There never was a golden age of bucolic bliss in our green and pleasant land. No black-iron range in a stone-flagged kitchen, no sides of cured ham and dried herbs hanging from the rafters, no hollyhocks and roses in full flower gathered around the brightly painted cottage door. Instead, two rooms, dirt floors, rats in the thatch and unglazed windows; frostbite and chilblains in winter and cholera in the summer, and infant mortality and early death the year round.
However, given a choice not driven by economic necessity, in post industrial revolution times, most folk would have preferred to starve surrounded by trees, fields and birdsong than trapped within the streaming walls of urban terrace or tenement. And if the rural idyll represented pictorially by Constable and his acolytes, or musically in the lush meditations and melancholic of Vaughan-Williams and Delius, is romantic indulgence, there is a seed of truth planted deep that, for some, has flowered into reality.
When my father was 11 years old he contracted a form of rheumatic fever. As part of the treatment, the doctor prescribed respite from the frequent smogs that afflicted even the outlying regions of London. So skinny Jack Charles Jones and kid brother Frank took train from Balham Station to Kings Cross and thence to Market Harborough in Leicestershire. From Harborough station Uncle George Jeffrey (actually just a friend of my grandfather’s; they had been footmen together at Luton Hoo Hall in Bedfordshire, just down the road from where I live now) picked them up in Auntie Nellie’s trap and returned all three of them to the Nevill Arms in the village of Medbourne.
George & Nellie had been landlord and landlady of the Nevill ever since the former left service just before the First World War. One of two village pubs – the other was the Leather Bottle, a distinctly inferior hostelry – the Nevill was an impressive building, significantly older than its establishment as a tavern in 1863. Even George’s volatile temper and generally bleak view of the bulk of humanity failed to keep the public at bay and, as a local, the Nevill was favoured way beyond the bounds of Medbourne. Nellie Jeffrey possessed a sweetness of nature in such stark contrast to her husband’s misanthropy that my father, in later years, judged the polar opposition of their personalities to account for the pub’s popularity: people were fascinated by the balance of the foul and the fair.
After that first long summer holiday in 1922, Dad returned every year for the next 12 years. A couple of photos show him in raffish sports jacket and flapping cricket whites straddling a stile and gurning wildly for the camera from the midst of a picnic party on top of Nevill Holt Hill.
The last time he visited Medbourne, he was in his late 70s. I drove us both up there from Guildford, where my parents were then living. George and Nellie were, of course, long gone – the former from a heart attack, the latter, tragically, after falling into the kitchen fire. Their only son Mal was living with his wife Maureen at Nutbush Farm, bought by George & Nellie after they sold the Nevill. The farm had long ceased to be a going concern. George loved his animals – his beasts, as he called them – but, coupled with absolutely no head for business, he had his father’s profound mistrust of and dislike for his fellow man (he was a little less disenchanted with women).
Dad and I got on well with Mal. He had passions. There were three principal preoccupations – his beasts, Reliant 3-wheelers and clocks (the tiny living room was full of them, chiming for a good 10 minutes either side of the hour). He was also a dedicated hoarder and upstairs he had stowed away nearly a century’s worth of family artefacts. There were ancient laundry boxes full of Victorian nick-nacks: postcards, seaside souvenirs, paperweights, button-hooks, candle snuffers, a lady’s pearl-handled revolver, and sealed sandalwood cases of Corona cigars, George’s particular weakness.
One night during that last visit, just after supper, Mal reached for his pipe and realised that he’d left his tobacco pouch at the filing station where he worked part-time on the pumps. We heard him rummaging under the huge double bed in the spare room. There was a muffled cry of triumph followed by the sound of his stocky legs stumping downstairs. He dropped into his armchair and tugged open the lid of a plain cigar box. Knowing my penchant at that time for a good Corona, he thrust the box towards me. I looked down at the cigars nestling like torpedos, unexposed to the air since their incarceration many years before. In fact, their vintage to within two or three decades was not difficult to estimate. Each simple, white, unadorned band bore the same three letters in gold – WSC. I looked up at Mal, busily crushing a cigar back to dead leaf form and cramming it into his pipe bowl.
“Mal”, I said quietly. “Have you any idea where George got these cigars from?”
“Some gift while he was in service”, he answered indifferently in his Leicestershire drawl, drawing the match flame down onto the composted cigar.
“Do you know what WSC stands for?”
He shrugged again & leaned back into his cushions, puffing hard.
“Winston Spencer Churchill”, I answered.
And I carefully slipped the sandalwood sheet over the remaining cigars & closed the lid.
During my father’s first visit to Medbourne, he wrote a diary. On the surface, it’s an unremarkable document, but it has interest for two features – his precociously fluent compositional style at the age of 11 and the picture that emerges of a countryside absolutely unmarked by any elements of modernity. The day-long rambles through fields and through woodlands would have shown my father a setting virtually unaltered since the 5th century when the Saxons laid down the foundations of farming processes that still prevailed. In reading this plain little journal – written as an assignment to be carried out during his absence from school – one is acutely conscious of the massive changes that were close at hand. Although, in fact, that corner of Leicestershire was relatively untouched by the post Great War metropolitanisation of rural areas within 10 miles or so of the big cities – Leicester, in this case – that took place in the ‘30s, in all respects Dad saw the last of the uncompromised older ways.
When I went up to Medbourne as a child there remained enough of the traditional patterns to allow a taste of those times. Auntie Nellie kept the pony and trap; Mal rode down the hill into Medbourne on the carthorse; in the evenings the grown-ups sung music hall songs and parlour ballads around the out-of-tune piano. And I sat high on top of the haywain after a harvest gathered in by scythes, sickles and reaphooks alongside the only combine harvester for miles around.
But all is change there. Now Medbourne is a retreat for wealthy Leicester immigrants. New detached houses straggle up Manor Road hill, their gardens and their paddocks for the kids’ ponies fenced out of the fields and meadows. The Nevill Arms flourishes still, its fascia largely unaltered, its view across the packhorse bridge to the church largely unchanged. It offers a high end menu within and the ‘popular but personal’ Café Nevill on the rear terrace. The beer it serves is, I believe, Ruddles from nearby Rutland and the pub is still a gathering place for the inhabitants of the villages all around. Few of them, if any, however, are agricultural workers. And Medbourne itself is now designated as a suburb of Market Harborough.
When A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin is asked by grown-ups what he’s going to do today, he says, “Nothing”. My dad’s diary is all about doing ‘nothing’. Jackie and Frankie Jones were busy doing nothing in the fields and lanes around Medbourne at around about the same time that Christopher Robin was roaming the pathways of the 100-Acre Wood near Crowborough in Sussex. And I for one am proudly fogey-ish enough to lament the passing of the glorious nothingness that once abounded in the open countryside.
My Visit to Medbourne
(July 29th to September 1st 1921)
Jackie Jones (aged 11)
July 29th. Today has been a very exciting day, because we are going for our holiday. Frankie while he was in the train put his head out of the window, daddy was afraid he would lose his hat, so he told me to put it on the rack, which I did. Suddenly I said, “Frankie’s hat has blown on-to the lines!” Daddy looked up to the rack, but Frankie’s hat had gone.
July 30th. I got up at 8-o-clock this morning and Frankie came with me to feed the hens. After breakfast I got a racket and ball and played till Gwen, my cousin, came to play tennis with me. For the net we used two posts stuck into the ground with a piece over the top. In the after-noon Roland, my friend, came; we had another game of tennis. When Roland went away Gwen and I beat down a jungle of nettles.
July 31st. I went out before breakfast today and me [and] a little boy named Billy Adams. When I asked him whose boy he was, he said, “My muvver’s”. He then asked me my name and I told him Jackie Jones, he would not believe me and said, “There’s no such word as that”.
1st August. To-day we tried to get up the tennis net but without success. Roland, Gwen, Frankie and I went over to my Uncle’s garden to pick gooseberries in the morning.
2nd August. When I was going up the street this morning with Roland, I met Bob and Frank Bull. Roland was going hay-making that afternoon so we decided to go also. In the afternoon, we did go. A boy named Reuben Garfield found a hedgehog and threw it in the river but it swam a-shore again.
3rd August. We went up on to the moors this morning to gather mushrooms when we brought them home we found that they were all poisonous. This afternoon we were going to get some hay but it rained and we had to go into the club room and play.
4th August. To-day we did succeed in putting up the tennis and we all played. The side that I was on won two sets. I went with my Uncle and Frank to get the puppies this evening. As we were going along Frankie who was talking about cows said, “And he crowed just like a cow”.
5th August. Today we found some time so we marked out the tennis court. In the afternoon we had to go into the club room because it was wet. When we had been thinking some time we decided to play hide-and-seek.
6th August. To-day the weather has been very showery, but we did go for a walk in the evening. It started to pour with rain about 10-o-clock at night.
7th August. This morning when I got up, I looked out of the window and I noticed the brook had risen 4 or 5 ft and was still rising. The water was all on the roads and it suddenly dawned on me it was a flood. Everybody was a-stir, the cattle had to be fetched from the flooded fields. All the other rivers and brooks round about me were flooded too. Roland came over when the water [poured] into his house. Many cars got stuck in the flood and had to be drawn out by horses. In the afternoon, we went down to see the flood on the fields. When we got there we saw nothing of the fields but a mass of water. When we were coming back Roland and I were fighting and having games with my cousin and brother.
8th August. Roland has gone to Ashley to-day for a week and Gwen to [blank] for the night. This afternoon I went down the waterfall to have a game of quoits. I was just going to play when my mother came to say that tea was ready. Today is my brother’s birthday he is 6 years old…
Jackie Jones died peacefully in 1999 at the age of 88. Not long before he died the two of us reminisced about Medbourne and our separate and shared memories of place and people. When I mailed out notification of Dad’s death to all the names in his battered and bulging address book, condolences came back from Roland Orton and Bob Bull, both still at that time living near Medbourne 70 years on.
Little Frankie – my larger-than-life Uncle Frank – died in 2004, peacefully like his brother. He was 89. For the last 30 years he had lived in the seaside town of Salcombe in Devon, where for the greater part of that time he worked as engineer at the famous Salcombe Yacht Club. An heroic drinker, his life was commemorated in the Ferry Inn, each participant toasting Frank in his favourite headache, a ‘blacksmith’ – a three-quarter pint of Guinness topped up with barley wine.
Medbourne is a two-hour drive up the A1 from my bit of North- Herts. Each summer I ponder just the wrong side of a provisional decision the possibility of the journey. And then – reinforced with a pint of Ruddles County at the Nevill Arms – the walk up the Manor Road hill from the village. Nutbush Farm is gone; there’s a huge house sitting on the rise where once the farmhouse stood. But there will remain unaltered patches here and there where I can stop for a moment and watch Jackie and Frankie Jones chasing butterflies with Roland Orton, cousin Gwen and the Bull brothers, or Mal driving his few cows into the tiny milking parlour, pushing at their rumps, growling “Goo on, goo on, ya buggers!”…
And what of Mal, last of the Jeffreys? Maureen’s patience with her husband’s stubborn insistence on running the farm his way in the face of the swift and mighty changes taking place in agriculture across Britain was unwavering. And when the farm failed and Mal had the first of a series of increasingly debilitating strokes, Maureen become the sole wage-earner, cleaning and serving meals at Nevill Holt Prep School a short walk away from the farm along Manor Road. Then finally, the long Medbourne saga came to an end in May 1999 when Mal died of a final massive stroke on the same day as and just an hour after the death of my father…
Strange word, ‘stroke’ – a gentle sleep
and then you wake up, changed.
Caressed by infirmity on the brown hill,
kissed by disability as you climb
the long drive. The farmhouse tips
and, heart in crescendo,
you embrace the grass.
Indifferent sheep manoeuvre,
crowding out your sky.
You lie in a lump, adrift
at the field’s edge, floating
on the dead raft of your limbs.
And the sun nails light
into your one good eye.
Near dusk her scarecrow voice
scatters your crowding dreams:
she calls you from the house,
the sound of your name
curling out of the past,
a gull-cry, fierce, impatient,
tearing at the membrane
that dims your world.
you are another species now.
Your medium is clay and saturation.
Mummified, like the bog-man
trapped by time, you lie dumbfounded,
mud-bound and uncomprehending
as the sun slips down behind the hill.
Urgent fingers scavenging for a heartbeat,
fluttering like bird-wings at your throat,
are busy in the dark.
You feel nothing
of their loving panic, their distress.
All love, all optimism, pain,
all memory, desire coarsen,
thicken into vegetable silence.
A dim siren wobbles in the dark.
And then rough hands manhandle
your clod-heavy bulk.
Night swallows the spinning light
and closes in like smoke.