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Word from Wormingford

06 November 2015

Falling oak leaves remind Ronald Blythe of the passage of time

SIMON and Jude, apostles. The vast oaks by the stream shower them with gold. Unseen water makes its way down the fields to the Stour, topping up my taps en route. Now and then, a young man from the council arrives to see if it is pure and I am still alive. I remind him that Londoners drink water that has passed through several people, and he smiles.

Seasonal visits from kind people are logged in my diary — only I forget to look at it; so I have to pretend to expect them. This is no difficulty. The Gospels arrived from a dry land, and I see the Lord’s dusty feet, and I comprehend that encounter with the lady at the well.

Meanwhile, my oak leaves, like a floating fortune, speed towards the river. I have squelchy feet as I aid it on its journey. The white cat fusses over damp paws. Soon, the fall will be complete — the orchard bare, the track carpeted, the fine horse-chestnuts willed to us by a Victorian parson, gaunt.

The artist John Nash used to appreciate a dead tree here and there, as do I. Meanwhile, mulch is claiming autumn’s flow and creating a kind of hesitant music. Do the badgers listen to it as they hump their way to the bar, as it were, quarrelling and dragging their black and white bodies towards deep water? I hear them as the light fails.

The emigrant birds have long taken off, leaving the stay-at-homes plenty of room to be noisy in.

I have just returned from the Stour estuary. It is a universe of its own, and not at all like the rest of the river. Even the people who live there are a separate race. It was where they trained naval ratings when I was a boy: impossibly spotless youths who climbed terrifyingly tall masts, and who sang carols like angels. A race apart. They could see the Empire.

Voices carry across water. At Aldeburgh, near by, the wonderful Imogen Holst taught Suffolk children how to release their voices in the firmament, as well as over the North Sea, drawing the sound out of them. Her dancing step — she once hoped to be a ballet dancer — destroyed their inhibitions.

So here I was, back from the Stour Estuary, that not-quite-earthy country. I had been to Harkstead to give a talk in St Mary’s, which Nikolaus Pevsner called “a perfect Constable picture. Flint and septaria, mainly C14 . . .”. And, just outside, flowed the Stour, the most celebrated river in British art.

It continues to flow below my house, now and then glinting through the naked trees, quietly for most of the time — unless it meets a mill-race, when it roars at the top of its voice.

The garden demands attention. Cyclamen is in full flower, the corms — which pigs find a treat — lying on top of the soil. My first real country smell as a child was that of our pigsty. It was far from unpleasant. The house was thatched and apt to be full of wintering creatures. The poet John Clare heard them as he made love to his wife in the room below.

I sometimes feel that I must apologise to my old house for its absence of the old hospitality. Not that the white cat has a part in it: her indifference to other residents is a kind of sloth incarnate. She does nothing. She sings “Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.”

I was shocked when a visitor felt her, and said: “She’s getting on a bit!” But who isn’t? The year certainly is.

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