasses and bounce with meadow brown and peacock butterflies.
From a distance at least, Deakin lived every writer’s fantasy after working as a teacher, environmental campaigner and film-maker. Nursing a self-declared weakness for sheds, he would periodically abandon his house to sleep and write in a shepherd’s hut he rescued in 1980 (where original thinkers begin, David Cameron and the rest of us follow) and a railway wagon. “There’s more truth about a camp than a house,” he wrote. It better represents a human life, he thought: we desire permanency but in reality are just passing through.
My wife and I stay in his railway wagon, which provides an unexpectedly elevated view and is beautifully decorated by Jasmin, an artist. There’s a woodburner, a sofa, a double bed and Jasmin’s paintings on the wall, one of which evokes rain falling on the moat. An open air-kitchen beneath a sunshade is made from an old workbench, with a gas camping hob plus an open fire on which we barbecue supper.
The shepherd’s hut is not let out, but visitors can also stay in a wood-cladded caravan (with en suite). It is like a miniature house, with a tiny double bedroom, a kitchen and a big living space with woodburner, artworks and books (including Deakin’s, naturally). The cabins are in separate corners of the farm, so there’s plenty of privacy.
As well as swimming in the moat, we explore the wild fields, finding traces of Deakin left very deliberately by his successors. He was a hoarder, and abandoned various beloved Citroën DS Safaris to decompose in hedges; there are also sheds full of salvaged sash windows and church organs. The woods he planted are mature now, as are an ash bower he made and ur-apple trees (ancestors of the domestic apple) he brought back from Kazakhstan. His books almost exist in physical form here; the farm still maps his mind and embodies his values.
A woodpecker cackles, a moorhen parps, and a profound peace settles upon us. We watch bats on a dusk walk, and admire the stars. Twice an hour, the London-Norwich train scythes through the silence beyond Deakin’s wood; it adds to the drama of the place.
We sleep deeply, door open to the meadow. As always, Deakin describes the experience best. “To sleep half a field from the house, tucked into a hedge, with an open door facing south into the meadow and plenty of cool night air, must surely add very much to the chances of sleep,” he wrote in his last book, Wildwood. “The closing of the door on all the daytime stuff in the house, and so little in the shed to encumber the thoughts: just a few rugs, a stove, a bed, a table and chair.”
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