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Word from Wormingford

17 April 2014

Thomas Hardy's tree reminds Ronald Blythe of a childhood mystery

AS WITH most of us, my past offers itself either as a serial that promises to run and run, or as vignettes that are complete in themselves. I am idling around the childhood market town when a VR letter-box says: "Halt!" Two schoolmistresses are passing. They are sisters, the Miss Crossleys. They wear small hats and lisle stockings, and they carry armfuls of red exercise-books.

According to the present notion of them, suffering from a shortage of men - it is the 1930s - they will stay spinsters. But since they will lose their profession if they marry, being a teacher might be a preferred choice to that of wife. They swing along in strap shoes, and with ready smiles.

"Good morning, Miss Crossley. Good morning, Miss Crossley," the boys and girls cry. To which Miss Crossley?

They live in the dusty shade of monkey-puzzle trees in a brick villa named after the Prince Consort. It has flashing plate-glass windows and heavy drapes, and no pupil has ever entered it. In August, it is locked up, deserted. It is then that the Miss Crossleys go on great travels - Snowdonia, or the Wash. "Do you think they take their tuning-fork? Their box Brownie?"

No one has seen their snapshots, their going, or their coming back. And the monkey-puzzle villa looks the same whether it is occupied or deserted. And Mr Hurst, the postman, empties their letter box three times a day, whether they are there or not. They smile as they swing along to the elementary school, and have low, throaty voices.

"Walk, don't run, children."

"Yes, Miss Crossley."

Minute sweetshops were oases on the way. Respect rather than love floated them along. It made conjecture out of the question. So what did go on in the monkey-puzzle villa out of class? Library books, ludo, prognostications. Catherine would do well; Aubrey would not. The blackboard stars foretold it.

All this was brought on by discovering a photo of the monkey-puzzle which Thomas Hardy had planted at Sturminster Newton in the autumn of 1876. And, as with the Miss Crossleys, too near the house. He and Emma were newly married, but while their unmarried servant became pregnant, she did not. He was in his early thirties, and writing Far From the Madding Crowd. She said: "Your novel seems sometimes like a child, all your own and none of me."

Thunderous weirs in the neighbourhood provided a way out, should his characters find life impossible. My childhood river was the Suffolk Stour; his the Dorset Stour. My early water-meadows had been half-flooded town-lands since the Middle Ages; his a territory for desperate remedies.

In a wet year, you might find it hard to find where our river began and its pastures ended. Enormous trees such as the monkey-puzzles, planted as striplings, threw their weight about in small streets. And, of course, in the Miss Crossleys'dry patch of massively walled-in garden.

Both here, and in Hardy's garden, they announced social confidence, light not gloom, a ground-to-sky magnificence. They rose in pairs before double villas, anything from 50 to 100 feet whose inhabitants need say no more.

"Araucaria Imbricata, speak for us! We will put up with your everlasting Chilian dust and shade." But Hardy and Emma moved on, until their worst tree-planting ever at Max Gate. Here the author of The Woodlanders planted so many pines that he could not see out. He wrote a complaining poem about this.

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