Apple Tree Cottage
21 March, 1971
Spring officially begins today, though the weather takes little notice of officialdom, and a cold east wind still shortens the walks of those who venture out and keeps many others inside altogether. Still, the daffodils are in full flower, and, as they did in the fields round Stratford over 400 years ago:
‘They come before the swallow dares
And take the winds of March with beauty.’
Just a mini survey this, of our little community here well off the beaten track. We are far beyond the black stump, as my brother Robert says from Australia. If you drive south-west from London down the motorway, cocooned in your car, only concerned about the number of miles still to go, you’ll miss us altogether. You might have time to notice the Mendip Hills if you take the trouble to look, but you will miss the woods and the apple orchards, and you will not see the Somerset villages with their churches each with a sturdy tower. How the motorways have anaesthetized England! We don’t travel through places anymore. On our way to Yorkshire, we no longer stop at Bakewell to eat Bakewell Tart. It is many years since we did that, and we no longer try to be the first to spot the crooked spire of Chesterfield. We take off at one motorway junction and many dreary miles later we land at another. We might as well be in a plane and being in a plane is not really travelling at all.
Here, in Berringford, where we only hear the motorway if the wind is in the east, life is quiet. As the old Somerset gardener said, “In my garden I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” Besides some sitting and a little thinking, I also work in my garden, if pleasure can be called work. But my flowers and potatoes are very poor when compared with the seasoned richness of Uncle Jasper’s. I can see his old house from here if I lean forward and crane my head around the veranda. I can just see the gable end behind the tall pines where the sun sets.
Flowers seem to spring up naturally for Uncle Jasper as if all the seeds flying on the wind instinctively dropped in the right spot, directly into his borders. He grows nothing regimented like the flowers in the public parks in Westington. There are no straight lines of tulips or neat circles of polyanthus. His flowers grow at the foot of an old stone wall, or between the stones themselves or in the middle of some steps, if that’s where they want to be. If a shrub grows over a path, my uncle walks round it, and in time the path follows his steps. He has no concept of a weed, for all plants are welcome. He admires the delicate flowers of convolvulus and the beautiful shock of yellow hair of a dandelion as much as roses or lilies. If a plant is about to take over and squeeze out others, he pulls it up but even this is done with respect. Like some people, it was just making too much of itself and had to be put in its place.
In his garden you see colour all the year round, which is quite a feat in January in Somerset. Even in the dead of winter there is the purple and white of the heaths and heathers. Borders curve and wind and winding too is the stream which Uncle Jasper diverted here himself from the old mill many years ago. His is a peaceful garden, a garden to recover in and feel better. His pride is his rockery, which is blue, yellow, white and red in spring. With the rockery, the garden runs up its flag after winter and announces to the village that it is back in business again.
In the corner of my uncle’s lawn between two apple trees is the summer house, which is a sort of log cabin. This is for sitting in on summer afternoons and, I suppose, for having tea. Yet over the years I have never seen anyone sitting there or drinking tea either. If the sun is out, we are on the lawn, and if it’s raining, we are round the old oak table in the kitchen well away from the weather. Summer tea outside is an impromptu affair without any ceremony. There is little preparation because it is usually decided on between showers when the sun finds a gap between the clouds. We sprawl on the lawn, and then find that something has been left in the house, the milk or the sugar or the seed cake, and the youngest child is persuaded to run in and get it while the rest of us sit on the grass, because chairs are only for the old, and we avoid the ants and we drink even more tea than in winter because tea is good when its hot outside, and we eat stickily and resolutely.
Next to the house a little path shuffles off round to the potting shed. Every garden worth its salt has a potting shed, but Uncle Jasper never does any potting in his. He pots, of course, but he does it in the old barn near the garage. More than potting, he enjoys pottering. Pottering is quietly doing the thousand things that a gardener does just for the pleasure of doing them. Pottering is not getting a lot done, but the garden would be much poorer without it. It is working in such a relaxed way that it is not working at all. The wise gardener potters for hours on end come rain or shine.
Uncle Jasper has a dog, a black Labrador, who is gentleness itself. Children can poke and prod him, as children do, and he looks at them happily. Yet he can fight when he has to. I was walking in the field near the Crown Inn the other evening, just after shutting up the hens for the night, when I heard the slow ominous growling that you hear just before a dog fight. When I arrived they were at it, Uncle Jasper’s Kim and the huge boxer, called Caesar, that belongs to Jack Felper, the ironmonger who has a shop in Westington. Uncle Jasper and Jack Felper were looking on, helpless to stop matters, and the boxer worked his way to the top.
“Call your dog off, Jack!” said Uncle Jasper.
“They’ll find their own level.” said Jack Felper philosophically.
The scrap went on and the tide turned, and Kim, who is never one to give up, now had the better of the ironmonger’s welterweight.
“Call your dog off, Jasper!” said Jack Felper.
“They’ll find their own level.” said Uncle Jasper, and so they did, though poor Kim was sore and stiff when he got up next morning.
My Aunt Jane is Uncle Jasper’s younger sister. She is in Ceylon now on her restless journey round the earth. Next month it could be Mauretania or Peru. She comes back to Berringford from time to time and seems happier here than anywhere else, but then she is up and away for some reason of her own and she leaves us to see other roads and other skies.
There is Theresa, who runs a small restaurant in Westington, Stan, the postman and Henry, the shoemaker, and I will talk about all of them on another day. There is also Alex, who works behind the bar at the The Crown. His hobby is keeping clocks, much as someone else might keep hens or pigeons. He has, it seems, hundreds, and about half of them have stopped. Some have nobly given parts of their innards to make another one function, a sort of organ transplant. They line up on the shelves of his workshop, and some have spilled over into the bar, ticking or not ticking, with their faces looking out expectantly. There are always one or two on his bench, among cogs and springs and spindles in glorious profusion, waiting for him to breathe life into them.
Many are the legends about clocks, but Alex debunks any mysteries. When old Mr Hayter died, Mrs James, his cleaning lady, noticed that his clock stopped on exactly the same day, as if in sympathy. This story went round the village till it came to Alex. It was a seven-day grandfather clock, he said, and old Mr Hayter passed away on a Friday, which was the day of the week when he always wound it, and so of course it stopped. It could do nothing else!
Mary is the bookshop owner, and she somehow stays in business without ever selling a book. The economics of this were always a mystery to me until Stan explained them. Mary, he said, started the shop after receiving a legacy from an aunt in Tonbridge. She loses a little each year but she started out with a fair amount, for the legacy was a good one, and so her business is assured for several years to come. She reads her books again and again and will gladly lend us one, indeed sometimes she forces one upon us, but it is impossible to persuade her to sell it.
Our village is in a corner of Somerset by the Mendip Hills, where we can look out over the flat fields to Westington and then to the Bristol Channel and beyond that to the Welsh hills. Our days are full, and we look forward to starting them, for there is nothing better in life than having breakfast with the prospect of a job you enjoy waiting for you. We work hard, and yet if someone passes, we straighten up, lean on the spade and have a chat.
It’s almost dark now. I can just see the smoke from the bonfire, and it is some time since the sun set behind the branches of the pines. Kim has wandered up here to check we are all alright, and it’s time to go in, and to open a beer. Then I will look for the novel that I borrowed from Mary last week.