One of the things that beating the bounds around us here on a daily basis has made me increasingly aware of is the fact that our footprint now extends back over the last twenty-two years. We moved in on a sweltering August day in 1994 with three pre-teenaged children, a dog (dear old Border Collie Ben ) a cat (Corky who sadly succumbed to feline leukaemia) two guinea pigs (Clover and Parsley) and twelve chickens (too many to name). I suspect H.E.Bates would most definitely have recognised us as a version of the Larkins that summer as we settled in, put a table in the garden and ate outside, dispatched children off on bikes to 'explore' and got used to the whole idea of not running out of milk because the nearest supermarket was six miles away.
Meanwhile the spring water supply had sprung a leak somewhere en route across the fields to our house, so we had to pipe water from a nearby cattle trough and boil it while we had a bore hole drilled, the telephone line and burglar alarm were struck by lightning. If we had a power cut the darkness was darker than dark, velvet black and we still have torches by the bed, and we knew that at some stage we were going to have to renovate the house around us, but we smiled on through, went to work and school and just got on with it because we had always wanted to live in the country.
It had started the minute we discovered a book in a junk shop in about 1977. Published in 1944, A Little Place in the Country by Marjorie Hessell Tiltman spoke to us. The writing is of its day, but the illustrations by Gwenda Morgan were our dream personified as we sat in our little flat in Plymouth hunched over the three-bar electric fire and wondering what the future might hold for us.
Bookhound carefully cut out and placed the 'dream' into a frame we found at the tip...
...thereby desecrating the book, but the picture still hangs on our wall as a homage to our vision and a reminder of how we finally got here.
This is all by way of a meander into Under the Tump by Oliver Balch and this is an unusual book. Everything (especially the cover) suggesting another 'nature' tome, but far from it. Returning from a sojourn in Beunos Aires, Oliver Balch decides that it is time, with his wife and young family, to put down some roots and settle into a community. Argentina had been about cherry-picking the life he had wanted with no social, cultural or personal ties, but sensing that he wanted 'to be a thread or stitch in the social fabric,' Oliver Balch set about searching for a 'genuinely enmeshed community.'
It all sounds a bit idealistic on the surface but aligning his own journey with that of diarist Francis Kilvert, Oliver Balch decides on the village of Clyro on the Welsh-English border and soon starts to dissect the superficial layer of the rural idyll, along with the tribulations of trying to anchor yourself within a community. With the motivation engendered by new beginnings and horizons, along with the chance to reshape his life, Oliver braves, among other things, the pub as well as venturing along to Young Farmers to see what the local youths gets up to.
Of course just a few miles away is Hay-on-Wye and with that comes the annual (this very week) influx of 100,000 visitors. There are complexities to an influx. We feel it keenly down here in the Tamar Valley too. There is really no point in heading far into Cornwall during July and August, we can't park and just get annoyed with ourselves for even thinking about going anywhere. But it is that influx that helps sustain the West Country for the rest of the year and likewise Hay-on-Wye with its unassailable reputation as the country's most prolific bookshop town.
As Oliver Balch discovers, the back story to a community can't be invented or experienced by the incomer, in many ways perhaps you have to sit it out for long enough until you become part of that back-story, until you suddenly feel that sense of security that comes from being part of it. Keeping your own counsel is often a good plan too because, as we discovered, there are more ways to put your foot in it than you can ever know existed, and I suspect we have tested them all. Juxtaposed with Oliver Balch's endeavours are the entries in Kilvert's diary demonstrating that in many ways the community was ever thus, but it makes interesting reading to compare then and now. I'd give my eye teeth to read a diarist's entries for our little corner of the Shire, lucky Oliver Balch to have Kilvert.
And as if the lack of a Victorian diarist isn't deprivation enough, just look who has retired...
Jim the Postie and we are bereft of all the local gossip news. No longer can we say 'Jim will know, we'll ask him,' in response to every inquisitive query we have. It seemed fitting to present Jim with a cutting from the climbing rose that wanders over our veranda and which he has fought his way through for the last twenty-two years of delivering hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books to our front door. We truly do wish him a long, happy and healthy retirement.
So now that we've lived here for twenty-two years I read Oliver Balch's book with an understanding borne of our own experience of which I was unaware and which suddenly morphed into a true sense of real belonging. They say it takes a lifetime to become a local, and though I was born in Devon so have a fraction of a head-start, it still takes an age. And whilst I don't like to suggest that longevity in one place offers a sense of superiority, maybe confidence is a better word, but when some recent tenants for the large holiday let along the lane (£2000 a week) stopped at our gate recently I did have a bit of a moment...
'We're looking for the farmhouse,' said a rather clipped and authoritative voice before a woman jumped out of her Chelsea Tractor (un-muddy, unscathed) and approached the gate brandishing her mobile phone.
'The map says this house is it,' she said, 'did you know that the Ordnance Survey map is wrong ?'
I was a bit taken aback. I mean I've been beating the bounds map in hand, I know it intimately and I couldn't quite stop myself. It was out of my mouth before I knew it...
'Don't tell me we've been living in the wrong house for twenty-two years...' before going on to explain that the sat nav brings you to our gate but that we share the postcode with two other properties and she wants the one about half a mile further along the lane.
'But the Ordnance Survey map is WRONG', insisted She Who Had Never Been Here Before.
We quickly ascertained that shrinking down the phone screen solved the problem, there was the farmhouse next to the name, clear as day.
'Oh...' she muttered and we all heaved a sigh or relief.
' Easy mistake to make ' I offered. 'Anyway, good news that I've been living in the right house, you have a lovely holiday,' and off they went, a bit red-faced I suspect.
Ultimately Oliver Balch's life project seems to have succeeded..
'We talk of 'putting down roots' as though the work is entirely of our own doing. Us cementing our place. Us anchoring ourselves in. Yet if the ground is stony or the earth is barren, such efforts will be in vain. If anyone is to stay and grow and weather the years, the place itself must welcome them, must nourish them, must allow them to flourish...'
Having weathered the years our roots have gone a long way down and I now see how intrinsic that is to our day to day life here in the Tamar Valley. It's elusive to pin down but reading Under the Tump has most certainly helped me to appreciate that sense of an anchor.
I wonder if you have that sense of belonging wherever you are too...
Or may have known it in the past and had to uproot and start over...
And please do scroll down for gifts.