April 2010

Water lies in the bottom of the field dips in shining pools and last week the downs have receded into the uniform greyness of the sky . But today the greyness has lifted and the sun is white behind thin cloud . I ride Lily up the winding lane to Woolstone which follows the Ock upstream in a series of sweeping bends. There are the dead stems of old mans beard criss -crossing around trees in hedgerows and clumps of bulrushes in a deep cutting by Swallows Corner.

The Ock’s source is in the dark shadow of Woolstone hollow below which it collects in a secret lake hidden by trees and then tumbles noisily down beside Waterfall Cottage in the middle of the village. Thatched, half timbered and ridiculously picturesque each time I pass it I remember Hugh Cruddas who lived there in the 1960’s. Out of all my parents’ friends he was my closest friend and confidante. I told him everything and listened to his wise counsel in answer to my constant outpourings of unrequited love. He came to all our moonlight cart picnics at Knighton Bushes two miles away across the downs, stranded and remote. The entertainments were unforgettable. My father used to hit a tin plate with a stick while reciting chunks of The Congo “…. boom ,boom, Boom, With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom, Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom, ” and Hugh used to stuff a cushion down his shirt and do a perfect impersonation of the Queen mother while sauntering regally through the assembled company doing small fluttering waves : he became her. His time in Waterfall Cottage was unhappy . The war wound in his leg kept him awake almost every night and his heart had been irrecoverably broken. Robert Heber Percy, the love of his life, had chucked him out of Faringdon House where he had lived for years and replaced him with a younger lover. Today I will be bolstered by Hugh’s spirit and bravery.

I head up the steep hill behind his village. The downs are biscuit coloured with dead tufted grass lying across the faded green undulations of the Manger and Lily is calm as I trot along the Ridgeway between the leafless may trees. I am here on the downs as I always was. My body is old but my spirit has never changed. Cantering now, the sound of the wind is thundering in my ears and I am transported to my early teens when all the world was waiting to be won. The mantle of self-preservation wrapped around me as a parent , seems to have fallen away and a sense of recklessness has flooded back. I would be Lizzie in the Eustace Diamonds leading the hunting field over huge fences.

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