Cowslips, Hedges and Coffins

Cowslips, Hedges and Coffins

Donald Shephard

In the spring of 1943, my mother and, it now seems to me, another woman, took my two older sisters, my baby brother, and me for a picnic in the area of Salisbury Plain in the south-west of England. My mother had discovered this village while visiting my father who had been stationed there to prepare for the slaughter of war. Now that he was overseas we moved there to escape the blitz. It was a beautiful, sunny day with perhaps a little breeze. We sat in a small vale with a grassy slope behind us. I was allowed the great privilege of climbing this slope. I discovered wild cowslips, the color of sunshine, with a strangeness of shape and growing free, like me, upon the hills. There was no restricting garden wall for these flowers, no confining path, no shadow of houses, only the open slope with its lush grass, clear sky, and soft breeze. Most importantly for me, there was not the claustrophobia of the bomb shelter. My mother, who may have felt like a broody hen allowed a moment of exercise outside the coop, must have been heartened to see her clutch spreading out to discover the wonders of the world which, in times of peace, so amused and entertained her.

"Mummy, mummy! What are these?" I asked.

"Cowslips, Donald. Now don't go too far."

Up the slope I went, having delivered to my great love a bouquet lovelier than I had ever seen before, more wonderful than I could have conceived existed in that bleak, awful world of war. There was more space ahead of me than I could comprehend.

"Look at me, I'm taller than you."

No answer, perhaps the women were talking seriously together, perhaps they were cherishing the happiness of children playing in the open-air. As I climbed, smelling the cowslips and wondering at their color, I sniffed at the grass and felt the sun and the breeze and the ground rising beneath my feet. At last at the top, what a view! A whole hill to myself. There, below, were the picnickers, off to the left was the path we took to get to the picnic, to the right it went on to more hills and vales, and there in front of me and below was a very bright, silvery piece of twisted metal. What was it?

"Mummy, Mummy! Come here. What is this?"

Did I drag her up the slope, was it only a little rise, was it only a few feet high? I cannot now recall. But as surely as I remember the cowslips I remember these words.

"Come away, Donald. It's time for tea."

"What is it, Mummy?"

"An aeroplane."

"What is it doing there?"

"It has crashed."

"How did it get there?"

"It has fallen out of the sky."

"Who was in it?"

"A pilot."

"What happened to him?"

"I don't know. Perhaps he parachuted to the ground."

"When will they take the plane away?"

"Soon, I think."

"Can we play in it till then?"

"No. Come away, Donald. It's time for tea."

To my mother, it must have been a grim reminder of the awful reality of the death of young men all around her but to me , it was a bright, silver thing to be coveted. So we sat there eating our rations, which must have been the same every day , but which I do not now recall. I thought of being in an aeroplane, feeling the way I did when I dreamed of jumping down more and more stairs and floating off to sleep. What a wonderful thing it is to fly. There were so many things in the world for a three year old to learn. There was so much that was fresh and new to me and I was extremely curious. Life in Wiltshire was freer than I had known in my short experience, but we returned to Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding, in Essex, when my mother could no longer face the witch who boarded us. For two more years we were seldom far from the wailing of the air-raid sirens or a bomb shelter which was sometimes just a trench dug in Epping Forest and covered with the seats of our pram.

In Essex, the local quarries yield London clay, which is most suited to brick-making. Stone is scarce, so farmers of the Middle Ages planted countless miles of small hawthorn twigs, and protected them from cattle with temporary wood fences till they matured. Their heirs have kept some of these tough hedges ever since and maintained them by regular lopping, laying and interweaving downward slanting stems, and reinforcing weak spots with stakes. Many of these hedges are between one hundred and two hundred years old although elms, oaks, ash trees and brambles have grown in them over the years. In fact, one method of dating the hedges is to count the number of different species growing in them.           A great deal of my education was conducted during the school holidays while sitting in one of these ancient hedgerows. Whenever my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge E.P.N.S. and I found ourselves in a rain shower, a frequent occurrence during the English substitute for summer, we would settle our backs into the nearest hawthorn hedge and talk. It was Plinge who told me that fields or commons, as they were called, were enclosed to make individual farms mainly between 1650 and 1850.

My uncle was frequently hired ,during the winter months, by the local farmers to lay hedges. In order to protect his lower body from the sharp, black thorns of the hawthorns he would tie a potato sack around his waist with a length of baling twine. He would invariably have several sacks on hand for their great variety of uses. Perhaps they would make him a comfortable seat; perhaps they would hide a snared hare from prying eyes; or, most likely of all, they would be used to shelter him from the weather . He inverted one corner of the sack into the other making a kind of hood to cover his head and back. He used another sack to sit on and a third to cover his lap. He folded a fourth sack for his Whippet, "Worthy", to sit on. In this way they could weather any storm, nestled as comfortably as any bird, in a hedge.

There is something very cozy and peaceful about sitting with your back in a hedge during one of those short, mild showers which interrupt English summer days and keep the countryside so fresh and green. As we sat in those ancient hedges, the old stories, the folk lore, would be drawn slowly out of Plinge and absorbed eagerly by my young mind full as it was of nothing but curiosity.

Typically, we began by talking about local trees; the huge, old oaks; the beautiful, sweeping beeches; the pretty silver birches, or; the witchified hornbeams. Fred would tell me the characteristics of their wood and the things that could be made from each tree. He would tell me the uses of the seeds and leaves it bore. From these talks of a purely factual nature grew the more alluring, whimsical stories he spun from the gossamer that drifted on the wind.

It is to recall these tales that I now break my long silence and tell you the true story of my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge E.P.N.S. and of his friends in the Whippet Clan. Fred was a man of warmth, charm, and scrupulous honesty, although he was, as we shall freely admit, an ugly and hairy man.

Plinge taught me about the various foibles of the people of the village. There were two groups which particularly piqued my curiosity. The first group was made up of the women of the village because, while they are lovable, they are not easily understood. The second group was not lovable, but they fascinated me because they were quintessentially naughty, little boys. These were the members of the Whippet Clan.

I have mentioned that Plinge was a scrupulously honest man. Part of that honesty involved a careful study of the meanings of words. He was adept, as we shall see, at not saying anything which would hurt anyone, especially himself.

It was during one of our episodes of back-in-the-hedge sheltering from a shower of a summer in the 1950's that my dear, old uncle introduced me to the difficulties associated with words and their meanings.

"There are some words, Donald, in this magnificent language we share, which are precise and concrete in their one and only meaning. The word "Whippet", for example, means one of a breed of small, swift dogs resembling a greyhound and used for hunting rabbits and racing. Not much room for confusion there. But, if I were to say 'We were working the whippets, hunting rabbits, down by the river where it is all mystified.' We would both know what kind of dogs were there. You would, needless to say, not be so sure as to whether the weather was misty or whether we were simply confused or indeed, whether we were mystified by the mist."

"You see," he continued, "certain words have a plethora of meanings."

"Plethora?" I asked.

"Tons and tons, too many. You see, certain words, as I was saying, have a plethora of meanings. The word 'word', for example, has twenty-nine different definitions in my dictionary. If I were to give you my word, scrupulously honest man that I am, which meaning of the word 'word' would I have given you?"

Of course, not being familiar with all twenty-nine definitions, I could not answer. In fact it mystifies me now to ponder such a conundrum.

I have brought up this subject of words and their meanings because in those days in Epping Forest after the war, there were some usages which differed dramatically from our present day understanding. My father, after he had returned from the war, taught me at a tender age to gather tinder in the winter after a storm had blown twigs and small branches from the trees. These twigs, sticks and small branches were laid side-by-side and bound together with a length of light rope. A straight, stout stick was thrust into the bundle which was then lifted onto my shoulder and carried home to be used as fuel. This bundle of twigs was known as a faggot.

Another word we used then in quite a different way from now is "punk". This word referred then to the dry, rotten wood used as tinder to light the faggots. This short dissertation is by way of a reminder that the meanings of words are dynamic, with a life and evolution of their own.

"You should take particular care," Plinge concluded as we extricated ourselves from the hawthorn hedge, "to ferret out the truth of what I have said."

The very next day we were trapped again with our backs in a hedge, Plinge was relating to me a long and tortuous story which he in turn had been told by his dear, old uncle Mordecai William Plinge. I found the tale to stretch the edges of credibility somewhat, and said so.

"This is in fact, indeed, indubitably a true story and any thoughts you may have tending towards doubts should be taken as errors of semantics and etymology," said Fred.

"Etymology?" I asked.

"The word 'etymology' is derived from the Greek 'etymos' meaning 'true, actual, real; and 'logos' meaning word, reason, as in our word 'logic'. You cannot possibly be mystified any longer. Good, I am glad we have had this little chat."           Sometime after my conversation with dear, old uncle Fred, I mentioned to him that a wheel barrow would be a handy thing for my punk and faggot collecting. You see immediately the need for that little chat just now. Fred, in his generosity of time and spirit, if not of talent, decided to build one for me. A wheel barrow, that is, not a punk and faggot collection.

We managed to find a large packing crate which was undoubtedly army surplus like many other things after the war, including Fred's sporadic girl friend, Gertrude. I should make it quite clear that it was the relationship which was sporadic and not Gertrude's friendliness or her femininity. But I have digressed from the packing crate. Fred sawed this monster box in half and used the wood from the lid to make a new side. He removed the wheels from the bicycle belonging to his mother, Myrtle, to make a structure most resembling a stack of coffins on wheels. That is why the children in my family called it "The Coffin".

For several years I used this contraption to gather faggots. It was my first experience of the economies of scale. I could collect more faggots, bigger faggots, and even the occasional log when the Forest Keepers were unwary. Although the presence of parallel bicycle wheel tracks may have given them a hint as to the destination of their wood.

I should explain the existence of these Forest keepers. They were a sort of game keeper for the Queen in the woods. The lopping rights to Epping Forest had long been taken away from the villagers of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding. To guard against the indiscriminate hacking away at the trees of the forest and to protect the small, fallow deer that roamed in it, the Forest Keepers were hired at a very small pittance and housed in cottages in remote areas of the forest.

The man who had the lofty duty of Head Forest Keeper in the area around Upper-Piddlington-by-the-By-The-Roding was none other than old George Killemall O.B.E., D.F.C., F.R.C.S. George sported leather boots, jodhpurs, a monocle and a kind of Boy Scout's hat. I suppose I have to add that he wore a Khaki jacket lest you envision him to be semi-naked in the woods. That is not a pretty thought at all, at all. His jodhpurs were an affectation because he had never been further east than a trip to the seaside many years ago, nor did he ride a horse. His highly waxed handlebar moustaches were another affectation showing what happens when you leave people alone in the woods with the squirrels too long. They go nutty.

At Christmastide I developed a good trade based on the tradition of a little sprig of holly on the mantel to supply a few berries and leaves to top the Christmas plum pudding. This was, to be honest, not a legal undertaking and therefore not condoned by any of my esteemed relatives.

I would take a few old, burlap sacks in the bottom of "The Coffin" and push it along the paths in the forest until I came to a particularly berry-laden holly tree which I had selected several weeks before. Checking all around for Forest keepers, I would cut off some small branches and, putting them in the bottom of "The Coffin", I would hurriedly cover them with the burlap sacks. Atop the sacks I put the legal faggots. Taking a little of the excellent leaf mold from under a nearby beech tree, I would rub it onto the whitish holly scars where I had removed the branches. This is one of my happiest memories. Pushing faggots on top of holly in "The Coffin" through the leafless deciduous trees of the forest on brisk December days.

On one occasion I was particularly lucky in finding a newly felled beech tree nicely cut into logs and left unattended by Killemall's henchmen. I began loading "The Coffin" with logs. Green beech wood is very dense and getting the heavy logs over the high sides of "The Coffin" was giving me trouble when I sensed someone hidden by the trees. I first saw the tips of a highly waxed moustache and then the edges of a very neat pair of jodhpurs. This was enough of a warning but I was unable to reach inside and retrieve the incriminating logs from the barrow.

Killemall was merciful, he even dumped "The Coffin" over and released the offending logs for me. In doing so the left wheel of my pride and joy suffered somewhat in its symmetry. I later learned that the reason for this protective attitude of Killemall's was his need for fuel the following year. I satisfied myself by taking a particularly good haul of holly covered by a minimum of twigs.

Unfortunately, after Killemall's treatment "The Coffin" broke down. It became progressively harder to push. I tried pulling it but the strain of watching over my shoulder for George was too much. I had to admit defeat.

I hid "The Coffin" behind a hedge. Of course you can see, it was in full view of anyone on the other side of the hedge, but I did not see that then. I walked on to enlist the help of my dear, old uncle. Fred , in my mind at least, was without sin as I am sure you will agree, which presented me with a dilemma. Would he be aiding and abetting a minor in the course of a misdemeanor? I did not address the illicit nature of my mission to my unsullied uncle.

What had become an impossible task for me was soon remedied by a few swift thrusts of Plinge's big, hairy hands. A little axle grease, a push here, a pull there and "The Coffin" was alive again. Fred hitched his donkey, Threnody, to "The Coffin" and it was rolling along, albeit somewhat reluctantly, again. Mr. Arbuthnot, as he passed us on his way to choir practice, hymnal in hand, remarked that he had seen one donkey pushing "The Coffin" in the afternoon, and another pulling it in the evening.

This enterprise of mine was my first attempt as an entrepreneur. I had begun the long, subtle seduction that money carries on with most small, poor boys. I changed for that one week of the year from being penniless to having the responsibility of the provider. The experience was not entirely pleasant.

At least the penniless person does not have to worry about which of many places he should spend his money. Those first few coins I earned were from the three Biddy sisters; Mrs. Clara Biddy, also known as "Little Red" because of her affinity for henna; her spinster sisters-in-law, Miss Dorothea Biddy, or "Dotty" for reasons which will become obvious later, and; Miss Ophelia Biddy , known to certain uncouth members of the village as "Phelia" or possibly "Feel Yer", I never did see it in print. Trade had been brisk once they spread the word that I was in business. I spent the first pennies I earned on a very rare treat for my siblings. We ate ice cream. I also purchased some ink to enable me to write whenever I chose. Lastly, I felt that Fred should be rewarded for his innocent aid in my operation. Having removed all traces of holly from the bed of "The Coffin", and provided the family with a luxury, I intended to give the last few pence, which were burning a hole in my pocket, to Fred.

Finding Fred in the copse that sheltered his home, I offered him my entire capital worth. He looked at me, smiling and puzzled.

"No, Donald," he said. "You keep the money. You earned it honestly." His eyes twinkled and I knew then that he was well aware of my chosen profession of pinching holly, as it were.

My dear, old uncle was an unusual man. A very important and special man to me but, to the rest of the world, he was just another man home from the war. It was not his body but his emotions which would take so long to recover. The war years of depravation, degradation and lonely horror had left him somewhat incomplete, which may explain why he spent so much of my youth sitting in hawthorn hedges telling me stories about his youth which had been so severely pruned.

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