The Boats of Vallisneria
by Michael J. Redford
—~~~\___ “O” ___/~~~—
(Preamble by Mark Lewis Redford)
The Wandering Mind
A Bowl of Gourds
A Precious Moment
On Doing Nothing
Simon upon the Downs
A Sign of the Times
Follow your Nose
The Agricultural Show
A letter of Two Parts
Out of Doors
Around the Country Cottage
An Old Piano
The English Lawn
The Breath of Memory
The Golden Hour
Preamble by Mark Lewis Redford
I have come into possession of a piece of work that my Uncle Mick did during the 1960s. He was in his thirties when he wrote the ‘Boats of Vallisneria’ having survived a childhood of war and evacuation, having completed what education was available then, having completed a period of military service in Kenya and South Africa and returned to London, to move to Billericay in Essex, to begin his life proper. His father (my grandfather) died early in the 60s and he spent the rest of his life living with and looking after his mother living in the tied cottage to the farm he worked.
He completed this work because he wanted to explore the shape and pattern of [his] life. He completed it even while the changes in farming brought his work there to a close. [He went on to become a gardener and eventually set up his own business framing pictures]. He submitted the manuscript to Dent & Sons for publication, but they declined.
He let me have a look at the script when I was in my late teens and visiting and whinnying on about wanting to be a writer. This was in the later 1970s. I was way too green and cursive to read it with great discernment or generosity and commented that it was OK but quite amateurish (a youthful candour with which I hurt many a person close to me when I was young and arrogant – I’m sorry, everyone).
The dear man died in 2007, and I had long since forgotten his work (although I remember being honoured that he had shown me his work – it confirmed to me that being a writer was a noble thing to be). I had a visit recently from my brother who brought a whole case of artefacts from my uncle, one of which was the original manuscript.
… I think I’d like to publish it on my blog. Share the work with the world that he was not so able to do during his own time. In his honour. In memoriam. To preserve and celebrate the green-paint-on-sturdy-wood life of Ramsden Heath during the 1960s and 1970s. To celebrate the linen-atmosphere of small-pane cottage window looking out on the garden in all facet. To listen in on the darken-colours of morning and evening and bird-call in Essex countryside, every one different and newly-miraculous found.
While typing it up I felt I could tap the kernel of what he was exploring and cut in to his images and experiences within – and sometimes behind – his writing. I would also like to explore his writing through my own. And publish them alongside each other like a healthy pair of framed pictures above the mantelpiece. To celebrate my love for him. And make the contact with him that I was too gauche to make while he was alive. (How much I appreciate people the most, once I have lost life with them).
The Boats of Vallisneria. Not the fishing fleet of some remote principality or the landing forces of an invading alien. Vallisneria is an aquatic plant, the roots of which grow in the soil at the bottom of shallow waters. The pistillate flower is found at the top of a long stalk which grows up through the water towards the light of day. Upon reaching the surface, the petals unfold in sheer abandonment to expose the stigmas that await the procreative advances of its male counterpart which is the staminate floret that grows below the surface in a large bract. When ripe, it emerges and floats to the top where three small petals unfold and curl back to produce the three tiny boats that keep the stamens afloat where, through the movement of the water, the stamens gently kiss the stigmas of the awaiting flower in that final act of consummation.
But this small volume does not concern itself with the morphology or physiology of vallisneria or that of any other flower, in fact there is no direct connection between the title of this book and its contents. Suffice it to say that the mind is a pond, but a pond of such depth that the sediment of our experiences lays in the bottom in utter darkness. Every so often a thought is born and speeds hastily from the soil in which it grows to the light of consciousness. After a brief spell of blossoming the flower returns to the depths taking with it a little food that is the knowledge of the eternal ‘now’.
I am a farm labourer, not because I was born to it (for I am a Londoner by birth) but because I desired from an early age a completion of my being that I knew I could not attain in the artifices of town life. But soon I fear I shall be leaving the farming life, not through desire or choice, but through the evolvement of that particular pattern that is laid down for each and every one of us, the unalterable pattern that we must all follow no matter how limitless our own personal bounds of freedom. I shall however, still be living in the countryside and will retain the sense of fulfilment this way of life has afforded me until the end of my days, no matter where I go or what I do in the years to come.
It was while gazing vacantly at a pool one evening two years ago that I first beheld the boats of vallisneria and thought of them as random thoughts released from the depths of the mind for brief spells in the light of consciousness, and it was then that I decided to capture these thoughts and to the best of my ability place them on paper. This small book then, is a collection of thoughts, a collection of the reflections of a farm labourer who has reaped more than corn from his own particular way of life.
The Wandering Mind
I sat in the garden one autumn afternoon reading an old poet. The sky was unblemished, clear and pure as the face of a child and starlings were deep in conversation close by. I had mown the lawn that morning just before lunch and turned over the plot where the peas had been cleared. After this exertion and a good meal, I felt no pang of conscience as I turned my back upon the many other chores that cried for attention and took my book into the garden and relaxed in the warm soporific scent of honeysuckle and freshly cut grass. After an indeterminable period my thoughts were lifted from the page upon my knee and I drifted across the valley to the hill opposite. There the grade was steep, too steep for tractor or any other mechanical tool. A horse therefore was leaning from a plough, moving slowly, almost imperceptively towards the skyline. The cottage in which I then lived was very old and the hills opposite even older; no doubt at one time they were covered with forest, but many men must have witnessed that same scene before me, many men and many generations. To them it was a common sight, but to me it was a rare and beautiful sight that spanned the centuries. The scene was timeless.
I felt my head nod forward quite suddenly and I came awake. The book fell onto the grass and the starlings flew off more in indignation than fright. In the silence that followed, there filtered through the warmth of the valley the faint jingle of the traces, and as the plough turned upon the headland, a spark of sunlight leapt from the polished harness; it was an impish child of Apollo that danced upon the horse’s back one moment, then without warning, leapt the great expanse of the valley and entered my eye within the same split second. I realised then that here was a beginning; here, before the old year was done, was another just starting. Here the earth was being opened up to let in winter’s icy fingers so that she might the better prepare the seed bed for next year’s crop. Then as the mind’s awareness expanded, I felt that this was not the only beginning taking place, there were many more throughout the changing land.
Visitors were arriving, flowers were blooming, animals were being born. All about me, as I sat half asleep in the quietude, a great movement of life was in progress, and I thought of another great movement of life that had occurred the previous autumn. It was an invasion of our fields by the linyphiids or gossamer spiders. We were drilling wheat at the time and as I crouched low on the footboard of the drill to clear a coulter that had clogged up, I beheld a silken counterpane of gossamer stretched between the faint ridges of the harrowed earth. The effect, if the eye was held low enough, was that of a thin layer of water shimmering in the early morning sun sending off sparks of individual colour selected at random from all parts of the spectrum. So taken was I with this scene that all thoughts of clearing the coulters left me as we rattled and jogged across the field, and when harvesting the same field this year, there, as a reminder of that small moment, was a strip bare of swaying gold a hundred yards long and twenty inches wide.
I retrieved the book and placed it on the seat beside me. The starlings had returned and were even noisier than before and the bees were hurrying to and fro among the nemesia in the hope of collecting and storing that little extra for the months ahead. Soon they will end their toil; soon they would maim and expel the unfortunate drones and retire to the centre of the hive with the queen in their midst. The day was magnificent, more like mid-summer than autumn, small wonder indeed that the careless cricket continued to ‘sing’ unaware of the imminent peril of winter. Many small lives will be lost in the approaching days of darkness yet, through it all, just enough will be saved. Beneath the apparent calm of autumn is a restlessness; and urgency sweeps through the fields and woodlands as the wiser creatures prepare for flight or lay in stores for sustenance through the long twilight of winter yet to come.
Autumn is a season of transition, a season of intense activity; of flowers flowering and flowers dying, of drilling wheat and cutting beans. Autumn is a time of birth and death; a time of awakening and a time of going to sleep. It is a time for the young and a time for the old, a time of both joy and sadness.
This is the time of thistle-down upon the air and goose-grass burrs upon the stockings; when the gorse and broom crackle and pop beneath a March-blue sky and scatter their tiny seeds among the dry stems of the sapless grass. Now the moors are stained a deeper purple, bracken becomes bronzed and the tree tops dipped in old gold. In the derries the young caterpillar of the Purple Emperor wraps itself in dead oak leaves and sleeps until the great awakening. When gossamer fills the air and hazel nuts turn brown the young swallows start on that amazing flight to the shores of Africa, a journey undertaken by their parents a year before who, curiously enough, do not show their offspring the way, but follow on some days later. How many thousand autumns have witnessed this exodus? Yet to what blocks of logic and fact can we in all our wisdom attribute this common thing. The redwing and fieldfare arrive from Norway urging on the lingering house martin. The woodlark sings, the ivy flowers and the honeysuckle blooms again. And as the somnolent hedgehog rolls himself in his blanket of leaves, the last brood of moorhen is hatched. Something sleeps, something awakes; something dies, something is born.
There is no real beginning or end to the year. Even on the first of January the lambs are growing; leaves are forming within the bud and the young wheat carpets the bare fields with emerald. But for those whose minds cannot accept the existence of that which has no beginning and no end, then let the division between the years be drawn through autumn, for the onset of winter is really the beginning of the year, not the end. The young year is born into a cold and sometimes frightening world just as the infant child is released from the warm security of the mother’s womb, and like the child, the infant year begins its life before it is born. It begins in the womb of autumn. It is here then (if anywhere) that one thing ends and another begins. It is here In Sese Vertiture Annus.
A Bowl of Gourds
On the kitchen table in front of the window that looks across the paddock to the piggery reposes a bowl of gourds. I had always associated ornamental gourds with the exhibitionistic bric-a-brac of Victoriana, something which I could well do without in my small cottage. Then one day a friend gave me some seeds among which were those of ten gourds. Having never before imposed censorship on any form of life, I heeled them into the soil beside a trellis and forgot them.
Now, here upon the table is a bowl of colour, a bowl of shapes so varied that it seems quite illogical that they should all come from the same type of plant. Their names also are just as demanding for attention: Bishop’s Mitre, Ohio Squash, Red Turk’s Cap, Squirting Cucumber and numerous others. In the centre of the bowl is a warted gourd which, despite its bright orange colour, reminds me of the old fat toad who lives behind the water butt in the yard. We call the toad Bebe after the initials of her species Bufo Bufo, and if the sun is particularly fierce, I water her retreat to prevent her becoming dehydrated from loss of water through her skin. After all, one must take care of a creature such as Bebe who appears to be more effective of clearing the lawn of slugs than a hundredweight of poison and who knows, if it wasn’t for Bebe, perhaps I might not be gazing at a warted gourd at this very moment.
My thoughts are diverted from the toad to a Montgolfiere balloon of yellow and green vertical bands, and soon I am rising gently through slate coloured clouds into the deep blue beyond. What were the thoughts, I wonder, of the Marquis d’Orlandes and Pilatre de Rozier as they saw the Bois de Boulogne slip smoothly from beneath them in 1783. As the cheers faded, so came the silence. For the very first time man had lost all tangible contact with mother earth and the first step on man’s long journey to the stars began. The stars? I questioned the thought, for it would still take all of three thousand years to reach Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to Earth (apart from the sun, that is) should we travel at the impossible speed of one million miles per hour. Even at optical velocity it would still take four years and four months to reach our destination. The problem then is not so much one of distance, but one of time. Theoretically it is possible to condense time, and if we could condense it to a sufficient degree, man could circumnavigate the universe within his own lifetime. A paper by L.R. Shepherd, Ph.D., read to the British Interplanetary Society in 1952 explains through the medium of mathematics far beyond my comprehension, how a time distillation effect is produced at near optic velocities. If, for example, an astronaut makes a round trip to a local star and records a journey of three years, on his return to Earth he will have found that twenty one years have in actual fact passed. All the mathematical jiggery and pokery in the world however cannot possibly reverse the procedure; nature still gives us a one way ticket through time.
My mind came back slowly from its extra-galactic wanderings, back through our own milky way, through the local cluster to the fringes of our solar system. Thoughts travel faster than any quantum of light. Out there beyond the human eye, is a mass so distant that it is hurtling away from our own island universe at such a velocity that its light will never reach us. Yet the mind can flick to all corners of the universe in a second. Back come my thoughts past the giant planets, the asteroids and Mars, back into Earth’s sweet atmosphere, through the slate grey clouds and so once more to my bowl of gourds.
It is a bowl brimming with curves and circles reminding me of the rolling countryside beyond my window. It reminds me also of the time I stayed at a friend’s house in Kent. From his garden, heavy scented with herbs, I could see but one building across the small valley. It was a modern house of straight and severe line, not at all part of the natural scene. The lines of the countryside are soft and moving as the blue distant swell of the undulating hills; as the stem of the meadow fescue curved from the prevailing winds like the archer’s bow; as the blackened oak beams that rise from floor to gable of the labourer’s cottage and indeed as the back of the labourer himself whose broad shoulders have borne the weight of many years’ work. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does she abhor a straight line. But for that house across the valley time would not have existed. Its rigid lines cut across the flow and caused discontinuance. They shocked the mind back to the present from its meandering in eternity. They almost screamed, “This is now, this is NOW,” imprisoning the mind in the confines of time. We can release our minds into space, we can cast our thoughts out beyond the constellations and beyond the faintest nebula where time is meaningless, for the patterns above have altered but little since the dawn of man but we cannot plumb the depths of time with the same freedom. The mind is confined to now; always there is something to remind us that this is the present. Time is a gradation of eternity by conscious thought, therefore it is only when our bodies decay and conscious thought is no more that we can be truly free.
So man, upon his world so great
Has always wanted to create
Machines which, started once will never
Cease but carry on for ever.
Yet all the time O foolish man,
You’re merely part of that great plan,
A tiny part, hast thou not seen
This wondrous universe machine?
This motion so perpetual
Is the universe and all
That lies beyond in time and space,
E’en down to us, the human race.
There’ll be no end, there was no start,
There is no shape therefore no heart.
And to create it doth aspire
To use the debris of its ire.
Poor mortal look deep in your heart
And realise that you’re just a part
Of that which knows no boundaries,
Heeds not your trivial quandaries.
Servants of the cosmos vow
To play your part and take your bow,
Or servants you will always be –
Until you die, ‘tis then your free.
A Precious Moment
As after the heat of a summer’s day the face glows in the mildness of evening, so the face of the countryside glows in the mildness of early autumn. The summer months have infused the merest suggestion of brown in the deepening green of the foliage and the face of the earth gives up its warmth to the stars above to see them dance. It was into this calm that I walked one late September’s eve. The evening star cast her unblinking eye across the heavenly dome to Jupiter in the darkening east and the nightjar echoed its song above the empty fields. I stood at the end of the stack-yard and returned the disinterested gaze of a cow in the field beyond.
It is during these slow hours when the pace of the day has declined, that the smaller noises of the land become apparent. The bull, who was tethered a full two hundred yards away in the next field could be heard to rattle his chain and blow down his nose at a particularly juicy clump of grass he has found. Behind me in the ‘maternity’ box, a freshly calved heifer mooed huskily yet very softly as its offspring raised its head suddenly at a strange sound. Perhaps it was the sound of ancient timbers creaking under the weight of centuries, or that of the leaves above whispering to the bowed stems in the hay meadow below. Or maybe it was the very silence that enshrouded these small sounds that attracted its attention, for silence is so startling in its rarity and its beauty. Dusk gave way to night and I became aware of the immense depths of space, the dizzy height of the mackerel sky, and although it was the clouds that moved, it seemed they were stationary against the clear black silhouettes of the elms and that it was the motion of the gibbous moon behind the clouds that alternately blackened and silver-plated the night. Even at the tender and romantic age of sixteen I was aware of this quietude, and in one enlightened moment jotted down these few words on an old envelope:
Soft, soft, the bell that tolls the evensong
Across full summer’s empty fields serene.
And slowly draws the scarlet cloak, the hem’s
Black velvet, diamond specked, communes me with
The white barn owl, who with his noiseless wings
Doth glide and swoop upon the luckless mouse.
Selene set within the lap of dusk
Transmutes the living green to silver plate,
Enshrouds my world with immobility.
And with a quietude that frees the mind
Of bondage from the peering eyes of day,
I fain become the earth, the sky, the all.
But it wasn’t until my late teens that I realised there are two times during the twenty four hour cycle when such a quietude exists. One is just before the dusk and the other just before dawn. Although both seem to be divisions between day and night, the prelude to dawn seems to me to be the more startling and more satisfying to experience. In the evening the mind is released into a reverie bound by personal conscious thought, but during the morning pause one experiences a freedom and profundity of thought that is rarely to be found in any other part of time.
It is barely half past five in the morning when I start milking, but often I arrive at the cowshed half an hour before in order to experience this precious moment. Although at this hour the ‘Stone that puts the stars to flight’ has yet to be flung, I can sense the great spaciousness of the valley before me. Again the trees move softly and the long grass in the hay meadow sifts the breath of night, and I wait. I wait for that incorporeal beauty that is the union of soul and nature. It begins where the breezes end and the rustling leaves are stilled. A serene stillness envelopes the woods and meadows and even I am not conscious of breathing. I am drawn into the quietude and become part of it; become part of the very earth on which I stand; part of the universe through which I move. I have become part of each blade of grass in the valley before me, part of every hill. I feel myself part of the earth, feel its very movement through space. Unfortunately mere words can no longer be the conveyance of the emotions involved (and I use the word ‘emotions’ for want of a better noun) for they become so expansive and so personal. No longer can mere words impress the reader’s soul with such profundity of emotion that this experience releases within me. Each must go his own way, search alone and experience it first hand and with an open mind.
A thought is born and from that thought comes two more. The two are made four and the four made eight, a self-multiplying chain reaction of thoughts has been set in motion that flows with great haste through the mind; in fact a torrent of thoughts in one brief second, and yet each one is startlingly clear and leads the mind one step nearer the truth. The heavenly dome is vast above the valley and the stars, thrown into their mythological patterns by the great cosmic hand, impress their presence on the mind with unusual brilliance and time is no more. Now the mental hosts are converging, and step by step I am racing towards that vertex which is the ultimate truth. The questions are being answered at an ever increasing rate, the startling, brutal logic disclosing the result of a preceding reaction which itself, reveals a cause. So through to the highest plane the mind soars upon an ever accelerating reversal of the law of causation. But the pace is too much. The mind flags and begins to flounder. At this juncture the mind can be likened to a water skier who, while the pace is kept up skims along the surface in the sun, but immediately he slows down he begins to sink, until at length he finds himself floundering with no forward movement. Now the mind has become weak and cannot comprehend the unfathomable thought. But I have brushed the grey curtain; I have seen a light faint though it may be and both my physical and spiritual selves have been revitalised and my cup runneth over.
For most of our lives we are lost beings out of tune with life around us. Only during such precious moments as these do we fit into the great harmonious chord; all things round and above have their special place in it, from the fat brown rabbit throbbing in the cornfields to the fleecy pieces of golden cloud that sail upon the pale green skies of dusk. Worries, anxieties, tensions, all are reduced to their proper size in relation to life, and as the imperceptible ‘Left hand of dawn’ lifts the veil on the eastern horizon, we are cleansed and reborn with the stripling day.
It is only during such periods that nature can be reduced to anything approaching order, and that there is an order I am in no doubt. Einstein’s inquiring mind was working on the universal equation when the workings of that very same equation stilled his physical being; perhaps now he has solved it, we in this life never shall. The perpetual motion of nature is the perfect machine and we are part of that machine. It is complete within itself, recreating its own new parts from the debris of the old. No energy is wasted or lost, just charged in form. Nature permits us a marginal tolerance within which we may make one or two adjustments to suit our needs and requirements, but beyond this we dare not go for we merely create more problems than we solve.
So does she pass, the gently night,
Slow seeps the dawn upon the scene.
Dew sparkling in the first light of
The new day shows where she has been.
The eyes of day now open on
The dewy sward and gossamer
Bows low beneath its pearly load,
And hedgerows faintly scent the air
With green along the unused road.
And I am born once more and see
The day as I once first beheld –
A child within his mother’s arms,
Another, within its mother’s arms.
On Doing Nothing
I wish I had more time in which to do nothing, but then I don’t suppose for one moment that I am alone in this wish. I must however confess to liking hard work – a certain amount that is. I like the resultant effects produced on body and mind of digging the garden or pitching bales of hay and sheaves of corn amid the shimmering heat of the summer sun. The sweat oozing forth and leaving the inner body clean; the muscles toned up and aching with effort, the very rhythm of the work itself (I sincerely hope I can say the same twenty years from now). Then at the close of a long day, an hour’s soak in the bath, an easy chair and a pint of beer, mundane items perhaps, yet nevertheless most satisfying. The sweat has been replaced by the energy infusing rays of the sun that now emanate from the body with such a glow that you feel sure that those close to you must feel its radiant effect. The mind is also cleansed, refreshed with the knowledge and satisfaction of a job well done. On the other hand if total automation were to arrive tomorrow, I would not be alarmed at the prospect of so much leisure. The future in this respect is viewed with some concern by the sociologist whose biggest headache is to educate the masses into finding something to do with their spare time. This I should imagine, is one of the outcomes of our present way of life, the pace of which has accelerated to such a degree that one rarely has time to step off the whirling carousel to take stock of one’s surroundings and turn the eye inward upon the self. How little we know of ourselves and our immediate surroundings. There is enough untapped learning in my small garden alone to last me all my years without venturing further afield. Even so, I don’t spend all my spare time digging, hoeing, planting and studying in the garden, for one can never come to the end of the toil produced when one steals a little piece of nature and imposes upon it the conformities of human requirements. More often than not I am sitting, standing or leaning somewhere in the garden staring at a dead leaf sailing slowly across a sky-blue puddle, or a daffodil petal trembling in the breeze, or entering with the fuzzy humble bee into the heart of a foxglove. I am not looking to learn, just looking, appreciating the colour and the movement, the scent and the touch, unfettered by a too enquiring mind, seeing the thing as a whole. Study by all means, study deeply, specialise if you wish, but not all the time; come to the surface occasionally, sit back and view things as a whole. Specialists we must have; the probing minds and microscopes of the entomologist, histologist, ichthyologists and all the other ‘ologists’ have benefitted us greatly and made us more aware and appreciative of the wonders and complexities of nature, but there is still, and always will be, room for the botanist who is like the manipulator of a jig-saw puzzle, fitting all the detailed parts together to form a complete and beautiful picture.
I find I am very contented when doing nothing and experience no sense of guilt if branded idle and time wasting. If there is nothing of great import to attend to and I am in an idle mood, then I take advantage of the circumstances and indulge in idleness without shame. Some months ago I made a garden seat of some timber taken from an ancient cottage close by that was being demolished. Upon this seat, the wood of which must be some six hundred years old, I have spent many hours in idleness, fingering its rough grey armrests, unaware of time or responsibility; thinking not of tomorrow or yesterday, but experiencing with all the senses the eternal ‘now’; being aware of the warmth of the sun and the movement of the passing breeze; hearing the distinct low of a cow bereft of her calf, or listen to an echo mocking the cuckoo in the woods below. I gaze at the coloured mass before me drinking in the riot of perfumes; look at the green pastures and the distant trees and see the blue shadows within. The picture is complete, touching upon all the senses to produce a harmony that is deeply satisfying. There is nothing out of place, no harsh discords, no roaring traffic or industrial smells. Even the little cottage at the end of the lane, tree bound and heavy with thatch, gives the impression that it has grown naturally from the soil upon which it stands. The senses and emotions are not funnelled into a microcosm but are given free range and allowed to accept all that comes within their range, creating in the mind an awareness and realisation of a complete and perfect whole.
One cannot be accused of day-dreaming under such conditions (though surely a little day-dreaming is not harmful) for no conscious thoughts are involved. I have on occasions been surprised at the lightning passage of time during these moments, when the ‘moment’ has in fact turned out to be all of three hours. This essay, which would normally have been written in a morning, has taken all day for this very reason. Being a fine spring morning with but a few puffs of broken cloud adorning the sky, I took pen and paper into the garden, but despite my earnest intentions, I soon fell prey to the magnetism of a blackbird singing in the copse behind the piggery and my attention was lifted from the paper.
I walked through the piggery, crossed the brook and shouldered my way through the cow parsley towards the wood. I didn’t meet anyone on my perambulation, I didn’t want to. In fact I would have been most annoyed if I had. I was perfectly happy in my immediate world of the ‘Now’; it was too lovely a world to let slip by unnoticed, or to be dimmed by the oppressive shadow of chores that had to be done. Now, as I sit writing, the clock on the mantle shelf is striking eleven thirty p.m. but I am not at all alarmed at working until such a late hour even though I do have to rise early to milk the cows tomorrow morning. At least I shall have the memory of a beautiful spring day during which I was alive and conscious, and will not be left empty handed as most of us too often are when we let the days of the living present slip through the sensory fingers to the dead past.
I’ve never found out how he came to be called Olly for his real name is Alfred. When I first met him he was about sixty years old, short and thin with a face like an old walnut and eyes as wicked as a ferret’s. There’s an old country rhyme which goes:
I can drive a plough an’ I can milk a cow,
I can reap and sow an’ thatch an’ mow,
I’m fresh as the daisy as lives on the ‘ill
An’ they calls Oi Buttercup Joe.
This was Olly. He could do all this and more. It was a known fact in the village that if there was a job to be done that nobody would not or could not tackle, the cry was ‘Give Olly an oller’ and, in his own sweet time he would appear and ‘set to’. He would never be seen to hurry, yet the task was always completed in good time. No doubt every village has a character of Olly’s kind tucked somewhere beneath its roofs and also no doubt, many boring people like myself who are only too eager to interrupt his work and spend a pleasant half hour gossiping over a pipe of herbal. He grew his own tobacco, a variety of herbs which was as smooth as silk and with a nose as sweet as fresh made hay, and it was for this reason that one could smell Olly approaching long before you could see him.
Depending upon the topic of conversation his accent would be either amusing or confusing, for it was a long slow drawl peculiar to north Essex. I remember once while passing the time of day with him, he asked if I was going anywhere near the post office. I replied that I was.
“Well then, I wonder if yewd take some kines down for me. Tell Mrs. Sharman they’re from me an’ she’ll give yew some noots”.
Although I hadn’t a clue as to what he was talking about, I agreed to his request and he disappeared into his cottage. A minute later he was back holding a little blue bag knotted tightly at the top with a piece of binder twine. Not wishing to appear inquisitive or ignorant I accepted the mysterious bundle without comment and bade him good morning. At the post office, Mrs. Sharman recognised the little blue bag even before I spoke. She untied the neck and emptied onto the counter a pile of threepenny pieces. The ‘kines’ then were coins and the ‘noots’ were the three one pound notes given to me in exchange.
Olly was a man of few words and rarely spoke unless spoken to first, even his greeting was more often than not a nod of the head. To a stranger, I suppose he would appear unsociable, but to those who knew him he could be both amusing and interesting, and one who would always give a hand when help was needed. Tuesday evenings at the Crown was our regular shove ha’penny meet. There was Joyce, a middle aged soul of forceful character who kept pigs, Phil, a delightful lady who worked for the Milk Marketing Board, and of course, Olly and myself. It was the custom that losers paid for a round of drinks and as we all drank bitter, this did not make for a costly evening. On one particular occasion both Olly and I and our opponents needed one peg apiece to win.
“Better set they drinks up now,” said Olly to Joyce as he crossed to the board.
A sneer of mock contempt appeared on her face.
“Don’t be bloody ridiculous,” she snapped, “you want one in the top bed and I only want one in the bottom.”
Olly polished the halfpenny on his corduroys and, eyeing the tip of his highly polished boot replied,
“I dersay that could be arranged.”
It is a regular pleasure of mine to close my eyes to the garden and the various household chores which inevitably accumulate in a writer’s home, and wend my way on a Sunday morning slowly across the home meadows to the woods below. When I wander thus, I am constantly picking pieces of the countryside and chewing them. Sometimes it will be a handful of wheat, sometimes haw leaves or berries, plantain, blackberries or just plain grass – according to season or mood. On one such occasion I had teamed up with Olly and was thoughtlessly plucking nettle tips and chewing them. Mistaking his look of pity for one of alarm, I reassured him that the tips of the leaves contained no stings and were quite harmless.
“Ar that’s as maybe,” he said in a knowing voice, “but you’ll jump when it comes out the other end and stings yer arse.”
Nobody could ever do a job as well as Olly. Mind you, he would never say so in as many words, but after talking with him for ten minutes one would come away with such an impression. In most cases of course this was true. If a job was worth doing at all, Olly would do it and do it well, but if for example, my chrysanthemums were five feet tall, his would be six, or if I had bought a bargain for five pounds he would be able to buy the same thing for fifty shillings. I had recently finished erecting a new fence between my garden and Joyce’s pigs. The posts were upright, the wire taught as a fiddle string and the strainers set firm. In fact the whole job had cost me two blistered hands, a strained back, a gallon of sweat and almost as much beer. I stood back admiring my handiwork and asked Olly, who had ambled across the hoppit with his little spotted dog, what he thought of it. He stood for a while sucking at his pipe, then, poking the corner post with his stick he conceded:
“Be alright if the wind don’t get up.”
Speaking of the wind reminds me of the time when Olly was taken to hospital. It was one mid-summer’s weekend when I realised that I hadn’t seen Olly all week. My inquiries revealed that he had been ‘took in’ for a hernia operation. When I eventually found time to visit him he was laying in bed swathed in bandages, his eyes brighter and his weather beaten arms darker than ever against the white linen. Apart from a little discomfort he was enjoying himself immensely. The ward was comfortable, the food good, and the nurses ‘marvlus’. He has but one complaint and this came to light when a young nurse arrived at the bedside with a strip of tablets.
“Gawdamighty not more,” he exclaimed and, turning to me he said:
“Y’know, they’ve loaded me with so many pills that if anyone ‘appens to pass when oi farts oi shall kill ‘em.”
The nurse, dodging a backhander from him as she passed, said simply:
He was eventually discharged from hospital and was laying a hedge the very next day. “Can’t abide sittin’ about all day doin’ nothin’. And so he progressed from strength to strength to this very day, when he ‘put in’ more hours than people care to think about.
It seems impossible that characters like this should ever pass into oblivion, in fact I’m convinced that some day in the dim, distant future, he will be teaching my great, great grandchildren the art of shove ha’penny in the middle bar of the Crown.
Simon Upon The Downs
While staying with some friends at their South Downs home one autumn, I espied their six year old son Simon making off across the meadow at the foot of the hill. Having been asked to keep an eye on their offspring while they went into town, I took up my walking stick and opened the back door. As I stepped into the sun, I recalled those beautiful hours many years ago when I first walked the slippery grass of the Downs alone and first became aware of their warmth and their beauty. For this reason I remained at a discreet distance and kept well out of sight, not wishing to intrude upon the boy’s apparent solitude. I relived those distant moments with this young child, wondering if his thoughts were parallel with mine.
It was a mid October morning, one of those rare mornings when each distant leaf and twig is etched with startling clarity against the pure motionless air. A faint haze of cloud occupied the northern sky, yet immediately above, the heavens were of such a blue that, even as he gazed, young Simon’s eyes ached at the brilliance of it.
The hedgerows were beginning to thin a little so that he could just make out the faded stubble beyond. Haw berries were in profusion and were difficult to distinguish from the leaves, many of which had turned a deep russet brown. He climbed to the brow of the hill, crossed to the stile in the far corner of the meadow and paused. This was the furthest he had ever been by himself. He knew this meadow fairly well for he could see it from his bedroom window. This is where the big brown cows file slowly by in the drowsy summer afternoons and where, if you are lucky, you can see the rabbits scurrying about in the hollow down by the thicket.
He turned and peered over the stile into a new land, a land of sharp prickly stubble and straw bales stacked in towers across the field like an army marching down upon the red roofed village below. A cloud of finches rose from the ground, as if the boy’s sweeping gaze was of material substance, touching the birds and startling them from their gleaning. The land sloped gently away to the village and there levelled out to the broad patchwork weald cradled within the gentle curve of the downs upon which he stood.
Never had the young boy seen such a view, its beauty being enriched by his apparent solitude. Here, high upon the downs, he was a giant surveying his kingdom and strode the browning fields to the horizon counting them as he went. He came to love the scene dearly as the years went by, often returning later in life to relax in the spaciousness of it; to release his mind, his very soul, to soar high above, around and within and become part of this spacious beauty.
He clambered over the stile and made his way along the headland. He liked walking upon stubble because it crackled and popped beneath his feet and trapped air burst forth from the hollow stems. The day seemed a little warmer now and somewhere high above, a lark sprinkled the field with song. Then a rustling in the hedgerow close by brought Simon’s gaze to rest upon the tiniest mouse he had ever seen. It was the little creature’s white waistcoat that gave him away, for his yellow-orange jacket blended so with the coloured leaves about him, yet, even as he looked, the twinkling eyes and quivering nose disappeared. He dropped to his knees and squinted between the leaves. One leaf in particular caught his eye. It was noticeable by the fact that one side of the central rib was of a deep chocolate brown colour while the other side remained green, and on the underside of the brown half each tiny artery and vein was etched clearly in red. Plucking the leaf, the boy rolled over onto his back and looked up through the overhang of the hedge and on up through the branches of a great beech tree to the sky beyond.
At the zenith the azure had deepened and was of great and wonderful contrast to the coloured leaves about him. He was conscious of the great depth above him yet lifted his arms to touch it, his fingers tracing the graceful boughs above. And there, framed within his outstretched arms, within that riot of dazzling colour, he became aware of life, all life, from the very earth upon which he lay to the cosmic depths his fingertips caressed. He became aware of its vitality, its beauty and its warmth. And the young boy gazed in awe and wondered.
He loved the countryside and the old cottage where he lived with his kindly parents and he looked forward to the walks and picnics they took together. But here was a new experience. For the first time in his young life, Simon was away from home and alone. The great hill and reared itself between him and the little cottage cutting off all visual contact with things familiar. Suddenly, it was as if the countryside belonged to him, it became as intimate and close as his own loving parents. As he gazed above with half closed eyes, the blue sky poured down its warmth upon him; the mild breeze lifted his fair hair and tickled his forehead and the Red Admiral butterfly danced for him and him alone. This was indeed his land. He rolled over and hugged the earth close to him, clutching handfuls of dried leaves. Tomorrow he would discover a new land beyond the shoulder of the downs and perhaps one day he would even reach that distant ring of trees. But not now, for there was a touch of urgency in the falling leaves and the echo of a gull circling far out above the sea, filtered through the wind to tell him it was time he was on his way. So, with a twig of deep red leaves for his mother’s vase clasped tightly in his small fist, the boy arose and turned once more to the hill.
How sad thought I, is the cry of a gull, or was it merely the mood I was in that made it appear so, for echoes of the past, no matter how happy, are always tinted with sadness. Following the young explorer I thought up these few lines:
Hark to the seagull’s urgent cry
Which faster leaps than body flies,
Leaps from the soul, bounds o’er the tree –
Crowned beasts alone above the sea.
Then down upon the ewe-cropped sward,
Through rabbit’s hollow, shaded run,
Along the white and winding track
And up once more into the sun.
And on the salty wind that sighs,
The fading cry looks o’er the sea
To see its birthplace glistening white
And wheeling, circling, ever free.
(The South Downs are a range of chalk hills that extends across the south-eastern coastal counties of England from the Itchen Valley of Hampshire in the west to Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, East Sussex, in the east).
“Drift from the land continues.” Thus was I informed by the ‘Farmer’s Weekly’ one Friday morning as it lay open on the breakfast table. This drift from the land affects not only agriculture but also the structure of the village community. Of those who leave the land, many also leave the village their forefathers had inhabited for generations and go to the towns to find employment in industry, and of those who stay, most become commuters and spend most of their lives working in and travelling to and from the city. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to find the Coopers or the Charmans, the Thatchers or the Reeves whose descendants had practised their crafts in the same village for centuries, and I am saddened at the thought of these links, these direct human links with the past slowly withering away. Of the hosts who patronise my own local pub, there are but five or six who are connected in some way with farming or country life. The normal topics of conversation (apart from the usual British subjects of cricket and the weather) are now the trials and tribulations of a day at the office, the trouble one has had with the car or the recently installed central heating system and a somewhat heated discussion on ‘That’ programme on telly last night.
The truly rural community is not only dwindling but is also being diluted by the absorption of the townsman in the form of new towns and from the expanding ring of the more prosperous classes as they move out further and further from their place of work as life in the city becomes more and more intolerable.
A small but interesting side effect of this movement of the population can be noted not only in the topic of conversation, but also in the mode of dress. At one time it was only the more prosperous members of the community who could afford smart suits of fine materials and were able to drive around in ostentatious cars while the remainder had to make do with serge or rough tweed or any hard wearing material which could weather many winters. Now, prosperity has increased to such a degree that, on a Saturday evening, the car park of the Nag’s Head is full of shining cars none of which I swear is over five years old, while inside silk rubs shoulders with worsted. What is left of the local gentry now distinguishes itself by arriving at the pub in a battered Land Rover covered in muck and mud and dressing in rough tweeds and cords, and if it were not for his public school accent, he could quite easily be mistaken for a tramp. You will find him mostly in the public bar playing dominoes or cribbage and drinking pints of bitter while his city cousins monopolise the saloon discussing the affairs of the day over a scotch and dry. No matter how affluent the society or how adamant is one’s denial of the existence of ‘class’, the differences will always be there to be seen.
One such a tramp visited me yesterday to confirm some arrangements with regard to the harvest festival. He was a man of my grandfather’s generation who had lived in the village in pre-dilution days. The common bond of farming had drawn us together when I first visited the Nag’s Head in Ramsden Heath, and ever since we have discussed, gesticulated and argued about farming, I, learning something from his methods and he (I am vain enough to assume) learning something from mine. So it was that two tramps (and I call myself a tramp simply because I had not yet changed from my working clothes, not because I make claim to being part of the local heritage) sat at an open window one late summer’s eve discussing and reminiscing about the harvest. The heat of the day had left its mark upon the still air and golden rays slanted through the window picking out the curling smoke from my friend’s pipe before it disappeared into the gloom above. His eyes ascended with the smoke and his thoughts went with them.
“`Course it’s not the same now – never will be, harvest has lost most of its true meaning. Today it has become merely another chore that has to be dealt with.”
I thought of the congregation that would attend the little grey church on Sunday. Ninety percent of them would be townsmen whose only connection with harvest is the bread roll eaten at their game of bridge. My friend was speaking again.
“Nowadays the only people conscious of harvest home are those who reap it and of those few involved, only a fraction are aware of the full solemnity of the occasion.”
That’s true. In the days of scythes and flails, even up to the time of the threshing machine, harvest time, that milestone of true country life, was steep in ceremony. First a ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ of the harvest would be elected to lead the reapers into the field. This was a solemn occasion for the sweat, toil and the blistering work was still ahead of them. The long days of drudgery passed slowly as acre by acre the long stems fell to the scythe and backs bent continually cutting, gathering, binding and stooking. Finally, upon the last day and in the center of the last acre stood the last sheaf. If one man was to reap this final sheaf alone, he would be courting disaster. The entire company therefore, would gather round and, at a signal form the ‘Lord’ or the ‘Lady’ (depending upon local custom), they would all hurl their hooks at the few remaining stems. The corn dolly would then be woven to appease the spirits, then the back slapping and the chasing and kissing of the girls would begin. More merriment would take place that evening when the whole company would assemble at the farmhouse for refreshment in the form of rough (very rough) cider and ale.
When the crop was fit for carrying and the last load had been carted in from the fields led by the ‘Lady’ of the harvest, then would come the harvest supper with its eating, drinking, toasting and singing, and soon after, the gleaning bell would ring out across the still fields.
There is always a stillness in the fields when harvest is over and yesterday was no exception. There was such a calm in fact, that as the old gentleman opposite me knocked out his pipe on the window sill, our Jersey heifer Molly, who lay half asleep on the other side of the hoppit, turned her brown face lazily in our direction. Nowadays there is no ceremony. Like most milestones, harvest has been enveloped in the growth of progress and forgotten. The old man spoke again.
“Of course harvest was of greater significance in those days, for if harvest was poor, hardship and deprivation would be the farmworker’s constant companion throughout the year, that’s why there was such joy and genuine thanksgiving when the crop was safe home.”
I received a mental picture of a field heavy with ripened wheat, the hard fat grains shimmering in the heat of summer and gold sheathed stems, faint bowed by heavy heads, stood as if they themselves were in prayer. Then I saw beneath this deeply moving scene, the reality of sweat and toil, of aching backs, parched throats and calloused hands. And yet the workers could still infuse a gaiety into the drudgery; even at the end of the last long day, they still had energy to laugh and sing and chase the girls across the fields. Although there is still much hard work to be done at harvest time, the worker’s nagging fear of a crop failure is gone; the direct contact between harvester and Mother Earth has been severed and much of the toil has disappeared – but then so has much of the gaiety.
My old friend stood up and stretched.
“Even if it was a bad harvest,” he said glancing at his watch, (it was two hours past opening time), “there would always be a sheaf put to one side for the festival, partly as thanksgiving for that already received, no matter how little this might be, and partly as a prayer for the future.”
I took down my leather-bound jacket from the back door and thought of Longfellow’s words: ‘Like flames upon the alter shine the sheaves,’ flames that took a year to kindle, a year of energy which, if funnelled into a second, could move a mountain.
Strolling towards the Nag’s Head in the cool, green evening, my face stinging from the noon day sun, I suddenly remembered something.
“By the way,” I said, “what exactly was it you came to see me about?”
A Sign of the Times
Things are changing around us all the time and when one lives with and through these changes it can be very difficult to tell when they occur. Changes are more evident and in many cases more startling when one returns to a scene of bygone years, and this has never been made more clear to me than now as I sit beside a signpost in an Essex lane. It is a contrast so shocking that it has left me quite numb, and it is difficult to understand how not only the facial character, but also the spiritual character of the countryside can be altered beyond recognition.
Some five years ago, I holidayed with friends who lived in south east Essex. One morning I crossed the meadow at the rear of the cottage and entered Ten Acres which sloped gently to the woods below. The full heat of the summer had abated to the mildness of early autumn and great mountains of cumulous, creamy topped, towered above me, their shadows coursing silently over the yellow-grey stubble. Two glistening sea gulls above the oaks did verbal battle with a colony of rooks quarrelling in the elms and, far above, it seemed a thousand larks were singing. Blackberries, some bright red others over-ripe and heavy with juice, shaded themselves in the hedgerow, and beside a weathered bale of straw, forgotten perhaps or left too wet for carting, a grass snake basked in the sun.
Gazing down the green slope, there came within me a sudden desire to run, to stretch my legs in great leaping strides, to see the hedgerows flash by in a blur and to feel the mild air stream about me. I wanted to race the wind that went tumbling down the hill to the woods below. Twenty years earlier the desire would have been satiated without further thought, but time passes and the unconscious brakes of inhibition condemn these simple pleasures to the memory’s store. For one brief second I was a young boy again about to satisfy a desire, but then all too soon, I was a man again, and grown men are not expected to behave in such a manner. To see a child walking along the road in an orderly fashion one moment and then break into a mad gallop the next is an occurrence accepted without question, but many an eyebrow would be raised if I were to do such a thing now. Such are the any simple pleasures we must perforce leave aside as we grow up. There are of course many other pleasures which take their place, but even so the illogical, spontaneous desires of childhood every so often burst within the heart and flood the mind with memories.
I had reached the wood and was a boy once more. Gazing above, I felt a sudden desire to reach up and haul myself into the green branches. One can climb a tree a hundred times and go up and come down a hundred different ways. I think perhaps it is the additional dimension which gives tree climbing that extra fascination, for if one explores an area of ground, one has but two dimensions to contend with, but up here in a green swaying arbour, one has a third. In the fullness of summer, high up in the sycamores and the chestnuts, there are green caverns to explore, and the diverging paths that disappear into the foliage above lure one on to the very top where, in green shrouded secrecy, one can survey the surrounding terrain.
To me, and no doubt to a large number of other adults, these things still hold a fascination and most of us are able to fulfil these old desires in one way or another. It may be by toying with model railways or messing about in boats; it may be by dressing for the local amateur dramatics or taking part in a sport. On the other hand, it may be by casting a furtive glance over the shoulder and climbing a tree.
After walking for an hour or so, I came upon a signpost beside an open gate and, finally bowing to the truth that I am no longer a boy, I sat beside the gate to rest my weary legs. The foliage of the countryside had turned a very dark green, almost brown in fact, heralding an early autumn. The grass between the drills of faded stubble would not grow much higher now. It had been an early year altogether and quite a large number of farmers had managed a second cut of hay. Now the harvest was done and the good earth awaited the plough and the frost. Hawthorn berries were an abundant red across the headland and a distant skein of Friesians grazed their way slowly across the skyline above. A tit leapt across my view and into a thicket close by and made the shiny red rose-hips dance. All around was the gentle yet positive movement of life. It was something to be not only seen, but felt. Little did I realise then how all this was to be changed.
Now five years have passed and I am once more beside the signpost, but this year the summer has been short. Already the trees are bare and possess that clipped appearance of a Hilder autumnal study. The tall grasses in the leafless hedgerows bend stiffly beneath the chilly winds which have been noticeable this past month. Gone is the suppleness in their sway, gone is the living green from their stems. Soon a wintry gale will snap and blow them into the ditches to join the ghosts of previous years. The lanes are filled with dead leaves, but no longer do they echo with the laughter of children as they wade knee deep through them, for nobody comes this way now. The gate hangs askew on its rusty hinges and needs to be lifted and torn from the coarse grasses which grasp the bottom rail. Such action however, is not necessary, for although the signpost once read ‘Public Footpath’, no one walks this way now. The letters are illegible and covered with green lichen, and around its rotting base a small ivy begins to reach for the sky. The footpath which ran diagonally across the field is no longer to be seen, not that this matters either, for the tiny lane bears no traveller save that of the drifting mists of autumn.
(R.F. Hilder (1905 – 1993), an English marine and landscape artist and book illustrator).
I gazed at the signpost and thought of the sweat that went into the making of it. Strong backs bent to dig the hole, strong arms lifted the stout wooden post. A craftsman’s eye morticed in the sign that is as square today as it ever was. The painted letters have peeled and left but a ghost on the woodwork. It doesn’t matter anyway, for no one passes this way now. But it used to lead somewhere. For someone the sign pointed to journey’s end; once cows scratched their necks upon it and children used it as a target for throwing pebbles. But now it merely points to the wind. There is a strange silence in the sky. No rooks, gulls or larks can I hear; no animals rustling in the hedgerows. Never have I witnessed such an empty land, a land so void of life and feeling. Although the wind is cold upon my neck, I cannot hear it in the trees and the dead leaves, sodden from the wandering mists, make no sound as they fling themselves at my boots. The ditches have filled with rotted vegetation and the water has spread. Marsh grasses and wild flock have appeared for a brief spell of life. And brief it will be, for six months from now, the new town will be born.
Once I worked among green hills
And as I worked I sang, oh yes
I sang mid the trees, in echoing woods
And o’er the dewy fields.
I sang with the rising lark, whose voice
Cascaded from above,
I sang always a joyous song
Of those things that I love.
My orchestra came from the wind,
From trickling brooks and rustling leaves,
From earth below and all about,
E’en heaven’s lofty eaves.
But now my green hills lay beneath
A glaring concrete face
And where once sang the blackbird’s heart,
Ten thousand people pace.
So now accompaniment have I none,
Nor reason for to sing.
My heart they buried ‘neath the stone
When marched the new town in.
There is a great expectancy in waiting for the snow to begin. Sometimes the snow comes with the wind when the trees are flailing and the Ruddock ruffles his breath beneath the trembling ivy. Then, the contours of the land become accentuated, blackened on the leeward side to eye-shocking contrast to the whiteness on each other. Each iron furrow stands in stark relief, a symbol of winter’s Herculean grip. And where the skimming flakes have hurled themselves upon the wooded hills, each twig upon every branch, each branch upon every tree, hugs close a spectral image and hazel coppices become an abstraction of diverging verticals.
Sometimes however, the snow comes upon us unheralded; its approach is silent; no movement is seen among the fields or felt upon the cheek. Somewhere below, the dormouse sleeps, and as the sparrow waits in the hedge I find myself walking with reverent steps as if, when in a house of worship, one feels the presence of the graven saints. Eventually I must pause in my tracks, feeling guilty of the very movement of my limbs when all else is still; and in the greyness of the sky there is but the faintest suggestion of pink. On a woodland bank the adventurous lesser periwinkle displays a solitary blue flower and from the old red-brick garden wall of the big house on the hill, the ivy casts down a leaf that slips rhythmically from side to side like the baton of the music teacher in the village school below. The leaf touches the ground and a snowflake touches the cheek. The eye is directed from the sky to the black background of the woods and a million flakes are seen; a million pieces of perfection yet each one different to the other. In the classroom below thirty pairs of wide eyes turn to the window and the rising undercurrent of excitement is checked by the teacher’s baton. I would indeed be guilty of a grave hypocrisy if I were to say that only young hearts flutter with excitement at this particular moment, for I too have never outgrown my love for the snow and look forward to the white, silent world to come.
Of course, snow brings with it its hardships as do the frosts, the winds and the rains. They bring discomfort and sometimes death to the aged, the sick and to the wildlife about us. But then so do the searing hot summers that parch the earth and lay heavy upon the fevered brow. Always there is something inimical to or destructive of life, yet at the same time and in many cases because of it, life is somehow strengthened. I remember how uneasy I once felt when harrowing a field of oats for the very first time. The teeth of the harrow clawed at the tender green shoots, breaking and bruising them, threatening to tear them bodily from the soil. Had I misunderstood my employer’s instructions? Was this really what he wanted me to do? And yet two months later, despite its apparent destruction, there stood before me a field of rippling, luscious green. If we were to hate all things that displayed an ugly side, there would be nothing left in the world to love.
This morning the window panes were covered with acanthus and the sun was a flat yellow disc that could be viewed without hurt to the eye. The mist seemed to smooth the scene into a two dimensional pasteboard picture which gave the impression that I could reach out and touch the pastel blue hills across the valley. I donned an additional thick-knitted woollen jersey, pulled on my gumboots and gloves and stepped from the warm steamy kitchen into the sparkling garden. The brilliance and frostiness of the air sent the blood racing to my cheeks and my ears began to tingle. In the piggery at the bottom of the garden, a mother sow with her nine three week old piglets were taking the air. The little ‘piggles’ as they were sometimes called in this area, were racing around with their snouts down, like little pink snow ploughs forging furrows in the frost encrusted snow. As I approached, their heads jerked up and, like tiny pink statues, they eyed me for a brief second before turning on their heels and hurtling across the piggery barking (or were they laughing) at the morning sun. The impression of nudity that young piglets must give must be seen to be believed, and the sight of these nude little bodies coursing through the snow set me shivering. I once heard of a sow who, in preference to the warm, dry sty supplied by her human master, built her nest in the corner of a field, and nothing on earth would induce her to return to the comfort of the ‘maternity’ ward. Early the following, bitterly cold, morning, she was found burrowed deeply within her nest with an army of piglets lined up at the milk bar with the most ridiculous expressions of contentment upon their faces. Not ten feet distant, a robin alighted on the solid water of the cattle trough and proclaimed the good news to the world.
However, it was too cold to stand watching the antics of these endearing little creatures (I dare not think of the hours wasted in this way during the warmer days) so I entered the lane that led to the fields. The dull klunk klunk of axe striking wood came to my ears and I saw through a gap in the snow-bound hedge the rhythmic rise and fall of my neighbour’s arm as he stooped over a pile of logs. The sound bounced across the fields to the woods and back again with such clarity, that I half expected the echo to continue as he laid his axe aside. He saw me, nodded at me and said, “Morning”. I nodded at him. “Morning”.
The countryman has an almost psycho-analytic method of extracting information from the unwary traveller. By a few pointed remarks or statements he finds out all he wants to know without having asked a single question. Having lived in the countryside for half my life, I have developed to a lesser degree the same technique. I did verbal battle with him for five minutes but my defences began to crumble when he said, “Better watch that plank over the stream, bound to be slippery with all that frost on it.”
“I expect it is,” I said, “Still, the tread of these boots is almost new.”
Now he knew where I was going, for the plank in question bridged the stream that ran along the north side of the woods.
“Surprising how much longer it takes to get across country when there’s frost and snow about.” He peered at me from the corners of his eyes. “Best get a move on or else you’ll be late.”
I gave in.
“That’s true, but then I’m only out for a stroll.”
Questioning my sanity, he returned to his chopping and I to my walk.
It has often been said by the townsman (although having spent most of my childhood in the grimy streets of Greenwich I no longer regard myself as a townsman) that the countryside is ‘all very well’ in summer, but ‘muddy, dismal and uninteresting’ in winter. Muddy it may well be, but it is clean mud, untainted by diesel oil, slime and soot. As for being dismal, are they so blind they cannot see the beauty in a curtain of falling rain brushing the distant hills, or hear the music of a million drops of water among the shining leaves or smell the fragrance of freshly dampened earth? Can they not see the beauty that I see now, of glistening white lacework of the frosted elms against a crystal clear sky, and undulating fields of virgin snow, pure and smooth, a countenance of innocence that has yet to bear the mark of man’s impropriety?
In the days of winter when the hedgerows are empty and the ditches and river banks laid bare, one can discover more easily the badger’s sett or the otter’s holt. One is able to make a mental note of where the blackbird is likely to build his nest; perhaps the disused nest of a song thrush now exposed by the skeletal hedge will eventually house the spotted white eggs of the blue tit in the warm days of May to come. Close scrutiny of tree and bush will reveal a host of living green buds wrapped tightly in their protective coats; life is expanding beneath the frozen ground, straining to burst forth, and even as the blackbird sings, the lambs are falling. The countryside in winter is not dead; there is life, vibrant and pulsing as the blood in one’s veins. It is all around, above one’s head and below one’s feet. It is not winter that dispels life, but life that dispels winter. The immigrant swift brings with it the warm southern winds and life throughout the land erupts, forcing the icy blasts, the snows and the frosts into the North Atlantic. And after all, without winter, there would be no spring.
Follow Your Nose
My father had a nose for pubs, there’s no denying that! Noses were always a prominent feature of the Redford family and very sensitive instruments they are too. I remember when my brother and I were still at school, how mother would pack a shopping bag with sandwiches, apples and flasks of tea and early on Sunday mornings the whole family would disappear into the countryside. We were then living in South East London and we would take advantage of every opportunity to escape into the freedom and quietude of Kent. I was born in Sydenham and my father also was a native of that area, but when he was a boy, the green fields of Kent came rolling to within easy view from his back door. Now alas, time has stamped these green fields with the concrete monotony of suburbia. So it was that many a fine Sunday morning would see the Redford family making a bee-line for Shoreham just north of Sevenoaks. Shoreham was our stepping off point and in those distant days it seemed a million miles from London. My grandmother used to work at the Crown Hotel there and we were permitted to leave our bicycles in the garden while we plunged into the green depths of the surrounding countryside. Towards noon father would suggest that we find a pub where we could revive our flagging energy and eat our sandwiches and, pausing awhile, he would gaze around and say, “Let’s try over there.” Over the hill we would go and, sure enough, the very first building we would come to would be a pub. Now this never failed. It mattered not what part of the British Isles we were in, ‘Dad’s Nose’ was an infallible receiver and every pub a homing beacon. In this way, father had built up over the years, a storehouse of information concerning pubs in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Sometimes a friend of the family would arrive at the house and suggest that we all take a trip out somewhere and have a drink. “I’ve found a nice little pub at Luddesdowne,” they would say, “The Red Lion I think it is.”
Father’s mental filing cabinet would whirr into action and he’d say, “Ah yes, you mean the Golden Lion. Lays down in the dip alongside an orchard. Landlord’s name is Bert.”
I have never known my father to be caught out by a pub he didn’t know, although there was one occasion however, when father’s probosciscal (sic) infallibility received a severe jolt. While living for a short period in Basildon New Town in Essex we sometimes took a stroll to Stock on Sunday mornings. This was a distance of some ten miles and we usually timed our arrival at Stock to coincide with opening time. On our first expedition however, we mistimed ourselves badly. We had walked only as far as Great Burstead when the pubs began to open and so we decided against going on to Stock that morning for it would almost have been closing time by the time we reached our goal. Following Dad’s nose, we turned off the main road and climbed the hill in the direction of Little Burstead. At the top, among elm and oak, stood an old grey church. Nestling beside this in the shadow of its spire was a small weather-boarded building that displayed all the characteristics of an Essex pub. There were only a dozen or so other buildings in sight which were quite obviously private dwellings, so we walked up to the leaning timbers beside the church. I was stunned and father was puzzled. Above the door was a sign which read ‘Village Stores – Newsagents – Tobacconists – Confectioners’. This was something I could never have dreamt possible, father had failed and the honour of a long line of Redford noses had been thwarted. This nagging failure prompted my father to do a little research, the results of which, in our collective view, reinstated the Redford’s nose to its rightful place in history. The village stores was once the King’s Arms, a very old inn that dated back to the seventeenth century. It stands along one side of the graveyard and, in days gone by, when the worthy patrons drank their ale in the back parlour, they could look out of the bar windows onto the tombstones, and it was for this reason that the inn was also known as Dead Man’s Rattle.
However, I must not give you dear reader a false impression of the Redford’s standards of propriety and morality. We are not inveterate drunkards, but merely people who enjoy a pint of beer in congenial company and in congenial surroundings. The Redford nose is not sensitive to only yeast and hops, but is also most appreciative of other aromas. The nostalgic scent of honeysuckle on a damp summer’s eve for example. It is surprising how far the scent is carried when the air is damp. I have on one occasion been aware of the sweet tangle of honeysuckle a full two hundred yards before reaching it. Of course, not all the smells of the countryside are as attractive, and here most people will automatically think of the many muck heaps dotted about the landscape and although one can hardly describe the scent of these as attractive, I personally do not place them in the unattractive category, for a muck heap that has ‘made’ well emanates a virile, earthy aroma that gives promise of future bumper crops. The smell which immediately comes to mind in this category is that of the Stink Horn, the woodland fungus that gives off an overpowering stench of putrefying flesh and is attractive only to the bloated blue-bottle which is the curse of all rural ramblers. The ammoniac-al smell of stables is offensive to some people, but I have many happy early memories connected with horses and I find it difficult to pass by a stable without pausing and conversing with the inhabitants, and even if there are no horses at home, I will stop, stand and stare. Anyway, it is surprising how it clears the head.
One fine spring morning I visited a farmer friend of mine, but I arrived five minutes after he had left for Monk’s Tye, a fifteen acre field somewhere on the other side of the farm. I told his wife who had opened the door to me, that I wasn’t familiar with the layout of the fields.
“That’s alright,” she beamed, “Yer can’t miss ‘im. ‘E’s fixing the fence ‘longside the bean field – just foller yer nose.”
I went to the end of the stackyard, sucked my forefinger and stabbed it into the air. A mild breeze from the west was moving the tree-tops and borne upon it was the unmistakably sweet, and to my mind, the most glorious country smell of all, that of a bean field. I faced the zephyr and tacked across the fields. It was a cup of sweet wine that I drank with unashamed intemperance.
At one period during my military days when I was transferred to Egypt, we embarked upon an exercise that took us trekking across the Sinai Desert to St. Cathrine’s Monastery. In the heart of that leafless and shale-covered land cradled in the depths of silence and time, it struck me how different was the smell of the air to that of an English day. I have always been of the mind that pleasure is the product of sensual contrasts and this certainly holds true in this instance for, although I had always delighted in the scent of a field of well-made hay or a breeze heavy with the sweet scent of a bluebell wood, I have never appreciated them more than on my return from that arid land. So marked was the contrast and so great the ensuing pleasure, that I was moved to write the following lines:-
Ne’re before, ‘till I went away
From England, did an English day
Seem quite so fair. No line ‘twixt earth
And sky so soft, no scene so dearly
Held within the memory’s store
For man’s old age to reap.
A golden sun o’er greenest grass,
The whitest clouds the azure dusts,
And gentle is the soft warm breath
That lifts the lark and cools
The summer’s day.
Low wind the lanes ‘twixt hedgerows
Honeysuckle scented, trees clasp their
Fingertips above in trembling sway,
And softly rustling chestnut leaves
So green, turn gold against the sun,
Their echoes of a year gone by –
The hunting ground of stoat and fox.
The slow warm hours the humming
Insects ride and dart, the trickling
Streams the hot stones smooth,
And slowly pass the whiles of dusk
Across the silent fields once more.
The Agricultural Show
Walking for pleasure is one thing, walking because you have to is another, but in between the two comes walking round an agricultural show. This of course, is purely self-imposed and must surely be classed as walking for pleasure, for the majority who attend do so without thought of executing any business. Yet the final effect at the end of the day is the same as if one had been ordered on a route march across the Sinai Desert. With swollen feet and aching backs the hosts disperse towards evening and flop lifelessly into their cars, their faces and neck still sizzling from the heat of the day. Of course some shows are ill-fated with regard to the weather while others have not known a wet day for perhaps a quarter of a century, but on the whole, the shows fare well, the majority being held between the months of June and August. This however is rather an unfortunate time to hold a show for it is normally a hectic time of the farm, what with mowing, baling and stacking hay. It is even more unfortunate if a tractor laden with a couple of tons of hay (and it usually is at times like this) breaks down in the middle of a field, for an urgent call to the local agricultural engineers will receive the reply – “I’m sorry sir, but all the mechanics are at the show.”
Although each being in this world is an individual, the milling mass at an agricultural show can be divided into four main groups and if the truth were known there is to me, as much delight in studying the people as in studying the latest advances in agricultural technology. (Taking this one stage further, I wonder how often it is I who have been the object of study).
I do not however include in these groups competitors for the equestrian events, for they and their retinues are a species apart and one could devote a sizeable volume to them alone. Neither do I include the wide-eyed children who dart here, there and everywhere, sucking ice creams and soggy hot dogs, climbing onto tractors and falling into milk churns. The first of the groups is the ‘immaculate’ group. It is the bowler-deer-stalker hatted group that walks with militant step and serious face and prods at little pieces of paper with its shooting sticks. The majority of this group have dangling from their lapels little cardboard discs with ‘Official’, ‘Judge’ or ‘Member’ stamped upon it in gold, and includes the ‘upper crust’, the gentleman farmer and the estate owner. They wear either a bow tie or a club tie or maybe an old boy’s school tie.
The next group is that of the working farmer. Here the hats have turned into soft, tweedy trilbies or pork pies. There is a slight roundness of shoulder and the stride is long and loping. The gait appears clumsy, yet after years of striding ploughed fields and climbing stacks, most farmers are as sure footed as mountain goats. A young fourteen year old friend of mine is a supreme example of this. He can skim across a freshly ploughed field like a hare and still keep pace with someone running on the flat. Pipes and old walking sticks are the armaments of this group and are used to challenge, prod and probe new machinery or inspect the rows of tethered beasts waiting to enter the show ring. This group is generally of a suspicious nature, non-committal and not easily swayed by the remarkable time, money and labour saving claims of the mountainous pile of literature thrust eagerly into its hands. At the entrance to the trade stand beams the host. He laughs very easily and his handshake is somewhat violent. “Hello there, wonderful to see you again old boy, come in and have a drink.” They disappear into the dim world of heaving canvass and creaking ropes.
The group that is always well represented at the shows is that of the farm worker. He arrives in his best suit, polished boots and cap, his face can be likened to a bake potato and his smile is broader and more frequent than those of the other groups. Unaccustomed to this mode of dress, it is not long before the tie is removed and the shirt front unbuttoned. Soon the jacket comes off and is stuffed into the shopping bag containing the day’s ‘wittals’. Some even go so far as to remove the cap, though why they should have the desire to do so on this particular day is beyond me, for judging from the pure white band on the upper part of their foreheads, the cap is never removed from one year’s end to the other. He is disgusted at prices in the beer tent, but tolerates this as being one of the prices to be paid for a rare day’s outing with the family. Old acquaintances are renewed more in this group than in the others, for farm workers move around more than farmers. Friendly insults are bandied about and a sly drink is attempted before the womenfolk can find them and drag them off to the Women’s Institute tent.
The final group belongs to those whose only connection with country life is an occasional weekend outing in the car. It consists of those who have farmed only in their dreams or whose children have a strong leaning in that direction. Although their attire is variable, this group can normally be segregated by their complexions. Even those who have communed with the elements for a fortnight whilst on holiday do not achieve the deeply ingrained weathering of the farm worker’s face. It is a purely superficial mask through which the white lines of the brow, furrowed from the unaccustomed glare of the sun, can be detected. Apart from this there is no strong characteristic linking these people together as a group for they all come from different walks of life. Perhaps they walk a little faster than most and do not linger long in any one place, but no matter how disconnected this group is within itself, it can claim one thing in common with the rest and that is, a keen interest in farming or some aspect of country life.
On passing through the gates of a country or agricultural show, I invariably make for the little kiosk which sells the catalogues and on the map therein, I religiously trace out a route between the various avenues. This route is designed to take me round to every trade stand, exhibition and demonstration in the shortest distance, retracing my steps as little as possible. Having completed this task, an outstanding display a little way up the centre avenue catches my eye, so, thrusting the catalogue into my pocket, I decide to see what it’s all about. My curiosity satisfied, I am attracted to a large group of people huddled around a mysterious object on display a little further down the line. By the time I have made the front row, all thoughts of adhering to the route so meticulously worked out, have left me. This happens every time I attend an agricultural show and I invariably end up by walking ten times as far as is necessary. But so what? Most of our lives have too great a proportion of it already ordered for us; there is far too much routine. What matters it if we do cover the same ground twice? One can always discover some fresh point of interest that had been passed by first time round.
A Letter of Two Parts
Dear Pat and John
I thought it high time I dropped another letter from the country into the post. Looking back over the past summer months seems more like looking back over a bleak and stormy winter. The weather has of course played havoc with the haymaking and harvesting. I hear that at one time, medium quality hay was fetching nearly £20 per ton, and taking into account the wide-spread flooding that has occurred, it seems there’ll not be enough oat straw to feed in place of it. With this drastic shortage of hay and straw, the outlook is black indeed.
Even as I write, the rain is beating alarmingly against the window panes, borne upon a gale that roars like an express up the valley, each gust falling over the next in its haste to wreak havoc on the exposed hills. As I gaze through the window pane distorted with rivulets and splashes, I perceive a hazy image of grey hills shouldering leaden clouds, and every few minutes the wind rattles the frame and comes sighing down the chimney. The whole house shudders a little and a log in the hearth slips, sending up a shower of sparks to meet the confusion above. The fields are in a sorry state. Most of the corn has been lodged as if trampled by some strident giant, fences have been breached by falling trees and many sheep throughout the country have been drowned in the spreading waters.
There was a period two weeks ago when the tempest eased a little and allowed a little watery sun into our eyes, but this lasted for only seven days, after which the rain set in again and eased up only occasionally for an odd day here and there. We have managed to stack about half the oats, but the remainder will probably have to be written off. The wheat would have encountered a similar fate had it not been for the three hired combines.
Now here once again are the winds and the rains. A dead leaf, too sodden to absorb any more water is whipped across the window and trembles for a brief second on the sill before joining the hosts that cling to the chicken coop wire. Incidentally, I’d better put this letter to one side for a moment in order to collect the eggs before the half light fades completely.
* * * * * * * *
Dear Pat and John,
I’ve had to restart this letter. Owing to this sudden bright spell we’ve been working like mad trying to catch up on the backlog of harvesting and general repairs. I started this letter well over two weeks ago but I’m afraid I’ve not had time to finish it until now. It is remarkable how the view has changed outside my window. The country scene these past few days has been one of violent human and mechanical activity.
Implements of all shapes, sizes and colours have erupted from their unusual passiveness and are droning, roaring and rattling over the soil. A combine harvester, like a metal monster from a Wells novel, trundles ponderously across the field, digesting the grain and vomiting the residue in its wake. Tractors career madly through the lanes, heave with throbbing effort towering loads of sheaves and haul balers which follow on, nodding idiotically like inane sheep. Men race fervently against time commanding machines, pitching sheaves, building stacks, their pitchforks leaping and flashing under the sun. Farmers and farm workers alike are conscious of the urgency of the hour, but no clock watching for them, they are eager to see the culmination of a years’ hard work. To these men, their work is not merely a means of earning a living, it is something far more than this, something far more personal and important to them as individuals. These men work not so much for their employers but with them, and it is through this combined effort that the tempestuous vagaries of the past year have been overcome.
If a machine breaks down, there is a curse and several pairs of hands are immediately locating the trouble. They may not be expert mechanics but farm workers are masters of improvisation and no machine is standing idle for long. It is this knack of ‘making do’ that is the seed of many weird and wonderful machines that have appeared on the agricultural scene, and it would indeed be difficult to find any industry which has produced in such a short period of time a greater range of impossible machines to tackle such improbable tasks. No doubt to the layman it would appear that with all these modern innovations, the life of the farm worker today is almost as idyllic as the sentimentalised conception of the pseudo-bucolic poets of the seventeenth century:-
“O happy life, if that their good
The husbandman but understood.
Who all the day themselves do please …”
Whenever a new acquaintance asks the nature of my work they are, on being told, shocked into silent disbelief. Apparently I neither look like a farm labourer nor do I sound like one (how does such a person look and sound), and henceforth I am re-introduced either as a farmer or, by those who are more sensitive towards the truth, as being ‘in farming’, thereby implying that I own vast acres and hunt every Tuesday and Saturday. A wistful ‘back to the land’ look then enters the eye. “I’ve always wanted to work on a farm” they sigh. No doubt there have been insuperable obstacles in ambition’s path for many people, but surely not all, and I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t bemoan his lot in town and gaze longingly at the green hills. And just as a point of interest, I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t have an uncle somewhere who owns a farm.
Their conception of farming today seems even more idyllic than that of their fathers’. Machines, they say, have taken the hard work out of farming, all we have to do is sit on a tractor all day and press buttons. Perhaps they would like to spend a day stacking bales of hay under a sizzling hot roof of a Dutch barn, or perhaps after a sixteen hour day during harvest, [perhaps] they would like to sit up all night with a cow who is having a difficult time calving and work another sixteen hours the following day, and the day after that. Unless a farmer specialises in a line for which a particular machine or implement has been designed, then it is not economical to purchase that machine. For example, a man with just one house cow would find it uneconomical to install a completely automatic milking unit, but even where this is justified, as in the case of larger herds, the farmer or herdsman still has to rise at five o’clock on a bitterly cold winter’s morning seven days a week. The advent of the machine has not necessarily lessened the amount of hard work to be done, it has merely allowed us to do more work in a given amount of time. In fact, it is because of the machine that the herdsman’s lot today is becoming an increasingly intolerable one.
An old friend of mine once milked twenty five cows night and morning with two machines. He know his cows and his cows knew him. Although he did not rush things, he was efficient. He would stand aside as the cows came into the shed and cast his eye over each one, and as he milked, he ran his hand over their coats and looked at their droppings. Old Charlie could tell immediately if one of the animals was off colour. Then his employer retired and a young, progressive farmer moved in. Fortunately he ask Charlie to stay on as cowman. Now, Charlie milks sixty cows night and morning with four machines in a well-parlour. On being asked how he liked the new system, the old cowman sighed.
“Well I dunno. We gets the milk, that’s fer sure, but ‘tis like working in a factory. There’s pipes, tubes, valves, taps an’ switches everywhere. The animals go through the parlour like a dose o’ salts – you’ve ‘ardly got time to wash their bags. All you can see of ‘em is one side, their guts might be ‘anging out the other fer all I know.” His addendum, I think, summed up his real grievance.
“Trouble is – I ‘ent got enough time to get to know me animals.”
What could once be classified as a pleasurable occupation was now, through the advent of the machine, become a tiresome chore, and as mechanisation infiltrates more and more, so true herdsmanship is disappearing. The reticent paragon of tolerance, that slow, amiable patient being that was once the cowmen, is now being pushed aside to make way for the impatient, ulcer-ridden milker of high speed conveyer-type milk production of today, so much so in fact, that on some larger farms, milkers are already working a shift system to break the seven day a week monotony.
I can foresee in the not so distant future, a herd of a thousand or more cows, zero grazed, moving almost continuously through a system of yards and parlours twice every twenty four hours. In the parlours, shift work will be in progress with round the clock milking. The milk will be pumped through to the distribution. The organisation will manufacture its own concentrates, will employ its own veterinary surgeon, accountant and secretary and will have a resident Ministry Inspector equipped with his own laboratory. And of course the whole concern will be owned by the big industrialists of the day. This is not such an improbability as may at first appear for this has already happened to a great degree to some of our poultry farms. There are now vast empires where eggs are fed into one end of a building and emerge twelve weeks later at the other as pre-packed chickens with their giblets frozen into little polythene bags inside them. Then there is the abomination of the sweat box and battery systems of meat production. Agricultural evolution has reached a point where farming, as we know it, is slowly but surely plunging into self-annihilation and dragging down with it the responsibility of moral thought into a morass of turpitude. We are entering an age of hydroponic systems where an agricultural technocracy permits controlled environment and mass production of living creatures to an extent unparalleled in human history. It is as if we have forgotten that we are dealing with life itself and not inanimate lumps of putty waiting to be moulded into any shape by the current market. Yet if the farmers of today do not keep abreast of [the] latest scientific developments, they would find it almost impossible to feed themselves let alone provide food for others. Even so, despite the fact that agricultural efficiency and production have increased beyond the wildest dreams of great pioneers such as John Lawes and Sir Humphry Davy, people are still dying in their thousands for want of food. Despite the fact that there is enough food produced throughout the world in any one year to supply mankind with the essentials of life for the next twenty, the bloated belly of the beggar is still a common sight in the greater part of the world. It is not, therefore, research into agricultural production methods which is urgently needed, but research into the distribution of those products. It is in this sphere that the great fields of ignorance lay.
But let me rein back awhile for I have digressed too far. This letter to you was intended to be a portrait of the countryside as I have seen it during the last two months, so now let me gaze upon the pastoral scene beyond my window. The cows have finished grazing and are lying in the meadow cudding methodically. The sun falls upon their backs like a warm blanket and a faint breeze fans their faces.
It was nine o’clock last night that the last load was brought home. Engines were switched off one by one across the fields and, as the evening star faded, Pegasus shimmered the in the warmth of dusk and gazed upon the southern elms. As the last sheaf was laid upon the stack, the year ended, our year, that is. George stood, hands on hips. Harry leaned upon his pitchfork. Alf and Arthur sat upon the trailer and Jim stood with one foot upon the wheel hub. In silence they gazed at the stack, each man with his own thoughts, each man reaping his own spiritual harvest.
“You’ll have a nice cut o’ hay here,” said George. The wizened little old man, long since retired from the land, stood beside me in the gateway of Garden Field. He has come to remove the debris that had fallen from the trees to prevent damage to the mower. Like most retired land-workers he is unable to keep the soil of the fields from his boots, and one can find him in every village throughout the British Isles hedging, ditching, clearing odd corners of scrub with scythe and sickle and caring for the vicar’s garden. To these men, there is an attraction so binding to the land, that to continue working thereon has become essential to their very existence. It seems they draw the very essence of life direct from the soil, just as the unborn infant draws its life direct from its mother, and if this contact, this life-line is broken, so also is his life. One has merely to talk with these old men for an hour to sense their affinity with and philosophy of the land, and I am convinced that it would quite literally kill many of them if they were to be taken from it. An acquaintance once questioned the economics of employing these old ‘jobbers’ and suggested that it was merely a charitable act that enables the old men to feel useful, and I thought of old George ambling around the perimeter of Garden Field picking up dead branches and stones. In the first instance the old man had given me half an hour of time to attend to other more pressing matters. Secondly, his action of clearing the land of obstructions was quite possibly instrumental in preventing a broken mower knife or con-rod, and when taking into account the precarious weather conditions under which hay is made in this country, any delay could mean the difference between a field of good hay and a field of bad or maybe even a complete loss, and with good hay sometimes fetching £15 per ton and more, this could result in a considerable saving. So what price an old man’s labour?
There is a great satisfaction in using a clean cutting tool, be it a pen-knife or a scythe. Now unfortunately, the less harmonious clatter of a power driven mower has long since dimmed the sweet song of a scythe and men in the hay meadows no longer sway to its rhythm. Nevertheless, there manifests within me a great sense of well-being each time I see the graceful stems fall into neat swathes as the mower encircles the ever diminishing island of standing green. The pollen lifts and the wagtail follows close behind feeding upon the moths and gnats that are started into flight upon a day sweet with a green aroma. Soon comes the last sweep of the mower in the centre of the field. It is an act full of purpose and symbolism that makes me hesitate before felling those last few stems. It is I think, that the finality of the last cut brings about a sense of completeness, a completeness that is magnified by the silence when the mower has ceased to clatter and the tractor engine is switched off, when the only sound to be heard is the song of a lark out of sight, high above the dust laden air.
The following day, when the June sun has lifted the dew from the fields, the grass can be shaken up to let in the drying breezes, and it is towards the end of a good drying day that the green harvest begins to ‘rustle’ and emanates that exhilarating aroma of ‘making’ hay. There are many jobs to be done on the farm some of which are dull and monotonous, and I must confess to a tendency of leaving such tasks to the very last minute. But hay-making is not one of these jobs. Even at the end of a hot, dry day of turning, tedding and windrowing, I reap a great deal of pleasure from strolling alone between the dry, fluffy rows, inhaling the richness, listening to the linnets, tits and chaffinches close at hand, and the distant echo of the cuckoo in the woods. Also in the woods the Blackcap, much mistaken for the nightingale, sings sweetly at this hour and is a welcomed guest upon my solitude. There are many such enchanting moments tucked away at odd intervals throughout the year, sandwiched between the bustle, toil and noise that nowadays fills most of our lives, and too often they pass unnoticed and without appreciation. The baler is the transgressor that ends these few hours of peace at hay-making. It is a great red monster that crashes into the calm, scaring the blackbirds and thrushes and littering the fields with bales of green, just as the child litters the nursery floor with his building blocks.
If there is one task on the farm nowadays that demands sweat and aching limbs, it is the pitching, carting and stacking of bales of hay. No time can be wasted in bringing them home for should the weather change, the feeding value could be washed right out and hay made fit for only bedding. Under a blazing July sun the throat becomes parched and the palms of the hands become calloused and shiny from gripping the pitch-fork. Hasty swigs from a brown bottle concealed in the cool shade of a hedge ooze forth seconds later as sweat. Hay particles stick to the body and gnats and flies buzz and bite. At times (if, for example, in a race against approaching storm clouds), the pace becomes so hectic that the sweat runs and blinds the eyes. Seeds and pieces of hay fall into the shirt and make their way down to the trouser belt where they stick and prick and scratch each time the body is bent to life another bale.
This work, weather permitting, continues day after day, and to those involved it seems like eternity, but sooner or later the very last bale is heaved upon the trailer, and the last, slow journey home is made with swaying load and creaking ropes.
Last year, Garden Field was put aside for the cows and old George was helping me move the electric fence. It was almost dinner time when we finished and we sat upon the headland whiling away the minutes in idle conversation. He had removed his jacket and was picking out the fluff from the corners of a pocket.
“It used to be my brother’s,” he said of the jacket, “he lived in Shropshire but passed on a few weeks back, and as I’m the only one of the family left, I had all his bits and pieces sent here.” He studied the jacket ruefully. “Didn’t find no pound notes in it though, just a bit o’ fluff and a few hay seeds,” he said flinging them into the wind. Now, as I stand staring at the bales stacked under the dutch barn, I find myself wondering how many stems of Shropshire grass there are within, and if left to ripen, how many seeds they would have produced. I often stand and stare, much to the annoyance of those around me, and think my little thoughts, for little thoughts quite often lead to bigger ones. This is, in fact, just how this essay came to be written.
Cows can be frustrating to say the least. If you are in a hurry, they are not; if you want to turn left, they will turn right; if you want them to come to you, they will walk slowly but surely from you (except, of course, when there is food in the offing). You can shout until you are blue in the face and, unless it is milking time, the only resultant effect will be an all pitying gaze from two enormous brown and blue eyes set in the most imperturbable face that nature has created.
My first introduction to the bovine species took place when I was about seven years old. My parents, brother and I were on a picnic in Kent and on that particular day I was a fearless explorer penetrating the depths of the African jungle. This had stemmed from the fact that I had just finished reading a book called the Gorilla Hunters which had sparked my imagination into a riot of fantasy. Slipping unobserved into the undergrowth, I crawled upon all fours until I came upon a high, mossy bank surmounted by a thick, prickly hedge. Hearing an unfamiliar chomping sound coming from the other side, I wriggled into the hedge and poked my head through into a small meadow. I turned and gazed upwards and at the same instant, a cow who was hiding behind the hedge and who I swear was no less than fifty feet tall, turned and gazed down at me. Then, unable to contain herself any longer, the cow blew violently down her nose at me, turned on her heels, and shot across the field like a bullet kicking the air behind her as she went. I cannot recall ever seeing a cow move with quite so much speed. Neither, I suspect, would an observer have ever seen a small boy move with such speed. I rejoined the family scratched, breathless and as pale as a ghost, and shamelessly told the face-saving lie that I had been chased by a bull.
My opinions regarding the intelligence of cows has pendulated with the acquisition of experience. When I first worked with cows I noticed how, on entering the shed at milking time, they all went to their own particular stands, and had an animal for any reason entered the wrong stand, she was very soon ousted by the rightful occupier. This, I assumed, denoted intelligence. However, I was very soon to discover that cows are animals of habit and habits are no criteria of intelligence. Eventually I came to the conclusion that, because of its indolence and obstinacy, the cow was a complete and utter dim-wit. But once again, experiences of the past year have led me to the final conclusion that cows have a very good measure of intelligence. I milk for a local farmer one day a week to give his herdsman a much needed break from the seven day a week routine. He own a large farm with two herds of cows, a herd of Jerseys and a herd of Friesians. Milking is carried out in a modern tandem parlour with automatic feeding and ‘all mod cons’. When the animals enter the parlour they are fed by pulling a lever which releases just the right amount of food from a hopper into a manger. When the lever is pulled down, two pounds of food are released and when pushed back up, another two pounds. After a surprisingly short period of time, the cows become aware of the connection that existed between the action of the lever and the delivery of food. By contorting their bodies in a manner quite out of character with their natural movements, the cows discovered that they were able to reach the lever and very soon began pushing it down and returning it to the upright position to obtain an extra double helping of food. Indeed, one of the Friesian cows developed the knack of tossing the lever violently up and down in order to obtain an almost continuous supply of food. When her manger was almost full, she would struggle back to her normal position and attack the gargantuan meal before her.
However, with cattle cake costing over thirty five pounds per ton, this state of affairs had to be dealt with. We eventually overcame their antics by tying a piece of cord to the stanchion and looping the other end over the lever, so that in order to feed the cows, we would merely remove the loop, pull the lever and replace the loop. This system worked beautifully – for a while. It wasn’t long before the animals overcame this obstacle by pulling the loop from the lever themselves, despite the fact that this is a somewhat delicate operation for their great, cumbersome muzzles to perform. An interesting point that came to light during this period was that the Friesian cows were the worst offenders, whereas, out of a herd of twenty five Jerseys, only four managed to reach this standard of reasoning and acquired the knack of working the lever.
Yet despite their apparent superior intelligence, I have in my experience, found fewer ‘character’ cows among the Friesians. By ‘character’ cows I mean the bovine equivalent of the human being who is ‘a bit of a lad’ or rather ‘quite a girl’, the one who stands out in a crowd. One such a cow was Magatha, who was just about the ugliest little creature that I have ever seen. She was sway-backed, had a fawny-coloured coat with grey patches all over it and had a face too concave even for a Jersey. One ear had a lump torn from it and her ridiculous little head was beset by two crooked horns. Despite her lack of charm and elegance, for she waddled along in a most ungainly manner, she was the most endearing and affectionate cow I have ever met. At milking time she would always be last out of the field and last out of the shed and during the short walk between the two, she would creep up behind me and push her ugly little head under my arm and we would troop up the lane behind the herd like a couple of young lovers. On one occasion (I think it must have been a ‘morning after the night before’, for I wasn’t in a very benevolent mood), I failed to reciprocate her affections and instead gave her a hefty whack on the rump to speed her on her way. She countered this breach of etiquette by doing a half-passage and forcing me nearer and nearer to the side of the road. I realised too late what she was up to when I landed full length in the ditch running with effluent from the much heap. However, like all good lovers we made up and until the end of my stay at that particular farm, we could be seen every morning and every evening strolling arm in arm together along the lane.
“Trouble is, you can smell ‘em a mile off.” This was said not by a townsman as one would expect, but by a countryman. He was referring to pigs and his observation was indicative of the general opinion and stigma that has surrounded the pig from time immemorial. “The pig,” said Mrs Grundy, “is a disgusting creature of filthy habits who lives in a dark, odoriferous hovel and wallows in mud. It is a creature whose appetite can never be satiated and is like a dustbin on four legs that will receive almost anything into its ever-open mouth and will, without a flicker of conscience, steal the last morsel of food from its neighbour.” There is in fact a remarkable similarity between the pig and many humans. Perhaps these are strong words, but then the smell of a pig kept in such conditions is even stronger and whose fault is it but that of its keeper. The pig is essentially a clean animal. True, it loves to make a mud wallow in the corner of a field on a hot day when the gnats are biting, but one can hardly call this dirty, especially when some females of the human family pay to have it plastered all over their faces and the males of the species come home covered from head to foot after playing games all afternoon in it. Given plenty of clean straw, a sow will make a comfortable nest for herself and her offspring and will rarely foul her bed with droppings. She reserves the brightest corner of the sty for this and even the young piglets instinctively use this special corner without any training whatsoever. Because of this, it has been known for young pigs to be effectively house-trained. A pig enjoys his food, he takes no pains to disguise the fact, and is usually most grateful for any special tit-bit that comes his way, refusing the offering only when he is ill. Generally speaking, a hungry pig is a healthy pig.
Pigs are a happy and friendly people. They are never too preoccupied (except when feeding – and that goes for many humans as well) to pass the time of day, and will chatter away for as long as you care to stay. All they ask in return for the honour of their presence is a scratch behind the ear or a rub on the belly. Unlike most people I have pigs at the bottom of my garden – not fairies, and I invariably spend a couple of hours therein each day. After pottering around for some minutes there steals over me a strong feeling of a presence close at hand watching me with a purposeful eye destined to catch my attention. I turn and find myself gazing into the friendly face of old Split Ear, a black and white Essex sow who has lived at the piggery now for some six or seven years. Her name, though not very romantic, is appropriate, for her left ear had been rent asunder in her younger days from a fight with a barbed wire fence, and as the ears of this particular breed droop forward and cover the eyes, Split Ear would gaze quizzically at me through the hole in her ear, head cocked slightly to one side. In early days when I first made her acquaintance, this feeling of being watched was a little disturbing. She would stand stock still eyeing me in that cock-eyed manner of hers, noting with precision every move I made. I mistook her friendly gaze of interest for one of criticism and became so annoyed with her that, early one March morning, I hurled a cabbage stalk at her which bounced off her snout and landed at her feet. She sniffed at it, turned it over and, as she gazed up at me, I perceived that a delighted smile had spread across her face. From that moment on we became close friends, and we would pass away many a pleasant moment in each other’s company. I came to know and respect her many habits and fads and she in turn would confide in me her most intimate secrets. One fine spring morning she told me that she was twelve weeks gone and had only another three to go. We counted the days together and as she grew bigger and bigger and the great day approached, she developed a strong desire for sour apples. I would offer a selection of tasty morsels such as a cabbage leaf, a potato, a carrot and an apple. Each time she would eat the apple first and only when she realised that no more apples were forthcoming, would she set about devouring the remaining items. Eventually the great day arrived and she disappeared into the maternity ward. A week later, when he confinement was over, she proudly paraded her young ones before me for my inspection. There were fourteen in all and a very even bunch they were too. Normally a litter contains one or two piglets that are smaller and weaker than the rest, the runts, or cads as they are sometimes called, but old Split Ear’s troupe was so evenly matched, it was impossible to tell them apart.
All young animals have an innocence and a charm about them, but young piglets, to my mind, are the most endearing of all. Their character can be likened to those of mischievous little schoolboys, full of fun and pranks and as happy as the day is long. Often I would creep up on them unobserved to watch their antics, particularly on those days that invariably crop up from time to time when nothing goes right, and I am soon elevated from the doldrums by their uninhibited gaiety, it is a therapy that never fails. Approach them silently, enjoy their antics awhile, then step from your hiding place. Instantly they freeze into diminutive statues, poised on the very tips of their dainty toes and, with not a quiver of muscle between them, they peer wickedly at you from the corners of their eyes. Then suddenly, one of them will utter a staccato bark which is the signal for the tumult to continue. These little creatures are so keen to be off that despite violent activity from their legs, they make no forward progress for several seconds and in spite of their efforts, remain in the same spot kicking up clouds of dust behind them. Eventually their feet find a grip and they shoot off in all directions with the speed of bullets. Owing to the momentum of these little pink projectiles, collisions are common and these frequently lead to fights in which all and sundry take part. Noisy though it is, the melee rarely produces a serious casualty – a few scratched ears, grazed bellies and nipped tails perhaps, but seldom anything more serious and the cause of dissention is soon forgotten. The only other occasion on which a difference of opinion is likely to occur is that of the feed time scrum down. The normal pattern of events here is that one piglet is gradually squeezed off the end of the line until he finds himself out in the cold and teat-less. With unabated fury, he then hurls himself upon his fellow diners which immediately causes someone else to be pushed off the other end. This sets up a cycle of events that flags only when the energy begins to fail and the bellies begin to fill, and soon nothing is heard but the song of a bird and the satisfied snoring of pigs.
Likening them once more to schoolchildren, it is surprising how quickly they grow up, how quickly the irrepressible energy of youth is funnelled into mature and profound thoughts that mould the character. And pigs do think – of this I am convinced. One has merely to accept them and to treat them as equals to discover their thoughtful looks, their smiles of delight and to understand their many moods which are so very much like our own.
Spring’s tonic has risen within the trees and hazel catkins have swollen in greeting to the first warm days of the year. Elm and alder are soon to follow heralding beech and oak and in a month or so the firs will show their new cones, green and full of juice, and their catkins will dust the ground yellow with pollen. Throughout the villages cottage gardens will soon be filled with almond blossom and orchards will froth over with cherry white and apple pink spilling an aperitif to summer upon the living fields. The hedgerows and woodlands become en-veiled by the diaphanous greenery of a million tiny leaves, an amethyst haze so tender and tenuous that I fear for its safety lest it be borne away upon the passing breeze. I become aware of a restlessness within me that calls with increasing persistence to forego my writing and step out beneath the cavernous spring sky. The pageant of the trees has begun. Field and lane alike become heavy with leaf and only a section of red tile or a chimney stack, like flakes of old rust within the foliage, betray the presence of human habitation. The blanket of summer affords us a privacy and seclusion that is unattainable in naked winter when one’s every move can be discerned by the neighbour’s critical eye, but here in the depths of summer, we can take our thoughts into the quiet of a woodland glade, we can be silent and be within silence for a little while and rest your eyes upon the shadows of the dancing leaves above. And how restful the colour green, and how restful to the eye and through the eye to the mind that blossoms forth green thoughts.
This spring evening upon which I write is a decidedly chilly one even though the day itself has been full of warmth. Thus I am to be found sitting in an armchair, putting my thoughts on paper, gazing between sentences into the dusty red glow of a log fire. It is a funeral pyre really, the cremation of the last remains of an old local cottage that has long died, having fallen prey through disuse, to the vagaries of our climate and the onslaught of the village urchins. I gaze with half closed eyes at the sawn up piece of beam that was once part of the skeleton of the old house, and see it burn with clear flame and little smoke. In accompaniment to the ticking of the clock upon the mantle shelf I hear the old log’s tinsel murmurings that sound like a piece of screwed up silver paper, tossed aside and left slowly to expand, and as the pure white ash falls without sound, I feel myself drawn into the distant past and fancy I hear the laughter of children as they play beneath the boughs of a tree which this dead piece of wood was once a living part. Whose children are these? From what age do they come? Perhaps they are the offspring of Henry VIII’s generation, the irresponsible youth of the day who cared nothing about the great cultural and religious upheaval taking place about them as they played handball between the northernmost buttresses of the old church wall.
It was at about this time when the monasteries had just been dissolved that the first enlightening book on agriculture by Fitzherbert of Norbury had just been published. Was this historic pioneer of fertility indirectly responsible for the downfall of this old tree? For the seas of knowledge flooded the land and split the forests into arboreal islands and many fine examples of the medieval forests became the battered flotsam of progress.
Certainly this old piece of wood never witnessed an act of enclosure, for the open field system was predominant right up until the late eighteenth century, when round and about the great open fields sprawled the commons, the scrubland and marshes, creating through their wastefulness and their infertility, a barrier to agricultural and therefore economic progress. Although enclosure was a costly business, required finances could be supplemented by felling timber which, during the Napoleonic wars commanded a high price. Also, in order to fence off enclosures, what was more natural than to plant more timber which, unlike normal fencing that needed constant and costly repair, increased in value as time went by. The first choice of timber was naturally that which was most valuable such as ash and oak. But the oak was slow in maturing, and where the ash spread its roots, no crops or grass would grow and no cattle would graze. It was thus that the stately elm made its appearance and stamped the English hedgerow with a character all its own. Being able to grow, and grow quickly in all types of soil, made it a very desirable timber to grow. Also, the elm allowed grazing beneath its boughs and, due to its durability in water, it was at this time much sought after by the Navy Board for its ships. Water mills, lock gates and drain pipes were of elm, and at the turn of the century, London alone still had over four hundred miles of mains constructed from its timbers.
Caught upon the ebb flow of time, I see the trees’ ancestral giants, the calamites, that reared two hundred feet into the sky. They heard no child’s laughter, neither did they hear the buzz of insects nor the songs of birds, for they existed in the dim distant dawn of the carboniferous age millions of years before the birth of man, when even the birth of the first blade of grass was aeons in the offing.
They grew long, long before man, mute sentinels surveying the changing landscape, witnessing scenes that no mortal has ever gazed upon. Then when man came, they furnished him with food, shelter and fuel; they gave to him the means of traversing the oceans. They have been instruments of both war and peace and have featured in mans’ writing, music and art. They have been made gods and devils and have bought good luck and bad. Man’s long and close association with trees is evident from his desire to wander beneath the green boughs when time and toil permit, and from picnic parties who would sooner travel an extra mile to spread their chequered cloths within their shadows. Perhaps it is because a tree expresses continuity, a security that mankind through all the ages and searched and worked for.
Although not a native of Essex, this ancient county endears itself to me more and more as time rolls slowly by, and time does pass slowly in Essex, for to plumb its highways and byways is to plumb history itself. It has been slow to change through the centuries and there are numerous back lane hamlets which, even to this day, have experienced virtually no change for many, many years. One lively youngster or eighty five who lives on the borders of Chignal Smealy and Chignal St. James (what delightful names are these), told me that the only difference he could see in his village was the height of the poplars at the end of his garden which, when he was only “knee high to a goose-pimple” were only a “stack an’ ‘alf ‘igh”, even the cottage gate that was propped open on one rusty hinge was the very same one his grandfather had made.
Having been one of the most heavily afforested counties in England, Essex is rich of fine examples of man’s utilisation of wood. It can be seen in his architecture, in his tools, farm implements and vehicles. The men of Essex are very conscious of their affinity with trees, and go to great lengths to preserve the more eminent members of their arboreal population, and I find it hard to believe that there is another county in the whole of the British Isles that can boast a greater number of ancient trees that have been propped up and strung up to cast their humbling shadows upon the heads of men. Most of these old trees are of course oak, for Essex was noted for its oak forests, but as farming spread, so the forests disappeared, and the elms lining the fields and lanes now outnumber to oaks and are a far more familiar sight. It is these old isolated trees that afford us a tangible link with the past. They disperse any feeling of isolation in time and give to us instead a much needed sense of continuity, of that which has no end.
One evening about two years ago, there was, in my part of the country, one of the most magnificent sunsets that I have ever been privileged to witness. Being a keen photographer (although not a very good one, for other peoples’ photographs always seem better than mine), I took my camera into the fields to capture the scene in colour. It all began when the grey broken clouds, the ‘left overs’ of a stormy day, drifted slowly across the horizon, taking with them the tumult of the heavens. It had been a somewhat dismal day with an atmosphere that clung like a warm damp blanket, enveloping all with an oppressive heat that made even the unconscious act of breathing an effort. The day thus sulked its way through the hours, stifling the energy of life and suffocating the songs of birds until at long last, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, the sky, no longer able to contain its pent up emotions, savaged the countryside with a violent storm. In fact three storms had tumbled into the valley that afternoon that gave rise to a continuous end-of-the-world -like thunder that reverberated about us for an hour and a half. Fearful though the storms were, the rain felt good, the soil quenched its thirst and the air became cool, and when the storm had flung its final volley of anger contemptuously at us, I saw that the wilted leaves had renewed vigour and had turned their faces once more to the sky. Suddenly, the late evening sun broke loose and shone low across the fields, igniting the treetops with a blaze of old gold and adorning the scene with the tint of an old master’s painting. Screwing tripod to camera, I raised it to my eye and squinted through the view-finder. For some moments I indulged in a danse macabre around the field with the tripodial skeleton stiff within my embrace, searching for the most artistic composition to enter the field of view. By now the sun was an enormous dull-red hemisphere reclining upon the distant hills, infusing the undersides of the remaining clouds above with a heavy mauve the deepened perceptively as I gazed. The solar chord became shorter and shorter until finally the perimeter of the disc was extinguished suddenly by the horizon as one snuffs out the flame of a candle. Then, in a most abrupt and startling manner, the populace of the heavens turned to fire. The clouds appeared to radiate from a point somewhere below the horizon in the vicinity of the sun and spread out above and behind me, plumbing the very depths of space itself. It was as if Earth had entered the tail of a super comet that had passed close by on its elliptical orbit about the sun. Hurriedly I set the tripod firmly on the ground and framed the sunset between the jet-black silhouettes of two sentinel elms.
After taking the photograph, I packed the equipment in its case, stood up and looked once more through the elms. My gaze passed by the silent trees, through the sunset and beyond into space, leaving the great orb of this planet at a tangent. The moment developed into one of those rare intervals in time when an overwhelming consciousness of the beauty about one descends and becalms the mind. Although my gaze flew past the elms at incomprehensible speed, I was aware of their crisp outlines against the sky, and as it passed on through the sky into the depths of space, I could see the fire shrinking before me like the glow of a lantern disappearing down a long, dark corridor. My eyes were now being lifted by a power exterior to my own being. Up, up they went until I was craning my neck and gazing out into the zenith of space. I had always been conscious of the great depths of space about me, but could not help regarding the heavens as anything but a dome viewed from a central point, the stars being spattered over the surface of this invisible hemisphere, all equidistant from me. But on this particular occasion, I became aware of the three dimensionality of space, each planet, star and nebula standing out in such relief from each other, that I felt I could lift my hand and pluck them from their ethereal settings. Immediately above my right shoulder the crooked W of Cassiopeia pierced the depths with startling clarity and midway between this and the great square of Pegasus, there glowed faintly the spiral nebula of Andromeda, so far flung into the void as to make the magnificent gold and blue binary system of Gamma Andromeda appear but ten steps distant.
Becoming dizzy from the depths above me I turned and cast my eyes down to the eastern horizon. The Pleiades had just shown itself above the distant trees and was discernible only by averted vision, but its presence was sufficient to tell me that within the hour Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus, would begin its journey above the horizon to dissolve overhead in the light of tomorrow’s dawn. But even before Antares had touched the distant church spire in the darkening west, the night air became chill and with a shudder I headed for home.
Some days later when I had the film processed, I discovered much to my dismay, that I had become so involved with the scene before me that I had forgotten to remove the dust-cap from the lens, consequently I have no visual proof to offer my friends of the glory I have witnessed. Often I am accused of exaggeration when describing a scene that has made an impression on me, yet I experience difficulty in finding adjectives of sufficient depth, colour or subtlety to use in such instances. How can one convey to others the emotions that rise to greet the song of a nightingale, or to what depths the heart yearns to fly with the swift and embrace all three dimensions. How can one possibly convey through the medium of the written or spoken word the sight of an evening sky washed with the faint mauve streaks that herald a sunset, or describe the background tint of the sky that is somewhere between a shade of jade and turquoise?
My attempts at describing this beautiful sunset to a friend met with very little response. Emotion is a very personal thing and that which gives rise to emotion in one, may leave another completely cold. Even so, I was completely taken aback when my friend said, “what sunset?”
“The morning will be overcast with frequent showers. They will be heavy at times in the south east but brighter weather will follow later from the west …”
Thus spake the oracle from the radio early one summer morning casting his own black cloud over the hearts of many. I was a keen cyclist in my teens and at many a weekend my schoolmate and I would grease up our cycles and head for the open road. Shoreham was our target this particular day but the voice of doom did not quell our enthusiasm. The weather was kind to us on the way down with the sun occasionally breaking through the gloom above to splash a little watery light on the road ahead and we arrived on the outskirts of the village at around nine o’clock. Passing Samuel Palmer’s old cottage we came upon the bridge and dismounted. After a strenuous exercise, it is a delight to lean upon a bridge and gaze upon the waters emerging from beneath one’s feet. The flow catches the eye and lifts it slowly into the distance and the senses relax to the accompaniment of its music. There weren’t many gnats and midges at that time of day, but those that were about were flying very low indeed. Certainly there was rain about and it wasn’t very far off either for we could just detect the faint scent of it even above the mass of water at our feet. Not wishing to miss any of its quiet charm, we walked our bicycles through the village, and as the sky grew heavy above us, my thoughts turned to my companion’s pet tortoise Horace who had been extremely active earlier that morning, this being a sure sign of approaching rain. We turned down the hill past the Crown Hotel, on past the water mill which was then a tea house (I believe it is now a private dwelling) and out onto the banks of the Darenth.
A damp mist had filtered through the trees on the hill opposite and the grey light had transmuted the upturned leaves of ash and sycamore into flecks of silver that hung without movement in the stillness of the impending downpour. An old weeping willow, pollarded of its crowning glory, leaned out from the bank across the water and as I peered into its dark reflection a crayfish, startled by the leviathan that reared above it, scuttled beneath the smooth stones. As I gazed, the picture was suddenly distorted. A raindrop had followed immediately by another and yet another and soon I was no longer able to fathom the depths. We donned our capes, drew up our knees and huddled against the tree like two diminutive bell tents. Cozy in our little dry islands, the raindrops drummed upon our capes in anger and hissed at us from the river turning it into a boiling cauldron. The mist that had settled among the trees on the hill opposite had drifted on making way for a great veil of rain that spanned the skyline in graceful folds – a grey but beautiful replica of the Aurora Borealis.
As the curtain drifted slowly by, the day grew appreciably lighter and the deluge eased to a steady drizzle. Soon after, the clouds broke a little, and a shaft of pure gold struck the hills, becoming wider at its base as it raced swiftly down the valley. Then the rain ceased as quickly as it had begun and silence, the ethereal beauty of which is always magnified when the rains are over, tumbled into the valley. We sat in silence beside the bubbling waters and for several minutes we watched its breathless pursuit of the shaft of gold.
It is within such a quietude that I sit now jotting down these notes. This morning was a grey but clean smelling morning upon which the hedgerow leaves quivered. It had been raining all night but had stopped just as dawn broke, leaving behind a miscellany of drips and drops, musical and echoing. Each blade of grass had its tip bent by a raindrop and the clothes line was a string of pearls waiting to be spilled upon the lawn by the quick grasp of a starling’s feet. By mid-morning the low cloud had dispersed and great mountains of summer cumulus were heaped about the sky. It was my intention this morning to tackle one or two gardening chores that had been neglected but due to a tiny and insignificant happening, these have yet to be done. As I passed the petunia bed, I bent to pick up an old seed packet that had appeared and my sleeve touched a petunia leaf. Upon this leaf there were three rain drops, and as the leaf was set in motion, the three tiny drops rushed towards one another and merged into one large globule that trembled precariously in the centre of the leaf before rolling off the edge and disappearing into the soil. This tiny happening caused my mind to leap back across the years to remember once more a particular drop of water out of all the millions that must have fallen that day at Shoreham; a single drop of water that has long since been returned to Poseidon from whence it came. We were walking back through the village when we paused awhile beside a cottage garden to discuss our plans. The clouds were now few and the sun was strong in the cleansed sky drawing out the sweet scent of purity from the land. Suddenly, a spark of light leapt from the ground and pierced my eye. So bright was it that it might well have been of solid substance, for it so dazzled the eye that it quite took the breath from me. I stooped to discover the origin of this manifestation and there, within the cupped hands of a lupin leaf was a tiny trembling rain drop. It was a perfect globe clearer than crystal; a gem that would have done justice to the diadem of the most illustrious of monarchs.
So it is that my gardening chores for today have once more been neglected. A rain drop fell from a leaf and in that single drop a flood of memories, memories I felt I had to record, for – they had been pushed so far below the plane of consciousness, that I was afraid they would never have come to the fore again.
My first memory of Wales is an aural one. My brother and I were evacuated during the war and arrived late at night in Trelewis, a little mining village by the Rhonda Valley. It was too dark to see anything of our surroundings, not that we cared much anyway for the winter’s journey had made us far too tired.
It was the sound of rocks that woke me early the following morning. Having always lived in London, I had rarely heard their raucous tones, certainly not in such great numbers. I could see from a narrow strip of sky between the curtains that the clouds of the previous day had been swept away. At first I was undecided as to whether the colour of the sky was grey or a pale, misty blue, but as the minutes ticked by, it became evident that the heavens were clear. I glanced across at my brother in the next bed. He was still and fast asleep. Without moving my head I took in the details of the room that had come to light. There was a small wooden cross on the wall opposite and behind the door a small cupboard where, presumably, we were to keep our clothes and the few toys we had bought with us. Beneath the window was a long wooden chest draped with a green satin runner, the secrets of which we were to discover later. Apart from the two beds in which my brother and I were sleeping, there were no other items of furniture in the room.
I glanced at the bed beside me once more and again at the curtained window. How desperate I was to see what lay beyond. Should I wake my brother or should I let him sleep? The minutes ticked slowly by. Then slowly he turned over towards me. His eyes were open – he too had been looking at the window. Alan and I had always been very close as brothers, often both doing the same thing simultaneously, each seeming to know what the other is about to do. Our eyes met for a brief second and without a word being spoken, we slid from our beds and crossed to the window. Had an observer been looking at the rear of 9 Richards Terrace at seven o’clock that crisp winter’s morn, he would have seen the curtains slowly part and two small faces peer out with large apprehensive eyes.
We were almost on a level with the hills opposite. In this part of the country the Welsh mountains do not present a dramatic outline to the sky; here, they are soft and rolling, rather like the South Downs on a much larger scale. The hills were quite bare, void of trees, fields and hedgerows, and only one house stood there, square and lonely. A paddock surrounded by a dry stone wall contained three ponies that tossed their heads in the early morning sun. One wall of the paddock continued down into the valley to disappear behind a black, tower-like structure topped by two of the most enormous wheels I had ever seen. From these, thick black cables ran down into a blackened building at the rear. Everything was black. The ground, over which ran a network of miniature railway lines and trucks was black; all buildings, shacks and huts dotted about were black; blackness was heaped everywhere.
Now we were conscious of other noises. The distant rattle of shunting trucks and a continuous hissing sound of escaping steam. Then the faint clip-clop of horses’ hooves became noticeable from the High Street below, and there appeared for a brief second between the houses a yellow float laden with clanking milk churns pulled by a big brown horse. The bare hills, the colliery, the grey slate roofs of the village below and the screech of the rooks above, stirred within us a mixture of emotions, emotions that encompassed apprehension, expectation, excitement. loneliness, sadness; and even today, whenever I hear rooks calling on a winter’s morn, whenever I hear the rattle of the shunter’s yard or the sound of newly-shod hooves upon a hard road, I am back once more in Trelewis. But no longer does loneliness feature in the memory now for I have many dear friends there. No more apprehension or sadness, for the Welsh hills have afforded me much happiness and security, and beauty can now be seen in that which at one time appeared ugly. Now, the memory is warm with affection for those sincere people and there is a longing to be among those stony, fern-covered hills once more.
As we descended the stairs later that morning for breakfast, the smell of polish was evident. Everything shone. The lino on the stairs had a shine so deep that I grasped the bannister tightly for support for fear that I should slip, and the brass fender in the living room glowed with the intensity of the sun. The aroma of breakfast sizzling on the big black hob was wafted through the kitchen door together with the aroma of a hitherto unknown delicacy called a Welsh Cake.
The people in that remote little mining village threw open their doors and welcomed us into their houses. Such was their nature that we, who could justly be called ‘foreigners’, became in a very short time, part of them and their community. How many London mothers, I wonder, have cause to be grateful for the care and love lavished on their offspring by strangers in a far-off country.
The countryside behind the village differed from the great hills on the other side of the valley. Here, there were dairy farms. Hedgerows bound in small fields and cows grazed to the accompaniment of pure crystal streams that tumbled from the mountains further up the valley. It is in these surroundings I feel sure, that I first became aware of the beauty around me. I became conscious of a physical and mental freedom that could not exist in London. Here, one could be alone, one could run and jump and roll in the grass without fear of reprisal, and high upon Wineberry Mountain on the other side of the valley, one could race the winds for miles before a fence or even a dry stone wall would be encountered. Here on the heights, one can shout with full voice, yet it will be lost upon the wind. Only a stray sheep will turn its head and the bracken will dip and ripple to the horizon like waves upon the sea. Up here the ceaseless wind is the ethereal reincarnation of Dionysus, urging one to drink from him and become drunk with freedom.
Around the Country Cottage
An Old Piano
It will not last much longer now, thought I as I gazed at our old piano standing proudly under a reproduction of ‘The Haywain’. Yes, despite its age it is still a proud instrument, even if it has lost one or two accoutrements such as the candle-sticks that were once hinged to the front panels and the tiny mother of pearl centre of a marquetry flower. Even so, it still stands firm and erect, defiant in its appearance of time. Of course it has been well looked after having been under constant attack from polish and duster and tuned with religious regularity ever since it came into our home.
The old walnut upright was bought for £6 just before the Second World War and although I was four or five years old at the time, I cannot recall its arrival in our midst. I can remember many things down to the age of three, but this piano for some reason had crept into my life so unobtrusively that it may well have been part of the family for generations. Mother had the ability to read music as easily as I can read a book, it was therefore a natural development that both my brother and I should undergo tuition. My brother was the first to sit scowling in concentration beside the music teacher every Thursday night, and I followed suit a couple of years later. Soon little hands were struggling stodgily through ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’ and ‘Minuet in G’, which was a great step forward from the time when my only contribution to the world of music came from putting the cat upon the keyboard.
One evening a year or so ago, while I was browsing through the keyboard discovery new chords and chord sequences, I hurled myself into an impressive arpeggio up the scale and finally landed on top E flat with a dull and toneless plunk. This had a most deflationary effect and I sat back in shocked silence. After composing myself, I explored the dark, humming interior of the piano and discovered a broken string that had coiled itself tightly around its neighbour in a final fit of frenzy, having succumbed at last to the continued battering of a felt-tipped hammer. Since then, the strings have been breaking at the rate of approximately one every three months. The pitch has dropped so much it cannot be brought up again, the tome has taken on a peculiar twang that is somewhat reminiscent of an Indian sitar and when the loud pedal condescends to operate (more often than not it seizes up completely), it does so in creaking protest which somehow doesn’t quite fit in with ‘La Mer’ or a nocturne in E minor.
It cannot last much longer now. This morning I lifted the lid softly and peeped in and saw that it needed re-felting, and in one dark corner was a tiny but ominous mound of sawdust. I do not know the age of our piano for it came into our possession second hand, therefore it may not be as old in years as I imagine. But even if it isn’t old in years, it is certainly old in use, for it has been played upon almost every single day for the past twenty five years. I will not, therefore, feel ashamed should a silent tear fall when that sad day of parting eventually arrives.
I have often toyed with the idea of keeping it even when every note has hammered its last, and retiring our faithful friend to the front room. But pianos are large instruments and I shall undoubtedly want another and there is certainly not enough room for more than one piano in this house. How is it that one can become so attached to an old piece of furniture? It is of course the associations and memories that bind them to us tighter than any cord, and what sort of memories can a piano bring but happy ones. Memories of distant family gatherings when no one thought of the inevitable days of parting to come; birthday parties that were once looked forward to; carols at Christmas. The piano on such occasions was the centre of all things, chairs, settees and stools were turned to face it and the congregation gathered around the walnut alter.
I remember the family gatherings twenty five years ago that brightened the dark, oppressive evenings of war. I hear father playing his banjo-uke and mother at the piano singing ‘Arm in Arm Together’ and reviving the then old songs ‘Chorus Gentlemen – Just Once More’ and ‘Shipmates O’ Mine. The strings of this old piano have vibrated to ‘Cornsilk’, through a feeble attempt at Rachmaninoff’s second to ‘Oo Bop Shebam’. During the war when this old instrument lived with us in London, the ceiling fell on it more than once and bombs showered it with glass from the windows. And yet it played on. It has been a wonderful friend but, like every member of the family, it has played its part and must soon leave us.
I feel kindly towards a house that has a piano for then a house becomes a home, but without a piano a house has an emptiness about it, to me it is incomplete. I know that this certainly holds true for my house, and each time I play upon its creaking frame, the increasing tenderness with which my fingers touch the keys must surely expose my feelings towards a dear friend who will very soon be gone.