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The Land Girls and Horses of Suffolk documentary is filmmaker Holly Brega's tribute to grandmother she never knew

Film-maker Holly Brega was helping to care for her cancer-stricken father when she first saw a picture of her grandmother in a uniform she had never seen before.

Her dad, Bill, was sorting through old family photos when he came across the faded image of his mum dressed for her wartime work in the Women’s Land Army.

Holly was intrigued, and the photograph of the grandma who died long before she was born led her on an emotional journey to tell the story of Suffolk’s land girls in film.

Holly Brega in Land Girl uniform
Holly Brega in Land Girl uniform

During World War Two more than 200,000 young women headed for Britain’s farms where they took on often back-breaking work to keep the nation fed while the men went to fight.

For town and city girls confronted for the first time with mud, manure and unpredictable livestock it could be a rude awakening.

Holly talked to one of the few surviving former land girls, and widened her research to include the majestic Suffolk Punch horses that were still crucial to farming in the early 1940s.

Nicky Reynolds and Holly Brega with some of Nicky's collection of Land Girl items including uniforms
Nicky Reynolds and Holly Brega with some of Nicky's collection of Land Girl items including uniforms

Her documentary The Land Girls and Horses of Suffolk, which she self-financed, was launched at Suffolk Archives’ headquarters in Ipswich and can be seen in Bury St Edmunds later this month. She plans to put it online later.

The response overwhelmed her. “I’m really happy that everyone enjoyed the documentary. I wasn’t expecting people to laugh and to cry,” she said.

“My dad died in May 2020. Me, mum, and my partner Mike looked after him, and we found he had a lot of old photos.

“He was able to look through them because he could do that from bed,” said Holly, whose career includes TV work on Britain’s Best Walks with presenter Julia Bradbury..

Daphne Cross in land girl uniform
Daphne Cross in land girl uniform

“His mother Daphne had died when he was 12. We saw a picture of her in a uniform, and I didn’t even know what the Land Army was.

“I’d never heard of it before, and my story-telling brain started going round and round ... what is this?

“I found out my grandma worked on a farm and with horses and cows. I felt connected to her by doing this project.

“I guess in a way it is a kind of therapy to help me deal with my dad’s death. It’s a tribute to him, and his mum.”

Holly Brega in Land Girl uniform
Holly Brega in Land Girl uniform

Holly’s grandma, Daphne Cross, was born in Walberswick where her parents Sonny and Violet ran a dairy.

Her younger sister Christine – known as Tommy – helped to paint a picture of their early lives together including a narrow escape when a bomb hit their house.

“My great-auntie shared stories about what it was like to live in the village during the war, and the work Daphne did as a land girl,” said Holly.

Tragedy hit the family when a third sister died at only 10 days old, followed in 1936 by the death of their mother, Violet. An aunt helped to care for the children, and Sonny remarried just before the war.

Tommy remembers her step-mother Ivy, Daphne, and herself at home when the house was hit by a bomb. Coastguard Sonny saw it happen from the beach and ran back not knowing if they were alive or dead.

Daphne’s escape was the luckiest because she always refused to sleep downstairs in the safety of the cellar and was in her bedroom when the house was struck.

She joined the Land Army when she was about 17 and helped on local farms where the work included getting the cows into the yard, washing udders, and milking.

Daphne married her husband, Victor Brega, in 1948, She ran a riding school and continued to do so when they moved to the Bury area in the 1950s.

Holly also spoke to former land girl Iris Bird, 93, from Rougham. “Iris is one of the youngest ex-land girls. She was only 17 when she signed up,” she said.

Iris Bird, former land girl
Iris Bird, former land girl

“She came from Buxton, in Derbyshire, where she worked in a factory in the office. One day she and a friend were sitting out in the sunshine and said what are we doing sitting in an office ... let’s join the Land Army.

“Her mum and dad and her friend’s mum and dad said no, but she eventually persuaded her dad, who said let’s see what happens. Her friend was not allowed to go.”

Iris was sent to Suffolk and went first to train at Shimpling Park Farm owned then, as now, by the Pawsey family.

She then worked as a land girl on the Rougham Estate, near Bury. “She was working with the cows and she said it was very frightening to start with, but said you got used to it,” said Holly.

“One of her jobs was delivering the milk to the primary school, the children got a third of a pint every day.”

The documentary also features local historians and experts including Nicky Reynolds, who has dedicated more than 25 years to researching the Women’s Land Army.

She and fellow expert Vicky Abbott have been working with Suffolk Archives on the Soil Sisters project which involves volunteers rooting out the stories of the women who served in the county, the jobs they did, the dangers they faced, and the fun they had.

Nicky’s long-term fascination with the Land Army has resulted in a massive hoard of memorabilia.

“She has so much information and such a huge collection. She had to move some land girl stuff out of her lounge, and off the table so we could talk,” said Holly.

Nigel Oakley and Emma Lodge at Rede Hall Farm
Nigel Oakley and Emma Lodge at Rede Hall Farm

Also featured in the film is Nigel Oakley, of Rede Hall Farm, near Bury – an expert on Suffolk Punch horses.

The chesnut coloured equine giants – when describing Suffolk Punches it is always ‘chesnut’ without the ‘t’ – were the power that pulled the farm machinery in Suffolk before tractors took over.

But there are now so few of them they are classed as critically endangered.

Holly filmed the horses at Rede Hall Farm, and Emma Lodge, who works with Suffolk Punches supplied by Nigel at the Museum of East Anglian Life, appears in the film wearing a real land girl uniform borrowed from Nicky’s collection.

Nigel Oakley and Emma Lodge at Rede Hall Farm
Nigel Oakley and Emma Lodge at Rede Hall Farm

“I wanted to blend old archive footage with new,” she said. “I really found some lovely people doing these projects ... interesting people with so many stories. I’ve learned such a lot.”

Holly, who lives in Chevington, grew up in Suffolk, living first at Flempton then in Boxted.

She got her first taste for film as a child when her parents gave her a camera.

“I went to the University of Cumbria and did a BA in wildlife and media, and we just learned about animal behaviour to start with.

“It was all aimed at going into wildlife documentaries. But sitting in one spot for hours wasn’t really me.”

Nigel Oakley and Emma Lodge at Rede Hall Farm
Nigel Oakley and Emma Lodge at Rede Hall Farm

So she branched out into different kinds of work. “For a long time I have been filming walks and encouraging people to walk.

“I filmed some of Julia Bradbury’s walks – Britain’s Best Walks and Best Walks with a View – I was second camera for them.”

Holly has recently been in Spain making a film for an organisation called Flight Free about travelling without using aeroplanes.

Future subjects might include a documentary about the Timber Corps, known as Lumber Jills, who were the forestry equivalent of the Land Army.

Another potential topic is how Suffolk Punches were used in the brewing industry, and she would also like to film walks in Suffolk.

But here next project will see her switch from the moving image to the printed word.

Thoughts of her grandmother’s wartime work, and ex-land girl Iris’s story about delivering milk to a school, has inspired her to write a children’s book, featuring a land girl and a Suffolk Punch.

“I discovered that children learn about men going to war but not about what the women did. I thought that has got to change,” she said.

“The book’s written in a poem style. It’s called Chesnut and Daphne, and artist John Thurman from Lawshall has done the illustrations.”

The Land Girls and Horses of Suffolk will be shown at Bury St Edmunds Guildhall on Saturday, March 26 at 2pm, along with a display of Land Army uniforms. Free tickets can be booked online at ticketsource.co.uk/suffolk-archives