Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Neil Sentance

Neil Sentance | 5th January 2013

S&R photophoto: Ron Hewit

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments:

Early summer, a rare high-cloud day in this grey rainswept year, and I am crouched under the low-slung branches of the backyard magnolia tree, while the kids eat jam sandwiches on a tartan rug. Imbricating daubs of shadow mottle their legs and arms and upturned faces. My nine-year-old daughter soon goes back to her book – she has reached the voracious reading stage. My six-year-old son starts drawing, aliens and spaceships and the letters of his name, over and over, a mantra of identity stamping. Then with a sudden gust, they’re up and off running and hollering, answering some essential coltish urge to burn up energy, to stretch their limbs. My wife brings out cold beers; we sit recalling the treasure of these times even as they go by, and seem to swallow the smouldering sun.

We haven’t travelled far this year. Home-working glided naturally into home-holidaying, and walking down the narrow bridleway next to the house, up through the old quarry works and onto the bike trail to the sea is always unalloyed pleasure. Or mooching in this garden. The magnolia is bowling out at the knoll, loose-leashed and wanton like everything else growing here – the wooden post that was keeping a long limb from drooping has been repurposed to stand duty as a clothesline prop, and the branch now slumps, over-burdened, but perfect for the kids to hide under and daydream. Will this be one of the trees that form part of the fable of their childhoods, a yardstick for their memories? Roger Deakin in Wildwood talked about his trees at Walnut Tree Farm as his friends and mainstays. For me, trees are waymarkers calling back the past.

This garden is most likely a remnant of an ancient cider orchard. On the 1912 OS map, apple orchards predominate in the village, covering the area now largely built on down to the River Brit. An old limestone granary and cider mill stands across the road from us, since 1932 the village ‘Men’s Club’ though hosting nothing more licentious than billiards and darts nights. Most of the village gardens are now manicured and royally festooned with highly tended flowers. Ours though is wild and republican. A strangled yucca, spiny and dangerous-looking, is encircled by thistles (beloved of goldfinches), rubbly nettle banks (butterfly heaven) and tall spindles of cow parsley. Ants’ nests form strategic mounds like miniature hill forts, breached by green woodpeckers. Frail conifers totter over a crumbling dry-stone wall, a long-time field boundary, muralled with ivy and overhung by elder, sheltering frogs, newts and slow worms (but no adders). The crazy-paving has gone loco, sea-green and lichenous, the mortar sprouting with dandelions. A former herb patch is now a thicket of woody stems of rosemary and chive. Birds love it here – rattling jays and magpies, snake-eyed sparrowhawks, summer-soundtracking collared doves, overwintering fieldfares and woodcocks – and evening bats flit over the garden throughout the mid-year months. Two old apple trees still stand, the younger producing the rarer apple variety Red Charles Ross, a ‘handsome’ Victorian cross of Cox’s Orange Pippin and Peasgood Nonsuch (itself a cultivar originally raised in my home county of Lincolnshire). In autumn it was heavy with apples shining like red electric bulbs on a municipal Christmas tree; now in winter it bristles with stripped twigs like antlers. Our horticultural ineptitude is resulting in what ecologists call ‘rewilding’, our homespun and happenstance biodiversity scheme.

The kids of course know every nook of this small patch of land, scene of their games and hideouts, fuel of their imaginations, the trees well climbed in their personal sacred grove. On a half-term trip north to the grandparents, we took them to the National Trust’s Isaac Newton birthplace museum, a seventeenth-century farmhouse exhibiting the great scientist’s early work on optics and motion. And of course the descendant of the famous apple tree that is said to have led to Newton’s development of the law of gravity. It stands proudly in its own paddock, conjuring up the apple tree that once stood in the corner of my grandparents’ garden. It’s a place I think of often, and its familial trees. The apple tree had been planted by grandad in 1960, soon after they had moved from the old farm cottage. He pollarded it every three years, and by the time I clambered on it, the trunk was gnarled and caulked. Its sour fruit were good cookers for granny’s apple pie, legendary on Sunday afternoon get-togethers. I always made for that tree, to sit in its friendly arms and look over the country, and its stillness. In other corners of the garden stood young horse chestnuts, each planted by a different auntie. Over the gate of the stackyard, next to the slurry pond, was another horse chestnut, grown from a conker planted by me and my mother in the seventies. And behind the chicken sheds a lonely ash tree became the cenotaph of a farmcat graveyard.

In May, I went back to London to attend the Caught by the River event at the Southbank, Robert Macfarlane and Chris Watson in their pomp on a sweltering night by the river. The day after, I went down the Thames on a ferry and stopped off at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich. My wife and I were married here ten years ago. I went up to the ornate ballroom on the first floor where we had exchanged vows and looked out through the floor-to-ceiling window, over the grey-glistening river towards the Isle of Dogs. I remembered how in the hectic weeks before the wedding, we did a bunk and curled up on the sofa to watch a favourite old film, Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. The lines from Walter Scott at the end of the movie mean the same to me now as then:

‘Love rules the court, the camp, the grove

And men below and heaven above

For love is heaven and heaven is love.’