I don’t usually speak from a script at lit fests, but as I had just had Covid when the HULF Festival of Words* came around, I didn’t want to rely on my slightly fuzzy memory. Having written the script for my affectionate talk about the use of slang in school stories, I hung on to it, so that I could share it with you today here on my blog.
*HULF is the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which I founded in my home village in 2015, and which has been running public events in various venues about the parish ever since.
This post first appeared in the June 2022 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, in the run-up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – so please excuse the out-of-date final paragraph about that event.
Since joining the village choir and taking up bell ringing, I’ve been spending a lot more time in St Mary’s Church, and whenever I enter that ancient building, I feel a sense of calm that comes from being in a building that dates back over 1000 years. Its timelessness and permanence provide a helpful anchor in the midst of a busy life and a constant when everything else seems in flux.
I’d already decided on the topic for this month’s column when by a strange coincidence at church this morning the service included a prayer giving thanks for the constants in our lives, including the village school, the community shop and the pubs. It struck me as very Vicar of Dibley to say a prayer for the pubs (and very thankful we should be), but that may have been because our opening number at last night’s concert (which you can view on YouTube here) was the television show’s theme tune (Howard Goodall’s setting of “The Lord is my Shepherd” – you can listen to it here on YouTube).
Of course, the church building is not entirely constant. It has evolved over the centuries and continues to do so, in small and large ways – from the installation of new energy-saving lightbulbs which might go unnoticed to all but the person signing off the electricity bill, to the very visible restoration of the tower and the installation of eight very audible new bells.
The same goes for the built environment of the village: here a new extension, there a new house popping up in a spare bit of garden or a disused paddock, and sometimes, oh my goodness, along comes a whole new housing estate.
More subtle are the occasional changes of use, from barns and pubs and shops and places of worship to housing stock. The original purpose and many uses of the Methodist Chapel, which sadly closed at Easter, will be a treasured part of our collective memory for generations to come.
Only when showing a visitor around the village recently did I realise just how much the built environment of the village had altered in the 31 years that I’ve lived here. Perhaps the degree of change has been slightly masked by the continuity that comes from a calendar of regular community events. While some are longstanding institutions, such as the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show (135 years old and counting), others are relative newcomers, such as HU5K (turning 10 this month) and HULF – the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival (now 7).
Speaking of longstanding institutions, this month we’ll be celebrating another one that belongs to this village as much as to anywhere else in the country: HM The Queen. As for most people in Hawkesbury, she’s the only monarch I’ve ever lived under. Whatever your feelings on the monarchy, the stability of having a long-serving head of state does provide a welcome contrast to the tumultuous comings and goings of our political leaders. Personally, I’m in no hurry to see a new face on our banknotes. There’s probably a joke in there somewhere about change (ho ho), but for now I’ll just wish you an enjoyable Platinum Holiday – another chapter of Hawkesbury history in the making.
When I first moved to Hawkesbury Upton, I didn’t realise that three of the four roads into the village were partly single track with passing places. Learning to drive in suburban London, my lessons had been exclusively in built-up areas. In my company car, I was clocking up most of my miles on motorways. Negotiating rural lanes required a recalibration of my driving skills.
However, I soon learned to love the local lanes all year round, enjoying seeing the seasons change in the hedgerows and verges – from snowdrops to primroses, from wild garlic to cow parsley.
A few months after moving to the village, with the smugness of the newly-converted, I laughed at a visiting townie friend perplexed by the etiquette of country driving. “Do you really know everybody round here?” he asked, having seen me exchange the usual waves of thanks with drivers who pulled over for me, or to whom I gave way.
When another driver refused to give way despite being closer to a passing place than we were, my friend was about to express his feelings in the international sign language of the angry motorist. “Best not to do that so close to home,” I advised, “as actually it is quite likely that I will know the other driver.”
He said that if he had to live in my house, he’d never leave the village at the wheel of a car.
Three decades later, meeting traffic on single-track roads doesn’t bother me, but I do prefer to have the lanes to myself, not for road rage reasons, but because when they’re deserted, there’s something other-worldly about them.
Not always in a good way: on dark, moonless nights without the familiar markers of urban streets – no streetlights or road signs, no road markings or kerbs – the lanes can be disorienting. Add thick fog, snow or torrential rain, and it can feel as if you’re heading for a Hammer Horror film set, where the undead are waiting to greet you.
But in the right light and weather, these narrow lanes can feel perfectly magical.
Earlier this year, a pleasant drive in the spring sunshine with cow parsley brushing the sides of my car gave me the idea for my new novella, Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, in which a rural journey transforms the heroine’s life by taking her to a surprising destination – and I don’t mean Chipping Sodbury Waitrose.
In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I wrote about a sight I’d like to spot more often in the Cotswolds – although they are beautiful enough as they are!
Driving along a lane in the high fields near Newark Park, I spot a mirage-like splash of blue big enough to fill a field. Or is it mauve? Rippling in the late afternoon breeze, the flowering crop is changing colour as readily as the two-tone tonic suits favoured by Mods in the 1960s. Oil poured on water morphs from black to rainbow hues because the floating film is just a molecule thick, but when I park alongside the field, these plants are chest high.
I’m used to seeing cars stopping on the roadside in early summer to photograph swathes of pillar-box red poppies among the crops. A few years ago, a field just off the A46 was as densely carpeted with poppies as the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. An instant tourist attraction, it triggered a proliferation of social media selfies.
The mauve flowers – or are they blue? – in this field by Newark Park have a far subtler beauty. It is of course a field of flax, the first I’ve seen for a long time, and an increasingly rare sight in the Cotswolds. How I wish I could substitute flax for the ubiquitous rapeseed, whose vivid flowers look all wrong in our gentle landscape. They also make me sneeze like one possessed, a yellow morning mist floating above their fields like mustard gas. While I don’t expect farmers to choose crops for their good looks, I do wish flax could be more profitable.
Flax, aka linseed, is certainly a useful and versatile crop. Chez Young, we add linseeds to our breakfast cereal and salads for their health benefits. Linseeds are rich in fibre, protein, Vitamin B, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids.
I wish the latter didn’t sound so unappetising: “Mmm, fatty acids,” said Homer Simpson, never.
Research indicates that linseeds improve digestive health and lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and cancer risk. If that’s not enough to win your heart, linseed oil goes into paints, varnishes, animal feeds and cricket bats.
The stalk, with fibres three times stronger than cotton, is the source of linen. The Ancient Egyptians considered linen a symbol of purity and allowed only priests and mummies to wear it. Much as I love linen clothes, that’s not a sacrifice I’d be prepared to make. Flax fibres are also used in the manufacture of cigarette papers (boo!) and teabags (hurrah!)
So why don’t we grow more flax on the rolling hills of the Cotswolds? When I google its preferred growing conditions, I discover it’s not just a matter of money. Flax thrives on alluvial soil, ie rich in sediment deposited by running water on a floodplain. With an average elevation of over 100m in the Cotswolds, I’m guessing alluvial soil is not our long suit.
As the sky begins to darken ahead of a thunderstorm, I realise I must make the most of this rare scene, so I capture it on my smartphone before returning to my car – and, like a tourist on my home turf, to social media.
SERIES OF GENTLE MYSTERY NOVELS INSPIRED BY THE SEASONS IN THE COTSWOLDS
Watching the changing seasons in the Cotswolds is one of the inspirations for my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which follows the course of village life from one summer to the next through the eyes of newcomer Sophie Sayers.