January 2010

Sweeny in the Hams

A hundred years ago the pastoral writer Alfred Williams described our old mill cottage as a desolate place, “shorn of its machinery and now used as cottages for farm labourers. The brook has been cut off and diverted from the mill: several large poplar trees with the tops blown away stand around and add to the dilapidation of the scene..”  I feel part of that ancient dilapidation.  I have to face up to the fact that I am old. “All that ‘Golden years’ stuff is nonsense” says David Bailey, “Life’s not better at the end of the road.”

Then the real snows came and there is longer time enough to mourn our youthful bodies. Rupert had gone abroad. Eight inches of snow fell in one  night leaving an unearthly silence. The landscape frozen, blindingly clear  and beautiful; the low sun hitting the willows and turning them orange. I couldn’t drive out of the gate for two weeks. I become demonstrably more  necessary to and more needed by the livestock, with no psychological strings attached. The moment I set foot in the field the ewe lambs crowd around, the geese and chickens half fly towards me. Usually they merely amble.  It’s a good feeling. Everything is equal, there is only survival. Each day I crunch the mile across the frozen field behind the barns and along the lane to the Hams with as much hay as I can carry. I am flattered that the muntjacks are following the deep path I marked out with my boot prints on the first day. Every morning I see more slots and droppings along my wavering course.  The vestiges of the Ock along the old hedge line which hardly ever freeze are rock solid under the dark cover of may trees and I hack out a channel of muddy water with a seldge hammer so that the sheep can drink. The watertrough pipe is frozen and the layer of ice is lower in the trough each day. I shovel out the slippery slabs and make a drinking hole for Sweeny. After four days my back packed up and I had to summon up the courage to ring someone I hardly knew with a four by four and ask them to drop some hay into the hams. But I still walk the same route for the daily ice breaking ritual and I am happy.  I watched a black bird demolishing the last of the red crab apples which are still hanging on the trees outside the stable. The gold crests have at last found out about the black niger seed I hung out for them and have arrived in gangs.

Nell, my circus horse riding god daughter  has had twins, a boy and a girl called Cecil and Red and now they are on the brink of the world and safe on the stranded Cotswold hills because Totti her strong armed husband has a JCB and can battle  through any drifts. I am safe too, I have no need to leave the village. When it snows the line of downs is no longer there ,it merges with the white sky. I am closed in on myself beside the fire. The village footpaths come into their own -the shortcut across the fields to the pub another to the village hall -  and the daily walk to the shop feels inexplicably right and fitting . The world is monotone. I feel as though I am moving through  a  black and white photograph..

When snow fell across Hereforshire  in the winter of 1980 my mum had no village shop to hand,. She was seventy years old  and had finally decided to stop riding large dangerous horses . Instead,  she bought and broke in a welsh pony for herself and called him Bracken.  “ Yesterday I rode down to Hay on wye via the wood near Greenways and onto the lane  to Cariad’s home.. It is seven miles to Hay that way but when I got to the lane just below my steep hill the snow plough had been along it and made it so slippery that I had to take to the fields and rode the rest of the way across the Cusop stud farm. Well I filled my saddle bags with goodies BUT the silly postmistress had sent my mail out with the postman so I never got it and he could not possibly get up here in his little mini van. I started back at 1.20pm and rode the same way across the Eckley’s farm, and when I got to the lane below Trevaddock I thought I will TRY to go up it as it is only two miles home whereas if I returned by the way I had come it would have meant a further five miles, so I rode up the hill and Landover tracks made it ok until just past the farm, where there was VIRGIN SNOW. The drifts were not too bad until I got to the top of the hill and the last mile was really exciting as the snow was up to Bracken’s tummy and at one point he stopped and I thought whatever happened I MUST stay aboard as I would find it harder than him to plough through the snow which luckily was soft as it thawed most of the day. So I urged him on with my legs and voice and he nobly went on. It was a great effort but he has great courage and I would not sell him for ten thousand pounds! When I got home I weighed my saddle, saddle bags full of goodies, and myself with all my clothes on and boots and scarves and the total weight was 13 stone 9 ounces!! And he is only thirteen hands high. He is so good because he will go close up to gates or banks and never moves while I climb on, with more difficulty than ever with my weak right arm!” (My mother had fallen off and broken her arm a month before. She felt nothing but annoyance at the inconvenience.)

Wiltshire Horns in the Hams


1 comment to January 2010

  • Sheila Sivanand

    I tried doing this on the Contact link of your website but it is empty. I wanted to tell you I am now reading “Over the Hills and Far Away” and it is such a delight. I miss the English countryside and your writing brings it before me so clearly. Please go on writing. I have “the Dangerous Edge of Things” among my shelves of books waiting to be read. Please keep writing. Books. Blog. Anything.

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