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Why is it that we mostly remember only the happiest moments of childhood? I am aware, of course, that for some children – those who suffer abuse or grow up surrounded by the effects of war or famine – there are no happy memories to take into adulthood. But for the rest of us, the fact is that childhood consists of a series of events which are capable of creating good and bad memories. Hugs and slaps, pleasure and pain, joy of desires fulfilled and disappointment at hopes dashed. In other words it is a sampling of the real life we will experience in adulthood.
My memories of my childhood in that cottage by the stream are mostly happy ones. But they are, I now realise, coloured by my mother’s response to the changes it represented in her own fortunes.
I imagine that in the first while there was a sense of relief. In part a continuation of the relief that must have accompanied her departure from London a year earlier. London, devastated by then by almost a year of nightly bombing raids by the Luftwaffe. She worked in Air Raid Precautions so would have seen first hand the destruction of homes, the loss of life and the injuries inflicted. She worked, too, in a clothing factory which was also destroyed in a raid.
In Herefordshire she was safe from all of that. And yet, life in other people’s homes would have presented its own problems, problems I tried to reflect in that imagined conversation with her mother as they climbed the hill. Now, at last, they had time and space to themselves. Time to look forward to the possibility, however remote, of peace.
I can’t help wondering at what point the stark reality of life with none of the facilities to which they must have been used sunk in and began to fester. Certainly life in London in the nineteen thirties would have been very different to city life today. But their home would have had electricity and piped water. There would have been cinemas, dance halls, libraries and theatres within easy reach. There were friends, work colleagues, uncles, aunts and cousins a bus ride away.
At the cottage there were none of these things. And, on top of all of that, there were the exigencies of war that effected everyone – shortages of almost everything and rationing of food and clothing.
For a child, however, the things you experience are taken to be normal even though to everyone else they might seem anything but. So for me our days, surrounded by meadows in which we were free to roam and play, often seem idyllic.
I remember making hay. In that place and time horses were still used for some aspects of farm work. Tractors were small, slow and simple, nothing like the monsters that speed around the lanes near my Irish home. Once cut, the mixture of grasses and herbs that grew in the meadows surrounding the cottage were left to dry, a process that might take a week. After two or three days the flat swathes would be tossed and turned manually, using two-pronged forks called pikes, an activity that my mother and I assisted with. This exposed the still green underside so that, too, could dry. Eventually these rows of dried grass were pulled into small piles, called “cocks” in the local dialect. Next a trailer was towed around the field and the cocks loaded to be carried to the Dutch barn. The smell of the new mown hay filled our nights, changing, as the days passed, from the sweetness of the first cut to the mellow dustiness of the final product.
There was, then, the annual pantomime as the mechanical hay rake arrived and had to be threaded through the gate into the meadow. The problem was that the rake, a contraption consisting of a row of metal tines bent into three quarters of a circle and housed between two huge metal wheels, was wider than the space between the walls of the cow shed and the former pig sty we used as a chicken house. The farmer, our landlord, and his son, perspiring in the heat of a July afternoon and accompanied by curses, manoeuvred this beast in a series of arcs, until the machine was translated from cobbled yard to hay meadow where it would be drawn around to gather up all the wisps of hay left behind.
The cattle would have been removed several weeks before, presumably sold to a local butcher. As soon as the sward recovered, a new set of young animals were brought to spend the autumn grazing and the winter consuming the hay.
The road levels out again and soon they see the post box, set on a wooden pole in the hedge near the head of another lane on their left. The road they are on now descends before rising again. At the low point, a farm gate is set back from the road on the left, between tall conifers. Beyond the gate, in a hollow beside a stream, is the cottage. Built of grey stone, its narrow gable end faces the road. Six windows and two doors face the gable end of a similar two story building across a cobbled yard.
As the younger woman reaches for the catch to open the gate a group of white faced cattle amble out from behind this second building, their hooves skidding on the cobbles. The leading animal stops and stares at the women. The followers jostle each other and the lead animal. Behind them a man emerges, wielding a hazel stick.
“Hup,” he urges the anmals. He strides between the animals and the building, poking the lead animal with the stick. “Get on.” His voice conveys urgency. The lead animal responds by loping forwards, past the gable end of the house, closely followed by the rest of the small herd.
The man looks at the women, lifts his sweat stained trilby hat and scratches his head, bare scalp visible between strands of white hair. “Be with you in a minute.” He replaces his hat and urges the cattle through a gateway into a field on the women’s left.
As he closes the field gate on his charges, the young woman opens the gate leading to the property. She pushes the pram down the path toward the house, being carefull to avoid the steaming deposits left behind by the cows. Her mother turns to close the gate behind them.
“You be the folks to look at the house.” It is a statement, not a question. The man transfers a flat roll-up cigarette, part smoked, from behind his right ear to his bottom lip. His tan tweed jacket has seen better days. From the top pocket he removes a box of Swan Vestas, strikes one and, cupping his hand around the flame, relights the cigarette. The young woman notes that his finger nails are long and dirty.
“I’m Ivy Parker. This is my mother, Mrs Jeffries. And, yes, we are interested in renting the house.”
From another pocket the man takes a heavey iron key. He hands it to Ivy. He peers into the pram. “That ‘un be quiet. Be it a boy or a girl?”
“The father, Mr Parker, he be at war?” This time the statement is rendered as a question.
“RAF. Bomber crew. Based near Cambridge.”
“And you be from London?”
“The rent be ten shillin’ a week. You do pay the rates. Drop the key back at The Castle on your way past. Tell Mother if you do want to take it.”
As he departs Ivy is relieved not to have had to shake his hand. At the gate he stops, turns and points to the left. “Over there be where you do get water.”
Ivy looks in the direction he has pointed and sees four large flag stones overlapping to form a rudimentary cover for what, on closer inspection, appears to be a concrete tank sunk into the ground. A pipe protrudes from the near face of the tank. From it water dribbles into a bucket. Ivy cannot help but notice that some of the khaki coloured deposits left by the cows has landed on the edge of the flags.
The child in the pram makes a sound, a croak which turns into a cry. Ivy picks him up and looks around for somewhere to sit. The first of the two doors has a stone step. There being nowhere else, she sits on it. “Pass me his bottle, please, Mum.”
Her mother is already rummaging in the bag. Ivy continues: “There’s warm milk in one of the flasks.”
When I started this series of memories it was with my first meeting with the young woman who would become my wife. Thus far I have not mentioned, except in passing, my childhood. So I guess it’s time to fill in some of those missing details with a series of remembered events. The first of these is entirely from my imagination since, although I was there, as you will discover, I was far too young to notice what was happening.
The road from Peterchurch to Urishay is long and narrow. It takes about an hour to cover the distance on foot. Anyone doing so will be unlikely to encounter another travelling the same route. Certainly that was the case in April 1942.
In my mind’s eye I see two women walking that road. One in her mid-twenties, red hair in a thick plait extending down the middle of her back. The hem of her coat swings just above her ankles. She is wearing sensible shoes. Her older companion has grey hair pinned into a bun at the back of her head. Her coat is long, too, a kind of blue that is almost black. She emits a sigh. Her feet cease moving. “Can we stop for a minute?”
“Is it your back?” The young woman asks, turning her head and standing still. She takes a step backwards, dragging the pram with her. With her right foot she applies the brake. Leaning into the pram she adjusts the coverlet. Her son is asleep, oblivious to his surroundings.
They are on the section of road that descends gently into a shallow valley. There is no sign of human habitation. The only sounds are birdsong. Both recognise the sound of a blackbird. Another song is new to the younger woman, who has little knowledge of the countryside..
“Listen,” she says. “What was that?”
The older woman can remember her youth, working as a maid in a country house. A long forgotten memory surfaces. “It might be a curlew.” She has been stooping. Now she straightens her back and is siezed at once by a fit of coughing. Recovering she says “That last hill nearly killed me.”
The young woman looks to where she can see the road rising up the far side of the valley, disappearing under a canopy of trees. She says nothing. Thinks it was a mistake to bring her mother on this expedition to inspect the cottage. Except . . . with petrol in short supply, asking someone to convey them by car would have been an extravagance. Except . . . she could not bear to leave her mother and son in the house they shared with another family. Not after the row they’d had that morning.
“I don’t know how much further it is. Jim said it shouldn’t take more than an hour.” She pushes back a sleeve and looks at the watch her husband gave her on their first wedding anniversary. “We’ve been half an hour already.” She reaches into the blue canvass shopping bag that rests across the sides of the pram and withdraws a vacuum flask. “A drop of char? I was saving it until we get there but we could have a drop now if you like.”
“No. Let’s get on. I’m feeling better now.”
There are wild violets and primroses in the bank at the road side as they make their way up the hill and into the shade of the overhanging trees. Those trees remind them of the park they used to take walks in before the war. Sycamore and horse chestnut, upright flower spikes on the latter not quite open. They imagine autumn, the ground covered with spikey green spheres bursting open to reveal glossy brown conkers.
The young woman has her arms outstretched, her back bent, as she pushes the pram up the steepest part of the hill. The road levels out and she stops, takes a deep breath before turning to her mother. “I think this is where the landlord lives.” She points to a rotting farm gate set back from the road. Some distance beyond it on the right they see a collection of farm buildings. High on a grassy bank to the left are the remains of another building. “That must be the castle Jim mentioned.”
“Do we have to collect the key here?”
“No. The man will meet us at the cottage. He has to move some cows or something.”
They set off again. There is another short but steep hill, the road curving round to the left. On the right a rough lane descends steeply. “That’s not it, is it?” The old woman points to a cream painted house on rising ground, accessed from the lane.
“No, it’s further on, on the left. After a post box, Jim said.”
In the satelite image below, the castle is in the top right hand corner, the cottage in the lower left quarter where the road takes a slight bend. The post box is at the junction with Urishay Ct.
For the first few weeks after we moved in to oiur new house, thoughout the summer of 2011, work continued around the site, although a lot of the time it seemed that it was more a matter of the two remaining employees finding things to occupy their time rather than any really useful work. The nursing home had opened in February and was gradually reaching full capacity but no more of the houses were being worked on. None, it seemed, had been purchased. By winter the two men – a father and son – had left the site, aparently made redundant.
Meanwhile I set to work creating a garden on the tenth of an acre plot. In November I uploaded Honest Hearts to Smashwords. The writers’ group published an anthology which included the first chapter of Honest Hearts and another story of mine. We secured sponsorship and held a number of fund raising events to fund the printing then sold the book with all sales income donated to the cancer support charity.
A couple of incidents that had occurred during my childhood provided the inspiration for my second book, Summer Day, which is set on a single day in the summer of 1947 and entirely in the district immediately surrounding the house in which I lived as a child.
Nothing happened on the site during 2012. In the spring of 2013 a new contractor was assigned to carry out some work tidying the site and a fresh attempt was made to market the empty houses. When that young man was killed in a traffic accident early in 2014 work came to a standstill once more.
The gardening task at the cancer support centre was made lighter by the appointment of a sccession of part-time employees on various schemes. The manager offered me the opportunity to participate in a walking programme being introduced with the support of the Irish Cancer Society.
Not long after we arrived in Ireland we visited a ruined castle on a hill close to our new home (An image of this place graces the top of the page, curtesy of Portlaise based photographer Ciara Drennan). An information board at the entrance indicated that it had once been associated with a man called Roger Mortimer. That reminded me that a man of that name had strong associations with Herefordshire.
Now I decided to investigate further and discovered that Ireland had been invaded by Norman fighters late in the twelfth century and that these fighters were led by a man who also had strong connections to the country around the Welsh border, Strongbow. The story of how a deposed Irish kinglet had offered the hand of his daughter to Strongbow in return for the latter’s help in regaining his kingdom fascinated me. What would it have been like to be that girl? That was the genesis of Strongbow’s Wife, my third novel.
I also created a website called Hereford and Ireland History in which I posted several stories about the various actors in the peculiar history of England, Wales and Ireland during the middle ages. That website was eventually incorporated into my author site. (See the tab above)
For some time I had entertained the idea that scandals like those surrounding Jimmy Saville and others were linked to the changes in attitudes to sex and sexuality that have taken place throughout my lifetime. That was the inspiration for Transgression, my third novel.
A gentleman joined the writers’ group who was attempting to compile a number of anecdotes from his life as an adviser to the agricultural industry, a bank manager, and, later, a land valuer and surveyor. It appeared that he had experienced something like an ABI and was looking for support in preparing his little book for publication. I later learned that he had Parkinson’s. Various members of the group assisted with editing, formatting and choice of cover design and, in due course, the volume was published at his own expense.
A terrific idea, contributing to the solution of two (or three) problems: dog poo pollution, global warming and lighting up a beauty spot!
Now all we need is a way of capturing cow’s burps. Maybe Brian Harper can address that one – their are plenty of cows in Hereford and Worcester for him to experiment on (not that I’m advocating experimenting on animals in the usual sense, you understand.)