A wild dreamer’s story of living the good life in the 70s
Martin Hesp previews a book that recalls the days when parts of the rural West Country shared in the counter culture revolution
THE countryside might be the place where things happen first – where the world’s food is grown, where fresh air comes from, where our watercourses are born – but in terms of social trends it is the zone where today happens tomorrow, or even next year.
And when it comes to massive social upheaval, we folk out in the sticks can be a good decade behind. When the world talks about formative eras that changed just about everything – like the Swinging Sixties – rural historians would be wise to adjust the clock. That is what I was thinking when the publishers of a new novel called Wylde Dreamers contacted me this week with a description of the book which said: “In the summer of 1972 a group of friends is invited to Somerset to help a photographer renovate a dilapidated cottage…
“Sex, drugs and music... they have a seriously good time. Over the next year, the group starts to see the farm as somewhere they could stay for the rest of their lives – an escape from conventional life. But after 18 months, the rural idyll collapses.”
I, like many readers, remember the West Country of the 1970s. Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll might have been prevalent in San Francisco in the mid 60s – and the mini-skirted world may have been alive and knee-boot kicking in London hotspots like Carnaby Street – but nothing much out of the ordinary stirred its semi-naked limbs west of Bristol until the last century was at least 70 years into its 100.
And then little outcrops of long hair, exotic cigarette smoke and nonconformity began to spring up here and there – especially, it seems, in the hills of West Somerset. I know, because I witnessed those outcrops lighting the aromatic touch-paper which would change old-fashioned rural ways forever. Indeed – like a lamb to the slaughter – I became inveigled in their not altogether innocent excitement.
The fabulous technicolor lure was just too bright for a country boy bored half to death by his village life to ignore. And also, it turns out, too alluring for an American girl called Pamela Holmes, who wrote this new novel. So you can imagine that the blurb talking about a book set in a kind of hippy commune located somewhere in the Brendon Hills caught my attention. Because I lived in such a place for a couple of happy years – and a good many people lucky enough to still be alive today will remember its outlandish parties.
Hippies, is what the locals called us – and I
suppose we were, rejecting the idea of
getting a job PAMELA HOLMES
Then, as my eye travelled down the publisher’s email, I saw a black and white photograph taken of the author back in the day – and I realised that I knew her. She didn’t live in the same wondrous place as me, but at an eccentric farm not too many miles distant. The moment I saw the photo, I could remember the beautiful American girl who never used to wear any make-up and who used to smile a lot…
So we made contact and this week this is what Pamela told me about her new book. “It was in the 1970s when I first saw the Somerset hills from the back of my boyfriend’s BSA 650cc motorbike. Or would have, if my head had not been buried into his damp, smelly Afghan coat in my attempt to escape the pitiless rain.
“The next day was different. The clouds had lifted, and as we climbed Lype Hill, the land fell away behind us to reveal a patchwork of colourful fields. The hedges looked like fat green serpents squirrelling into the valleys. I could see the Bristol Channel in the distance. I was hooked.
“I lived there for almost three years. A group of people fresh from school and university settled in a house in an isolated valley below the Brendon Hills. Working for food and board, we aimed to grow much of what we ate and to brew everything we drank.
“Hippies, is what the locals called us – and I suppose we were, in that we rejected what our parents thought we ought to be doing (getting jobs). Put another way, we were having fun and Somerset was the best place to do that.”
Pamela, who now lives in London with her husband and two boys, added: “The characters in my book are fictitious but, of course, I draw on personal experiences in Wyld Dreamers. A young woman starts a vegetable garden, something she has never done before. Her mother has died and she finds it comforting to dig the soil and tend the plants.
“It was like this for me, I realised some years later. My mother died a few years before I moved to Somerset. Something about witnessing the cycle of nature, watching things germinate, grow, mature and die, that helped me to recover.
“I still grow vegetables on an allotment by the railway track near where I live in London.
“Picking the beans is a good antidote to a day on the computer. London parks and canals are a source of joy. But a A piece of my heart remains on the Brendon Hills.”
I look forward to reading Wyld Dreamers (published by Urbane Publications, priced £8.99) and meeting her again when she gives a talk at Minehead’s Toucan Wholefoods today from 10.30am.