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Word from Wormingford

by
02 November 2006

wormy from standing

Ronald Blythe takes his saw to a once fruitful quince

I FIND myself relishing the failing light, the brief afternoons, the cross birds waiting for me to pack up, chiffchaffs and pheasants mostly, joining in noisy protest as I continue to garden when, at 4 p.m., every decent December creature should be in bed.

But still I clear the orchard. At the moment it is the desperate task of sawing dead wood from the ancient Portugal quince, and I feel like one of the surgeons in Nelson’s navy — "Bite the bullet, my lad. You’ll be better off without it." Off comes a vast limb.

Half the quince flourishes; half has gone wherever quinces go when they are past bearing. But the tree has a history parallel with my own in the wild garden, and I sense that I am losing part of myself as the boughs fall — not very far; for they writhe in their Laocoön fashion only just above the grass.

Once there was so much fruit I could hardly give it away, the locals not wanting "the trouble" — all except my farmer neighbour William Brown, who came to beg a few for "my wife". Welcome, welcome, dear quince-lover. John Nash, who planted the tree, liked to place a fat quince on the dashboard of his Triumph Herald, there to scent the car out. I made quince cheese, or put a bit of the fruit in an apple pie "to quicken it".

Alas, wonderful Cydonia oblonga, how you have come down in the world! Once you scented the tem-ples of Venus. A quarter of you is in late leaf; so, rid of death, I having let the light in, pull yourself together, and bring forth in abundance your hard-as-wood, yet delicate, yellow fruit, just as you used to; for there remain a few of us who will take the trouble to make of you "a precious Conserve and Marmelade, beeying congealed with long seethyng, and boiled with Sugar, Wine and Spices".

It is now as dark as midnight, and the tools are swallowed up, enveloped, lost, and an owl cries imperiously. I feel my way home. On a shelf of cookbooks going back to the year dot, I discover one published in Calcutta in 1919. Quinces, quinces — the yellowing pages turn. "Quince cheese — press into tins lined with brandy papers"? "It will take hours."

A monthly evensong for just half a dozen of us — more when it is light — but "Where two or three are gathered together in my Name," etc. And anyway it is a favourite service, sung without an organist, spoken with alternate voices, the candles wavering, the nave roof somehow floating and indistinct, barely above us, the Advent prayers. It is all so perfect, so beautiful, so "enough". But of course it won’t save the world. What will?

The bellringers’ dinner looms into the calendar, and we crowd into the Crown, wear paper hats, and devour turkey. We spy strangers from towers near and far, captains and masters who make the valley tumultuous when they have a mind to. Our bells reach from the Wars of the Roses to the Second World War, and our attempts reach dizzy lengths, as our pealboards boast. Some of us are ringers, churchwardens, and organists all in one. You get your money’s worth in the Church of England.

I think of my father standing in the dark garden when there was a ringing practice, just to listen, just to soak the sound in. The noise in the pub is less listenable-to, though there is no choice. Fifty eating ringers and their guests make a fine roar. It is hot inside and mild outside, and the low rooms hum with the courtesies of the season.

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