One Man's Madness / Part 11
I finally decided to move up to St Ives (in Cambridgeshire) when my friend Tim's dad, Bushy, died. Bushy had acquired a large riverside chunk of land complete with two enormous rambling houses and two rows of ramshackle sheds and had been slowly converting the whole lot into flats. I’d done some building work for Bushy. He was cantankerous and very difficult to engage with in any meaningful way, but Tim was a completely different story. A devout humanitarian, he’d even invited me to go with him to East Africa to do some filming for Oxfam. However, the real attraction was that Tim was talking about establishing a living community in the flats which was to co-exist with and raise funds for some sort of third world development initiative. It sounded right up my street. Even more so as I loved the location - right on the beautiful, seasonally flooding Ouse River.
At the point of my departure there were still people in assorted vehicles in the lower meadow. They knew I was selling the cottage and that their access to water and power would be curtailed and they were making their various preparations for departure.
The one exception was my friend Jacko’s showman’s wagon. Jacko was a Londoner I met through Jane – my longest standing UK friend. Jacko was a biker but he used to appear, proudly, at the cottage in a 60s Jaguar S Type Mark II – the classic villain’s getaway car. I think he may have been part of the “Mr Nice” network, importing smokables for nice people for nice reasons. His wagon was a big beautiful ornate four wheeler, complete with front steering axle. I think he was in a French prison at the time so the wagon wasn’t being used. I later discovered that one of the less collectively-minded of my erstwhile meadow residents had returned, cut the chain on the wooden gate, and stolen the wagon. When Jacko got back, we discovered the theft and he and I spent a couple of weeks trying to track the guy and the wagon down. We searched and enquired among some of the mobile squats in London and elsewhere, but to no avail. We’re still looking for the bastard…..
Throughout the years, apart from the odd mini-festival, I never managed to earn any revenue from my land. For a while there were well-to-do horsey people whose horses I tolerated for a while, but one time they left the horses on site for so long that the grass was gone and they started eating tree bark, killing one of my beloved oaks in the process. I kicked them off with a few rich expletives.
Another time, after I’d left, a venerable gypsy man tracked me down to my riverside flat in St Ives. He knocked on the door one dark wet evening and stood in the half-light of the hallway like a small weathered gnome. I invited him in and he introduced himself as Frank and explained that he had a horse and wondered if he could rent my meadow. I said no and explained about the previous horses, but Frank was gently persistent. He stressed, convincingly, his own concern for environment and the fact that he would be visiting the horse every day. He even said he would build a small stable which would become freely mine at the end of the arrangement. He also waved a handful of twenty pound notes as a deposit and first month’s rent and I caved in. Given my financial straits at the time, I thought it was worth a shot. I told him I would be visiting periodically to check up on things and he said he would look forward to that.
Two or three weeks later I got a call from one of my neighbours to say that Frank had been found dead in the meadow. Apparently he’d had a heart attack and died on the spot. I never saw the horse and assume the family had taken it elsewhere. In our brief encounter, I thought Frank was a gentle, charming man and I liked him almost immediately. I was saddened to hear the news of his passing.
It may sound irreverent, but shortly thereafter I found myself doing something in the lower meadow, right up by the northern dip when I sensed movement behind me. I turned around and saw, out of nowhere, a small border collie puppy streaking through the long grass and unmistakably making a bee line straight toward me. This lollopping puppy, his mouth wide and grinning and his galloping tongue flopping, was clearly full of joy and ever so pleased to see me. There was no anxiety or looking about for an owner. He simply came up and started clowning around with me as if we were old friends.
In the course of this clowning, I was doing the looking around. Nobody appeared, no sign of human life anywhere in the meadow. I led him back down to the gate where I went out on to the road to see if anybody was parked up out there. Nothing. Nada... The whole time he appeared totally unconcerned. No looking around for him. Every time I looked at him he was looking straight at me, grinning, and ready to start clowning again. We went back down to the dip and I gave him some water. Towards the end of the day nobody had appeared and I fed him.
Over the next couple of days, the puppy stayed with me as I did things in preparation for my move to St Ives. I began to think he must be the reincarnation of my childhood dog, Ben. I introduced him to Nikki and her little boy Toby who were also making preparations to move to another cottage further down the road. We put out notices and feelers but there were absolutely no respondents. I agonised about taking him to St Ives, but there was a “no pets” policy in place up there. Nikki and Toby finally said they would take him to their new cottage. When I parted ways with that puppy, it was wrenching. I felt as if we'd known each other for years. And strangely, when Nikki and Toby asked what his name was, I said, without thought or sense or hesitation, “Frank.”
Some months later, a couple of guys I came to know in St Ives asked if they could stay in my caravans (there were two still down there) for a couple of weeks in the summer. Perhaps predictably, the period extended and they invited people I didn’t know on to the site. Well, the original guys moved on without telling me and the next time I went down I found I’d been plundered and ransacked. They’d even stripped all the aluminium off the caravans, leaving them gutted and rotting, abandoning in their stead piles of assorted rubbish.
The only other attempt I made was shortly thereafter, with one of the occasional denizens of the “third world development” community we were in the throes of trying to get off the ground in St Ives. We called this guy “Banana Bob” because he was an almost obsessive recycler and one of the first people I knew who regularly scavenged from supermarket skips (or dumpsters). He used to show up with van loads of entirely edible food discarded by the retail giants. He was very generous with all this and handed out copious amounts of perfectly good fruit, veg, and assorted goods suffering from flawed packaging. He also talked about establishing a “recycling centre” and when he heard about my meadow (not from me), he broached the idea of some sort of joint venture. I was, of course, dubious, but he promised to start by clearing up all the rubbish left by the “friends of friends”. I couldn’t face that myself so I thought I’d give him a go.
The outcome was that Bob moved down there and began to accumulate “stuff” on, as it turned out, a fairly indiscriminate basis. Far from ridding the place of rubbish, he simply sorted it into different piles – and then added to them. So far as I could eventually see, the virtuous recycling circle wasn’t functioning much beyond acquisition. There was no distribution, so the piles simply got higher. In due course we agreed to part ways with his final promise to clear out what was there. A month or so later I visited to see that he was gone but that the piles were still in place.
As partially explained above, the wind had pretty much gone out of my sails with regard to my 2.5 acres. Banana Bob proved to be the last straw - in addition to which, inspired by his example, others, random strangers, had taken to anonymous fly tipping, adding to the piles and creating entirely new ones.
I replaced the wooden farm gate with a big unsightly steel mesh one, closed and chained it and, ultimately, abandoned the place. In truth, I left it “fallow” for a period of about 30 years.
- One Man's Madness / Part 12
The continuing story of one man’s 60 year love affair with 2.5 acres of Essex countryside.
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