Justin Partyka | Gallery

The East Anglians

Norfolk, 2008

Situated on the east coast of Great Britain, East Anglia is one of the country’s chief agricultural regions. The flat landscape, massive skies and long farming heritage make East Anglia the closest place Britain has to a prairie.

For the last nine years I have been traveling the back roads of rural East Anglia, passing down drove and lane, track and way. On my journeys I discovered the remnants of an agrarian community that was once widespread throughout this area. For most people this is a world that no longer exists. It is where traditional methods and knowledge are still very much depended upon, and the identity of the people is intimately shaped by the land on which they live and work. Small-time farmers, reed cutters and rabbit catchers, these are the East Anglians — the forgotten people of the flatlands who continue to work the land because the need to is in their blood.

Central to an agrarian culture is the idea of land: not just working the land, living on the land and owning the land (all which are important) — but that much deeper concept of being part of the land; the process of it becoming both physically and psychologically ingrained in the human experience. It is impossible to escape the presence of the landscape. It creeps from the fields into the home. It enters through an open window, or a crack under the door; embedded in the palm of a hand, or on the sole of a boot. Leeks sprout from the curtains and the tabletop is fenland peat. The agrarian farmers I have come to know are so deeply rooted to the land, it is as if they grew out of the soil like a tree. Such an intimate relationship comes from what the rural writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry, describes as "knowledge in place for a long time."

To enter into the agrarian world of the East Anglians is to experience a rural culture that has a direct lineage extending back to the region’s peasant farmers of the early Middle Ages. The agrarian farmer always has one foot firmly planted in the past. The old ways are proven to work and can therefore be relied upon. Everything is visibly ingrained with history. Buildings are often cobbled together and are a ramshackle mix of wood, tin and stone. And the agricultural machinery is a patchwork of rust, mud and oil stains in which the past is embedded.

The agrarian farmer knows in fine detail the histories and biographies of his local landscape. After years of familiarity with the land he knows what is the best cycle of crop rotation on any particular field, where it lies wet in winter and how best to plow, sow, hoe and harvest that field to reap the best from it. Unaided by any map, he can negotiate the complex network of local droves and tracks by day and night, and walk the fields and woodlands, fen and marsh with equal agility. Inside the agrarian mind are the local wind patterns and river currents; along with the life stories of the local inhabitants, wildlife habitats and tree and plant species past and present. I have been told of farmers who have come and gone, from what direction the fox will come to steal a chicken and who planted a particular oak tree and when.

But during the last 60 years an agrarian way of life has become increasingly irrelevant in a modern society, and the East Anglians find themselves living on the margins. Most of the small family farms are now gone, while the fields of agribusiness have grown bigger, swallowing up the landscape as they go. The result is the depopulation of the rural landscape, and with it the loss of the knowledge of local place and the traditional skills of working the land that are so important to an agrarian culture. As one old-time farmer said to me, "It’s just one big tractor now and a thousand acres. There’s nobody on the land today. But," he continued, "there will always be those that straggle on — the awkward ones who remain."

I have spent many hours in the fields, patiently watching how man and the landscape intimately shape one another. If I look closely, occasionally I am offered a glimpse into the mystery of this ancient relationship. It is a fleeting moment; I click the shutter, and I wait…. — Justin Partyka

Justin Partyka
is a British photographer and writer currently based in the county of Norfolk. He trained as a folklorist at Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada, before moving back to the UK to work on The East Anglians.

The East Anglians will be exhibited at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK, through December 13, 2009.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Photography, Social Good

Comments [7]

Thank you for this article, Justin. This is a beautiful piece for me as a lover of photography, people, land, art and history, and the relationship between all of them.
David Vosburg

Hurrah! Something in my part of the world - my city, even.

I saw the exhibition last week and thought it was excellent. Really seems to capture the way of life with a touch of melancholy at its passing.

I've recommended that my photography students go and see it. I shall be making a return visit(s) to see it before it closes.
Mark Cotter

Is there no "back to the land" movement in Anglia?
Here in the USA, we are now seeing the GRANDCHILDREN of the original back to the land hippies running organic farms in areas much like East Anglia.
Three generations of rejecting agribusiness, for over 40 years in many cases.
They tend to operate small, special crop truck farms, catering to farmers markets, high end restaurants, and yuppie grocery store chains.
Organic growers in the USA are a huge industry, and, while agribusiness certainly has shouldered its way in, much of it is still exactly the kind of small farm, with intense connection to the land, that you say has vanished in the UK.

I can, and do, in my rural area, live almost exclusively on food grown, raised, caught, and made by young to middleaged people working the "old" way. Cheeses, sausages, meats, fish, shellfish, milk, bread, pastries, and every kind of veggie and fruit.

As I mentioned, some of these organic farmers are so old they are now retiring, but they learned and worked with the old timers when they got here, and they ARE the old timers now.

They fill a different niche from the agribusiness- here in the Skagit Valley, its not uncommon to see a 30 something hippie farming 5 acres right next to a similar aged 4th generation farmer running a 400hp diesel tractor, plowing 500 acres to grow a commercial crop. They share coffee at the same small bakery, eating pastries made with my organic pears...

I wish I could I see this exhibit, the work online looked great. I think it is wonderful that Partyka is trying to capture the relationship between man and the land. Not many of us know the earth a fraction as well as people like those left in East Anglia and that is a very beautiful, and probably very tricky thing to try and capture through a lens.

It's also very sad to think that their knowledge might disappear someday...hopefully we see more "back to land movments" like those mentioned above.
K. Boehme

I live and work in Norwich, and will attest to the fact that East Anglia is a unique place. Norfolk especially has a real sense of its own individuality.

These photographs are beautiful record of the apparent passing of a particular way of life.

I really hope that Norfolk manages to retain its unique character and not succumb to homogenisation.

John Skinner

is it just me or is adding a url to a comment a bit hit and miss?
John Skinner

I just wanted to thank those who left comments about my work. It is always nice to read it being so well received.

For those that are interested, I have recently updated my website, including information on a film I am working on.

Mark Cotter - where do you teach? Perhaps you should get in touch.

K Boehme - I wish you could see the exhibition too. Where do you live? That was a very appreciative comment. I think you would greatly enjoy seeing the work. Perhaps you could make the trip. Thanks.

David Vosburg - thanks. Yes, the work is about all of those things you list and how they are so intimately intertwined. Hopefully the film will reveal this even more so. Please see my website.

Ries - no, there is not really any sort of "back to the land" movement in East Anglia like you talk of in US. I think it is partly because of the difficulty to obtain agricultural land, and also the way of life here is just so different because of the long history of place and the social system. I've always felt that the US back to the land idea comes out of the frontier spirit, and the homesteading mentality. Such a thing didn't really happen here. In small pockets of the fenland in East Anglia it did about 60 - 70 years ago but only by a few individuals. There will be text in an eventual book of my work which touches on this a bit.

Justin Partyka

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