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
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.