One Man's Madness / Part 02
I visited again as an itinerant youth in the early 70s. In the course of my aimless hitch-hiking and motorcycling wanderings, I used to drop in on my Gran, stop the night, play cards, discuss and listen to the radio (she called it “the wireless”). She had a baby grand piano stuffed in there which I didn’t recall from my childhood. She would occasionally tinkle on it. One time I showed her a copy of the sheet music for Mr Tambourine Man and she duly sight read and played it to such delicacy and perfection that, standing behind her as she played, I was almost in tears.
But my travels took me to the continent where, in the course of following the vendange (the French grape harvest), I encountered the daughter of a rich Parisian. She introduced me to her dad on the condition that I didn’t judge her on the basis of whatever I came to feel about him. It turned out that he was a pieds noir - a French capitalist who had lost out badly when Algeria was given its independence. He was one of the wealthy exploiters of impoverished Algeria who, having been turfed out, hated de Gaulle for abandoning “French interests” (why do the rich always assume that their interests are national interests). He had reinvested in a large commercial pine forest in Normandy and offered me and my buddies work there when the grape harvest finished. As the offer came with a house, we said yes and spent the winter trimming the lower branches off pine trees to encourage straighter, taller growth. Great work actually. I really enjoyed it, but he was such a vile person (no wonder the Algerians kicked him out) that we were soon looking for other options.
It was at this time that I received word from my extended family that my Gran had been taken into a home suffering from dementia. Would I like to move into the cottage whilst they sorted out the estate? I jumped at the chance and my buddy Jerry and I loaded our stuff into my old TK Bedford and flitted. I never saw the Parisian (or, regrettably, his daughter) again.
As mentioned above, my Gran had two cottages at Great Leighs. One was a thatched cottage which was her abode and had lain empty since her departure for the nursing home some months before. The other was a smaller tiled cottage, set further back from the road, which still housed her tenants, a young couple in the throes of starting a family.
Jerry and I arrived at my the thatched cottage on a grey drizzling day. I recall trembling slightly as I inserted the key into the lock. We entered at the back, through the shed where aeons before my cousin Little Henry had lectured us on “turds”. You had both to stoop low under a lintel and step high over a threshold to enter the cottage. Inside I was assailed with familiar sights and scents. I wouldn't have been surprised if Marguerite, my Gran herself suddenly emerged from around a corner. It seemed sacrilegious to be there without her.
Jerry was impressed enough but it wasn't until I took him to the land at the back that he could see the full potential of the place. My memories of the land were detailed but never grasped that the place was in fact an ancient clay quarry. What we called the lower field was actually the bottom of the excavation area and you could see how it dipped dramatically below the lie of the land where the clay had been scooped out.
From the back of the cottage garden, we descended down into the lower field. The eastern boundary was the high side of the scoop and was lined with a row of well established oak and elder trees. Beyond the trees was flat farm land dispersing out into hedge rows and small forests and yet more farm land. From the bottom we would turn south and wander across open flat meadow with trees rising on the right as well. There were well established trees throughout, including the heftiest hawthorns I'd ever seen. At the bottom of the lower field there was a gate on to the same road which passed by the cottage front door. Turning back at this point and facing north, the land rose gently on both sides - to the east to meet the lie of the bordering farm land; to the west to meet the lie of the land to form the other side of the quarry's scoop, along which ran the road and upon which were the cottages and their respective gardens.
On this west side, next to the rising land by the road and several metres up from the gate, stood a magnificent oak. This tree was an absolute monarch. It took six adults holding hands to reach round and embrace it. It was tall and had boughs the size of some of the other mature trees on the land. It was a world in itself. Although there were many oaks on the land, “the oak tree” could only ever refer to this one. As we ascended the gentle slope up from the lower meadow, past the oak tree, we now had the road to our left lined with trees and bush and the escarpment dropping off to lower meadow on the right. This escarpment too was covered by trees, among them the aforementioned mature hawthorn and blackthorn. Ahead of us were the cottages again and as we ambled back towards them we could hear the occasional car passing on the left and see glimpses of the lower meadow through the trees on our right. It was still wet and grey but I felt as though I'd landed in heaven.
The feeling of being light on my feet carried on through the next few days as Jerry and I set about making ourselves at home. We walked the mile or so to the local shop for provisions. Later we found rusty bicycles in the shed and oiled them up for wider expeditions.
At one point we decided that, although we had access through the back door, we would seek out a friend of Marguerite's whom we were told had a key to the front door. She lived on the other side of the main road so, on our freshly oiled and clanking bicycles we set off. It was wet and a bit nippy and, having no head wear, I grabbed a thick woollen tea cosy and popped it on. In the course of our journey I completely forgot that I had it on and throughout our encounter with Marguerite's friend, I couldn't understand why her eyes kept focussing above mine. I later discovered of course that “Marguerite's grandson” had already established himself on the local grapevine as an eccentric simply by showing up with a tea cosy on his head.
In due course we brought the old TK Bedford round and through the gate at the bottom and drove it on to the lower meadow. There it became a fixture as, being too expensive to run, I put it up on blocks and used it as a “site office” and occasional guest accommodation.
It wasn’t long after we moved in that the couple next door in the tiled cottage decided to move out (perhaps they didn’t like hippies) and I was tasked with finding tenants. Inevitably, friends and acquaintances of mine began to accumulate and a crude sort of community began to emerge.
Nor was it long after this that my Gran passed away, and the extended family decided to put the place on the market. In a pattern which was to repeat itself over the coming years, in the absence of any meaningful work locally, I had secured a job elsewhere – first in Cambridge, then in Watford – only returning on weekends and days off. I looked into raising a mortgage and found I could only afford the land and one of the cottages at the then market rates. So I acquired the tiled cottage and the 2.5 acres but, sadly, had to let the thatched cottage, my Gran’s home, go.
In fact, nor could I afford to live in the cottage. I was renting a room in Watford, so I had a string of friends and acquaintances renting the tiled cottage whilst I put a caravan down on the lower meadow for my weekend and off-days visits. Later, when I quit the Watford job (part of the repeating pattern) I had to winter in the caravan because I couldn’t afford to live in the cottage and keep up the mortgage payments. I used to put bricks in the propane oven to heat them up for central heating.
But they were good times. People coming and going. Parties rising and falling. Semi-collective projects launched and foundering. Neighbours alternately charmed and alarmed.
© 2018 Deacon Martin