Friday, June 30, 2006

Remembrances of times past

This post has been prompted by a pint of Marston's Double Drop ale. Strange how a flavour can plunge you back into memories.

The first beer I ever drank was Rayments IPA. You can't get it anymore; Greene King bought out Rayments many years ago and closed the brewery in Furneux Pelham. They make an IPA now in the big beer factory in Bury St Edmunds, but it's not the same.

It was a hot summer, much like every summer of my childhood. I seem to remember that it snowed in winter back then, too. We lived on the Essex/Hertfordshire border back then, near Bishop's Stortford, famous for being the birthplace of Cecil Rhodes, and Shakatak (or was it Shalimar? I never could remember). My dad worked in London and commuted from the converted laundry house of an old stately home demolished in the 1920's (the mansion, not the laundry house). I grew up not understanding why nobody else had gardens designed by Capability Brown, or why people's back yards were measured in feet, not acres. You could say I was spoiled without imperilling your soul.

It was a wonderful, magical place to grow up, although I only appreciate that now. All that remained of the old stately home was the laundry, the coach house, an art deco guest house that must have been built for the family when they demolished the old place, and a few small houses that were probably estate offices at one time. The houses were all clustered together at the end of a mile and a half long drive, far away from any main road. We were a small community cut off from the rest of the world.

The place was a dream for children. All the houses were separated by endless miles of huge brick walls, part of a vast complex of walled gardens presumably designed originally to supply the big house with an uninterrupted supply of fresh vegetables, cut flowers and the like. we used to climb onto the walls and walk around, fifteen feet up, pretending to be batman in Gotham city, or the Pink Panther, cat-burgling the aristocracy.

It was a box of delights. There was a wild garden, full of bamboos and other exotic plants; a two acre ornamental lake stocked with carp that were probably a hundred and fifty years old; a water garden laid out with formal pools reminiscent of (though not on the same scale as) Trevi in Italy; a Ha Ha wall separating our garden from the neighbouring fields and parkland; an ice-house dug into the heavy North Essex clay; a formal driveway, complete with ornate stone gateposts topped with statues of lions who faced the wrong way - into the estate; a three mile long avenue of cedars planted two hundred years earlier and just then reaching maturity.

In comparison to all the surroundings, the house itself was fairly modest - low ceilinged and draughty, with Crittal steel-framed windows that oozed cold and leaked as if that was what they had been designed to do. The house was long and thin - never meant to be lived in, and at the end, it merged with the vegetable gardens and stables, adapted over the decades into a series of lean-to sheds and garages filled with all manner of strange things. There was an old ex-WWII Willys Jeep when we moved in, which my dad kept going and used to bring logs up from the nearby plantation until someone offered him a stupid amount of money for it.

We had chickens, long before it became fashionable. We used to keep the egg shells, put them in the AGA until they were hard and dry, then crush them down in an old coffee grinder and feed them back to the chickens, mixed in with the kitchen scraps. After a few months their eggs were so hard you couldn't crack them at all. There was never any dog pooh in that yard either, but the eggs were well tasty.

One summer the local foxes found out about our chickens and we had to start shutting them up at night. This wasn't much of a problem, since there were endless suitable sheds built onto the long garden walls. But locking the chooks up at night meant that, eventually, the sheds had to be mucked out. And so it was, one hot afternoon, aged probably eleven, having shovelled more than my fair share of neat chicken manure, my dad handed me a bottle of Rayments IPA.

It came in returnable bottles, in returnable wooden crates with 'Rayments' stencilled on the side. The bottles didn't even have crown caps - they were corked. I thought I was such a grown up, glugging down the bitter liquid, though in truth I didn't much care for it back then. It was cold, and it was beer. That was all that mattered.

If you go looking for that house now, you won't find it. Dad sold up in the late eighties and moved back to Scotland to farm. The chap who bought it from us mortgaged himself beyond the hilt to buy his slice of rural heaven, and it wasn't long before the banks came for his soul. The house was let to students for a while, becoming little more than a doss-house, and then finally one of the locals from the village managed to buy the place. He didn't waste his time - it was demolished and three executive country homes built on the land, each taking a share of the huge gardens.

Sometimes I dream I'm back there, playing hide and seek in the wild garden, fishing on the lake, or just lying in the sun on the lawn. I always wake to a deep sense of sadness.

You can never go back.


Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Perhaps a dumb question, but chickens? Fashionable? When were chickens ever fashionable? Practical, perhaps, but fashionable?

July 01, 2006 6:45 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Chickens are the new must-have pet for the suburban family, Sandra. You can even get them a funky designer coop - the eglu

July 03, 2006 10:59 am  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Hmmm, I can just see the sales job on that one.

"Honey, we need a chicken."

"What the hell for?"

"So when I'm not here to bug you, there'll be something else beaking off."

I know. Weak. But I actually don't like birds very much. Some are pretty to look at, but from a distance.

July 03, 2006 9:37 pm  

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