Let me just set the scene, winter was on its way. I was off on my usual travels and made my way through one of the most beautiful parts of East Sussex, England. Come with me on a journey.
A Trip Through Kipling Country
I set off, as usual, on my sewing-machine repair rounds. The Land Rover loaded to the hilt with tools and equipment. First stop to a water-damaged Gamages special, a 1960s straight-stitch machine.
Gamages was a large department store that sold so many sewing machines that they had their own name on them. This one had been in the floods and then left in a basement. The shuttle had seized but after a bit of persuasion with some WD-40 and copious amounts of elbow grease it came grunting back to life. Before long the stitch was perfect. Money changed hands and I was off.
I went inland, up towards Burwash and Rudyard Kipling-land. Burwash is a part of the country that is so English. Cream teas and thatched cottage land. It is almost into Kent and on the ridge, you can see the oast-houses that were used for drying out the hops. They look like giant Amish women marching across the land with their dark wooden skirts and white caps.
Many used to refer to Kent as The Garden of England. It was beautiful. As beautiful as ever a place on earth could be. There is also something so quaint about the area that is easy on the eye.
Near Burwash I met an old acquaintance, a stockbroker, who had retired down from London a few years back. As I fixed his wife’s Frister & Rossmann Cub he told me how he started at the bottom of the Stock Exchange, in the City, forty years earlier. While I fixed the machine, the tension had collapsed, I heard how he worked his way up the greasy pole from a Blue Button’s runner’s-runner (lowest of the low apparently, close to a snail) to be the Chairman of the Board.
He had spent a lifetime without ever touching a screwdriver, paintbrush or ladder. At 65 he had to learn how the rest of the world lived and worked, not how to open six bottles of Bollinger at a party. He was enjoying every second of it.
For my next call I wriggled my way down the wet country lanes towards Framfield. I found a spot to park for a short break in a heavily wooded area and watched autumn in all her glory. A beautiful jay dropped out of the forest onto the oak tree that opened above me like a great umbrella with no cloth. It skipped from branch to branch, grabbed an acorn and disappeared into the woods all in a matter of seconds.
The jay, which is the most colourful of all the crow family, was always a sight to behold. I probably only saw a dozen Jay’s a year and each one was a pleasure, especially around mating time when their screeching cries echo around the Sussex woodlands. They often make a laughing sound a bit like a magpie’s that mimics a chuckle. However once nesting they become almost silent with just low crooning warbles to entice their mates. In the autumn, they gather and hoard their favourite fruits, the acorns.
They say that if it were not for the jay’s planting of the acorns much of the natural forests of oak would never have grown.
Hedge sparrows were noisily fighting over the last shiny-black ivy berries that clung to the dying foliage. In the breeze the bare branches of the hedgerows were scratching angrily at a darkening sky. Ferns that had been a vibrant green all summer had turned deep reddish-brown as they have done every year since the time that mammoths strode these lands.
The roads were paved with fallen leaves in a thousand autumn shades. Water was running across my path in newly-formed streams, making its way down to the sea some many miles away. The whole countryside was sodden and in its shabbiest overcoat but still full of life.
Squirrels were busily collecting horse chestnuts and acorns, ready for the lean winter months ahead. It would not be long before conkers would be played by thousands of schoolboys in schoolyards across rural England.
Conkers was one of those games when I was young that has almost disappeared today. Basically it was little more than a conker hanging on a string that would be walloped by another conker, however there was more, much more. Some conkers became almost legendary and hunted down like Jessie James.
For those of you that are now wondering what on earth I am talking about the humble conker is the large seed of the horse chestnut tree. A round brown seed almost the size of a golf ball, well the best ones are. The shells are like mini grenades full of spikes that you have to endure to win your prize. Once teased out of the shell they turn from a mixture of beautiful light browns to a deep brown in a matter of hours.
Imagine a school playground at break time, loads of boys all gathered around a circle with the two combatants facing each other. One boy, with tongue tightly wedged in the side of his mouth and a fixed stare of concentration in his eyes, would swipe his conker at another’s conker hoping to dislodge or smash the latter.
If he missed it was his tough luck, if he tangled the strings he would forfeit another shot unless the playground rules were abandoned. Then he could tug with all his might and try to pull the conker from his opponent. If he managed to dislodge it a shout of STAMPS would go up and if the opponent was not quick enough his conker would end up as a mushy lump crushed into the schoolyard tarmac by the shoe of the victor.
Occasionally a perfect line-up shot would crack down on the opponents conker sending it shattering to the floors in bits, cheers and whoops would rip through the onlookers. If the smashed conker had been a good one and broken several others before its demise the victor would add the number of the vanquished conker to his own. In this way school champions were made and startlingly high numbers were achieved.
These conkers were prime targets for all the other children for if your conker could smash the champion you became number one in the playground. I once had a conker that made it to 67. Cracked and wounded it succumbed to a windmill smash from Chris Higgins’s monster. He cried for joy, I just cried.
The best conker trees were a well-guarded secret and dawn raids often organised, especially after a storm when many prize conkers littered the ground. Armed with heavy sticks kids would attack the helpless trees trying to knock down the green shells that held the magnificent brown conkers. Opening the shells though sometimes difficult and often painful would sporadically yield a prize specimen that made your eyes pop out of your head. Examining a brown beauty would bring images of future victory to mind.
Once procured ancient remedies were used to harden conkers, baking in a slow oven, soaking in vinegar, storing in the airing cupboard, many sneaky methods employed to ensure a pocket full of super hard conkers were stuffed in the school blazer each morning.
Conker time at school was a great time and for a few weeks all participants of the glorious game could be easily recognised by their bruised knuckles and red fingers.
I pulled up outside Pump Cottage and was greeted by an enthusiastic large Lurcher and a ginger tomcat. By the doorknocker hung two pheasant. I leaned over and sniffed them to see how long they had been hanging. They smelled of the countryside and the fresh earth so they must have been shot that morning. It would be a few days before the familiar smell that country people wait for appears. Only then would they be plucked then roasted and served with a plate-full of roast potatoes and fresh vegetables.
I had been to the cottage five years earlier and remembered the old Jones machine that had been worked hard mending everything from the hubby’s overalls to the children’s Halloween costumes. It was in a well-used state and took some time to bring back to life.
The Lurcher was stretched out on the settee, and reminded me of a drunken lord basking by the fire, lazily gazing at the tail of the ginger tom that twitched nearby. It’s a hard life I thought.
Then off to a caravan park to a little old lady who had returned from Spain with an ailing Alfa. The Alfa was in a beautiful honey-beech cabinet, small and compact and inlaid with different coloured woods. She had bought it from Estapona and, although it was made in the 1950s, was in superb condition.
In the drawer was a De Reszke cigarette tin, now used for keeping pins. On the side of the tin, next to a rather spiffing gentleman with a monocle, it proudly announced Cigarettes to the Aristocracy.
The poor old dear had had a stroke awhile back and I had taught her how to sew with a treadle again. It took some time but, in the end, she clicked and off she went like a kid on her first bike. The treadle rocking away happily to her foot movements. The clickty-clackty noise of the Alfa purring away as it stitched.
All finished, I turned the Land Rover towards home and a well needed break.
The sun began to break through the heavy cloud throwing shafts of light through the grey canopy just to remind me that it won’t rain forever. I passed near the Cuckmere Valley that had become an inland sea, much as it must have been long ago. Flocks of migrating birds were heading over the cliffs towards the golden coasts of Spain and Africa for an easy winter.
I thought I would stop off at Beachy Head on the way home to soak up the day.
I wound my way along the twisting road climbing up the green downland turf. Up, ever higher. I climbed so high that when I reached the top it looked as if I could see forever.
Beachy Head is a magical place jutting out into the English Channel on a peninsular. Miles of open land, sea and sky that flow before you in a timeless unity.
Sometimes, on special days, if you look hard enough you can see so far that it feels like you can see the future.
So what did you
think? do let me know:
firstname.lastname@example.org If you would like to read more
stories like this they are in my Random Threads trilogy.
So what did you think? do let me know: email@example.com
If you would like to read more stories like this they are in my Random Threads trilogy.