By Phillip Hewett
It was my great good fortune to have spent the first decade of my conscious existence in a small village of about 150 inhabitants in the depths of the English countryside. The world as a whole was in a devastated and unpromising state in the aftermath of the first world war. Just a few years earlier W.B. Yeats had written his terribly prophetic lines:
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
But there was nothing in my immediate surroundings to give any indication of that wider reality. The village was part of a large estate owned by the squire who lived in the big house up on the hill. Unlike some of his kind who had suffered the brunt of changing economic realities, he had had the foresight to make large investments in iron and steel, and was amply able to maintain the traditional role of a country gentleman, for whom the entire community worked directly or indirectly. We had security in an increasingly insecure world. We were poor, but did not feel impoverished, for we had all the essentials of life.
That life was governed primarily by the changing seasons: light and darkness, seed-time and harvest. The natural world was an inescapable reality. After nightfall, the only illumination was the so-called “parish lantern”, the moon. Electricity was unknown except at the big house, which had its own generator. We had a huge garden in which we grew most of our own food, kept chicken or ducks (our next-door neighbour kept a pig). One of the earliest photographs in my possession shows me as a two-year-old feeding the chicken.
We made our own amusements. There was no institutional life apart from the church and the school, the latter being run by the former. Few people went to church, except some of the gentry who felt it proper to set a good moral example. But we children were expected to attend church and Sunday school, and were duly rewarded for doing so. We had albums in which an illustrated stamp was placed each Sunday, and if one had a full album, with unavoidable absences due to illness marked by blue stamps with the message “Reasonably Let or Hindered”, one was able to go on the annual outing to the seaside in the summer and the Christmas party at the big house, complete with feast, conjuror, and a gift book for everyone.
Church services and Sunday school alike were full of much that was meaningless, incomprehensible or incredible, but we just took it as it came, in the same way as the adults did, though they stayed away most of the time. The great exception was Thanksgiving, when the church was packed to the doors for the Harvest Festival and ornamented with fruit and vegetables as well as flowers, with a large wheatsheaf at the front next to the altar. Everyone joined vociferously in singing “All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin”, even if that wasn’t always quite true. But at least it was about something that could be very real in our experience. We had its counterpart for that in the children’s hymn so often chosen for the Sunday school, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, with its listing of what we saw around us in the natural world all the time: The tall trees in the green wood, The meadows where we play, The rushes by the water we gather every day (though that last part came into the “incomprehensible” category, for we never gathered rushes by the water at all, let alone every day. In any case, the one prohibition I had at home when small was that I was not to go near the river.) That same hymn, incidentally, taught us how to accept our social position: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: GOD made them high or lowly and ordered their estate.
From the age of three I was free to wander through fields and woodlands, restricted only by the injunction not to go near the river. I thus took my place in the world of nature, of which I always felt myself to be fully a part, along with the plants and animals, the birds and the insects. The woods near the big house were full of fascinating displays, with notice boards warning: “Admire but do not pick. Trees, shrubs and flowers have been planted.” Further up, the native growth was wilder, culminating in the open areas that Thomas Hardy had called “Egdon Heath”. Once in a while, our whole family went up there for a picnic under the pine trees on the knoll which commanded a view of the valley below.
On one occasion, which must have been somewhere around my fourth birthday, I made an expedition that later became famous in the family annals. Ever since I was a baby, my mother had often pushed me over to visit my father’s aunt and uncle, who lived in a village two and a half miles away. On this occasion I decided to do it on my own. When aunt Lucy opened the door and asked “Where’s your mother?” I proudly announced that this had been a solo journey. Consternation ensued. There was a telephone at the garage just down the road, but the only accessible one in my own village was at the post office. Fortunately my father always stopped there to drop off mail on his way home from work, so got the news of where I was before I had actually been missed. I made the return journey strapped to the back of a cousin’s fiancé on his motorcycle.
But most expeditions were shorter and closer to home. One favourite spot was under a huge ash tree, where I lay looking up to the clouds through its branches, my head full of associations with Jack and the Beanstalk or the Biblical stories of ascents into heaven. At that point I was totally unaware of the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, but when I later discovered it, my feeling was “Of course!” Then there were summer days when I lay on the warm turf becoming intimately acquainted with the myriads of tiny creatures to be seen roaming the grass if one took the time to look.
The two-room school I attended encouraged us to celebrate where we lived. It drew its attendance from two villages, but there were still only about thirty of us. One prominent event during the year was the “Bird and Tree” competition, for which we were organized into a choir to compete with other schools in the nearest town. I can still sing some of what we then presented, consisting of songs celebrating various aspects of nature, with particular emphasis on not molesting wildlife or raiding birds’ nests.
Looking back over the years, it all seems idyllic, which no doubt is not the way it seemed to my elders at the time. Yet they too were in a world where things moved in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Horses were more in evidence than automobiles. The appearance of seagulls in that inland area portended an approaching storm more predictably than weather forecasters. At all ages we knew that if we saw a sheep on its back and unable to right itself we ran to turn it over. We all got up on occasion at the crack of dawn to pick mushrooms. We roasted chestnuts that we ourselves had gathered, and the more knowledgeable knew where walnuts could be picked. Of all who shared those early years of mine it could still be said, as Gray said back in the eighteenth century:
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Subsequent years have, of course, changed the whole picture. My own career has always placed me in an urban setting. But that early saturation in the world of nature has marked me for life. I am still restless and uneasy unless I can get away from time to time into “unspoiled” surroundings, and consider myself fortunate that I live in a place where it is possible to do so without great expenditures of time and effort. I still like to grow some of my own food, though space in which to do so is restricted.
As for the setting itself, that too has changed drastically, though not very obviously to a superficial glance. The farms are still there, but run with modern techniques that require fewer workers. The house in which I lived is still there, but enlarged and modernized and occupied, as many of the other houses are, by someone who does not work in the village, but commutes to the nearest town. The two-room school has been converted into a private residence. The woodlands are still there, and the big house up on the hill, though this has now been subdivided into a number of apartments. What was once a very largely self-contained little world of its own has been diffused into the wider scene, no doubt with loss of a sense of community, though I am not close enough to the picture to judge. But as my own pace in life slows down I draw support from and give thanks for the memories.