FROM THE BLACKSMITH’S COT­TAGE

Grow­ing up in an English vil­lage might sound idyllic but it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence full of un­usual char­ac­ters and un­ex­pected events, as our new colum­nist OC­TAVIA LIL­LY­WHITE well knows

Country Living (UK) - - Contents -

Grow­ing up in an English vil­lage might be idyllic but it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence full of un­usual char­ac­ters and un­ex­pected events, as our new colum­nist Oc­tavia Lil­ly­white well knows

So the time has fi­nally ar­rived. Af­ter 40 (pre­dom­i­nantly) happy years, my par­ents have de­cided to move out of the glorious, idio­syn­cratic coun­try cot­tage that was my child­hood home. It’s been the site of births, mar­riages and deaths but their ad­vanc­ing years mean that this ex-blacksmith’s abode, with its steep stairs and low doors, is no longer a vi­able op­tion for them. On the plus side, the thatch needs re­plac­ing be­fore they go. My par­ents were hop­ing the cur­rent one would see them out, but it’s 20 years old and its age is show­ing. They might be an­noyed but I’m thrilled. A re-thatch is a thing of beauty: new straw that glows yel­low in the sun­shine, mak­ing the cot­tage look like a child’s cot­tage. I also have an affin­ity with thatch­ers, hav­ing been brought into the world by one…

I was born in the spring on the din­ing room car­pet, two thatches ago. The house had a car­pet by then, and a floor – but only just. Two weeks ear­lier, the nice young vicar had come to in­tro­duce him­self to the vil­lage new­bies. He did a ster­ling job of look­ing as though all his parish­ioners had mud floors. But maybe they did back then. My birth was un­ex­pected, of course. I mean, ex­pected in the usual nine months sort of way – just rather sud­den at the end. When her con­trac­tions started, my ma lay down and called her mother in from the gar­den. Granny, a tower of strength when it came to hav­ing tea ready or rid­ding roses of black spot, proved to be ab­so­lutely hope­less in a med­i­cal emer­gency and went to pieces.

The only other per­son in the vicin­ity was Mr Whicher, lay­ing new thatch on the roof. If he was shocked at the sit­u­a­tion he found him­self in, he did a good job of cov­er­ing it up and luck­ily turned out to be a dab hand at home births, hav­ing de­liv­ered two chil­dren of his own. He was un­blush­ing at my mother’s par­tu­ri­tion lan­guage and just sent Granny for a bowl of warm wa­ter and clean tow­els. Clean tow­els she was good at. By the time the paramedics – and my father – ar­rived (sep­a­rately), the event was all over and the two of us were packed into the am­bu­lance. A fes­tive air was lent to the oc­ca­sion by the lo­cal Brownie pack, who were lined up out­side the vil­lage hall next door, and cheered and waved as we were driven off. Granny wasn’t go­ing to let a small thing like pla­centa force the end of a newly laid car­pet, so, as soon as ev­ery­one left, she set about clean­ing it. She did a pretty good job and it’s only when the sun hits it in a cer­tain way that you can see the re­mains of a mark.

It took most of the Thatcher years (Mag­gie’s, not Mr Whicher’s) for my par­ents to ren­o­vate this crum­bling cot­tage in a back­wa­ter vil­lage into their dream home. My father had found it by get­ting lost off the Bas­ingstoke road. It was in a di­lap­i­dated state. As well as miss­ing floors, there was no in­door loo – I’m not en­tirely sure there was an out­door one ei­ther. The thatch was droop­ing un­der its weight of moss. But he saw only the rose bri­ars. He’s from Glas­gow.

Across the road is the church my brother and I were chris­tened in and where I sang in the Christ­in­gle ser­vice. Five years ago, I walked down our path in my wed­ding dress to get mar­ried there. Granny is buried in the church­yard now, two rows down from my sis­ter. I re­mem­ber look­ing round at both ser­vices to see much the same quiet con­gre­ga­tion of vil­lagers.

It’s go­ing to be hard to leave this house, with the mark on the car­pet where I took my first breath, but per­haps it’s the right time for new chap­ters. Any­way, I sus­pect that pack­ing up four decades’ worth of fam­ily life won’t be straight­for­ward. It’s go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing year.

See next month’s is­sue of Coun­try Liv­ing for more vil­lage tales from the blacksmith’s cot­tage.

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