This is a house that was once called Cartref. Some fifty years ago, in the kitchen of this house, I must surely have asked a question. I suppose at the time the forthcoming answer provided some measure of satisfaction, but since I have no recall of either the exact question or its response, I cannot say. With some certainty, however, I can tell you that answer would not have been the truth.
On a Saturday morning in May 2015, the unexpected warmth of the early morning, pre-summer sunshine tempted me into the garden with a cup of coffee, a newspaper and the intention of catching up on the post-election rhetoric. Flicking through the pages, I would likely not have stopped to read the article which proclaimed that Bob had been poaching for seventy years, had it not been for the fact that my keenly honed skill of scan-reading picked up on a single word in the opening paragraph: Wickwar.
Sitting equidistant between the market towns of Chipping Sodbury and Wootton-under-Edge, Wickwar had been a moderately successful town in medieval times, with many of its inhabitants employed in the cloth trade. Centuries later it was a small, but thriving, village when, in 1888, the local brewery installed its own hydroelectric generator, allowing the village to make use of the excess. Wickwar had enjoyed short-lived fame as its High Street became one of the first in the country to enjoy electric lighting, even ahead of Bristol. But it was for a different reason that I knew of this small South Gloucestershire village. It had been home to my maternal grandparents, the village in which my mother grew up, and the place that I regularly visited during the school holidays each year.
My grandparents’ cottage was located in West End, about a mile from the village centre, on the western edge of Wickwar. It was forty years since I had visited. The newspaper article told me that Bob Tovey had been poaching to help feed his family since he was a small boy in the 1940s. Any surplus was passed on to others in the village. In the days before welfare benefits and food banks provided a cushion for the needy, widespread rural poverty had meant a hand-to-mouth existence and for some, poaching was essential to survival. Whilst protective of game birds, a few enlightened landowners realised the mutual benefits of allowing locals to snare rabbits and other small creatures on their estates. But many betrayed the trust of their benefactors; greed proliferated and gang violence was rife so, more often than not, the law was invoked – fines, imprisonment and, historically, even hanging for the worst offenders. Fortunately for Bob, his own punishment had fallen short of the latter!
For several days, recollections of time spent in Wickwar interrupted my conscious thought: the early morning crowing of the cockerel, making rose-petal perfume in my grandparents’ garden, and walks in the Deanery with my grandmother, Kitty, where we would tiptoe quietly to peer at the dormice asleep in their nests of bark and grass, or search at the river’s edge for signs of water voles, now sadly, Britain’s fastest declining mammal. I was the little townie who could recognise sheep’s sorrel, harebells and stichwort, and we would pause to pick tiny wood violets, wild primrose, and whole bunches of cowslips, their delicate flowering clusters atop stems standing tall above the crinkly green leaves that sprouted at ground level. Oh, the horror of realising, decades later, that I had contributed to their sad decline.
Apparently, as adults, we are particularly drawn to those places that were part of our lives from the age of five to twelve. Memories of this time are amongst our most vivid and this generally has less to do with people than neighbourhood. For some there is a need for understanding, closure and healing, for others a desire to recapture and reflect. Whatever my own motivation, something niggled away and so it was that one sunny morning last summer, I found myself driving southbound on the M5 to revisit an almost-forgotten piece of my past and wondering what tangible remains I might find familiar.
In a curious dichotomy, though little has changed, much is different. The village is, in essence, linear with the centre comprising a wide main street with narrow burgage plots. Sitting on the route of the Old Saltway which runs from Droitwich to Chipping Sodbury, on the edge of the Costwold escarpment, the area is designated one of historical interest. Astonishingly, this small village is home to almost seventy listed buildings, many built from the grey stone local to the area, though some of the 18th century, rendered and stuccoed houses are now painted in pastel tones.
The flat fronted homes, with their doors opening directly onto the pavement, look, at first glance, exactly as they did so long ago, but no longer do the elderly women of multi-generational families sit outside on straight-backed chairs, exchanging greetings with passers-by. Not a single person strolls along what used to be a bustling high street. I can see no butcher, baker or newsagent and the drapery-cum-toy store which was actually the front room of Mrs Handel’s house is long gone. A cafe now stands where a brown-coated Mr Marsden presided over the highly polished counter of his general store into which I would accompany Kitty and wait patiently whilst she read out her shopping list, item by item, as Mr Marsden’s wife reached for each from the shelf.
In the terraced gardens that once belonged to the long-demolished Poole Court I encounter several large round brick-built structures with pointed grid roofs in the meadow which align with the tunnel that emerges just beyond the village. Until this moment I had forgotten their very existence. A small child, I would stand on tip-toe and lean over the wall hoping to feel the vibration of the trains passing beneath, whilst I watched the steam billow through these air-shafts. At the top of the hill stands the 12th Century Holy Trinity Church with its sinister looking gargoyles clinging to the parapets and staring down as they have done for centuries. Inscriptions on the tombstones repeat names over and over – interconnected family networks that go back generations. Just as my own children did not, and my grandchildren now don’t, the child I was had never quite understood the adults’ obsession with ‘views’. Today, as I look towards North Nibley, at the monument erected to honour local man, William Tyndale, for his English translation of the bible, I am gratified that we come to appreciate them. The church, with which I have so many links, is much smaller than it had once seemed. Here my parents were married and I was Christened; my cousin and I were bridesmaids to our uncle, and family members were buried. I sit for several minutes and reflect, enjoying the absolute silence. How rare this luxury.
From the church, I follow the lane that runs parallel to the Wickwar Ridge which stretches across South Gloucestershire, and wonder if much will have changed. Little, it seems, as I pass by the meadows and vast areas of grassland; past the brambles that so often had supplied the juicy contents of the pies that followed our Sunday roast, past ancient hedgerows which follow the natural topography of the land, past dense thickets that still create little woodland spinneys, once so perfect for games of hide and seek. And then, past the waist-high, dry-stone wall that still meanders alongside the lane leading to my grandparent’s cottage.
The hedgerow grows taller and wilder than I remember and the cottage, at the end of a gravel driveway may still be glimpsed from the lane. It had been called Cartref – no number, no road name, just Cartref, West End, Wickwar. An internet search had revealed no such address, though Google Earth confirmed that the building was still in existence. I had addressed my envelope with a description of the cottage’s location, indicating its proximity to the landmark Clock Cottages. Explaining that it had been my grandparent’s home for almost sixty years, I asked the owner if I might visit. A response had arrived by return: she would be delighted to oblige.
The large garden seems little changed. It was here that Kitty’s organic vegetables were grown and free range eggs were collected long before such labels were fashionable. No weekly trips to Tesco, no on-line ordering from a choice of forty yogurts. Had we even heard of yogurt? The milkman called daily and milk was just that – no skimmed or other varieties -and if we wanted it thick and creamy to accompany those blackberry pies, we took a jug to the farm along the lane, the risks of raw milk unknown to us.
Each morning, on his way to work, my grandfather would roll a small boulder into place to hold open the wide metal gate at the end of the drive, and in the evening the process would be reversed. The boulder was always referred to as ‘The stone’ and, according to my mother, had been there when she too was a child. I’m certain that it is the same one as I see now, and at that moment Something stirs in my memory.
By most people’s standards, Kitty’s Sunday tea-time fruitcakes were unexceptional, but in our family they were legendary, if only for the fact that what little fruit they contained, always sank to form no more than a sprinkling on the bottom of said cake. I had often helped to bake the cakes, though this consisted of little more than an ineffective stir and a lick of the spoon. The day I recall was unusual in that two fruitcakes were now cooling on the marble slab in the pantry. I had never before seen them in duplicate. Kitty brought one to the table. Opening the drawer at the end of the kitchen table, she took out greaseproof paper and scissors and proceeded to wrap one of the cakes. Securing it firmly with string, she told me to go and place it behind the stone.
I asked her why and she replied:
“It’s for the rabbit.”
A serious child, I was not given to airy-fairy ideas of humanised animals. Most certainly I would have protested that rabbits did not eat fruitcake. Maybe I laughed and would have asked a further question, perhaps several, but on this point recall fails, as it does with Kitty’s response. What is indisputable, however, is that it would have lacked veracity. I know for sure that she would not have wanted my grandfather to be aware of her illicit barter.
Bob Tovey says that poaching was a way of life; that men were hunters long before they became office workers or lorry drivers. I brush my fingers lightly across the stone. That fruitcake had indeed been for the rabbit.