Caught by the River

River Witham: Scenes from the Waterside

Neil Sentance | 28th March 2012

Illustration by Jonathan Gibbs

by Neil Sentance
1934: Remembering

A 1940s ECKO radio now sits in the front room of our house. I salvaged it years ago after it had long gathered dust in Grandad’s workshop, left there among worm-eaten woodplanes and blunt-toothed saws for a decade or so after the valve had blown. When I was a child, I always liked that old wireless, dark brown Bakelite utilityware but with sinuous Deco flourishes. It sat for years on the farmhouse kitchen ledge over the red formica counters, bass tones of Radio 4’s Farming programme echoing through my early morning sleepiness. Grandad would have been up for hours already, out with his flat cap over his line-corrugated bald head, to feed the beasts and size up the day. Then he’d hiss at the cats gathering by the back door, and would come in and sit at the kitchen table. I would watch him eat, relish, his breakfast, his ham and English mustard, and then bread with marmalade ladled on to the plate from a yellow china pot. His perfect bovine teeth were gapped between the front two, giving his austere face a rascally slant. Sipping tea strong enough to trot a mouse on, he’d stifle a belch, and with a slight raise of his shaggy eyebrows, he’d utter, ‘Manners!’, to no one in particular. He’d stay till the weather forecast. Inspecting the wireless dial in vain for signs of Radio 1, I’d be caught by the colourful names of the bandwidth positions printed on the perspex pane: Ostend, Amsterdam, Hilversum . . . I asked him where they were: Holland, boy – good farmers in Holland.

He’d allowed himself a rare trip away, to Holland, once in the 1960s. A busman’s holiday, a coach trip around the tulip fields and a visit to the Delta Scheme sea defence works then under construction after the North Sea floods of 1953, but mostly, on his part, it was a close inspection of Low Country agriculture. Otherwise there’d be the annual trip down south, to the Dorset coast and relations in Lyme and Uplyme, before the long drive home for the harvest season. Saturday afternoons, until the incipient arthritis crocked him, were for cricketing. A stocky long-armed fast-bowler, like Larwood of Notts, and a belligerent lower-order batsman, he would have made a fearsome opponent. As a boy he’d had dreams of going professional, of becoming a Player, of honing his leg-cutters and toe-crunching yorkers at Trent Bridge and round the counties. But his dad wouldn’t hear of it, needing him for the farm, and so he became steeped in hard work from an early age, as he would be for near his whole life. His two hundred-acre farm he mostly worked alone, bringing in help at harvest time or with the cattle when need be. It was written on his hands, rough and cracked as a dry riverbed. His asperity came naturally, like the clayey earth he’d shovel day and night digging culverts. I remember being fascinated with his shotguns, kept in the room next to the kitchen, high on the whitewashed wall. The mournful rabbits and pigeons of the upper Withamside never stood a chance.

As the eldest grandson, he had me work on the farm sometimes, in summers stacking bales in the Dutch barns, in winters picking potatoes out of the cold hard ground, thankless tasks I never enjoyed. Wednesday trips to Newark Cattle Market or riding about the farmlands on the back of his open grey Ferguson tractor were more fun. Occasionally, in between bouts of his spectacularly curt swearing, he’d open up and talk about his childhood, a cricket anecdote or school story before his days of hard toiling in the riverfields had begun. One day I was helping him collect logs from the barn. When he was a little ’un, Grandad said, his mother would throw down logs from the top of the wood store, and he and his pal Jack North would dodge them for fun, till one day he misjudged and a log hit him on the head and laid him out cold. Another time he and Jack had hidden in this barn from Mr Burton, their old headmaster. They’d clambered up the green sides of the stacked wood, Jack snagging the bailer twine that held up his trousers on the way. Their mouths full of sandy dust, they reached the level of the dirt-flecked window, rinsed a little with rain from the afternoon and kept a long watch on the lane below. It was long after milking time, only a dim light flickering through the windowpane and they stayed deep into the cooling August night. They had been running like hares for hours, leading Burton in a merry jig around the village. He’d first spotted them in Jessop’s barbershop. Jessop had been waxing on about how they’d both lose their hair young, thick and lustrous though it was now. Staring into the mirror, they’d seen Burton coming up the street, his bow-legged gait bringing forth the barber’s usual jibe – ‘he’d never stop a pig in a passage’. Throwing a few pennies down on the oily counter, the boys had ran out of the shop towards the Witham, to the hayrick abandoned midstream, obstacle for the spring trout and plaything of the village lads. ‘Bald by twenty, you’ll see boys, not be giving me much business,’ the barber’s words curled behind them. Old Burton was no match in speed but he was dogged, and they knew why he wanted them. The boys had spent most of the summer in trouble, for tying together the girls’ pigtails, for kicking little Frank Johnson’s shins, for skiving off to go fishing from the hayrick’s bench seat. They had taken the cane every day for two months; then were set to working the headmaster’s garden. They had worked in the shade of a horse chestnut, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, tending and watering until swallows dipped round the bean poles. The garden was Burton’s delight. On the last night of school Grandad and Jack had stolen back after dark, dug up all the asters and peonies, cut them off at the roots, and replanted them. They had all withered before the next sundown.

Jack was now long dead, killed in the army truck he was driving at the Sicily landings; best job he’d ever had, he’d said, like barrowing daylight into a dark passage. Grandad had stayed home on the farm, his dad throwing his RAF call-up papers on the fire. Two years after the war, his dad had been killed by his own prize bull in a sodden field next to the Witham, and the farm was thrust onto Grandad, a young man left standing alone. Part of the farmholdings was the house next to the school, where Headmaster Burton still lived, and who so became his tenant, and at the mercy of eviction papers Grandad would never serve. He married my grandmother, had seven children, and spent his life a man of the fields. Did he ever listen to that old radio, Test matches from Lords and Melbourne, and think of a different path? He would never say.

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