IT IS six in the morning. It is still dark, and raining steadily. The horses will be huddled beneath the tall hedge, their coats shining; the cats will be fast asleep in each other’s paws; the birds will be silent.
Yesterday, an old friend and I paid our ritual visit to Arger Fen, driving through the water-splash: many years ago, some tidy person wanted to put it under the lane, but we wouldn’t allow it. It would have washed away so many exploits, such as cycling through it at full speed with our legs in the air. There is a poem in an early edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, “Going Down Hill on a Bicycle” by a long-forgotten poet, Henry Charles Beeching. “With lifted feet, hands still, I am poised, and down the hill Dart . . . Alas, that the longest hill must end in a vale.”
My friend takes his time in the car so as to watch his eight acres of bluebell wood, which we are passing. We talk about Dr Grace Griffiths, a saint in our Suffolk calendar, and how she cared for the poor in those years between the wars. She never remembered their names. So it was “Father”, or “Mother”, or “Little ones”.
She had married a Welshman back in Suffolk, and she would take shelter from his complaints at Arger Fen, in her caravan, watching the uncomplaining birds and hares while her husband went to the pub.
There were nightingales at Arger Fen, besides bluebells, signs of brickmaking, and tumbling old trees, and also the sound of hidden rooks. And blackberries in season; and bluebells, which we tied to our bikes in vast bunches, leaving a trail of them along the road.
All these activities flashed briefly through the car windscreen, and we said the same things we always said when we came to Arger Fen. Naturalists tell us that it’s a fragment of the wild wood which once covered all of England. When its ancient oaks were brought low in the 1987 gale, they were left to lie in the ferns to feed the earth.
The Wild Flower Society has sent me its beautiful magazine. I once listed all the species which grew on my two acres of old farm. Mary and I also collected bog plants in Scotland, identifying them in Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica. I took him to Arger Fen — I took all my friends to that boyhood spot, and listened to its streams as they filtered to the river.
Tomorrow, I must make a start on the water which finds its way into the farmhouse: a yearly task, for which I wear deplorable old clothes. What I notice now is the lack of walkers. I rarely hear the sound of feet. No more the cheerful passing talk, when people called out “Rather you than me” as they passed. But the local hunt has sent me its programme so that I can keep the cats in. They would tremble in my arms with atavistic fears.
It will soon be time for the Wild Flower Society’s Autumn Week Hunt, and I will think of our Scottish holidays long ago, and I will open the photograph albums that Christopher gave me when we were much younger, and very nearly immortal.
Behind us is the big house, and, inside, our flowers will be identified on the table while dinner is on the way. We are midway between the Highlands and Lowlands, and the scent of heather is everywhere, and the deer will be leaping over the deer gates in joyful defiance of our fences. There will be a shelf of ancient Scottish guide-books to pore over, and the loch will remind me of a Palestinian lake where Jesus taught his gospel, and an erratic sea which could not be taken for granted.
In church, we sing Eleanor Farjeon’s morning hymn “Morning has broken”:
Sweet the rain’s new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass.