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Brandon (West Suffolk) Portrait

What is Brandon but an island in a sea of forest and heath?

July 2022

What is Brandon but an island in a sea of forest and heath?
A small town resting on its 90-million-year-old chalk feet.
Slipping out of itself, shaking off the great level of the Fens.
Divided by the Little Ouse and the soft step of its water meadows,
dreaming of an age-old displaced sea.
This town is quartered by its roads.
Full of HGV dust, a mute language,
helps to foster the silence of this place,
choked off conversations
we used to have back in pre-pandemic days,
Before when hand over heart, non-essential visits to non-essential shops were the lifeblood of some,
And then Covid like a bleaching wind blew the loneliness in.

Brandon Town Sign Credit: By Uksignpix – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

We hesitated to engage and said, it was the pandemic.
The fear of contamination splintering us into an archipelago of the missing.
But maybe, Brandon has always been full of islands,
Concocted silence, hesitations,
Cautious about curiosity,
Whatever was not the same as them already came.

I arrived by train.
Ready with a sense of departure,
It’s a straight walk from the railway station to find the Hare Salon.
A seven-minute wander past abandoned grandeur, dead hotels.
I am cold and feel grey, winnowed out,
In a speechless mood
I watch a man shuffle to the bridge and peer into the river,
Looking for answers only melancholy water can give.

There are flags on all the buildings, a seraphic blue and sun-yellow, a symbol of the town.

They’ve only been up a day or so. Still clean and gaudy against blistered brickwork, Ladbrokes, and the Polish convenience store, shops with signs that thank the NHS. The Town Council likes a flag or two – later in the empty town square the Union Jack billows out in shiny hard-wearing silk-thin nylon. This is a town of practical dreams, at least once it was famous for flint-knapping and rabbit fur. Until the March Hare arrived.

And created wonderland.

There are ten hairdressers in Brandon. The Hare is one of them and although you can have a trim, a cut and blow-dry, a colouring of the roots, in any one of them, it is only in The Hare, that you can go down the rabbit hole.

I wanted it to feel like a front room, being a farmer’s wife, my mother always felt she was being judged in hairdressers. People just come here for a coffee.

And find Craig in a front room full of eternal flowers. The kind that never die on you. A hairdressing salon with an artistic bloom. Even the grandfather clock has flowers that tick and tock inside its casing. The Hare Salon is a small space turned inside out, a secret lodging for imagination and in a place as prosaic as Brandon that means, a sanctuary of colour and expectation. Through the door is through the looking glass.

There’s no money in art. My Mum pushed me into hairdressing. I was the only male student studying hairdressing on day release in Lowestoft. Combined everything, I did, art and the hairdressing – but hairdressing first and art second.

There are hares everywhere, leaping, boxing, posing and much of what is here is made by Craig. And it all fits. Craig, the artistic farmer’s son who came to Brandon for love and stays out of a sense of family.

I have created my own little island. I have a family at home and a family here.

He used to do all the drag queens’ hair in Norwich, and he brought his sense of the theatrical to a town where to walk into the pub and you risk more than a hostile stare.

Brandon is a hard place. The forest was my lifeline when we first came here.

And we both look for a moment at the depiction of tree and river that squares up at the window, knowing that the natural world helps the heart live even as the HGVs batter the tarmac outside.

Gail arrives for a trim. Her hair is like a neat grey cap to my unpractised eye. But no…

Never seen such a sight in all your life.

She looks at her masked face in the mirror as Craig’s scissors twitter around the nape of her neck.

With pride, she tells me, she makes all her own masks.

Lockdown was devastating for the Salon. I was ringing the customers every week to see that they were ok. It affected the older customers because they were more on their own.

Gail finds her purse and I know this visit is about more than hair; it is touching base, it is being part of a family, a community. The Salon is more than twirls and curls. Just as the March Hare pressed tea in a china cup on Alice in Wonderland; this salon opened its doors for themed charity coffee mornings – Alice in Wonderland, wreath-making at Christmas.

Covid has stopped a lot. Here, they could concentrate on doing something. I had customers who did it. Reflected on what kept them going through the lockdowns. 

When Brandon turned its small-town face to the wall people found something to look forward to. Our capacity for comfort undiminished.

I have to say telly has been a big one. Two seasons of the Rockford Files and watching Dr Who from the ninth to the twelfth doctors has been ace… said Lorna.

And Leanne read books – finally learning to cook curry from scratch and buying a new bicycle, cheered her muchly. And Emily had puppies, Roger had gardening, Sophie too, while Jack did home improvements and played games. Patrick looked forward to fish and chips with curry sauce. It’s the small things that make us glad, while Regina read old favourite books again…and Claire held fancy dress nights with the family and wandered out for beach walks.

It takes Genevieve to agree with Jack – DIY, painting, upcycling, and having a good clear out. It’s been cathartic. And Holly too, it was all about trying out new arty activities, making and then eating lemon drizzle cake. But if you ask me, Dom has it in the bag, his highlight Cadbury’s Giant Chocolate Buttons. Julie says it all. What kept her going and she chose to share was the knowledge that good people were there.

And the postcards – the See You Soon Postcards, the keep-in-touch, the missing-you- morning-surprise, the-creative-moment-have-a-go postcards handed out to a constituency of women by this trusted emissary of art. 

I handed sixty of the postcard packs out. The response was really good. They are like family, family members, an inspiration. They engaged, it was quite nice. 

I look around at Wonderland. It is hard to leave this warm domain, this tiny Craigdom.

First year I struggled. Hard to make friends outside work. I found myself looking after the old ladies. They have moved here and lost their husbands. I look after them. They look after me. 

The phone rings. It is an old man who lost his wife and rings often, rings every day and is never turned away.

I’m here until five, mate.

And he agrees to drop in on the 90-year-old on his way home. Helps to see a face to know that someone cares.  It is so much more than just looking after hair.