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Word from Wormingford

22 July 2016

On a cool evening, Ronald Blythe sits with Mary, Martha, and Alice

THE Maltings Farm hayfields were cut yesterday, and now they are being trundled along the horizon in the shape of vast drums. Stripped land is pale and dusty. The sun burns down, and, apart from the haymaking machine, and the everlasting cry of pigeons, there is no noise, only a kind of quiet silence.

I sit on the hot terrace and listen to seeds snapping. I think about Rupert Brooke, and Gallipoli, and about clearing my spring out, and of yesterday, when we all celebrated holy communion in a Norman chapel that had been turned into a barn after the Reformation, and then turned back into a shrine when I was a boy.

The Earls and Countesses of Oxford lie in marble state on the tiled floor. The chapel is dedicated to St Stephen, but our hymn sheets bear the crown and arrows of St Edmund. The Bishop of Dunwich, the Revd Dr Mike Harrison, preaches on the two sisters Mary and Martha — one a listener, one too busy to do anything other than cook the dinner. Afterwards, we have lunch in what I call my Alice in Wonderland house, because it was there, long ago, that I heard of its connection with Lewis Carroll. And so to bed.

There are still plenty of summer days left in which to cherish an English summer evening. The American novelist Henry James adored such days. How pleased he would have been to know that they could still be lived, as it were, a century after he had passed away. I find Alice in Wonderland at the back of a shelf — a nice edition, given to a little girl named Christine, just before the Great War, and lovingly inscribed, and I take it into the hot garden.

So I end up with Martha, Mary, Alice, the Red Queen, and some of my neighbours, all of us sunburnt and guests of Abraham, who sat in his tent door during the heat of the day, as I sit in my door on this cool evening, hoping that no one will arrive to disturb my sloth. I shall call it meditation.

Later, I discuss the clearing of the farm track with the friend who chops the middle off and mows his banks at this time of year. From a narrow access to me, it grows into a stately approach to a sizeable old house. This is the time to rake the ditches that bring my water — and all free of charge. No water rates, but some hefty toil to make sure that it reaches me.

There are a few butterflies, a few small animals scuttling for safety, and a badger town, standing open. But there are fewer and fewer walkers, less and less greeting, and no gossip. And the Stour Valley whines, sultry at the moment, and the hums of bees prevent actual silence. “It is surprising what you hear when you listen,” an old man said.

As for what I see, this is for ever amazing. At the moment, the big field is a dull gold, and the ash tree in front of the house is a heavy green. And the horse ponds glitter under their weed. The artist John Nash, who lived here before me, loved these ponds, and portraits of them hang in our town hall to refresh the Mayor and corporation.

Have I heard, David says on the telephone, that they are digging up a Roman villa not far from me? This is not his usual line, which is: “Have you heard about this rare apple?” His orchard is a kind of fruit museum, with plums, pears, and apples going back to Eden.

I look at my greengages. They have a habit of bearing a crop and forgetting to crop alternately. I scythe beneath them, letting the wild seeds scatter under my feet. But there is July dust on my feet, and not very tuneful birdsong in my ears. I must read what John Clare says about hot dry Julys, and how he lays his way through them.

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