Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Neil Sentance

Neil Sentance | 17th December 2015

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s contributors and friends take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months. Today it’s the turn of Neil Sentance.

It’s been a rare year for travels, even as the world seems to close in on itself. In February my wife Kate and I went to Amsterdam, and walked the mirroring canal sides and the galleries of Van Goghs and Rembrandts, calling back when I lived in Holland as a twenty-year-old. In March I made a first visit to Hungary, with my great friend Nick, on the trail of Paddy Leigh Fermor and the dark histories of the Budapest Jews and the Roma. In April followed London and a Macfarlane-landmark Caught by the River social and a serendipitous drunken encounter with old friends in a Shoreditch pub. June was Oxford and a cricket tour around hallowed college grounds for our age-defying Dorset backwoods team. And in the autumn there were family reunions in Mallorca during the wine festival and on the shoreline of Long Island Sound in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. All a dizzying whirl when written down.

Despite all these peregrinations, in recent years I’ve slowly been reverting to family type, increasingly reluctant to go far, soldered to the home fields, mental horizons unnarrowed but all the same addicted to the local, the nearby: wet-leaved pavements, high-hedged roads, dark sentinel windblown trees, pubs with southwest peninsular beers and the sea, always the sea. An enchantment with the close at hand. I’ve felt warmth and welcome on my travels but am always glad to be a homing bird.

A couple of times a month I celebrate this. With the kids tucked up in bed and my wife indulgently waving me off, I walk out of our little 1950s house on its steep street looking over sloping Dorset fields, and breathe in brisk evening air. In the summer I might head up over Coneygar, the sylvan hill at the back of the house. Cattle are grazed here, half a mile from the town centre. At the top a bench affords a view of a shard of sea. Foxes run through the shade of the trees, a bolt of living rust. Badger setts ring the route, earthworks decades old. Jays and magpies rattle in the branches. But in winter I’ll more likely take St Andrews Road, lined with neat Victorian semis and rook-flecked oaks, once the rackety main road into town, now suburban and defanged. Once past the old stone-built workhouse, which transmuted into a maternity hospital (I was born in such a place, 250 miles north), and now old folks’ accommodation, the road narrows and becomes Barrack Street, modest Georgian houses as we move back in the town’s history. If still early, I’ll nip down Rax Lane, past the Lyric Theatre, and into the alleyways and ginnels, the town’s backstage. At Mountfield, once a grand house of a ropemaking magnate, I’ll turn in towards the main drag, past ancient limestone warehouses and onto seagull-echoing East Street. Here the scene is life-crammed and close-packed: the sturdy Bull Hotel, mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s short story ‘Fellow Townsmen’, the Thai and Indian restaurants, the butchers and the bookshop, and the spalled facade of the old Literary and Scientific Institute.

And off from the main, the Tiger Inn, my destination. Inside it is appealingly under-lit, cave like and convivial. Darts matches are going on to the side of the bar like antic spear tournaments. The skittle alley round the back is raucous and jovial – skittles is to Dorset what golf is to St Andrews or poker to Las Vegas. The TV is silent. Choices of beers, mainly from a short radial arm away, bloom on the countertop. I’ll meet my friend Nick here, a philosopher from a vaulted school, and talk of our current obsessions – Hungary, cricket, books about Hungary and cricket. Paul, musician and dash-cutting man of the town, will sit down and talk about Tame Impala and Paul Auster. Others friends may turn up among the sundry crowd of builders, artists, students, activist politicos, Dorsetmen and blow-ins, youngsters and the long-in-the-tooth. Summer nights we may sit out in the courtyard among the plumes of smoke and laughter. There is no food served or music piped. If the great John Andrews is still seeking for the model of his pub dream, The Caught by the River, he might do worse than step in, see the rows of split-cane rods raftering the ceiling and settle down beside the oak panelling with a pint of Otter.

At the end of the night it’ll be time to toddle home, gently. Nick will go to find Sorin, a Romanian taxi-driver, a Timisoara hero from the ’89 revolution, to take him back to the hills beyond Lewesdon. I’ll walk home, back up the steep street, happy to be for a moment as lonely as Rockall. Key in the door and Kate, voice furred with sleep, will say: ‘Had a good night?’ Invariably yes. Nested and home again.

Neil Sentance on Caught by the River