THE other day, I was asked to write a little introduction to a guide to “E. M. Forster country”: that quiet fragment of Hertfordshire where the novelist lived, and where he placed Howards End. I have lived most of my life in “Constable country”, that part of the Stour Valley which John Constable said had made him an artist. “The handsome miller” the locals called him, and he would have strode past my old farmhouse on his way to visit relations in Wormingford.
As a youth, he made pencil drawings on the way. An older artist had recommended that he do this; so he filled out chubby sketchbooks of these little journeys; they are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The intimacy of their recordings is greatly moving. I think of him passing our church, our vicarage, our barns, and my house.
A later artist, John Nash, called the landscape here the “Suffolk-Essex highlands”. The scenery is not at all like East Anglia, although the skies could not be more so. Until Turner and Constable, and the Norwich school, the climate of paintings around here had more to do with human moods than the weather. And, of course, Constable’s father was the miller. To think that wind and water — and horses, of course — provided all the power needed for British agriculture at that time.
I often dig up horseshoes in the garden, and the track down to my “dwelling house”, as the deeds call it, was created by hundreds of years of carts. It would have been two miles to church, two miles to school, two miles to anywhere.
Few neighbours from the village walk past my house these days: no children, no pensioners, no one on the way to work. About twice a year, the hunt gallops past; and now and then a crocodile of what I must politely call “tour walkers” pass. There is no one to shout “Hi” through the tall hedges; and yet there is no feeling of loneliness. Something of the old rural neighbourliness prevents it.
I once listed all the grasses, all the wildflowers, the birds, the trees, and everything, and I walked the fields to find flint arrowheads from the Stone Age where there was supposed to be an earlier village. Cleaning the old brick floor at the house, I find stud marks where the farmers came clumping in, and sometimes fragments of blue glass on the old windows, one of which said “IHS”.
The sound of water never ceases. I lie in bed, listening to it, and now and then to flocking birds. I have all around me nature, geography, and agriculture. But a young voice? Maybe now and then; and, in the distance, the footballers on the green, shouting on Saturday afternoons. And sometimes bell-ringing practice, if the wind is right. And the postman, putting letters in one of those mailboxes you see in American films, a long way from the house.
Sometimes, I hear the scratch of rambler roses on the window panes, and the small screams of little animals outside, and the loud cries of rooks. And always the sound of the Stour Valley, in its different forms.