In the 1960s, when suddenly there were a lot of cars - the lanes were full of them; chugging around with fathers at the wheel, wives in the front seat, travel-sick children in the back; thousands of happy families exploring in a trail of exhaust, with bonnets rattling and big-ends at risk. There were sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper in almost every boot (along with a thermos flask of tea and a little brown medicine bottle for milk and a screw of paper for sugar). There were picnics in almost every farm gate and breakdowns in every lay-by. There were enthusiastic hootings at every bend in the road and unwieldy reversings whenever the way grew narrow. Trails of cars followed tractors; and trails of cigarette butts lay in the wake of cars. But by the time Stephen came to Thorncombe this tide had been swept onto by-passes and the lanes had grown quiet.
Indeed, they were even emptier than they'd been in Mediaeval times because sheep, pigs, cows and geese no were no longer expected to walk to market but were driven there in double-decker lorries. The farmyard one minute. The abattoir the next. Hedges had thickened across drove roads, and fields which were once the workplace for many were now ploughed (later harvested) by one man (or maybe two). There were no stonegatherers, birdscarers or reapers and no wives bringing lunch in covered baskets. Chemicals killed weeds and gleaning was theft. There were no horses, no carts, no wagons, few robbers and hardly any beggars and the world seemed empty to Stephen as he drove to visit Hugh and Camellia that afternoon. It was him, his car - and the countryside.
And there was Thorncombe Hall in the green bowl of a valley. It was large, grand and grey, with battlements on some of the roofs. Most of the gardens were hidden by the dip and there were woods which got in the way of a proper view - but he caught glints of water; a river beyond the house? Trout?
Not bad. Space, privacy, freedom and comfort. Not bad.
He looked up through the black tracery of ash branches and oak which would form a green tunnel in the summer. And he looked sideways at the lattice of beech roots where rain had washed earth from the banks. On the high levels, he'd passed thorn trees, bent and twisted like witches, but everything was softer down here. Even in winter, it was faintly green.
He checked an open map on the passenger seat. Turn right.
Huge stone columns stood empty on each side of the drive. He held his breath as he passed between them. Before long, they'd probably fall and smash against the massive wrought iron gates which were already lying flat in the nettles. And the way ahead, which once had been smooth and gold with gravel, was now little more than a rutty track with ridges and bumps, and potholes and wide spreads of seeping mud. He glanced in the mirror. The lane was already out of sight, hidden by the overgrowth of bushes. But, in the distance, on the other side of the valley, beyond the house, he could already see the estate road rising to a T-junction where Edgington Forest ran along the ridge. And, in the side of the forest, he could see the wide gash in the trees which marked the entrance to the Army Training Camp
But in between . . .
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to continue - Thirteen
for the post before this - Eleven