Caught by the River


3rd April 2022

Chalk horses, racehorses and skeletal Iron Age horses gallop through an extract from John G. Harriss work-in-progress memoir ‘Life Expectancy’.

John on a pony on holiday in Dorset

Nestled below the Berkshire Downs in The Vale of the White Horse is a village of two parts and two names: Aston Tirrold; and the smaller Aston Upthorpe, which lies slightly higher. In my childhood the village was split in other ways: between manor houses and council houses, landowners and agricultural workers, retired civil servants and car workers. I became very familiar with all these houses, their occupants, and social differences during my time as a paper boy some years after 1967, when we moved there.

The Vale of the White Horse takes its name from the Bronze Age horse in chalk cut into White Horse Hill at Uffington. Like the prehistoric cave paintings in France and Spain the figure of the white horse feels vital and contemporary, pared back to the essentials. It has the purity of a symbol; one that is visible for miles around in an area that is rich in a prehistory that includes the Neolithic long barrow of Wayland’s Smithy and The Ridgeway, the oldest road in Europe.

In 2019, after months of medical investigations, I received a provisional diagnosis of motor neurone disease, along with it came a sense of calm and an ability to think beyond tiresome symptoms. It also brought early memories flooding back, as though the diagnosis forced me to consider how I got to this point in my life. Memories of the village of my childhood return with an urgency that requires immediate attention, as if I need to grab hold of them before they gallop off.

My first memory of Aston Tirrold is, paradoxically, a memory of something I did not witness first-hand. In 1967, I was six and living with my parents, older brother, Paul, sister Liz, and new-born younger brother, Michael, in Stepney in London’s East End. My father, Gordon, was minister of John Knox Presbyterian Church and we lived in The Manse next door. It was my father’s third church, though the first in London, and it brought with it the challenges of a socially deprived area. It can’t have been easy on my father, who questioned both his role and the social role of the church in general. This in turn led him to question his faith, and he gained some notoriety in the ecclesiastical press for writing an article in which he doubted the efficacy of prayer, even admitting he didn’t pray. In 1964 there was the abduction, rape and murder of seven-year-old Kim Roberts, the daughter of a family that attended church and one that he counselled in their grief. My father was in his thirties and heading for, what he later described as, a “nervous breakdown”. A trip to the Holy Land (which notably included a fall from a horse) took him back to the roots of his faith. Rather than leaving the church, he accepted a position in a very different setting, the Presbyterian Church in the village of Aston Tirrold. This second-hand memory is of his first trip to the village.

At that time, Aston Tirrold was a village of racehorses, with several stables belonging to Sir William Piggott-Brown, a former jockey. You could tell which were his because they had distinctive white buildings with blue painted windows. Twice daily the Irish stable lads would take the highly-strung racehorses around the village and, occasionally, to the gallops up on the Downs where they trained for races. One of the stables was next door to The Manse, abutting the long back garden that led down to the churchyard. Prior to our move from Stepney my father went on a reconnaissance mission to visit The Manse and his new church. There he discovered that the horses next door had escaped, tearing up the Manse lawn and causing extensive damage to the garden.

That is all there is to the memory. My father would have relayed the news to us on his return. Perhaps there was still evidence of the rampaging horses some months later when we moved in. It’s barely a memory, but it’s one that I return to regularly; it has force even now.

When I think about this unwitnessed event, it’s not the powerful racehorses free from the constraints of their routinised lives galloping ecstatically around the garden that comes to mind. Instead, I think of the traces of the event, the hoof prints and turned over turf that I didn’t witness first-hand. At the time, I was only dimly aware of the reasons for my family’s move; the consequence of emotional disturbances that were hidden from view. Like the racehorses in the garden, powerful forces were in play that were barely registered by me. Mostly, the move from London to the village felt like a liberation. The soundtrack to those early years in Aston Tirrold was the music of the band Traffic; their hits ‘Hole in My Shoe’ and ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ were the songs we chanted as we danced around the back garden. Traffic had also left London and moved to the village, to a cottage on the Downs belonging to Sir William. I have a memory of a Mini Moke parked by the phone box in front of our house, the band making a phone call, and me being asked to get their autographs on the back of a cigarette pack by some shy village girls. Pop music in the Sixties was exuberant and joyful. In London it had been the clean-cut Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ on the radio and the electrifying ‘Telstar’ in the church youth club. In Aston Tirrold it was Traffic’s hip, freewheeling version of pop music with soul, volume, energy and long hair. The countryside was a refuge from a bleak urban existence captured in Traffic’s song ‘Berkshire Poppies’: “Day in the city / Oh what a pity / I could be in Berkshire where the poppies are so pretty.”

We were part of a movement, an exodus from the city. I remember a sitcom in which a harassed mother, Wendy Craig, and her family escaped from the city to a life in the country. The fictional family in Not in Front of the Children was like my own. Wendy Craig had a baby, and she was pretty, loving, put upon, frustrated and perhaps a little sad like Jean, my own mother (I have a clear memory of Jean saying, in anger, that she wished she had never had children, so fed up was she of the burden of motherhood). The programme made experiencing the extreme rupture of moving from city to country something more familiar and palatable.

For a child, the contrast between the two worlds was extreme. There were horses in London. I remember the docile dray horses delivering kegs of beer to pubs. They were nothing like the racehorses. Then there were the black horses that led the procession through the East End after my father had conducted the funeral service for Kim Roberts. I can see it now, the stately horses with black plumes, the carriage carrying the small coffin, the mournful onlookers lining the route.

There was not much preparation for the move, just the excitement of anticipation. We knew life in a village would be different, we just couldn’t picture how. My Auntie Pat gave me a cow bell before we left, saying I might adopt a cow. It made me wonder whether the countryside might be like the Austrian Alps in The Sound of Music and, as my aunt reminded me of Julie Andrews, it seemed a natural association.

The white horse at Uffington cast its spell over the whole area. Under its influence we became fascinated by horses. My sister read books about girls with ponies competing in gymkhanas. I read them after her, but my favourite books were a series about a teenaged cowboy called Pocomoto. They had titles such as Pocomoto, Bronco Buster. He was an orphan who rode a palomino horse. I loved the name Pocomoto and its obscure provenance, and the word ‘palomino’. It too seemed arcane, like being let in on a secret. Pocomoto was cool; the sort of cool that meant he got up very early in the morning on the day he left a ranch, so that he wouldn’t have to say goodbye in person. He disliked emotional display, as any boy did. I daydreamed about being a cowboy and, when we children were all given bikes, I imagined mine was a horse. I would ride down the lanes and twittens of the village as if on horseback. I used to believe, as children are taught to, that if you wished for something hard enough, it would come true. I wished for a pony last thing at night and first thing in the morning I looked under my bed to see if one had appeared there overnight. I found the lack of space under the bed troubling. What if the no-show was simply because there wasn’t room?

Between Aston Upthorpe and the nearby village of Blewbury lies Blewburton Hill, which commands views over the surrounding area. The racehorses would sometimes graze on the side of the hill and Paul told us that villagers were encouraged to forage for mushrooms there as eating them caused digestive problems for horses. He joined some older boys early one morning and brought home a mass of mushrooms. My parents were worried. I remember them poring over the brown hardback Reader’s Digest Book of Wild Plants and only when they were satisfied that the fungi were of the non-poisonous kind, my mother fried them up for breakfast.

The site of an ancient hillfort, Blewburton Hill was excavated twice, the last time in 1967, around the time of our move. In a burial ditch, the archaeologists excavated an Iron Age man, a rider buried astride his horse with his dog by his side. We knew about this as children but added our own gothic twist, that the rider had been murdered and a knife was found in his back. I played war with my friends on Blewburton Hill, and we must have been aware that the hill was once a fort and that, buried beneath the terraces, was evidence of a long- forgotten community involved in the daily struggle for survival.

We regularly encountered the racehorses on their diurnal walks around the village. They were magnificent but also terrifying. My lifelong habit of stopping in a car to let horses pass derives from the childhood experience of horses being scared by an unexpected sound or movement. They would rear up, buck, jump to one side. They were unpredictable and their sudden, powerful movements spoke of violence. They weren’t approachable in the way that the ponies in the books were. I liked the idea of a horse, but the reality was often too alarming. Better to steal a ride on the donkey in the orchard opposite The Manse. It was much less frightening.

As I write this, I’m aware that the act of remembering is sometimes an excavation of thoughts, feelings, experiences that have been long buried. Sometimes a burial is ceremonial, as in the rider buried with his horse and dog. Most often, things get buried under other thoughts, feelings and experiences that mount up, layer upon layer. Occasionally things are buried before we understand their significance, as for a child who does not have the emotional equipment to process troubling experiences. I was only dimly aware of the disturbing experiences in Stepney that led to our escape from the city. The hoof prints on the lawn are the clues that point to a major disturbance that perhaps had a more profound effect on my life than I can ever understand.

In 1969 Apollo 12 was the second lunar flight to land on the moon, four months after the first. According to Wikipedia, on this flight ‘Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and Apollo Lunar Module Pilot Alan L. Bean performed just over one day and seven hours of lunar surface activity.’ Around this time, we acquired two guinea pigs that we named Conrad and Bean, after the heroic astronauts. We were excited by the new additions to the family. They had a purpose-built wooden hutch at the back of the house with a chicken wire window. We showed them off to our friends and were probably pleased with all the attention that they received. Then one morning, we came down, went out to feed them and discovered that someone had filled the hutch with earth. They had been buried alive. We surmised I was a dark act perpetrated by a young boy from the village driven by a combination of envy and spite.

Conrad and Bean were buried violently, without ceremony. With my diagnosis of motor neurone disease, the progress of my physical condition feels like being buried alive, albeit slowly. My voice is weakening, as are my limbs. At some point I will cease speaking and later will be unable to move. This gives an urgency to the excavation of my past. I need to understand. I need to leave more than a trace of what I have experienced before moving on.

In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hunch-backed King Richard loses his horse in battle and cries, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” He died on the battlefield and was buried nearby. Over five centuries later, in 2012, under a car park in the city of Leicester, researchers and archaeologists discovered a skeleton that showed signs of scoliosis and was later identified as King Richard III. 500 years after the battle there was not a visible trace of the burial site of the king or the conflict that led to his death, there was just a car park.


Follow John Harris and his wife, Camilla, on Instagram for more about living with motor neurone disease.