It’s Easter Monday in Great Finborough, and the rain hasn’t stopped for days. Ahead of me, a dozen men – six to a team – are just about to embark on a tradition that stretches back to the 1890s. When the whistle blows, the teams, dressed from head to toe in Victorian apparel and drinking from a flagon of something dark and peaty, will race a mile across boggy fields from Boyton Hall to The Chestnut Horse pub. Oh, and I should mention that they’re all smashed out of their minds. Seriously, they’re barely able to keep their balance as they toe the line.
The tradition started in 1897 when a group of farm labourers, faced with being fired from their jobs at Boyton Hall for drunkenness, were challenged to a race across treacherous bogland by another rival group of labourers. The farmer told the men that whoever managed to bring the employment contract to the pub first would be allowed to keep their job, or so the story goes. I’m sitting in the Chesnut Horse pub, waiting for the first of the mud-caked contestants to fall through the door when I overhear somebody say, “John Peel lived not far from here, jus’ round the corner basically”. Colour me intrigued.
Peel Acres is the endearing name the famous radio broadcaster gave to his family home in the village of Great Finborough, which lies just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk. Considering that one of rock music’s greatest authorities lived here from the 1970s until he died in 2004, the village itself is disarmingly sleepy. I don’t know what I was expecting. I was born and raised in Norfolk (the county nestled above Suffolk), and it has the same stillness that defined my own upbringing; a tranquillity so all-consuming that many young people who grow up underneath East Anglia’s ocean-wide skies move to the city at the first opportunity. But, I suppose tranquillity was exactly what John Peele was looking for.
From certain angles, the cottage looks like the den of some woodland creature, a low-slung burrow with a thatched roof and pastel-pink walls. It seems so perfectly nestled in the expansive garden surrounding it, the beds of which are full of peach-scented roses, hyacinths, and – come June – foxgloves. It was originally named ‘Nan True’s Hole’, not a name you’d expect of a place that drew the attention of one of the 1970s most pioneering avant-rock bands. And yet, in 1972, Matching Mole named one of the tracks from their album Matching Mole’s Little Red Record after the cottage.
John and his wife, Sheila Ravenscroft, moved there in 1969. But, as Ravenscroft notes, the name Peel Acres “was simply the light-hearted title John gave to wherever he happened to be living.” Indeed, he used it for his Fulham flat, as well as his home in Southern California, the fabled ‘Ravencroft Acres’. But, I think the name perfectly captures the cosiness and welcoming atmosphere of Peel Acres. Inside, you will find pots of tea, a wooden stove, one very energetic dog, and countless slumbering cats – who lounge around on windowsills soaking up the honey-gold sunlight that pours into the house morning and evening. It has the feeling of a hobbit-hole, a home where the fridge is never empty. Indeed, if an article in which Peel described the contents of his fridge is anything to go by, that may very well have been the case. At one point, it was reported to contain: “Four pints milk; wine vinegar; tartare sauce; garlic puree; tomato puree; small lump root ginger; french mustard; Tabasco; an ancient onion; mayonnaise, a cucumber; 20 tomatoes; two avocados; one impoverished lettuce; feta; Yarlsberg; cheddar; a cup with bits of tuna in it; yesterday’s rice-based meal; butter; frankfurters; new potatoes; sparkling water; three bottles creme de cassis; one bottle Taunton cider; bacon; one bottle champagne; orange juice; apple juice; one bottle wine; and 17 small French beers.”
But, beyond the contents of his fridge, the most stunning sight of all is John’s enormous record collection, which has remained in the house since his death, a touching reminder of the DJ’s life-long dedication to music. The genre-spanning collection, which is comprised of around 65,000 items, consumes the room. It’s like Peel decided to – in schoolboy fashion – build a temporary fort out of LPs. It was from this fortress that he recorded his BBC shows. It features a pair of turntables hard-wired to Broadcasting House, allowing him to record from the comfort of his own home with superb audio quality. It also acted as the studio for a number of high-profile sessions between 1997 and 2003, including one by Blur. It was recorded on April 22nd, 1997, and broadcast as a special show on May 5th, 1997. Prior to this, however, songstress PJ Harvey had visited Peel Acres and recorded a live four-song set in 1996. Belle & Sebastian also appeared at Peel’s home and had to occupy two separate rooms to fit inside the cosy space. However, Mark E. Smith of The Fall was not invited to play at Peel Acres – on the basis that he was too much of an “unpredictable person” to be allowed anywhere near the teapots.
Peele Acres was as important a part of the DJ’s work for the BBC as the record collection it houses. It acted as his base, somewhere far from the roar of the city, where he was able to focus on the only thing he’d ever cared about; the music. Unfortunately, the cottage isn’t open to the public. Still, if you ever happen to be in Great Finborough, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the mellow lamplight pouring out of one of Peel Acre’s broad windows, as though Peele himself was still inside.