from the Berkshire Mercury
Kathy Walton has a scrapbook containing all of the weekly ‘Country Cameo’ articles by ‘Rustic’, a pen-name of her late husband Anthony Walton. These short articles span the decade from late 1965 to 1975, when he died.
Some of his articles referred to Arborfield and to his own road, Walden Avenue. Although the village and street are not named, we can often locate the subjects of his columns.
Here are all of the articles which either mention the village, or which show his sometimes very advanced thinking on major country themes.
Can you identify
any of the people or places in these articles?
The great talking point in the village these many months has been the question of lighting. It has been discussed at parochial level at Women’s Institute meetings, by the Young Wives, and by the British Legion. And, of course, in the local, usually the place where one gets the real “gen” on the matter.
The village, of course, now includes many townspeople who have always been used to lighting – and fish and chips. “we must have light”, say these town-minded folk, but the established villagers are mostly against this amenity.
“If they must come and live in the country”, I hear on all sides, “they must expect the quiet darkness of the country; in any case, we have our torches”.
The fact is that we country-folk like our lack of lighting. We know our way about; your real native can always find his (or her) way home, guided by buildings and trees – and the stars.
It has often been said – and how truly – that to a country-man the country at night is never dark. Even when the stars are few, there is a vague lightness in the sky which is sufficient. Your real country-man goes home late at night, not looking down, but up at the heavens.
[This subject was regularly aired until finally street lighting was imposed when the roundabout was built in 2004. There is no doubt that the result is far better than would have been achieved at any time between the 1960’s and the end of the 20th century.]
A recent day out with the beagles set me thinking about the interesting popularity of field sports generally. Confirmation of this was provided by the thousands who turned out for the Boxing Day meets of both foxhounds and beagles in Berks, Hants and Oxon.
Baily’s Hunting Directory - a bedside book to your real enthusiast – lists over 80 packs, 34 of which have been formed since the war, and 19 within the last 12 years. The Eton College hunt have had their centenary, and the Farley Hill pack – started by the brothers Gerald and Vivian Simonds, now no longer with us – will be half-a-century old three years hence.
The Farley Hill pack, whose plough and pasture country is more or less that of the Garth and South Berks foxhounds, now have their kennels at Goring Heath, and Mrs. Hermon-Worsley, who bred the walked whelps throughout the war, has been Master since 1954. Uniform is a distinctive dark green coat with red collar, and white breeches.
In a reminiscent mood the other day, an old beagler happily recalled a memorable three-and-a-half hours’ hunt before the hare was killed; he also remembered hounds once running a big jack hare for at least nine miles, working almost without any aid from the huntsman.
We laid him to rest the other day, old Tom who had been born in the village, according to the church records, nearly 87 years ago. Except for the “first war” years, when he served in the county regiment in France, he had never been out of the village, and, in face, died in the little cottage in which he first saw the light of day.
He never married, for the story went that the girl he was courting as a youth died of consumption (as it was called in those days), and he never bothered about any of the other lasses, although there was not one who would not gladly have accepted his proposal.
And work didn’t seem to interest him either; he did a bit of seasonal labour at harvest time, and was known to be a clever poacher, though the gamekeepers and the village policeman all turned a blind eye to his nocturnal activities. His wants were few, and he was generally liked, the usual opinion of him being summed up in “he never done nobody no ‘arm”.
Even the vicar had a soft spot for Tom, and the Lesson chosen for the simple little funeral service was apt. It was from 1 Corinthians 13, in praise of charity. And so there were no unkind thoughts about the old man. The last lines most of us must have repeated to ourselves as we filed out – “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity”.
The village has changed. Only a few years ago it was still more or less as it was when we were children. The main road along which our parents and grandparents trudged (or jogged along behind old Dobbin) into Reading and back for the Saturday shopping, is now a continuous stream of murderous motor traffic, and we walk along hugging the hedgerow, at our peril. If you are lucky to escape being bowled over, you may be sure of being spattered with mud, or showered with dust, by the hurrying motorists, most of whom ignore the 40-mile-an-hour speed limit.
Two or three years ago the old cottages between pub and Post Office were pulled down, and in their place there are bungalows which clash unhappily with the inn, which has stood there since the days of the first Elizabeth. The cottages were probably a couple of hundred years old, and ever since any of us can remember, they have provided annual accommodation for swifts, whose evening aerobatics never failed to fascinate both young and old. Our most agile bird on the wing, and said to be the swiftest, these screaming, sooty scythe-winged sprites made the swallow seem slow.
When they arrive from sunny climes next month for their brief summer stay, where will they go in place of their accustomed eaves?
[This appears to refer to Whitewell Close – but it is not located quite where it is described]
“A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire”. Such has been the Eversley road for as long as any of us can remember, and until only a very few years ago it was still a fairly quiet country thoroughfare.
But now the authorities have come (I’m still thinking of G.K.C.) “to straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made”. They’re straightening out what is said to be a dangerous bend, and no doubt it is dangerous to those who must tear along the 16 miles from Reading to Camberley in as many minutes. Certainly it is a hazardous stretch for anyone old-fashioned enough to want to walk – as G.K.C. would have liked – from the old Parrot to the Bull.
That little spot by the bridges midway between Shinfield and Arborfield, now disturbed by the engineers and surveyors proving Euclid’s axiom that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, has ever been one of rare charm. To lean over the parapet of a summer’s eve and listen to the music of the Loddon waters – and perchance to catch the momentary flash of a kingfisher (“It was the rainbow that gave thee birth”), has been one of the joys of the A327; just the way home.
[This bend might have made the road more picturesque, but it was responsible for at least one fatal road accident, in 1931.]
Posters about the forthcoming harvest supper had been stuck on notice boards all over the parish; they had been nailed on trees, and, of course, the occasion had been mentioned in the September Magazine. And so, on Saturday night we all (seemingly most of the villagers) trooped in from out-of-the-way cottages, attracted to the brightly-lit school hall like moths to a candle.
This particular function had been arranged by the Young Wives, and the Mothers’ Union – and even the Women’s Institute – agreed that it was a master-piece of organisation. Tables had been set out gaily with shining cutlery, coloured beakers, and paper napkins. The Rector said grace before meat, and that, like a starting pistol at an athletics meeting, was the signal to begin the attack on a good old-fashioned country supper without any of the fancy trimmings. There was no need for highly-seasoned sauces, and the sight of soon-emptied plates was the only commendation the cooks looked for.
After the meal, tables were whisked away, and the company settled down to an unsophisticated little comedy put on by players from a neighbouring village. Music – although truth to tell, some of the older folk did not describe it as such – was provided by the inevitable pop group whose guitars and lungs were certainly “with it”.
The lodge was there the other morning before breakfast – the lodge guarding the entrance drive to the former big house and estate – but it was gone by tea-time. It was demolished as surely as was the Hall several years ago, but whereas the mansion kept the demolishers busy for months, this poor little bungalow was pushed over by a bulldozer in a few hours, a pathetic heap of rubble, being all that was left of a home where once children ran “to lisp their sire’s return”.
And with the lodge have gone many fine trees, all gone in the sacred cause of the motor car. The road (said the county council) had to be straightened and widened, and to make room for more and faster cars, the trees had to be sacrificed.
The oaks and the elms and the beech, now felled and carted away, were once a song-bird sanctuary, contributing as long as anyone can remember to the dawn chorus. Nightingales, throbbing out their deathless call, have been heard by less hungry generations; and squirrels have added to the acrobatic gaiety of the roadside scene.
This ruthless obliteration of the country picture is going on everywhere. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” will be a reality in many places all too soon.
[The lodge was at the Reading Road end of the Arborfield Hall estate; it was replaced by a new bungalow set much further back.]
Mrs. Tomkins has just left the Parish Magazine at my cottage. The click of the letterbox flap caused me to put my book down – I had been reading Taylor Coleridge, particularly “The Pains of Sleep” – and, looking out of the window, there was the good lady, picking her way through the puddles, a bunch of magazines under her arm.
This is one of those many little services performed voluntarily in the village, keeping us all in touch with our parochial affairs. The Parish Magazine is not only a chronicle of what goes on at St. Bartholomew’s – it is a chatty resumé of village happenings generally.
One does not necessarily have to belong to the Established Church to appreciate and welcome these tit-bits. The approaching message of Easter, of course, looms large in the rector’s notes, but in addition to reminders about Lenten services, and references to “hatches, matches and dispatches”, we are told much of secular doings.
We now have the explanation of the strident music in the village hall the other night; the reason for the seven cars outside Mrs. Murgatroyd’s house on Monday morning; why young Charlie Smith is walking about on crutches.
The morning paper tells us of world affairs, the local paper all about county doings, but it is the Parish Magazine to which we look for intimate neighbourly news.
[Walden Avenue was not surfaced with asphalt for a few years afterwards; when it rained, it became full of puddles. The Parish Magazine was replaced in the late 1970's by 'Talking Point', a free news-sheet covering the two ecclesiastical parishes of Arborfield and Barkham, now under one Rector based in Arborfield.]
We buried his ashes yesterday, in the grave where his wife was interred 15 years ago. Only half a dozen of his old friends attended his cremation earlier in the week, but that was no reflection on the esteem in which old Fred was held. At the placing of his ashes, in the remote cemetery, far from the madding crowd, most of the village, high and low, turned out.
Fred, tenaciously hanging on to life until 85 – and still enjoying every minute – was known by every one. “The Gentry” sought his company, and the gamekeepers, who were not born hen Fred was a stripling in 1890, relied on his local knowledge, as did the Hunt servants.
He could tell you where the vixens had their cubs, where the badgers could be seen at play. He could not read nor write, but his knowledge of local history was profound. Over a lass of port – he never drank anything but port – in the village pub he could recall the details of events which took place before the good Queen Victoria died.
He paid £100 for his little cottage 60 years ago, the money being lent by the Squire. The debt was duly paid, and that little freehold of a quarter of an acre must now be worth a lot. He left little money, but he owed not a penny. And every penny he earned in his long life was worked for.
You don’t always have to go to the great city of London to learn. Here in our quiet little village, “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”, you can acquire knowledge which is often only picked up in universities.
In our village hall we have had folk eminent in many spheres of learning during the last few years – ornithology, armory, architecture, history, horticulture, viniculture and many other topics of interest to the cultured man.
The other night we all flocked up the hill to the hall by the Post Office and the village stores and heard an expert [on] graphology.
To us, handwriting was just handwriting, but we soon learnt – and not always to our comfort – that writing betrays hidden motives. Usually the writing which adorns the envelopes and cards which come to us via the village Post Office is nondescript, but every now and then there is a flamboyant touch to an address which at once commands interest.
A letter came to my place a few weeks ago from a remote young female relative in South Africa: the flourishes were a delight. I was told that recently a missive to a local blushing girl was actually done in gold Trajan lettering.
Some say it with flowers, some with chocolates, some with script.
I have on my shelves a book published many years ago by a one-time vicar of a neighbouring village, who gave little cameos of village personalities – the squire, the parson, the schoolmaster, and so on. The squire has more or less gone; in his place now is usually a rich man who has no roots in the country.
The parson is no longer quite what his predecessors were, but the schoolmaster, I think, is still generally the man whose influence is most felt in the village.
I think of one who, getting less money a month than some of his former pupils now working on building sites, does more for the little community than the old vicar, dozing away in his vicarage, or the pheasant-shooting tycoon now in occupancy of the big house.
The other day about 50 village schoolchildren left by coach for a week’s holiday in the West Midlands. Everything had been thought of by the schoolmaster; thumbnail histories of each of the places to be visited had been carefully and accurately prepared. And no mother could have thought of more detailed advice on personal decorum.
[The 'Vicar' was probably Peter Ditchfield, who was Rector of Barkham until his death in 1930. He was a noted Historian who wrote over 100 books]
The village is really getting “with it”. An insignificant little community as far as the big outside world is concerned (yet all-important to the members), it has never known the luxury of modern sanitation – or, indeed, any other of the so-called amenities of modern life.
But now, the powers-that-behave ordained that main sewage is called for; and, sure enough, the mechanical excavators and ear-splitting pneumatic drills are at work, and chains of pipes are being laid in deep trenches.
The residents have not been all that unhappy with their old-fashioned cesspools, but they welcome the higher standard of living now envisaged; and although a bit shocked about the cost of linking their cottages to the main pipe, are not unaware of the enhanced value which their properties will acquire. Those who might want to leave the neighbourhood will henceforth be able to advertise their houses as being not only near a bus route only a few miles from the town, but on main drainage as well.
And that, of course, means a lot to a townsman wishing to retire to the country. Straightening of the main road half a mile away has brought more and heavier traffic, and made louder the distant roar of motors, but that is something that just has to be lived with. Tradesmen’s vans and a few cars are all that worry this particular hamlet which leads to nowhere of any consequence.
Our village pub, a little quieter these evenings, thanks to Barbara Castle, has been presented with a complete set of old horse trappings such as they are now museum pieces. They have been given by old Bert, who must have had his first pint in “The Mucky Duck” (as our local is affectionately called) in the early years of the century. He was, in fact, turned 82 last Michaelmas, but until recently still pottered about the farm where he had worked since the age of 12.
He could turn his hand to any job on the land, but officially he was the carter, and was always at his happiest when with horses. Blossom and Captain, the two faithful Shires which pulled the plough and harrow for so many years, have long gone to their rest, but Bert clung on lovingly to the ornamental straps and chains, the bridle and bit. He was a bit worried about what would happen to them when he, too, is gone, so he decided that the safest repository was the place which has been so much a part of his life.
The gift was gratefully and gladly accepted, and the pieces, well-oiled and polished, now hang from the old oak beams by the huge fireplace. Presently, there will be a suitably inscribed and framed nutshell history of the furnishings and their donor.
Sitting by the log fire these cold nights, Bert gives an occasional quiet look at the mementoes. “How jocund did he drive his team afield”.
Old Mr. Pilkington had lived in the cottage at the end of the lane ever since anyone could remember – and some of us can go back quite a time. He had been married twice, and seen both spouses buried in the old churchyard. Some folk can recall his first wife, and when he took on a successor, cynics talked about “the triumph of hope over experience”. Anyway, a widower for the second time, he decided to let well alone and lived by himself very happily, for many years until his own time came a few weeks ago.
He was, indeed, a part of the village, and used to tell us how he bought the cottage more than 60 years ago for what would now be regarded as a trifling sum. He loved to entertain in his untidy kitchen, so one could always be sure of a cup of tea – and a repetition of how he got into khaki in 1914; the old-fashioned yellowing photograph over the mantelpiece proved his point.
He seems to have had no living relatives, and there is now much conjecture about the next occupant of the cottage. Will it be another amiable, quiet old person or (dread thought) a noisy family whose interests are all in the distant town?
The public bar of a certain village pub, one Saturday night not long ago, was crowded. There were not only the usual village “regulars”, but a lively colourful company of gipsies who had been hanging around the district for some weeks. I say gipsies, but they are now officially known as “travellers”; there may have been some real Romanies among them, but most of them were “mumpers”, who make no claim to Romany blood. There were probably some “posh-rats”, half Romany and half mumper, and certainly some didicois.
They apparently had plenty of money, for the women were being regaled with gin-and-tonics and suchlike “top shelf” drinks, while the men were downing whiskey, the youths pints of “wallop”. The centre of interest among this picturesque rabble was a dark-haired beauty of maybe 16, and a young man of about 20. With them was a man whom I guessed to be the girl’s father.
And then an amazing incident was enacted. The young man dived into a pocket and pulled out a wad of £1 notes. He counted out, one by one, a hundred and handed them to the older fellow who put them in his pocket. They then shook hands, and the man was heard to say: “She’s yours – good fortune to you both.” He then pushed the girl over to the youth and more drinks were called for.
And so a woman became a man’s possession.
Of no account in the big and turbulent world was the quiet little ceremony in a village “local” the other evening, but to the dozen or so participants it was the end of an era. For they were saying farewell to the lady who for nigh on 40 years has presided over the destinies of an establishment as important in its way as the church, the Post Office, the village store, or the manor house.
Forty years is a long time, and many of the customers of this ancient little inn were not even born when this lady arrived on the scene. She has been friend to everyone, and confidant of many; the joys and sorrows of most of the villagers have been hers. But now she has gone, retired to a neighbouring parish, and it will seem strange to go into the saloon, or “the public”, and not be greeted by the familiar smile.
Important people from the brewery were there to thank her and say goodbye, as well as the “regulars”, some of whom have been known to have been told when they’ve had enough.
The lady has learnt much of the past history of the inn where in times gone by the old Court Leet and Court Baron were held. One of the stories she has delighted in is that of a former parish clerk who fell asleep during the sermon in church and when roused mumbled “Fill ‘em up again, Mrs. --------, fill ‘em again”.
Another of her favourites was the one about the stranger at the Sunday service. His name was Elijah, and he must have been a little simple, for when the Rector, reading the lesson, came to “What dost thou here, Elijah?” the embarrassed fellow stood up and stammered out that he was visiting relatives.
[Annie Flower retired from the ‘Bull’ at Barkham,
The recent floods in the Thames Valley and elsewhere brought much misery and discomfort, and in my particular lane we kept our fingers crossed as the waters crept nearer and higher. Fortunately we escaped with nothing more serious than a slightly submerged front garden.
When things were at their worst, I put on Wellingtons, and with stout thumb-stick made my way one evening to the great inundation on the nearby main road. It was a sight never to be forgotten, and one’s heart bled for the poor folk into whose cottages the wayward river had entered.
The road had been closed to all traffic, so deep was the torrent rushing across to find a lower level, and the only sound was the awful swirling of water, truly here a very bad master. Retracing my steps in the gathering dusk, I walked along the middle of the road which normally carries a never-ceasing stampede of cars and lorries. There was not a soul about, not a sound nor a sight of traffic.
It was as quiet as it used to be only about 15 years ago, before the road was straightened and discovered by the impatient motorist.
[The Reading Road is prone to flooding; indeed, the stretch between Shinfield and Lower Arborfield has been called the ‘Causeway’ for many years because it is on an embankment. Shinfield could be an adaptation of 'Shine-field', which would be an apt description of sunlight on the flooded meadows.]
“Mine Host” of the little village “pub” died just before Christmas, and his wife, faithful spouse for the past 60 years or so, passed away a few days later. Thus have gone not only two worthy local characters, but a link with an era that is now no more.
“Chaddy” could have been the original of the cartoons of John Bull – stocky, Ruddy of countenance with mutton-chop whiskers, and a paunch that suggested a life-long addiction to roast beef and good ale. He had been, in years gone by, a “gentleman’s gentleman”, and it was before he had risen to those dignified heights that he met his future wife, both then “in service” in menial capacities, rarely to be seen “above stairs”. But both were good servants, so he eventually became butler, she housekeeper, both together in a great establishment in the days when the domestic staff outnumbered the family.
And “Chaddy” never tired of describing the hierarchy of domestic service of 50 years ago, and seemingly never exhausted his fund of stories, grave and gay, but often scandalous.
We shall all miss his tales, his old-world courtesy – he never forgot what he considered to be his “place” – and his noisy manipulation of the dominoes, a game which he must have played every evening, while his “Missus” (she, too, knew her “place”) discreetly served drinks in the background.
Just a little way out of the village, no more than half-a-mile, is a cul-de-sac containing maybe a score of bungalows and a few semi-detached houses. It is an unmade road, and pleasantly rural, without pavements and street lamps. Stout boots, or strong country shoes, have usually been able to cope with this rough, and oft-times muddy thoroughfare, but it has steadily been deteriorating now that most of the residents boast two cars per household.
This winter, with its surfeit of rain, has resulted in a scene reminiscent of the poached entrance to a farmer Atkinson’s field at the back of the houses. The rural district council are unwilling to do anything about it in the foreseeable future, so the dwellers in this happy enclave are toying with the idea of doing it themselves. They have got together, and an ad hoc committee met the other evening in one of the bigger bungalows.
Everybody turned out for this meeting, of much greater importance than the recent Commonwealth Conference at Lancaster House, and the fact that it was raining again was in itself some justification for the occasion. It was a very articulate gathering, with sharp comments about the Council, but the machinery was set in motion, and there are hopes that the avenue will be made up – some time.
[Walden Avenue was first established in the early 1930’s, and by 1945 there were about a dozen houses. There are now double that number.]
The field behind our cottage is a lively sight these days, being occupied by a flock of ewes and their lambs. It is a pretty, spring-like scene, guaranteed to bring out the poet in the most prosaic of us; it is an ever-changing picture, with the youngsters skipping about, jumping over imaginary hurdles, or panicking in the temporary loss of mothers.
I had a chat with the farmer on one of the occasions when he called to see how his flock was faring, and I picked up a bit of interesting sheep lore. There are, he told me, no fewer than 40 recognised breeds, but there are as many as 400 grades of fleece in the wool business. They concern such matters as fibre fineness and fibre length, and your wool merchants talk about “Bradford count” when referring to fibre diameter. The sheep we were looking at during this discourse on the subject of “nothing like wool” were Hampshire Downs, which, apparently, like Oxford Downs, provide wool for high-class hosiery, hand knitting yarn, and felts.
I was given a nutshell glossary of sheep terms such as “thrunter” (a three-year-old ewe), “sheeder” (a female lamb), “punds” (sheep folds), and “mardy” (sickly), expressions which reminded me of a Thomas Hardy or Mary Webb novel. And don’t forget that any lambs born from now on are “cuckoo lambs”.
[Herbert Lee used to put his sheep onto the field behind the southern side of Walden Avenue; this field is now part of Pudding Lane Nursery.]
Britain has no large reserves of land or water resources. Our rivers have therefore to be used for water extraction, effluent disposal after treatment, and for recreational purposes such as boating, fishing and sometimes swimming. River banks are also popular sites for camping and picnicking.
There are no rivers where use can be limited to one purpose only, and as our total population increases and urban areas spread, difficulties are likely to intensify. Water consumption per head of the population is also rising, and to permit this demand to be met, foul discharges to rivers are usually totally banned. Where legal consents for discharge are granted by river authorities, prior purification to a high standard is required.
Farming is not the chief polluter of our water sources, but in the past it has been a significant offender. At first it was simply livestock housing and bad drainage that caused most of the problems, but more recently difficulties have arisen with food processing plants, particularly vegetable washings, and rapid leaching of inorganic manures from fields through to the river. The greatest danger from this latter source comes from some fertilisers which encourage the excessive growth of algae in a stream. Algae “explosions” in rivers are much talked about abroad and must be avoided in this country.
[Algae 'explosions' are now much more common]
There was great excitement the other evening when I announced to the younger members of the household that we would go badger-watching. Though all country bred and born, none of the children had seen a badger, apart from one found dead at the roadside, the victim of an encounter with a car.
Badgers are the most nocturnal of our wild animals, and though hardly ever seen they have been featured in so many story books that most of our young folk seem to know “Brock” as well as they know the cat which has been part of our establishment for many years.
We set off at dusk and, wearing old macks, made our way down the lane and into the woods. Sticks were forbidden, for this was essentially a peaceful expedition, far removed from anything like badger-baiting. I had been told by a gamekeeper friend where there was a sett, the scrupulously clean and tidy home of the badger, and it was not long before we arrived at the spot. There were orders for strict silence, and as little movement as possible.
We had to wait little more than about a quarter of an hour, sitting on a fallen elm, before we heard snuffling and saw the characteristic brown and white striped snout emerge from the bank. Presently out came another, and then the young family, which we guessed were about three months old. We stayed for about an hour – and talked about it most of next day.
[There are several locations of badger setts around the parish; this was probably on the way to the Coombes. The housing development at the old Brick and Tile Works is named ‘Badgers Mount’, and has an area set aside for badgers.]
An indoor riding school outside the village is always worth a visit by anyone fond of horses. You might call it “the poor man’s Spanish Riding School”, but although there are no Lipizaner stallions leaping through the air doing a cabriole, no Napoleonic-looking uniforms, there are some very fine horses with blood in them, and they are to be seen mounted by pretty girls doing graceful figures-of-eight at that most lovely of paces – the canter.
I called there one day this week and saw something quite different, a touching yet rewarding sight. On certain days a band of enthusiasts, mostly farmers’ wives or daughters, and Red Cross ladies, are on duty there, giving rides to physically-handicapped schoolchildren from the town. It is not, of course, any attempt to turn the youngsters into equestrians; it is simply a therapeutic exercise which gives them a little confidence, makes them proud that they can do something which luckier boys and girls take for granted.
There they were, sitting at the side of the peat-covered arena in their wheel-chairs, and taking turns in being lifted on to a shaggy, docile pony and going round at a quiet walk, one lady leading and holding the halter, two others being at either side. At times one of the ponies was allowed to quicken into a gentle trot, and the look on the child’s face then was something not easily forgotten.
In bed at night those children must dream of “jumping for joy” round some big show ring and hearing the appreciative shouts – “a clear round”.
The great motorway with which the villagers have been threatened for several years is now becoming a reality. The advance guard of bulldozers and other earth-moving monsters has arrived, and already many chains of hedges and hundreds of trees have been ruthlessly uprooted in the sacred cause of the internal combustion god.
Some of the trees were of great age, magnificent oak and beech and other hardwoods, and the roadside hedge with its hedgerow timber has been there as long as the oldest memory goes back. It is sad to think of the yellowhammers whose undulating, careless flight will no longer be seen, and the displaced green woodpeckers whose yaffle has entertained those who live nearby.
People whose homes are a few miles away from where this new race track is to be imposed are thankful for those two or three miles, but those who live by these roads designated as “haulage routes" have the unhappy prospect of incessant heavy lorry traffic for the next year or so. Hundreds of thousands of tons of earth will have to be transported to the site of the motorway, and it is said that the lorries will pass any given point at a few minutes’ interval with the regularity of planes leaving London Airport.
[The M4 west of
Maidenhead was originally intended to pass through South Oxfordshire,
About 40 old people, as thrilled as any party of schoolchildren, left the village the other morning for a week’s holiday at a Cornish coast resort. Members of the Over Sixty Club, they travelled in a luxurious motor coach which arrived outside the Post Office exactly as the clocks struck eight, and they happily settled down to the prospect of a nine-hour road journey.
Some of the party were not much over 60, but there was one old lady who proudly proclaimed her age as 90, and she was soon comparing the smooth and shiny coach with the horse-brake she used to know 60, 70, 80 years ago. She prattled away like a prep. school girl, and told her companions how she had asked her doctor’s permission for this long trip, and seven days away from home. Apparently he had said it was a good idea. The dear old thing had actually stipulated that, should she die while away she must be brought back. “I don’t want to be buried away from where I’ve lived all my life”, she said, quite seriously.
On this funereal, yet amusing note, the coach moved off amid a shower of farewells from relatives and friends, but not before the old people were warned not to do this, and not to do that; remember this and remember that. Some of them have never before embarked on such a long journey. A moon landing could hardly be more exciting.
The Gardening Association’s annual rose and sweet-pea show in the Village Hall was the usual floral delight, the heady perfumes stealing outside and across the road, telling the passing world what was going on inside. Seemingly everyone had been at pains to produce the loveliest of blooms, making the judge’s task anything but easy.
The rose has been immortalised by poet, painted and musician as the symbol of perfection, elegance and love. Sappho, in one of her Odes, calls it the Queen of flowers, yet I must confess that the sweet pea is my favourite, for delicacy of make-up and modest pastel shades. Here, they were in fragrant profusion, and all set out in vases of worthy charm. I had to admit they were better than mine.
Farmers are not, as a rule, gardeners, but here are some of the finest colours and scents were those of flowers grown and livingly tended by a man who is usually concerned with cattle and pigs, with muck-spreading; to be seen at harvest time atop of a giant combine. He had the most points in the rose classes, and had his face not already been the colour of an old oak settle we would have seen his blushes as he received a certificate from the President, a retired Army man who seemed equally out of place among the delphiniums, the sweet Williams, and the columbines.
The activities of the village have been set down in a booklet produced by the Parish Council, and a copy has been sent to every house in the village. It is a simple but proud record, contributed to by many folk whose loyalty to their community is touching. The village is no longer far from the madding crowd, but still far enough away to escape some of the vulgarities of town life.
Here, in this typewritten and duplicated brochure, we are told all about the important local government set-up, at parish, Rural District Council, and county levels, and the various village organisations – the W.I., the Youth Fellowship, whist drive, church, the Scouts, Young Wives, the Gardening Association, the Brownies , the Over-Sixty Clubs, and so on.
There is a sad history of the decline and fall of the great mansion which once upon a time the local girls automatically went straight from school to serve the Squire and his lady; there is the story of the 13th-Century origins of the Parish Church; a description of the help given years ago to the poor who seemed always to be with us. One old parishioner recalls how his grandfather used to talk of the day when the good Queen Victoria changed horses outside the village pub on the way to some distant big house. And that pub still has the outward appearance it had not only 120 years ago but four centuries back.
I have been reading the Government report on soil structure, and find – as the Minister of Agriculture himself says – some of the findings disturbing. Many of us, living in the country as we have for much of our lives, have been increasingly worried about what goes on – and what goes in – on farms today. We have seen the ever-heavier monster machines trundling over the land, compacting the soil as horses never did; and we have seen the spraying contraptions on a windy day drenching the hedgerows and cottage gardens, many yards from the intended emerging crops.
We are assured that there is no evidence of damage to inherent fertility, but are told that everyone must be concerned about the conclusions of the inquiry, which was begun over a year ago, and it is admitted that there has been “a growing awareness of the dangers of some modern practices”.
Simultaneous with this important document, the Soil Association report that at their experimental farms in Suffolk they have found evidence to suggest that modern farming has a harmful effect on soil structure and soil fertility. Soil from acres farmed with livestock and without artificial fertilisers have a water-holding capacity of 66.2 per cent, compared with 47.3 per cent for soil cultivated without animals and with commercial applications. The organic soil is less likely to break down under the influence of heavy rain. The robustness of the organic soil is achieved by maintaining its high humus content.
On the notice board by the bus stop, where one learns about parish council affairs, whist drives, dances, flower shows and other village goings-on, is a list of applications for permission to build. Most of the items are trivial (except, of course, to the people concerned), such as an extension to a garage, but one line makes one look again.
“Eighteen acres for development”. Now, that is quite a big piece of land, and inquiry soon locates the place on which the developers’ eyes have fastened. From time beyond memory cows have chewed the cud here, sheep have safely grazed; until recently part of it was used as a paddock in which two little sisters kept their faithful old pony. It is a pleasant, tree-lined spot, very probably once part of the park attached to a mansion long since demolished.
If the house-builders get their way, locals will have to say good-bye to yet another bit of their rural retreat. Up to a few years ago the tall thorn hedge and deep ditch between it and the road were the pride and joy of a hedger and ditcher. He is no longer on this mortal scene, and his former handiwork is now but an unkempt reminder of disappearing craftsmanship and rustic peace.
During the past few weeks there has been much stubble-burning in the fields now vacated by the great combine-harvesters. If we do not actually see the flames, we small the fire, or see the smoke, or notice the blackened lines across the cornfields. This is not a new procedure in arable farming, but it is a practice whish is becoming ever more widespread.
Some folk deprecate this idea in modern farming, regarding it as a waste of good straw, but it is not, farmers tell us, a case of destroying something of value. There are very good reasons for this autumnal burning in the stubble. Straw is used as a substitute for hay for feeding cattle in times of hardship. This year there has been a heavy hay crop, so there is virtually little use to be made of straw in the coming winter. So, surplus straw is burnt, to return ash to the cornfields as a useful form of fertiliser. The stubbles have been burnt to purify the soil and to curb cereal diseases that have been widespread this year.
Of course, the drifting smoke can be a nuisance some times, and the scorching of hedgerow trees is not a pretty sight, but stubble-burning is described as a “necessary chore” in agriculture today.
Pudding Lane, as most schoolchildren used to know, was the place where the Great Fire of London started in 1666. It is a not unusual name in the country. Our village has one, a half-mile-long, unkempt bridle-path leading from nowhere to nowhere; meaning that its entrance and exit are not noticed by the stranger hurrying by. It is no longer a short cut, for so rough and overgrown a footpath is a difficult and uncomfortable journey for the walker or cyclist. But a horseman can do a walk or gentle trot through the waist-high nettles and spear-thistles.
At one point the narrow path broadens out into a wide expanse of grass, and here the gypsies, years ago, used to rest their caravans for a few weeks, when pea-picking or some such seasonal work was being done. And what raucous, colourful goings-on were seen and heard in the village pub at nights! I remember witnessing the sale, for £100, of a pretty little girl; the money was handed over in crumpled notes by the swarthy groom-to-be to the dark-eyed maiden’s father, who eventually got so drunk that he had to be carried out. Shades of Lavengro!
I thought of these things as I tripped through the brambles and stumbled in the old cart-ruts in Pudding Lane last week. My only companions were the wood-pigeons, murmuring their roucoulements in the copse, beyond which the combine had only recently left the barley-field, and an occasional Red Admiral or Tortiseshell, flitting among the codlins-and-cream.
[Pudding Lane was upgraded a little when the new Park was opened; a small footbridge connects Park to Lane. A couple of decades later, it received a layer of ‘tailings’ – the chippings created when resurfacing a road.]
Anyone whose heart beats in the country will find the Berkshire Village Book, recently published by the county Federation of Women’s Institutes, of absorbing interest. Compiled by the various Institutes in the Royal county, the book presents delightful sketches of about 130 villages and hamlets, from Appleton in the north to Beech Hill in the south; Old Windsor in the east to Ashbury in the Vale of White Horse in the west. It is indeed a charming ABC of the county – Aldworth, Basildon, Compton, right through to Yattendon, high up on the Downs.
The book has been put together from notes sent in by W.I. members, and it is permeated with that local pride and loyalty which have always been a part of English country life; even though motor traffic and new housing estates have had their unhappy impact on the rural scene in each village is still our village, lovingly described in the Mary Russell Mitford vein.
Much research must have gone into these pleasantly-illustrated pages, for we are told about the beginnings of the places, such as the Saxon settlement at Shinfield, the days of King Alfred at Wantage, the Norman church at Streatley; we read about historical characters – the notorious Vicar of Bray, poor Amy Robsart who met her violent death at Cumnor.
For good measure, we get a separate list of some of these famous people, and a guide to notable monumental brasses.
[Kathy has been a stalwart member of the W.I. for many years]
Those of us who dwell in the country are apt at times to take its peace and quiet for granted, but we can be reminded of our good fortune when town friends stay with us for a few days. We have just said farewell to a young couple and their child who live in built-up area on the outskirts of a big city, and their weekend, far from the madding crowd, seems to have made a deep impression on them.
The comparatively small amount of motor traffic during the day, and its complete absence at night – coupled with the cleaner air – enabled our guests to sleep like the proverbial top, and they came down for breakfast with an appetite which did justice to the bacon and eggs.
Their car deliberately “docked” for a change, we took them for a walk of two or three miles, and, with the little girl in mind, included a visit to a farm, a picturesque church ruin, and a sizeable stream. We arrived at the farmyard at milking time – a novel experience for the youngster – and then made much of the horses in the paddock. We dallied on the river bank, fed the ducks, and listened to the gentle cascade of the water as it fell over the miniature weir. The only mechanical sound we heard was that of an occasional jet screaming overhead. And that, alas, is something from which we cannot escape.
[This is still a pleasant walk past the old church ruins and on towards Shinfield.]
The memory of an old gentleman, laid to Rest a few years ago, was revived this week when I called at a neighbouring cottage. He would have been 100 on Monday, his daughter told me, and in the course of her recollection she produced a fascinating document. Beautifully written in “copperplate”, it was his indenture when a lad of 16, in 1889, to a village grocer.
The foolscap folio tells us how young Herbert – with the consent of his aunt Elizabeth – “doth put himself apprentice unto Silvanus Darbyshire, to serve with him for the full term of five years”. He had to behave himself as a faithful apprentice “to the said Silvanus, keeping his secrets, and obeying all his lawful commands”.
His aunt agreed to provide the lad with food, clothing, washing and medical attention, while the master instructed him in the “trade and art of a grocer”. Young Herbert was to be paid eight shillings each week, with a rise of one shilling in the second year, ending with 13 shillings in the fifth and final year. During those five years he was to have 14 days holiday, as well as general public holidays.
Herbert was apparently an industrious ‘prentice, for we read eventually – “This indenture was satisfactorily fulfilled”, dated May 15, 1893. I was told that Herbert eventually forsook the grocery trade and distinguished himself in one of the professions.
A report that an ancient privy in Somerset has been allocated a grant from the Historic Buildings Council for England is an intriguing item of news, which at once made me reach for my copy of that famous little book “The Specialist” by Charles Sale. This privy – at The Manor House, Chilthorne Domer – has been given £135 towards the cost of repairs. It is a six-seater, housed in a square building with a stone-tiled pyramidal roof, and is built of rubble with a dressed ashlar face. The wooden seating for six is arranged symmetrically around three walls.
The owner has informed an inquirer that the privy has four “adult-sized holes and two child-sized hole, all with lids”. She thinks it is unique, and rightly describes it as “matey”. Lem Putt, that lovable old character who made himself a specialist in an unusual field, spent his time devising different types of those down-the-garden huts which all old country folk nostalgically remember, however uncomfortable they may have been on a cold winter’s night. He relates how his biggest order was for an eight-holer, which added to his already great local reputation. “It sure is a dandy”, enthused one of its earliest visitors.
The villagers were nearly all busy last week – working so that they and others can enjoy this brave new age of leisure. They’ve got a big new recreation ground, as yet not ready, and “operation siviculture” might well have been the code name for the weekend activity. The Parish Council had been given the sum of £500 with which to buy trees and shrubs, and appeals had gone forth, asking amenity-conscious folk to spare an hour or so putting in as many as 300 hedging plants, 30 trees, and 100 shrubs. Many of the shrubs were gifts from local residents, and there were contributions from neighbouring villages, taking a friendly interest in this latest addition to an already pleasant rural landscape.
So there was a good muster on the appointed morning of people who had heeded the exhortation to “bring a spade”. Small children, too, brought along their little “horticultural implements”, but the broad-shouldered men did not forget to call a spade a spade. It was a heart-warming scene, and the occasion of a lot of fun. Already it is a gay sight, this 20-acre field where, not long ago, sheep safely grazed. All now to do is to think of a suitable name for the ground, which is to be formally and festively opened later in the summer.
[There are photos of this event on the web-site.]
(Last entry – May 16th 1975).
acknowledgements to the Chronicle series of
newspapers - which can be viewed on microfilm at Reading Local Studies Library.
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