One Man's Madness / Part 01
My first visit to the 2.5 acres was as a boy, travelling with my Canadian family in 1957
We had two grannies – one in Loughton, north London, and one in Great Leighs, rural Essex. Loughton Granny was the one who lived in White Cottage with Gaffer. We discovered they were quite well to do. The “cottage” was actually a massive house and had an enormous garden complete with tennis courts and apple orchard. Gaffer even had a chauffeur, Knight, who wore a peaked cap and drove us around in a Bentley. Loughton Granny took us all over central London. She took us to zoos and museums and parks and restaurants. We saw Nelson and Trafalgar and Piccadilly. We saw suits of armour and swords and chain mail and models of sea battles. We drank tea and ate cakes and went into vast department stores.
A true royalist, Granny briefed us on the royal family (although I couldn't understand how anybody could be a prince of whales) and took us to see palaces and guards changing and flags waving. For me the best bit was the chestnut vendors selling from their pavement stoves. Smelt and tasted like the deep forest in the middle of this endless city. Knight would loyally turn up with prescient punctuality (no mobile phones in those days) to waft us from one scenario to another.
Granny gave me a watch, only to recoil in horror when she discovered I couldn't tell time. For the rest of our stay she did time checks with me. My treasured watch and the huge clock on the kitchen wall feature largely in my memories of those days, but it took a while to grasp the concept of three concentric dials simultaneously signalling different but integrated bits of abstract information. Exasperated, I once said to my older brother Harry, “I wish I could tell time like you.”, to which he answered, “But you can whistle, and although I'll never learn to whistle you will learn to tell the time.” I was impressed by his logic. And, do you know, all these years later, I can now tell time and he still can't whistle.
One day Gaffer took us to see his enormous office with its vast desk and outlying receptionists and secretaries. I recall ancient looking oil paintings on the walls and comfy leather chairs for intimate chats. But mostly he liked to show us his apple trees back at the house, and the apple barrels in the cider cellar where he used to press the produce by hand. He introduced us to croquet and I could at last see the purpose of a well kept lawn. When Knight wasn't around, Gaffer used to drive us in his own sombre but impressive black and chrome Humber to Epping Forest and to shops and parks in the vicinity.
Great Leighs Granny was another matter. She lived in a modest thatched cottage in the middle of the countryside. We never met “the other Gaffer” but learned in later years that he'd done a runner with a wicked woman. At the back were two and a half acres of ancient overgrown clay quarry. This was a magical place of open grassy spaces mixed with dense shrub areas and dark mouldy clearings among large hawthorn and oak trees. We were also introduced to nettles – there in abundance around the edges of the open spaces. At the far end was a Nissen (sometimes called a Henderson) hut which we immediately took to be a bomb shelter. I have a clear and distinct memory of pigs being kept there but in later years Great Leighs Granny said, “No, I never had pigs.”
At one point we found a strange prickly ball. To my eternal shame Harry and I started kicking it about, only for it to gradually unfurl as a now expiring little creature – our first exposure to hedgehogs. We were so ashamed we couldn't even tell Granny and left it to die in the nettles. Years and years later, when I was living for a time at the cottage, I had the privilege of watching a pair of hedgehogs doing their moonlight jump/squeak dance. I was walking home from a tiny country pub in the neighbouring hamlet. The narrow lane passed a small walled garden at just below shoulder height. I heard the squeaks and my eyes were drawn to movement. My eyes adjusted to the soft moonlight shadows and my ears to the breathless air and I stood still as stone while they leapt and pirouetted. I was enthralled and transfixed and stoned enough to take it as a signal that the hedgehog community had, at long last, forgiven me.
As luck would have it, Granny also owned the even tinier tiled cottage next door which, while usually let, was empty at this time. There weren't enough beds in the thatched cottage so Harry and I were sent to sleep over there. This was made even more exciting by the advent of our cousins Henry (known as Little Henry) and Joanna.
Little Henry and Jo suddenly appeared whilst we were playing in the two acres. We heard them coming but he proudly boasted that he had been “stalking” us like “Red Indians”. I didn't understand either what stalking was or why he felt he had to specify the colour of Indians, but I liked his bombast and his booming laugh. We all proceeded to try to make bows and arrows and shoot each other. We even showed him where the dead hedgehog was.
Later, crowded round the tiny dinner table in the thatched cottage, I carelessly referred to one of my siblings as a turd. This brought about a stifled guffaw from Little Henry followed by strained silence. Little Henry's mum Auntie Babs asked politely if I knew what a turd was. I said something like it was “just an expression” which was apparently not good enough. Little Henry was tasked with taking Harry and I out into the back shed to explain. Between strangled guffaws he said. “It's what comes out of your backside.” Harry and I looked at each other. It became evident to Little Henry that we didn't know what a “backside” was either. If he'd said arse or bum or bottom, no problem. But, backside...? With a bit of graphic hand signalling he made himself clear and, suitably chastened, we returned to the dinner table.
The fixation with turds and backsides continued as Harry, Little Henry, and I retired for the night to the same enormous bed in the tiled cottage next door. For some reason, god knows how or why, Harry occasionally referred to me as Misht. This came up in the course of our late night too-wired-for-sleep conversation, as we lay on our backs staring up into black space. I'd asked Harry not to call me that because I had discovered, through my mother, it's true, coincidental but dread meaning in Swiss German. Harry had graciously, for the most part, stopped calling me Misht but I had never revealed to him the terrible secret of its meaning because I thought it would it lead to yet more teasing. Little Henry listened gravely to all this and eventually, in a quiet and respectful voice, asked, out of the dark, what it meant. It seemed churlish not to divulge now to our new cousin but I couldn't. “But don't you trust us?” asked Little Henry earnestly, putting me squarely on the spot. In due course, after some heavy negotiating, I extracted a hard and fast no laughing and/or teasing pact. “So what does it mean?” asked Little Henry quietly again. I said, “Manure.” There was a profound silence. Suddenly, exploding out of the dark and splitting the night air, came Little Henry's booming crashing laugh. He couldn't contain himself and of course he set Harry off too. “Misht the manure man,” boomed Little Henry into the darkness and they both creased up all over again. I don't know how we ever got to sleep but, to their credit, no further reference was made in the following days.
Granny introduced us to proper Swiss muesli. We'd pick fruit from the hedgerows and orchards and she'd cut and mash them up with oats to produce the most gorgeously succulent breakfast I had ever tasted. Occasionally she used to go out into the lane after the big lorries carrying beans or beets or potatoes from the surrounding fields had thundered past to pick up whatever produce had fallen in their passing. She also made lemonade cordial from copious amounts of sugar and lemon and doled it out generously in the middle of hot afternoons. She introduced us into her quiet and mysterious world of solitaire, or “patience” as she used to call it. What a beautiful, absorbing, and challenging paradigm that was.
Her front door used to open directly on to the country lane, just a few paces from the paved surface itself, and I can still see her, beneath the thatched eves, waving, crumpled and wrinkled, as she welcomed us or bid us farewell.
- One Man's Madness / Part 02
The story of one man’s 60 year love affair with 2.5 acres of Essex countryside.
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