James Abbott

The news of James’ sudden death in the autumn of 2022 hit our local musical community hard. James was a gentle man who encouraged many people to get involved in the traditional music scene. We are grateful to friends Stephen Matthews, Rae Smith and Martin Crix for their contributions to this profile of our lovely friend James.

Credit Janet Abbott

Childhood Friend, Rae Smith writes:

I had the pleasure of having James as a best friend since childhood, meeting him on his first time driving his horse and cart at one of Suffolk’s horse driving club do’s at Brundish Crown in the late 70s. James was born in the wrong era as was better suited to a time of horse and carts, country life, traditional folk music, singing, step dancing and the travelling way of life all of which he enjoyed taking part in normally with a pint or two and at the same time keeping the old traditions going. He was a thoughtful kind man who’s word was his bond in dealing. Over the years we had been to many horse fairs and do’s together from Wales to the annual Appleby horse fair in Cumbria which he rarely missed.

One of Suffolk’s characters gone far to soon, but with over 500 people attending his funeral from far and wide I think that tells you all you need to know about a man.

Friend Steve Matthews writes:

James Abbott was one of the last in a long line of Suffolk countrymen. A popular character, he was known for miles around. He was a horseman, owning his first pony when a young boy and soon seamlessly became involved in driving and dealing horses, carts and harness. He was a regular at the drives on Wingfield Green, once wining the Solly Barber Cup for best turnout. He attended all the local horse fairs like Bungay May Fair, and was a regular at Stow on the Wold and Appleby horse fairs.

He was a natural countryman, born into a way of life that binds a man to his surroundings. There was no affectation or contrivance with James, he was the real article, as genuine a Suffolk man as you could possibly get.

I first met James in the early 90’s at one of the drives or possibly at Worlingworth Swan. The Swan was the centre of the horse driving world in those days. You could buy a horse, harness, cart,  long dog, chickens, indeed just about anything in those days at that old pub. We even had a horse fair on the meadow. Dealing during the day, and furious drinking in the pub at night.

Music always featured, either myself and Jeff Williams or Font Whatling playing all night in the crowded, smoke filled, beer drenched bar.

James had always been around this culture. He knew all the old melodeon players, singers and stepdancers like Dolly Curtis, Charlie Whiting and Billy List. Love and appreciation of the local music came as naturally to James as his appreciation of an early morning mist when walking his long dog, or the sound of a roosting pheasant when the the sun hangs low in the west. Song and music was part of the countryman’s existence, part of the fabric which cut the cloth he wore.

James was a singer and stepdancer. He started to perform regularly at the Tune-Up nights we organised in many local village halls. We had some of the best singers, musicians and stepdancers in those days and James would always oblige with a stepdance or a song. Two Little Girls in Blue, Let me sleep in your Barn Tonight Mister, While Gamekeepers lie Sleeping, were his most requested songs. If a few travellers were present he might give them Mandi Jalled to Poove the Grys or Will There be any Travellers in Heaven.

Always a generous man and loving husband to his wife Janet who accompanied him everywhere, he was a ‘hail fellow well met’, and his mischievous, infectious humour the source of many witty, wry comments. His presence will be sorely missed by those who enjoyed his company over the long years.

The final contributor of this trio of tributes comes from Martin “Cousin” Crix:

It’s hard to believe I’m writing this as James was one of the younger, true Suffolk characters in the traditional Suffolk country scene . He had grown up immersed in the country way of life which he loved. He was a big man – big in stature and big in character, the sort that ought to have gone on the same for years to come.  He was a very popular man among the country folk and knew just about everyone in the local area. He has been lost to us all long before his time. We’ll all miss his stepping  and renditions of “While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping” and “May I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister.”

I first met James at the bar in Blaxhall Ship around 2006, probably at one of the at one of the traditional music events. Attired in smart country clothing, complete with cloth cap, he looked out of his time  –  which, as I came to know him better, I think he actually was. I got talking with him and somehow the conversation got round to horses. My partner, Clare Mills,  a new girlfriend to me at that time, had a horse and I introduced her to James. James then introduced Clare and I to his wife Janet. This was to be the start of a friendship with James that lasted up until his passing.

James had an incredible, almost encyclopaedic, knowledge of local families and their family connections. He was easy in conversation and seemed to know just about everybody wherever we went. One day I told James about my father’s uncle, Prinny (Prince) Heffer, a horseman and woodman, who used to live in a railway carriage in Framlingham. James told me that Johnny Stammers lived there now after marrying my father’s cousin, Heather. James reckoned that he was distantly related to Johnny  Stammers which meant that we must be related. He proclaimed that we must be cousins! From that day on we always referred to each other as cousin. Such was his generosity, James once took my father by pony and cart from Cretingham to visit Johnny and Heather at their railway carriage in Framlingham, the very same railway carriage that my father used to occasionally visit with his mother when he was a small boy some seventy years ago.   

James and Janet were very kind to Clare and I and they introduced us to their circle of friends. Sunday afternoons at Worlingworth Swan were the best ever, and one year we were invited to the Neck Wrappers Ball at Syleham Village Hall. Beforehand, James presented me with a yard square neck scarf with horse related motifs on it and he taught me to tie it with the traditional traveller knot. No amount of practice on my part has ever seen me produce a knot as neat and smart as James would do.

I remember a few years ago he called me up and asked if I was doing anything next Saturday. I replied “I haven’t got any plans.” “Good,” he said “I’ll pick you up at half seven in the morning.” James picked me up in his Ford Transit tipper and then we picked up his young apprentice, Daniel. James took us to a horse fair at Coggeshall in Essex which was on a piece of ground at the back of a pub. The pub was open all day and a shell fish van had been arranged to be on site all day as well. For me this was a whole new world, like nothing I had ever experienced before. Most of the people there were from the Travelling community. It was a very social affair and James introduced me to lots of his friends. I was fascinated by the way the dealing was carried out. After a day of ‘tyre kicking’ of the items for sale, all the serious dealing was done in the last ten minutes with hard bargaining, a shake of hands and an exchange of bank notes before everyone left.

One of my most endearing memories of James was on my birthday when he took me out to lunch at Kettleburgh Chequers. As I pulled my car into Janet and James’ yard at Cretingham, Millie the horse was in the process of being harnessed up. This was clearly going to be our mode of transport – a complete surprise to me. I have always been wary of horses ever since an incident I witnessed as a boy when a thoroughbred was out of control causing injury to both horse and handler. James knew this as I had mentioned it to him before after being asked by a rider to hold a horse at a hunt meet at Cretingham Bell one New Years Day.

So we set off from James’ yard with his beloved horse, Millie and her cart. James pulled up after about 150 yards and handed me the reins – “your turn now”, he said. To say I was a bit nervous is an understatement. Millie was brilliant – she knew where we were going and just what to do. James warned me that although Millie was very steady we needed to watch out for a few things. Road kill – if we came across a squashed hedgehog or the like we would need to turn round and find another route. Flapping polythene in the hedge was another potential problem but we didn’t see any and the final potential problem was pigs. Millie just didn’t like the smell of pigs! Fortunately, none of these issues bothered us and we had a lovely lunch at the Chequers together with a couple of beers for me and Guinness for James. About half way back on the return journey James pulled up to visit a local hedge. I sat on the cart and thought – what happens if Millie takes off with me on the cart whilst James is indisposed? I tried to think of a plan of action just in case but I needn’t have worried as Millie was rock steady.   

Proud to be your cousin, James – Thank You!

January 2023