The Boy from London

I am a hills person.  I love walking – or even better – cross-country skiing in the mountains. I can also admire the huge skies and vistas of flat country.  However, it is with hills that I have always strongly identified with.  So, when I’m asked “where was home for you?” it isn’t the county of Buckinghamshire, or even the village I was brought up in that I respond with, it is the hills and the Chiltern Hills in particular.

A country lane in the Chiltern Hills winds its way through dense woodland

As a child, I lived on the very edge of the village and not being schooled locally and with no children of my own age nearby anyway, I learnt to spend many hours on my own during the lengthy holidays. Although our house was close to the River Thames I found fishing of limited interest preferring always to be out walking or cycling.  As I grew older I travelled further afield exploring the lanes, fields and woodlands, learning all the time about the ways of nature.  Back in the fifties and early sixties people seemed to have more time to answer inquisitive children about these things or, perhaps, it was just that in those days people were more connected with the natural world so were able to answer their questions.  Whatever the reason, I became more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about country ways than I ever did with schoolwork.  A consequence of this is, when asked the question, “where are you from?” I respond without hesitation (and with a certain degree of pride), “I’m a Chilterns man.”

A childhood spent exploring the fields and woodlands that surrounded home

It was not until I reached the ripe old age of 49 that I moved away from the Chilterns to start a new life in the Cotswolds.  Although as the crow flies, the Cotswolds are not many miles away (I can even see the distant Chilterns from the top of my lane) they are very different in character, the former being chalk and flint country, the latter limestone.  But it wasn’t the exchange of deep, wooded valleys with few, if any, streams for a landscape of far-reaching views, fast-running brooks and drystone walls that I noticed most of all, it was the language.  When I moved to this then unfashionable part of the Cotswolds twenty years ago it was still a forgotten corner of the world where, even if the local dialect had mostly died out, the twang of local accent hadn’t.  It reminded me of, for it is related to, the south-western tongue spoken by many of my country cousins and also by my friends further west still.   So, when I gave my usual response to the question, I was rather peeved to hear it acknowledged by the words, “so you come from London way, then.” 

A Chilterns cottage built using the local flint
Cotswold cottages look very different and are made with local limestone

Now, I hasten to say, that there is nothing wrong about being referred to as a Londoner.  It’s just that our capital city is as much a foreign land to me as it would be to an overseas visitor.  Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but somehow, I just don’t relate to city life despite my mother being born and raised in London’s West End.  She had come to the Chilterns as an evacuee from WW2 through her war work and there met my father, a local boy – but that’s another story.  Suffice to say, that I am a child of two halves – I have country family and I have city family much in the same way as I am a child of two cultures and two religions.  Despite my relating to country ways and to complicate matters further, (although I should be used to it by now), it is to my mother’s culture and religion that I feel a closer affinity to.  It still grates, ‘though, when I’m thought of as a townie.

City girl sophistication meets country gent: my parents soon after marriage

As I mentioned earlier, school life didn’t hold much appeal and so I persuaded my parents that I should leave aged sixteen.  As soon as I could, I took myself off on my bicycle to holiday in Devon.  Leaving Exeter with tent, camping gas stove and billy cans loosely tied to the crossbar I clanked and clattered my way along the lanes of Dartmoor.   At the end of each day I would pitch my tent wherever I could and reflect with delight upon all the new experiences that had come my way.  Getting hopelessly lost, I ended up at Westward Ho!, a small seaside town on on the north Devon coast.  From there I travelled east finding the hills becoming ever steeper and the villages further and further apart.  One day, I ended up on a remote farm on Exmoor where I decided I would spend two days to recuperate before heading for home.  It didn’t happen. 

The 16 year old hits the road!
Remote hill farm, Brendon Barton where I intended to stay for only two days

Looking back, I can’t imagine what my poor parents were thinking for there were no mobile phones or credit card statements for them to track my progress or whereabouts.  I would telephone them occasionally or send a postcard always being deliberately vague as to where I was staying.  In the meantime, I remained at the farm working – at first for food then, as I became more established and with the tent discarded, for a bedroom and beer money.  By the time my parents turned up at the door several months later (after some shrewd detective work) I had settled into my new life and rapidly adopting the ways of the hard but exhilarating Exmoor life.  Dragged back home to “get a proper job” I never completely left Exmoor behind.  Every spare moment was spent on the farm and, as regular readers of my blog will know, I still spend as much time on Exmoor as possible.  Being a National Park, the landscape and buildings of Exmoor haven’t changed very much over the 50+ years since I turned up on Lorna and Dick French’s doorstep although they have, as have most of the others I knew in those early days, since died.  To my dismay, there is one other thing that hasn’t changed at all: when I respond proudly to the inevitable question with “I’m a Chilterns man”, their response remains the same: “So up-country then?  London?”  Over the years, the ‘boy from London’ has become ‘the man from London.’    And I’m sorry, Londoners, Mum and cousins – I don’t like the label!

Dick & Lorna French who welcomed me into their lives and in the process changed mine

Darts, Hardheads & Rocket

I was fortunate in having a country childhood where roaming the fields and woodlands was the norm.  My early schooling was often held outdoors on sunny days, sitting on a warm, grassy bank; best of all, were the long, nature-study walks we were occasionally taken on.  At the age of ten my schooling changed and the open space and fresh air was replaced by a concrete yard separated from a railway line by a high, chainlink fence.  The only shades of green to be seen were the short spikes of Wall Barley Grass that grew wherever they could find a place to take root.  Later, I changed schools again and, although still in the centre of a town, at least now there were extensive playing fields as well as a small wooded area. In the no-man’s land between the closely-mown sports grounds and the trees Hardheads and Rocket grew.   Against the school walls, Wall Barley Grass could be found.

always crawling about the woods and hedgerows!

Wall Barley Grass, which as children we called darts, is a short, annual grass that thrives on waste ground.  It frequently sows itself in cracks in pavements or, as at my old school, the gap between the tarmac playground and the wall.  Despite frequently growing at the base of walls which its common English name recognises, the botanical name for the grass Hordeum murinum means something quite different: murinum = mouse.  So why darts and, for that matter, why mouse?  Surprisingly the reasons behind both names are unwittingly known by countless generations of children.  Our favourite ‘weapon’ of choice, the seedheads when separated from the stalk, can be thrown just like a dart, the point not sticking into a bullseye but on articles of clothing, especially knitwear.  The pinnacle of childish achievement was to attach it unknown to someone at the base of their back.  Over time, with their body movement, the dart would slowly creep upwards until it arrived to prickle their ear or neck in the same way as a pet mouse might.

Wall Barley Grass prefers to grow in the dry cracks of paving and concrete

In researching for this blog, I was surprised to discover that Wall Barley Grass, so commonly seen throughout my (Home Counties) life, is rarely found in Scotland and Ireland.  It is a plant of drier, warmer regions and grows across the Mediterranean area, North Africa, parts of Asia as well as Central and Western Europe.

its old country name is Mouse Grass as it climbs up clothing in a mouse-like way

It is sometimes hard to believe that Centaurea nigra, Knapweed – or as we called it, Hardheads – is a wild flower; it seems to be far too beautiful to be a ‘mere weed’!  A great bee and butterfly plant it grows to about two feet tall and flowers throughout the summer months.  As children we cared not one jot about the flowers, it was the flower buds that we coveted.  A tight, hard ball (hence the name) on a long pliable stalk made them another ideal weapon once we’d tired of darts.  Perhaps ‘bullets’ might have been a more appropriate name for when the stalk was looped around the bud and pulled tightly the bud would ping off at quite some speed.  Unlike darts where stealth was required, hardhead battles were fought openly and at close quarters.  The closer to the opponent the more they stung when a strike was made.

Knapweed or Hardheads has to be one of the most beautiful of British wild flowers
wrapping the stem around the head and pulling sharply to ‘shoot’ your opponent…

On rare occasions, pure white flowers can be found.  These were always treated with respect and never picked.  Even rarer – and I know of only one place where they can be found – bi-coloured hardheads grow.  Hardheads grow throughout Europe, elsewhere in the world it is an introduction.  For me, the first of its flowers are a sure sign that summer has arrived.  A plant of old meadows and chemical free waysides, their purple flowers brighten up many a roadside verge.

a very rare bi-coloured Hardhead

The last of this trio of childhood plants, Rocket, is the only one that we never picked.  They were loved for their appearance reminding us of the sparkler trail of the cheap, unsophisticated fireworks that were the norm in the 50s and 60s.  Rocket, bears no resemblance in any way to the herb that we eat in salads, in fact it has been used as a medicinal herb to relieve many complaints ranging from gallstones to treating snake bites.  Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria, to give it its correct English and botanical names, grows to about two feet tall and flowers in mid-late summer on a single stem.  Its pretty, pale yellow flowers are followed by sticky burr-like seedheads that attach themselves to animals and clothing.  They grow on roadside verges and grassland but unlike so many of our native wild flowers that require ancient, unimproved meadows, they prefer relatively young ones of less that fifty years of age.

the long flower stalks reminded us of the cheap rockets of our childhood
close-up, the flowers of Agrimony are really pretty

Just as garden plants can often remind us of people, times and places of the past so darts, hardheads and rocket transport me back to my childhood.  I no longer pluck darts to throw but I do admit that rarely a summer goes by when I don’t check that my knack of firing hardhead bullets hasn’t been lost.  In doing so I remember a time of innocence, old friends and a life of simple pleasures.

carefree days!