A Farmyard Childhood in Kent 1961-72
“Long easy minutes, surrounded by my creatures
Nestled in the warm oak
Surrounded by the night air
Endless air, fresh lying on endless fields
Nature’s excess, bounded by man’s needs
Ancient pattern of stone on soil
Stream on slope, damp on leaf
Set the scene of the Weald.
The past dripping from the eaves
Chiildhood cuckooing from the window views
White windmill seen from the roof ridge
Landscapes melt to memoryscapes
And merge with an older stream:
Church ghosts; generations of farmhands;
Farmers daughters – unfreed princesses
Loom beneath the rafters
Laughter round fires long since under turf
Gentle frame structure farmhouse watches all.”
(written in 1974)
Hancocks, a four hundred-plus year old timbered farmhouse situated on a hill overlooking a gentle valley coursing through the Weald of Kent, was my home from the age of seven to eighteen. The ancient house and its environs were the setting for a magical childhood. My first memory of it is while my parents were negotiating purchase late in 1960 (they ended up paying 3000 pounds). My younger sister and I found ourselves in the mud at the edges of the garden pond, where we excitedly unearthed a pile of discarded tin helmets. This set the scene for the sense of mystery and of the possibilities for endless discovery that the house would offer me over the next eleven years.
It was the latest in my father’s ‘do-up’ projects and before he left us the following year he contributed some structural brick supports in the cellar, a second bathroom under the long slope of the rear roof and a half-finished bathroom downstairs. Although I don’t remember it myself, my mother told me that there was also a well in the back garden, which they covered over. Otherwise the house must have been basically unchanged for centuries.
My mother sold (for just less than thirty thousand) in 1976 and we moved all our family’s accumulated stuff during the hottest summer on record. I’d already left home three years before but it was still a wrenching loss for me to say the final goodbye. In the half century since I have passed by a few times and changes in farming practice plus the gentrification of this area of Kent (just an hour by train from London) have made it almost unrecognizable,
This makes the aerial photo above a record of a bygone era. It was taken just before we moved in and commissioned by my father, who must have known someone with a plane. In it the house looks shabby and neglected; we owned the house and garden alone, with the barns, sheds and oast of the farmyard beside it being part of a working farm up the road, Behind it an orchard of mature apple trees of numerous varieties sloped up to a view over woods and cornfields towards Benenden School (famous as the school of `Princess Anne) four miles distant. In front, past the magnificent hay barn that must have been almost as old as the house, the view stretched to the roofs of the little town of Cranbrook, with its distinctive white-painted windmill poking above the intervening trees.
Our farmer tried everything over the years. In the photo there are pigs in the field to the right of the house. These soon moved to ramshackle sheds in front of it and were replaced a couple of years later by turkeys, while the field was turned to wheat. Past the barns to the house’s left (at that time still full of dusty tack and faded rosettes from the days of working horses) a new shed housed rabbits, while the disused oast stood beside a hop garden. The farm track turned there and headed off through more orchards before sloping down to cross a stream in a wood of coppiced hornbeam and chestnut, carpeted thickly with bluebells in springtime. The farm’s boundary lay beyond that, over two cornfields that were home to flocks of peewits and studded with hammer ponds. But there was little boundary between farms in those days for a boy like me to contend with and my friends and I could fish for roach in their iron-rich waters as the Weald’s typical mosaic of woods, orchards, berry fields and corn (wheat, barley and oats) stretched off to glimpses of the Greensand ridge and the white of the chalk North Downs towards Canterbury and the East. There wasn’t a road for miles back there and beyond a tractor ploughing or collecting straw bales, or seasonal pickers at harvest time amidst the apples, there wasn’t another person to be encountered for months on end.
But naturally at the beginning it was the house itself that provided my playground and source of fascination. One of the last memories I have of my father before my parents’ divorce is the recovery of a roll of what he called ‘Napoleonic’ wallpaper hidden away under the roof. I have no memory of what it looked like, or what became of it, but it reinforced the sense that the house could offer me mysteries galore.
This discovery took place at the back of the house, under a gentle slope of moss-covered tiles that stretched from ridge to ground floor, into part of which at first floor height my father inserted a small bathroom. (In a dream that came to me after he left he also built a secret room there, filled with books and intricate devices). This left other spaces that could be crawled into; by removing a panel in the new bathroom’s wall, I learned I could duck in under the rafters and emerge above the woodshed at ground floor level. There was a sense of pride and of being in sole possession of a vital secret at having pioneered the hidden route. This theme would recur over the years in gripping dreams in which I’d clamber out through my first floor bedroom window and somehow escape to the ground below. As a teenager I was able to use that gentle roof slope too from outside, scrambling over the tiles to sit astride the ridge with it’s elevated views. I also used it to reach the skylight window of the new bathroom, which never closed properly, and thus gain access to the house on the numerous occasions when I’d forgotten my door key.
The East side of the house facing the farmyard though, I was far too terrified to approach from the rooftop. It fell straight down four floors to the entrance to the cellar. This subterranean space was filled with water in winter (chill winds would blow through it and lift the carpets of the living rooms through the cracks in the rough oak floorboards) and contained a well and brick steps that must have once provided access to the kitchen above. It was not a place to play, or even enter most of the year, filled with a jumble of rotting lumber, with a gigantic brass cauldron lurking in its murky darkness. Here too the mighty oak beams supporting the house could be best appreciated. Eight or nine inches square and as hard as steel after so many years, they were studded with grooves and dowel holes, indicating that they had once formed part of an even older structure. My father’s new support columns were the only evidence of anything twentieth century in the place.
On its way down that drop from the roof ridge passed an attic window of greenish leaded light glass that I imagined was beginning to look thicker at the bottom than the top. Inscribed in one pane in an elegant flourish was the year 1683. Two floors below that, at ground level of the rest of the house, a narrow door, sealed over from inside, perched unreachable above the steps down to the cellar entrance. Our perplexed speculations about its purpose settled on the idea that farm workers must have gone up by ladder, or now-vanished wooden stairs, to receive their pay from the hands of the farmer.
The attic itself was a forbidding place, dark, dusty and festooned with cobwebs. For many years I dared only to climb the rickety stairs to the first partition, gloomily lit by the inscribed window, in which old suitcases and junk left by my father hid a stamp collection that I coveted. Glimpses through to the middle section revealed two huge semicircular loudspeaker boxes that my father had begun to construct out of concrete as a new innovation in hi-fi. As the years progressed I ventured to the far section, ducking the abundant cobwebs. In my teens I learned that the roof trusses here, more closely spaced and lower, indicated an earlier style of construction, with this section of the house pre-dating the rest. I’d stand there a while, feeling the peace of a place so long unvisited, while rays from the sun penetrated the gaps between the tiles, illuminating whirling clouds of dust disturbed from the floorboards.
Later still I turned the first section into my den and bedroom, erecting a platform between the rafters on which I could sleep with my nose close to the whorled grain of the oak. Up there I felt like I was enveloped in the embrace of the spirit of the house, a benevolent bird who had watched over the raising of so many generations of farmers below me over the centuries.
My childhood bedroom was on the first floor, together with three others, one spare and one each occupied by my mother and sister. A corridor ran past them, floored with oak planking polished smooth by long treading. It was this that I had to negotiate when, petrified by nightmares, I wanted to reach the security of my mother’s bed. It was lucky that the toilet was next to my room, so that nighttime pees, with the sense of some horror poised over my shoulder, could be completed quickly. For although by day in the main the house showed me only its kindest face, at night I was easily kept awake by the creaking and groaning of its timbers in the wind. For a period inexplicable clucking noises disturbed me at bedtime; these turned out to be from pigeons nesting in the disused chimney behind my bed. On summer evenings it was vital not to leave a light on with the window open. Huge moths would greet me when I went up to bed, slamming themselves against the bulb and falling stunned onto my bed. In winter, ice formed on the inside of the window panes, there being no heating at first floor level, and it felt like an eternity before my feet could gradually extend themselves fully down into the icy sheets.
The corridor was flanked by two staircases: a little twisting one at my bedroom end and at the other a grand flight, an addition made at some point in the early eighteen hundreds by a wealthy farmer. The twisty one led down to the kitchen, past a partition behind which my poor brothers – twins sent off to a special boarding school which catered to the needs of the partially hearing – had their beds in the holidays, far from the rescue of our mother’s room. Naturally having two staircases gave opportunities for a lot of fun in terms of chasing and hiding and I remember the sound of my mother’s exasperated complaints as the house echoed with the stamping of feet. We were a contentious foursome too and she had to step in often to quell our sibling rivalries and noisy disputes.
The kitchen contained the coal-fired boiler that was the vital heart of our home. This heated the water and was fed obsessively from the coal shed outside; disaster was declared if on coming down in the morning, it was discovered to have died during the night. Here, as well as the cooking, my mother did the laundry with an old top loader and a hand mangle and the steaming stuff was hung up above our breakfast table on racks manipulated by a pulley. At the kitchen’s far end a door opened out into a disused pantry, which led to my father’s half-finished downstairs bathroom as well as to the house’s main entrance hall at the foot of the grand staircase. Another door led into the living room, once stretching half the length of the house, but now partitioned off to provide my brothers’ bedroom. It was heated by a stove installed into the original brick hearth and chimney space, which was large enough to accommodate also a built-in bench on which my mother kept her sewing materials. Here, except for special occasions, we lived, played and ate. As we grew older – coal being expensive – it became my brothers’ and my job to find, cut and bring in whatever wood we could for this stove; but coal it was during my childhood, and bringing this in was a job I learned from an early age to relieve my mother from.
So we sat beneath the low beams supporting the upper floor, with a piano (rarely played), a lovely old circular oak dining table by the window, a walnut sideboard for the cutlery and a carved oak chest of medieval appearance (but probably of Victorian manufacture) containing our family photos and bric-a-brac. All these, as well as two magnificent carved wardrobes occupying other rooms, had been bought for next to nothing by my parents during their antique shop explorations in the early days of their marriage at the beginning of the fifties.
I can see my mother sewing, or darning socks by the fire as we watch black and white TV (just two channels in those days), listen to Gilbert and Sullivan records, or play cards with buttons as stakes. I can hear the clatter of her typewriter as I stare over her shoulder in fascination as she touchtypes from her bewilderingly incomprehensible shorthand notes without a glance at the keys. I can smell the Sunday roast – lamb with mint sauce, ham with parsley sauce, beef with Yorkshire Pudding – which was the only meal we ever actually ate at the dining table. Our white cat joins us as usual, taking the chair next to the leaded light panes through which dull light from the north shines in from the garden. Dessert will be a sticky suet pudding, or steamed sponge dripping with golden syrup or, if it’s summer, a junket or trifle. Afterwards, though replete, I might be asked to pop down the hill on my bike the mile or so to Mr Edwards corner store (the only shop open on a Sunday in the town) and buy my mother a packet of cigarettes; “and while you’re there you may as well get a half crown bar of chocolate for us all to share…..”
From the living room we could use another door (further chasing possibilities) into the entrance hall with its iron-studded front door and great lock, to which we had no key, never used except by poorly-informed guests arriving or delivery men. From there you were back at the foot of the grand staircase and able to access the ‘sitting room’. This too had a fireplace, the bother of lighting yet another fire being the principle cause of its use only on special occasions. We’d decorate it up with holly and bunting for Christmas; my mother might hold one of her occasional get-togethers with a few friends for ‘drinks’ there, but principally it was the through route to the telephone room. This little box of a space held the house’s fourth door to the world outside, a storage cupboard under the staircase, a doorway with no door into the unfinished bathroom still garnished with some of my fathers abandoned tools and our clunky black telephone. “Cranbrook double-three six eight” we’d answer breathlessly when it rang; all calls outside the immediate area had to go through the operator in the town until STD came in later in the sixties.
From this phone one loony afternoon at the age of twelve, a boy from my school who fancied himself as a bit of a lad and `I made our hoax calls: to the fire brigade, reporting a fire at our house and then a few minutes later a second at his. We heard the town siren go off and then retreated excitedly to the straw bales high up in the barn in the farmyard; to watch in increasing dismay as a fire engine and some increasingly angry firemen showed up. A policeman arrived that evening to give me my well-deserved talking-to; the shame I felt in front of my mother stays with me to this day.
Aah, the barn! Perhaps it was my home as much as the house, in summer at least. Through the garden – in which my mother grew some parsley and mint, re-planted her geraniums from their indoor winter pots, and cared for a few roses as well as she could with the limited time available after a full time job as school secretary and raising four children – over the farm track, through a missing panel in the big double doors and into its welcoming embrace. Here the straw from the fields was stacked in bales up to the tiled roof. From high up on top we could look down on the farm machinery and jump down into piles of broken bales. Broken, because we had mauled them in our burrowing, excavating tunnels and hideouts deep into the scratchy, dust-laden stuff. The farm workers could shout and grumble as much as they liked; we knew that they knew we were in there somewhere, but they couldn’t actually see us, could they? In the event of actually being spotted, we’d troop out dutifully, but would be back in again as soon as the sound of a tractor heading off reached our ears.
The barn was pulled down in the late sixties, leaving an eyesore and a heart sore. It was probably simply too expensive to maintain. These days, surviving examples have all been converted into bijou residences and swanky AirBnB accommodation, but our poor barn missed that fate and doubtlessly ended up as spare parts for other peoples’ conversions. Three lesser ones stood in the yard, their roof tiles slipping, the weeds invading their blackened weatherboard walls. But with the farm turned from horses to tractors and in the main from grain to apples over the years and losing its independence as a farm unit, these too had lost their usefulness and were pulled down. With the last hops grubbed out not long after we moved in, the oast was an early conversion to a house. Part of it was inhabited for a while by a little old lady who entertained us with her paranoid delusions, reports of which left my mother shaking her head sorrowfully and insisting we leave her alone. After that that it was sold off separately, ‘done-up’ and that end of the farmyard became closed off to us.
The farmer’s focus on apples provided us with another opportunity for destructive creativity: the big wooden bins into which the pickers tipped their loads at harvest time stood empty in stacks outside the barn for the rest of the year. An irresistible temptation for kids who like tunnels and hiding places, we tore holes out of the bottoms of many over the years.
Apples also brought excitement and dread into our lives with the yearly appearance of varied tribes of ‘gypsies’. These were folk of whom my mother, like most English people of her class and generation, had no actual knowledge or acquaintance. They’d camp with their vans and caravans and scruffy kids in the orchard over our fence for a few weeks into the late autumn and then leave behind a mess of campfires and old tires. She’d warn us to have nothing to do with them, which certainly didn’t seem to concern them in any way, and then listen sympathetically to our farmer complaining about how hard it had been to get rid of them. Despite my intense curiosity I simply didn’t have the guts to disobey her.
Behind the apple bins, through a thicket of head-high stinging nettles, was the piggery-turned-turkey run, overlooked by a pollarded willow which became one of my secret get-away-from-everybody places in the romantic crises of my tweens and early teens. I seem to have fallen in love a lot between twelve and fourteen. There was the girl in the hospital ward when I had my hernia operation; a Polish girl from Syracuse, New York, who came to stay with us in summer ’66 (I wish my mother was alive so I could ask her how on earth that came about!); and a girl in the town who the more streetwise of the locals at school called ‘loose’ and who I only glimpsed once on the High Street before morosely scratching her name into the ice at the far end of the farmyard pond.
This pond was the source of water for the chemical spraying of the orchards that it was the job of one unfortunate farm worker to undertake without protective gear (he died relatively young and had a genetically impaired youngest son, while we too in the general ignorance of the times gorged ourselves on DDT from apples straight off the trees). It was – and still is, though much diminished to my adult eyes – presided over by a big oak, a leftover in my childish imagination from the primeval forest of the days of Robin Hood. I was clearly a soft-hearted boy: I remember crying my eyes out at the end of a book about the outlaw, tragically wounded by the passing away of bows and arrows, jousting and chivalry. Such pastoral nostalgia, fed too by the abandoned wooden wagons rotting at the edge of the playing fields at my school, stayed with me as I grew up. The remains of a Roman road worn deep into the hillside lay across the fields from the house, with a badly eroded inscribed parish boundary stone marking the spot where it crossed a stream. I’d imagine the legions and the wooden-wheeled carts passing it over the centuries, the peasants making their way home with faggots for their fires. The recent loss of a millennia-old past tugged at me even as I made my way into a new world of puberty, ‘Top of the Pops’ on TV and beyond.
At seventeen I began to read up about ley lines, paths of underground energy crossing the country on which pre-historic people had built their sacred sites. It triggered a confusing memory of something I had been told years before while still at Primary school after I’d noticed some older boys from the grammer school in full school uniform digging in a field at the foot of the hill between Hancocks and the town. Here three roads meet at a spot known as Bakers Cross, (a name attributed by historians to Bloody Baker, a Catholic notorious for persecution of Protestants) where a miasmic pond lies surrounded by decaying, ivy-clad trees. I have no idea who on earth it could have been that answered my question to what these boys were doing with the tale that they were searching for an underground tunnel to Sissinghurst Castle. That this was five miles away didn’t strike my young mind as particularly unlikely, nor did I question why they thought such a tunnel existed in the first place, or had decided on that particular point to dig. As a new convert to ley lines though, it struck me that the whole story might be the result of some folk memory of an esoteric connection between the two places.
It all came to nothing of course, despite my plotting lines over maps, but improbable folk memories were abroad in my childhood. There was the infamous Hawkhurst Gang’s treasure supposedly buried at Hartley (three of us took our bikes and a spade up there and were bewildered to find that we hadn’t got a clue where in the whole hamlet we were supposed to dig). There were the bricked up windows of a house overlooking the churchyard at a point where a couple of gravestones were carved with skulls, closed off because some long-forgotten owner had been haunted by their ghosts. There was the rumour that Cranbrook School’s original rule book – never revealed to us but never overwritten – contained a rule that the Head Boy was permitted to ride to school in a coach-and-four and to sport a beard.
This grammer school, to which, from the age of eleven, I pedaled six days a week, had been founded by Queen Elizabeth the First and was run – part dayboy and part boarder – on classic English Public School (read expensive private school) lines, even though it was now part of the free government school system. My Prep school (read Primary school) had been DCPS, where my mother worked as secretary, once a part of London’s prestigious Dulwich College which had been relocated from London to Kent during the wartime blitz. Thus as well as boys from the local farms and shops, I went to school with a few others from further afield. OK, these were all white and middle class and had passed the contentious ‘Eleven Plus’ exam which separated the hoi polloi who would go to Secondary Modern and on to trades and labour, from those privileged like me, who would be aspiring for University and the professions. Nevertheless, a sixties rebalancing was going on around us, and as well as the local butcher’s son my friends included a rebellious Polish Eastender (before he was expelled and went back to wherever he had mysteriously appeared from), a direct descendant of one of the Norman conquerers (Phillip D’Arcy Leighton Godfrey to give his name its full due), and a pair of South African brothers named Beer (the younger naturally nicknamed ‘half pint’).
All this contributed to making my family’s social network a lot more varied than it would have been in a remoter farming-dominated location. My best friend was Charles, from a family like ours that had moved into the area and whose antecedents hailed on one side from Spain. Hancocks front lawn was one of the two settings for our epic cricket duels (much of which was spent hunting for lost balls in the hedges and shrubbery). The other was his home, five miles away along quiet lanes by bike, a tumbledown rented house at least as old as Hancocks (and today naturally a millionaire’s pad). My friend the butcher’s son had a German mother, a sensuously erotic figure compared to the usual staid English women. Our family friends included the Rodgers (George was a well known photographer of African tribes), who lived in a quaint cottage by a picture-postcard pond in nearby Smarden, while my mother’s employer at the school was John, brother of the famous Louis Leakey. A connection from her wartime days as a young secretary for MI5 was a gracious German woman who lived in Croydon and served us what seemed to me to be incredibly exotic jasmine tea – without milk! – in delicate china.
Our rustic life at Hancocks was echoed by that of many of our friends inhabiting what today would be outrageously exclusive housing: the Old Cloth Hall in Smarden, a rambling maze of wooden passageways and hidden rooms; the Cloth Hall at Cranbrook with it’s vast double-storied main hall and extensive once-manicured gardens. Yet none of us had any money really and we mostly made our own entertainment from what we found around us while gazing longingly at the model airplanes and train sets in the town’s toyshop. For the upkeep of the house my mother was utterly dependent on co-operative local handymen who would undercharge her and on a cleaning lady with the wonderful name of Manktelow who worked for almost nothing. Our cupboards contained a jumble of worn blankets, rusty Mechano sets and clothes long since past their use by dates, while our car, a clapped out Standard Companion, just squeezed in the five of us, plus a suitcase on the roof rack, for visits to grandparents in Southsea or a rare family holiday in Cornwall.
A childhood summer afternoon: my mother at tea with her friend Jinx Rodgers in her cottage in Smarden. I lie alone on the patch of lawn in front. Across the road through the elms, Smarden’s medieval church is lit by a golden light. Bees hum in the warm air, the scent of grass fills my nostrils. I enter a kind of trance as the afternoon drifts on, interrupted only by the sound of the church clock ringing the quarters. Time’s passing has no meaning beyond those chimes. Their gentle call punctuates a timeless world.
“You know the way the clouds go
Spaced against the blue
In their towering, overwhelming gladness
And you, a grown child
Wheeling down from some glittering crystal place
Your own heart billowing up
Although this poem was written in South Devon (where there really were crystals to be found high up on Brent Hill) more than a decade after leaving Hancocks, it conflates both times when, high on grass, I would range the woods and fields, feeling that just beyond my reach was the capacity to know every leaf on every tree I passed. Inside me there was an almost painful yearning for that intimacy. The vales spreading out before me lured me ever onwards, for just beyond view, elusive yet compelling and naturally unreached, was the perfect place, the Weald’s own Garden of Eden.
No crystals amidst the Wealden clays and sandstones, but nose close to the iron-tinged water of the stream behind the house, I once came across a thin bed of shelly limestone exposed on a bank. The geologists ‘deep time’ hit me: where I stood had once, perhaps briefly, been a beach beside a coral sea. Above me titanic measures of chalk had been eroded away over thousands of millennia to allow me to witness that moment.
Coming back from some ramble, the sun tilts towards the horizon through a forest of hop poles. Suddenly I sense how I am perched on the great dish of the Earth, tiny and falling, tilting away from it.
Dusk, the crack between the worlds: a last glimmer of orange seen through the bare winter branches of the trees by the garden pond; a crow silhouetted amidst the twigs; Sirius blazing like a UFO low on the horizon. I can almost hear them, the faintest notes of Pan’s pipes or Krishna’s flute, playing in the gloom at the edge of vision.
August 1966. England vs West Indies at the Oval. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, the fastest flingers ever seen at the bowling end, tearing into the England batsmen. Edrich and Graveney stolidly digging in in defensive mode, the scorecard stalled. A strongly accented voice from the crowd as a bobby passes by: “Hey, Officer, arrest Graveney for loitering!”