Below: Mr and Mrs David Parsons stand at the back door of their cottage.
The Parsons showed us around their garden.
I stood and listened to the birds singing, and to the breeze ruffling through the leaves of the trees in the woods just across the narrow lane from the dry-stone wall at the bottom of the garden, and watched the fat, awkward English bumble-bees lazily bumbling through the lavender flowers and forget-me-nots.
I looked out across the garden wall at the magnificent views of farmlands and hills, and felt the peace of the place fill my soul. I almost envied Old Mont and the Parsons their simple country life until I remembered that I, too, had once lived in the country, and country life could be hard, very harsh at times … then I told myself, “But that was in Australia and this is England, a more gentle country.” Is it? Is England a gentle place? In Lifting the Latch Old Mont talked about the terrible snow storms he had experienced in the past. Now, in 2015, on the Wednesday afternoon, as we’d sat chatting in the front room of Biddy’s Bottom, David Parsons had told us about another snow storm in the terrible winter of 19– : “It were the worst we’ve ever seen, the worst we’ve ever been through. We couldn’t get out, the snow were so high that it would’ve been up to those telegraph wires you can see out the window behind me here. Helicopters dropped feed to the animals, the cows and the sheep and the horses–we’d moved them up to higher ground just as the snow storms started. We knew we were in for a bad time, and we were right. No, helicopters didn’t drop supplies to us. We had plenty in the house. All anyone were worried about were the animals, that they were alright. But then the snow and the storms got so bad it were too dangerous to fly the helicopters, and we all worried about the animals. In these areas, the animals always come first.”
He pointed across the garden wall to a field in the distance. Bob zoomed the camera in for a close shot. We saw formations in the ground that looked like sets of giant tyre marks. The formations were called “Jeyes Ricks.” We asked, were they left-overs from the Bronze Ages or before? David Parsons replied, “They Ricks have been there longer that we can remember, longer than our ancestors could remember. Old Mont and I worked over there on that farm at times. We’d see teams of scientists and all sorts of experts and specialists poking around, examining the ground, and even they didn’t know what they Ricks were. No-one knows what they Ricks are, just a bit of uneven ground I suppose.”
Sheep grazed in the back field of Biddy’s Bottom. I noted a rather unhappy-looking sheep lying in the grass. Mrs Parsons said: “Oh she’s alright, just having a rest, they’ve got lambs. Noisy things sheep, baaing and carrying on all day long … never give it a rest.”
David Parsons: “The wood-pecker were noisier than those sheep there. He were at it every night. Tap, tap, tap, for hours and hours–you could hear it in our front-room, over the television. I said to her, the wife, we’ve got a wood-pecker, and I were right. He were in a tree in the patch of woods straight across the lane from our garden gate. Do you want to see the wood-pecker’s hole? Took him weeks to make.”
As we walked through the back gate (right photo above) to cross the lane, Mrs Parsons said, “See this gate? That’s where Old Mont got stuck one time. He was really old then, but he never seemed to take into account he was getting old and still tried to do what he’d always done when he was younger–hop the gate because it was quicker than having to open it then shut it behind him. So this night it was dark, and he’d lifted his barrow over the gate, then tried to climb over after it. We could hear someone calling and calling. Some of us rushed out and found Old Mont lying across the gate like a half-filled sack, stuck, and we lifted him off. Silly old fellow forgot his age–he was too old for those tricks. Got his coat caught, too. Lucky for him we found him–it was a bitterly cold night.”
David Parsons: “He were no light weight, either. It were a job to get him off that gate, took a few of us a while. He’d been off down the lane with his barrow when it happened. Old Mont had been through some hard times when he were young, he knew what it were like to go short of stuff, so he never threw anything out. People used to drive down this lane here (left photo above), and dump their rubbish–bits of timber, old bits of cars, windscreens, worn-out chairs, old garden bits, stakes, wire–and my father and Old Mont used to rummage in the rubbish to see what they could salvage. They were old-timers, things weren’t cheap and were often hard to come by when they were young, and they kept to their old ways, making do and using whatever were handy. They kept an eye out on the lane, and whenever they saw a stranger go down there they’d get word to each other. Then down the lane they’d go before anyone else could beat them to it, my father on his old push bike and Old Mont wheeling his old barrow, to get what handy bits and pieces they could load up and bring home to use. They were resourceful, re-cyclists long before recycling became a fashionable word. Can’t remember why now, but my father weren’t at home the night Old Mont got stuck, he were off somewhere on business I suppose … ”
To my mind, getting strung up on a gate at 80-90 years of age would be a rather horrific experience. But I see nothing strange about tip-scavenging: here, I’m not talking about third world countries where some of the population tip-scavenge to eke an existence. In Australia, up until the late 1900s when the care of council rubbish tips was turned over to private contractors, tip-scavenging was a favourite past-time for some. For instance, my husband, Bob, who, like his father before him, was born and raised in Australia has told me how, when he was a boy, his father would sometimes take him on a Saturday morning to rifle through the local tip: “It was great. You could find some good stuff, useful stuff–old wheels, bits of lumber, bits of old motors. We’d bring them home and make billy carts. It’s amazing what some people will throw out. I even found an old push-bike once. I did it up and rode it for years. It’s a shame they’ve closed the tips off to scavengers. Now, you’ve got to pay the tip-managers to get any bits and pieces you fancy–everything is about money.”
At Biddy’s Bottom, we inspected the wood-pecker’s hole (above), then made our way back up through the garden. David Parsons glanced back over his shoulder: “There’s badgers in those woods, too. The country is in a terrible state these days, not like it used to be. I heard some agriculturists and farmers talking on the radio the other day. They were blaming the badgers for the spread of tuberculosis in the cattle…”
So, what do they plan to do about that, I wondered–kill off all the badgers? Add “badger” to the lists of extinct animals? Will there soon come a time when our grandchildren will ask, “What’s a badger, what did it look like, what did it do?” How do you answer?–“Oh, badgers were no good, better to get rid of the things, they gave the cattle tuberculosis.” I tried to think of possible solutions. I had nothing to offer other than that, in Australia, we vaccinate all our cattle against tuberculosis–it’s mandatory, and that I’d also read in a scientific journal that the water-voles of England were an endangered species now, too. They were fast disappearing, and everyone was pretty worried because water-voles keep the waterways healthy, and free of pollution. The land-river care people don’t know what to do about the almost extinct water-voles, they can’t come up with a viable solution.
Back again in the Parsons’ front room, I mentioned that while we were driving along through the country-side we were rather surprised to see a great many pheasants roaming around in the fields. We had been under the impression that, due to poaching, wild pheasants were almost a thing of the past. David Parsons looked across at us, and said: “My own father used to do a little pheasant poaching back in the old days, but no-one poaches now. These days, the wild pheasants have reached plague proportions. We still like a bit of pheasant at times, but if someone gave you a fresh brace of pheasants as a present you’d throw them away. Why would you bother with having to prepare them? You can buy them in the shops, they’re cheap, and already plucked and cleaned ready to put in the oven. My father were of the old school, from the days when people in these country areas ate whatever the land could provide. Even when all sorts of food became readily available in the shops he kept with the old ways, with what his parents had done before him–catch the wild things from the fields and hedgerows. I remember my father had a great fondness for hedgehog. He’d catch them and bring them home for dinner. But my mother wouldn’t cook them so he’d get into the kitchen and cook them himself. The spines would burn off during the cooking and when it was cooked he’d throw the blackened thing onto his pate, break it open, and get stuck in and eat it. My mother and I couldn’t stand the sight–used to make us sick. Have you ever smelled a hedgehog cooking? It’s the worst in the world, and the taste is just as bad. The smell of cooking hedgehog would fill the house. Whenever my father brought one home my mother and I would go upstairs to my bedroom, lock the door, throw the window wide open and stick our heads out into the fresh air even if it were winter and freezing–but still you couldn’t get the stink out of your nose.”
While we were chatting with the Parsons, Bob mentioned that on our way to meet them the day before, we’d stopped to look at the Rock of Gibraltar, and we bemoaned the fact that we wouldn’t have time to visit Stonehenge.
David Parsons looked across at us: “You don’t have to go all that way to Stonehenge to see stones, we’ve got better right here. There’s some just along the road at Rollright and little Rollright, on the farms that belonged to Mr Hughes–he were a tenant farmer. We worked out there on his Rollright farms sometimes, Old Mont and me, and some us on the farms would sit with our backs against the stones while we ate our dinners.”
Mrs Parsons: “There’s a big stone circle, the witches still use it …” I hadn’t known there were still witches. “Oh yes, there’s quite a lot of them around here. The stone circle is where they do their dancing and hold meetings.”
David Parsons swung the conversation to the tiny hamlet of Fulwell, as it was in the old days…