Anne met, in her first year at Oxford, in mid-November, when she had been there just over a month, when the autumn was damp and the darkness fell at four o’clock, and the afternoon was cold and night closed in early, a tall 22-year-old who was studying Spanish. He was in his last year at Oxford and, like Anne, he was from Somerset. He lived in Wilcombe, a village south-west of the Mendips, on the road towards Exmoor and Devon, where the hills finish and Somerset starts to level off and devote itself to draining its fields to leave them dry enough for farming. It was about four miles from Erewhon, but of Erewhon more later.
Harvey had ahead of him just a few more months of university and he was soon to enter the wide world. Anne had just left school, but women are older than men in their ways so this was a good combination, and Anne and Harvey combined well. They met at a college play competition. She had gone because a friend of hers was acting and needed moral support. He had gone because, as a fourth–year student who had acted in previous university productions, he was one of the judges. The hall had been hired for the three nights of the competition, and it was some way from the university, up in Headington. At the end of the evening Anne was waiting at the bus stop just outside the hall when an old and rather scratched Mini braked suddenly and stopped by her. Harvey leaned over and rolled the passenger window down, and asked her if she wanted a lift back to her college. She said, “Thanks”.
It was just one word and a short one at that, but its effect on him was disproportionate. It was just a monosyllable, but he was suddenly at ease. It wasn’t the word. It was the tone, the pitch, the eyes and the smile. He relaxed and felt pleasantly warm and not from the car heater which was not working at all well. He really should get that fixed. On the way down the hill into Oxford he talked to Anne without thinking what he had to say, without having to prepare the next joke, without having to fit in anything special. He was himself. No need to impress. He drove her back to her college gates, and the car engine sounded better than before. He asked if they could meet the next day, and the next day was Saturday, and Saturday is always a day for optimism. It seemed a long time to wait, for both of them.
Erewhon and bonfires
Mi infancia son recuerdos de un patio de Sevilla
My childhood is memories of a courtyard in Seville,
Y un huerto claro donde madura el limonero.
And a sunlit garden where the lemon tree grows.
“Retrato” by Antonio Machado, 1917
Let me take you back to where she grew up. Yes, it’s me Henry again. For years old Tom Forrest used to say ´Yes, it´s me, Tom Forrest again´ when he started the omnibus edition of ‘The Archers’ on Sunday mornings. So I´ll do the same. It’s still going, you know. The Archers, that is. It’s still going though Tom Forrest died years ago. They have to change the actors, you see, a bit like ‘The Mousetrap’. It will probably go on for ever, and I hope it does. I still listen after lunch, when I can.
It doesn’t matter where you’re born. What matters is where you grow up, where you climb trees, and fall out of them, and where you go sledging. Ever since I was a boy, when I pick a leaf of mint and rub it between my fingers, and breathe in the scent of the mint, it takes me back to the old garden of Erewhon, and to its mint bed under the Victoria plum tree. The garden was sunlit, (memories are always sunny), but there were no lemon trees, as there were in Machado’s, because Anne’s garden was in a corner of Somerset, half way between Exmoor and the Cotswolds, on the slopes of the Mendip Hills. She lived her childhood there, in a farmhouse called Erewhon that had presided over the hill and its surrounding fields for more than three hundred years. The garden lay on the south side, and the cow houses, woodshed and apple orchard looked north, north towards Bristol.
The garden was a good one, even by the high standards of Somerset. It was a garden where you could:
– doze in the shrubbery listening to the test match on the radio,
– pick strawberries till your back ached,
– hoe peas, gather plums and watch out for wasps that always found the ripe plums before you did,
– ride a bike over the lawns and disappear up paths to nowhere,
– have bonfires that lasted for days in autumn.
There is nothing, by the way, absolutely nothing as pleasant as making a bonfire. A bonfire has its quirks, though, and, like a young horse, it needs a little discipline early on. Its favourite trick is to team up with the wind to cover you with smoke whichever side you decide to stand. You are sure that the wind is blowing from the west and so you go round the fire to the side where the air is clear. No sooner do you start collecting the leaves than once more you are gasping for breath and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. So you go round to the other side and set to work with the pitchfork once more. The next second the wind veers and once again you are coughing and spluttering in the smoke. The noise of the crackling flames sounds distinctly like a quiet chuckle. Then you go and stand about twenty yards from the fire and look at it again to see what method there might be in its madness. The smoke is now rising in a controlled column vertically above the base, just as it is supposed to. You go back warily and on tiptoe so that the fire cannot hear you, bend to your task again and in about three seconds you are coughing and spluttering once more.
The older villagers accepted this state of affairs long ago, and they retire to a safe distance where they light their pipes, and watch the youngsters’ efforts.
Once it is trained, however, a bonfire can work wonders. You have to go little by little, of course. Find the spot you normally use, it will be grey with the ashes of years of previous fires, then crush up some old newspapers. It’s no good chucking the paper on the fire in a pile. I’ve seen sheaves of papers completely unburnt after being in a fire for three or four days. Just charred round the edges they were, like the manuscript of Beowulf. That was just charred at the edges. Still that’s given the academics something to do, to debate what words were on the charred bits. Anyway, as I was saying, open out each sheet of newspaper and then crunch it up into a ball. Use about half a dozen sheets and then cover them with some dry grass and twigs, if you can find them. Then take your match and light the edge of the paper. This is the best part of all. When you have a good flame, then load on the branches and rose cuttings and leaves and sticks and grass that you have in the heaps around you. You have to have a good base, but then you can heap it to the sky with damp leaves and green branches and weeds with the earth on their roots, and however wet and however heavy the leaves are, the fire will slowly burn through them. The bonfire is a noble servant. It will work away for days if necessary, and it only needs some more twigs and leaves when it burns through every three or four hours. Heap it up at night and it will be waiting for you in the morning, the smoke rising quietly in the still air. It was working while you were sleeping.
In a secluded part of the garden, a long way from the house, and far away from the bonfire patch, in the corner by the field, was a round lily pond. The whole of Erewhon was perfect, but the lily pond was nirvana. When Anne was a child, she used to go there to escape from school and exams. As she grew up, it was protection against challenges and obligations. It was the place where she could be on her own. The pond was surrounded by a paved walk, and around the walk was a tall yew hedge, so thick that no one could peer through, winter or summer. By the pond was an old wooden bench, and this was the place for dreaming, while the tadpoles slowly changed into frogs.
Near the house was a stone barn with a hay loft and next to that some cow houses, empty of cows, for Erewhon was no longer a farm. As a child Anne played with the old metal chains, which had once tethered the cows for milking and now hung down from the wooden stalls, rusting through lack of use. There was a holly tree in the hedge that separated the hen pen from the field. It was a good-sized tree and every Christmas Anne’s father cut the holly there. Every picture in the house was decorated with holly, though, of course, the holly tree never grew any bigger because of this annual pruning.
But time has passed, as it inexorably does, like the race-winning tortoise, since Anne played in the cow stalls, and she was now 18.
I have a photo of Anne here on my desk. It’s one of her at the end of Brean Down. We walked there one Saturday over Christmas. A biting wind, and it came on to rain too, but we managed to reach the end of the line of hills that stretched into the sea. And this is her matriculation at Oxford, October 1964. Look at her smiling there! There she is, the tall one. The second from the right.”
How we do try for the camera! All hopes and fears are put aside, and we smile just for the necessary 1/125th of a second. Happiness is short, isn’t it? When that photo was taken, I have the feeling that Anne was battling away with various doubts and worries, but more of that later. There she is, and she is looking very happy.
Erewhon has gone now. Not nobly razed to the ground or magnificently burnt in a raging fire like Thornfield or Manderley, but bought by a Bristol solicitor and changed, changed out of all recognition from a rambling old farm, where the cows had filed in daily, to a prim, expensive country house for a prim, expensive city lawyer. Do not look for the lily pond behind the old yew hedge; it is gone. It is a paved barbecue area now. Do not look for the cow stalls where the chains hung down, slowly rusting. They are gone, thrown away in the first clean-up. In the walls of the old barn, there is now separate accommodation with two en-suite bedrooms. ‘How nice! Yes, it’s very nice. Oh yes, Erewhon is a very pretty house.’
Today Erewhon is full of taste and empty of life.