Jude Rogers pays tribute to a lost friend in her first 2018 dispatch from the Welsh borders.
In this valley on the edges of England and Wales, it has been a long, dark, deep winter. It arrived one morning in October when the apples were still heavy on the trees, a midnight colour arriving at the end of a phone line on a soft Autumn day. Then that colour worked its way through , spreading from other sources, holding other people in its black, viscous ink. Then came the snow, settling fast, settling hard, leaving us shut out of home or marooned deep within it. Twice we were an island in a sea of black ice, halfway up a twisting, wind-beaten hill. The weather replicated other things. We felt frightened. But there was also a peace in it somehow, a sleepy, shivery peace, in every reason not to go anywhere. We dug. We had to dig. Then we started getting somewhere.
In March, late but at last, the daffodils started opening their mouths, all wide and lemon-yellow. Tractors also started pulling out of the lane that leads from the farm we see near the bottom of the valley, the farm of our nearest neighbour, Mr Watkins, who, in his eighties, was always a regular sight at the wheel of one of his machines. Tall, lithe and youthful, always wearing his overalls, bright eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, a cap tight over his head. His consonants and vowels were of the borderlands, all rolled Welsh rrrrs and soft West Country melody, his desire to talk to anyone and discover things and hang off the gate and talk the morning away always ready and ripe. I last saw him in February, in a rare break from the relentless weather, raising his cap and nodding his head, turning his car down the lane, to the fields that start to deepen their green as the days lengthen.
In March, the monthly parish magazine dropped into our letterbox, a small stapled set of local notices, local adverts and religious information. Mr Watkins had written in it in his capacity as church warden at Kentchurch, just over the border of his family’s farmland in England. He wrote about the coming of the seasons upon the church land, and of coming to terms with smaller congregations, but how the “welcome within the church is undiminished whatever the numbers”. He also wrote about how nature helped with this welcome, of the “snowdrops that had been consolation during the dark winter”, of the “snakeshead fritillaries…to be followed in early summer by the moon daisies”, of the “afternoon light pouring through the stained glass”. Reading it was lovely; hearing the inside of his mind playing out in colour. He wrote of the daffodils too: “they are a wonderful welcome”. I could hear the slow lull of his voice when I read it.
In early April, people poured out of Kentchurch’s old door, not being able to get inside. Their bodies stretched along the path that led to the church gate, their feet gentle on the edges of grass that held banks of lemon-yellow flowers. Six men carried Mr Watkins past them, on their shoulders into his church, and we learned of the life he had lived as the vicar spoke. We learned of the farm where he was born nearby in 1935, and the farm he had moved to next door thirty years later with his young wife and young children, and of the people he would love to speak to, whatever their background, class or creed. Up a twisting, wind-beaten hill nearby stood the same farm that he had left two weeks earlier for the last time, after loading cattle into a van that same morning, in the first light of spring.
He lived his entire life in this valley, did Mr Watkins, the hills of England and Wales rising in their different guises above him, year in, year out. He was a man of the borders, in many senses, but also of no borders at all. He was a man that looked out, and a man who looked in. As Spring settles, in all its colours, I will remember what has come, what has gone, and I will remember him.