THEY promise snow, and back it up with descriptions of Moscow, where it is raked up and put in the river. Here, in the Stour Valley, snow-laden skies hold back their burden, and it doesn’t seem cold enough for a wintry landscape. All the same, the white cat finds a radiator, and the horses are being led in.
I think of Scotland in summer, with its snow-capped hills, and of the steep track to the high house where we spent so many summers, opening and shutting deer-gates all the way. Ever since I was a boy, I have thought about what was happening to familiar places when I wasn’t there. And particularly when they were in Scotland.
We were a party of eight at the village of Kinloch Rannoch, in a big house above the loch. We collected wild flowers, paddled, got lost, found ourselves, wondered how little farms could make a living, and, in the evenings, read old geographies. And I would remember my East Anglian neighbour Mr Brown, whose farmland touched mine.
Almost 100, he would talk to me about Ayrshire. Once, I sang him a song about the Covenanters and Claverhouse: “To the lords of convention ’twas Claverhouse spoke. ‘Ere the King’s crown shall fall, there are crowns to be broke.’”
When I took his funeral, the East Anglian church was full to the brim with local Scots.
Mr Brown would tell me how his family emigrated to our rich soil before the First World War, the plough horses kicking in their special train, and even the last of the Scottish hay carrying its heathery scent to Essex.
Mr Brown was born at Michaelmas, and died at Michaelmas, with just a century in between. The special train from Scotland to the East Anglian coast cost £10, and contained everything the Browns possessed.
John Clare, our finest rural poet, had Scottish roots: an itinerant schoolmaster had bred him. Like Laurie Lee, he left home with a fiddle. What more did a handsome lad need? Clare needed the Great North Road, but his journey back to Northampton is one of the most tragic in English literature.
Sometimes, en route to church, we slow down for a glittering battalion of Sunday cyclists, nose to road, ears to the swish and hum of life, and I remember my Raleigh days and how wonderfully solitary they were. They say that there are something like 600 parish churches in East Anglia, and I must have propped up my bike against them all. A vast pile of guide books testify to this. Needing to verify some architectural fact, I opened a cupboard, and a torrent of them fell to the floor. And this put me back in the saddle.
Today’s traffic makes church-crawling on a bike hazardous, they say. Yet the visitors’ books at the back of our churches are filled with names. And fatuous “Very peacefuls”. But who can hear what these sacred interiors — not to mention their consecrated surroundings — have to say to Edward Everard from Swansea, or Linda from Camberwell? My friend Richard Mabey and I used to look for rare grasses spared from agricultural poisons, the latter not nearly as prevalent as they once were.
What I mourn is the loss of faith in the inscriptions. Generally speaking, their Christianity is uncomfortable, uncertain. Or, maybe, just its language is. As for me, I walk around churchfuls of neighbours who don’t seem at all “departed”. Any more than they do in my farmhouse, listed “1600”. It can bear a ton of snow.