Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fields of Gold

Who could have failed to notice the proliferation of fields of gold in the countryside this summer? At first glance, it looks as if crops of the ubiquitous rape have taken an even stronger hold of the fields and meadows but it is, in fact, the dazzling sparkle of the creeping buttercup.

The very wet weather last year, lack of spraying and compacting of the soil by cattle hooves, which stops water from draining away, have created favourable conditions for swathes of ranunculus repens on grazing land. And they have cropped up in other places: roadsides, gardens and village greens. There is even a clump tumbling into the water from the side of the pond on my allotment. So heartening a sight is this vivid display of wildflower in these days of uncertain climate – both meteorologocial and economic – that I am embracing the invader and letting it share my plot.

Others are not so accommodating. Being toxic to horses, cattle and sheep, fresh buttercups are a problem for farmers. That is why those yellow pastures are not inhabited by livestock at the moment; but spraying is apparently ineffective once the buttercup has flowered. So, we may as well enjoy the vista and let our children keep checking who likes butter.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Downland: part eight

As the hedgerows lining the road began to recede, Ridler could see the light at the entrance to his own landed estate: Deanland Caravan Park. And, passing through the symmetrically arranged white, beige, and beryl boxes, he found his own aluminium castle, his own Firle Tower: a 1951 Fairholme Romeo caravan. Through the net-curtained window, in the lit interior – the mantle of the bottle gas light shining brightly – he could see Gladys; reading glasses on, rollers in, reading Reveille. He could hear the low murmur of the radio set; home service or light programme? He could not tell. Probably the light programme. The Clitheroe Kid would have been on earlier. Gladys was persisting with it, despite refusing to find it funny because it had replaced her beloved Educating Archie at the end of its series. Every time that ventriloquist’s dummy had been left in a taxi or on a train she had worried herself into a frenzy. Ridler blamed himself; they had never had children. On the cover of Reveille was a picture of Elvis Presley, home on leave from the army. He knew that Gladys must be looking again at the spread of pictures of Presley posing in his colonial mansion and at the RCA recording studios. She had been just as interested earlier in the year when there were stills of him having his conscription haircut. The superficiality of the quiff and hips of this rock ‘n’ roller struck him as pretence compared to what he had done. Ridler had indelibly marked himself and, only fifteen years before, he had become the world’s highest paid showman. And it had led to here: a caravan near a village in the shade of the Downs. The trail of exile and exhibition, the path of failure and desperation, the sunlit peak of equilibrium and acclaim – it led to here. He took off his jacket, held out his bare forearms and examined his striated skin with its broad African equid brindling. He pushed down the handle with his tattooed hand, pulled the door out towards him and went in.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Dickens of a Storm

As flaming June arrives, here is a salutary reminder that the midsummer month can also be as harsh as any in the cruellest winter. In June 1863 – 150 years ago – The Times newspaper ran the following brief story:

“THREE DEATHS FROM LIGHTNING. On Wednesday Mr WELLER, a shopkeeper in Glynde, a small village in East Sussex, accompanied by his wife and another woman, went to Brighton, about 11 miles distant, in a light cart, to transact some business. On their return in the evening they were overtaken by a severe thunderstorm that prevailed for several hours, and it is supposed that the cart was struck by the electric fluid, and the three inmates almost instantaneously killed, as their lifeless bodies were discovered at an early hour yesterday morning by a person who was returning from Glynde to Lewes.”

There are probably countless tales of tragedy such as this in national and local archives but what makes this stand out is that the storm, affecting a large area of East Sussex and Kent, coincided with one of Charles Dickens’s many late visits from his home, Gads Hill in Kent, to Brighton. He subsequently included it in one of his pieces of misery tourism. My first knowledge of it was when it was read to me by Andrew Brooke, erstwhile Sussex Sedition contributor and now resident of Somerset, as we stood in Glynde churchyard at the grave of the three victims as part of one of own misery walks a couple of years ago. Dickens, of course, brings the storm – its range, drama and tragedy – vividly to life, much more than an archival footnote ever could.

“Ranscombe Brow, a bold hill skirted by the road from Lewes to Glynde (the village of the glen), is situated about a mile and a half from Lewes, and commands, even from the road, an extensive view of the valley, both inland and seaward. The road winds through a wooded dell, and is darkened by very high and very thick hedges on both sides. Nothing can be seen except the sky. But, on issuing from between the hedges, and rounding the brow, an extensive flat landscape of pastures, watered by the Ouse, startles the view. The effect is striking, even on a fine summer afternoon, and must have been appalling in the night and the early morning of the 25th of June, when the darkness of night increased the gloom between the hedges, and when continuous lightning was enkindled all over the extensive view.

"Shortly after eleven o'clock on Wednesday night, a tradesman of Glynde, Mr. Henry Mocket Weller, aged fifty, conducted by one Mary his wife, aged forty-nine; and a young woman, Elizabeth Bingham, about thirty-five years of age; drove along this road from Lewes in a one-horse cart. Elizabeth Bingham was about to be married to Mrs Weller's brother, "after," as the local phrase describes it, "they had walked out together for ten years," and she was going to Glynde to make some preparations for her wedding. As he passed a policeman while leaving Lewes, Mr Weller said, " Good night ; it is very rough." At the Southerham tollbar-gate, Mrs Weller and Miss Bingham were alarmed, and Mr Weller was pacifying them. He was over-confident in the steadiness of his horse. Mr Weller sat on the right driving, his wife sat next him holding up an umbrella, and the bride on the left of the scat in the cart. On issuing from between the dark hedges and reaching the brow, they must have seen the whole landscape, the sky, the distant hill-tops, the pastures, the river, a-blaze with continuous lightning. I read the story of the catastrophe in the fresh marks on the spot. The horse, seized with maddening panic, had suddenly started away from the view of the lightning, wheeling the cart very sharply round, and springing up the steep embankment. The marks of the wheels and hoofs on the grass of the embankment, show that a terrible struggle ensued between horse and driver, the horse wildly plunging anywhere away from the storm, and the driver pulling the right rein to bring the horse down into the road. All three had tried to get down from the cart on the right side, together. The horse then fell over, capsizing the cart, and entangling all three under it. They were killed by the fall, the wheel, and the kicking horse…What a touch of pathos is added to the terror of these storms, when we remember their wrecked victims, the hopes they destroyed, and the homes they desolated! How are we to characterise the fool-hardiness which neglects all the known precautions against their dangers?

“More than three hours after the catastrophe at Ranscombe, a Lewes tradesman was driving home in a four-wheeled chaise. It was the darkest, coldest, most eerie hour in the morning, about half-past two o'clock. On the road at Ranscombe Brow, his horse shied. He applied the whip gently, but the horse would not advance. His son jumped down and tried to lead the horse, and then both father and son tried to lead the horse ; but he would not pass something on the road. It was very dark. They could see nothing. At last a flash of lightning showed a cart turned on the axle, and they discerned a woman lying close under it. The woman did not answer when spoken to, and they discovered she was dead. Another flash of lightning revealed another woman rather more under the cart. After procuring a lantern and assistance, and while drawing the cart away from the horse, a man was seen under the wheel. The forepart of the cart was kicked in.

“These three victims of this storm were buried in the churchyard of Glynde on the following Sunday. A long funeral procession, with about thirty couples of mourners, followed them from the village to the churchyard. The coffins, according to ancient Sussex custom, were carried on the shoulders of sixteen men, attired in long white smock-frocks, with black neckties. One large grave received all three, and they were laid down in the order in which they travelled. From a thousand to fifteen hundred persons were in the churchyard ; and a crowded congregation listened in the church, in tears, to a discourse reminding us that in the midst of life we are in death.

“This great storm left its mark at other places. At Maidstone and Herstmonceau, hailstones, or rather bits of ice, of oblong shape and broad as pennypieces, fell, breaking skylights. A policeman on duty at East Peckham was struck by lightning and seriously injured on the left side. A retriever dog was killed by his master's side at Hurstpierpoint. A poplar was shattered into splinters in the village of Kemsing. At Cuckfield, the lightning entered a cottage by the chimney, burned a small hole through the bedroom floor, passed through the sitting-room below, and left by the door, which happened to be open. At sea, four sailors were knocked down on board the Britannia collier, lying off Brighton. At Wilmington, the Eagle beerhouse was set on fire and gutted, the inmates escaping for their lives. At Spring Cottage, Fount Road, Tunbridge Wells, a man and his wife were struck in bed, the latter lying for some time insensible. None of the furniture in the room in which they were sleeping was injured, but the stone sink in the kitchen was shattered to pieces. In Ely Lane, Tunbridge Wells, the lightning struck a cottage, breaking pictures, damaging ceiling, and smashing panes of glass and a chimney mirror. A horse grazing upon the rocks at Denny Bottom either fell, being frightened, or was knocked or swept down from the rocks, and was fatally hurt. The lightning over the whole range of the storm scorched flowers, corn, especially oats and barley, although the damage was not considerable; and it positively benefited the hop bines, by debarring them of noxious insects.”