Squalls and sunshine; legions of broken clouds shunted westward by a pepper wind; double rainbows two days on the trot; a myriad of wild blooms reigned over by the poppies; the intoxicating beauty of Mother’s Garden as, brimming, I stare at one of life’s great milestones.
Am I really so old?
During the long month of April I have stood and sat in places – not Catalan but English places – that flood memories of childhood with the clarity of Holt Hills’ spring water, specifically my seventh year. Some formative things you never forget: These are mine.
Dad died on March 18. On April 5 we carried him into St Andrew’s Church, Holt, in the far East of England, in the green folds of north Norfolk, filling that crowded space with music and an ounce of mischief, just as he had done as a 12-year-old in 1932, straining to reach the pedals of the organ.
Earle Kirby was 91: A man of music and smiles, a composer of courtesy and comical raspberries, of immovable opinion and unerring loyalty to family and friends as strong as his allegiance to the bright side. “I won’t be beaten, boy,” he would say with a beautiful Norfolk lilt, and he never was.
He had been a one sock up, one sock down child, a free bird of those Spout Hills, devoted to his mum and dad, Tom and Ellen, of The Fairstead on the Cley Road, a boy and man wedded forever to his town. He had raced through its alleys and along its streets on his cycle with neither tyres nor seat, scrapped with other cubs under the long-gone water tower on Shirehall Plain, and he had marched home down the High Street after five years at war in North Africa and Italy.
A few days before his funeral I went home. I drove through dappled shade along the much diminished road where I had puddle-jumped in red wellies, been towed on a sledge behind a car and had considered in all security that the whole world was houses nestling in woods that ran to heath and endless sea.
I stood between gateposts, took a deep breath and knocked on the door of the house which Dad had designed and which I left when I was six. I sat again on the very same stair where I had said to myself, arms wrapped around my knees, “This is 1965 and I will never forget it”.
Within days of that moment my family was irrevocably broken. My equally dear mother took me and my sister to live in the neighbouring town of Sheringham, four miles away. In the dark corners of confusion and discord only one thing was clear to me. Dad was left behind.
In adulthood, long after the consecutive 500 Saturday afternoons and evenings we spent together after the separation – when every second counted and an unbreakable bond was gilded – came just one solitary mention of his then desperate struggle with suicidal thoughts.
But he would not be beaten. No.
That house in High Kelling, like the road, had shrunk, but I could remember every inch of it. Echoes bounced off the walls. How, when now I can barely recall what I did last week?
From there slowly on in to town, gliding past the seam of trees through which my mum would push me in a pram along a path long lost to undergrowth. Left into Grove Lane, hearing somewhere the whining gearbox of the old pale-green Ford Anglia Dad called Lilly, choosing at the last second not to stop at his bungalow home of 44 years but to press on past the flint wall of the old workhouse, to park and walk to the Hills.
There is another great sweep of flint wall there too, high and mighty on the bank above the spring pool, rising steadily from its beginnings at the entrance to Hill House beside Holt Methodist Church at the zenith of Letheringsett Hill. That towering curve of stone and brick would hold my impressionable eye every time we walked the vale, the greatest unexplained thing I had ever seen, filling me with wonder and foreboding as what could possibly lay beyond.
All scale is lost with years, but not feelings.
Fat oaks now stand where once we would scream down on sledges, sometimes into the brook that is full of reflections.
I never knew Tom and Ellen. They were gone before I was a year old and are buried in the cemetery on the Cley Road, just on from The Fairstead. I pointlessly sought shelter from rain under a hawthorn, then, protecting my gift of daffodils, dipped my shoulder and pressed on towards them, up the path the way Dad would run home from school, to stall at the back of the garden I have no memory of but now know so well. Water on my face I pulled photographs from my mind, all found in a box in the bottom of Dad’s wardrobe; My Nan in her deckchair by that door, a tray of tea on the grass, Dad holding his new cycle, Grand-dad beside the chicken coop. For whatever reason, perhaps unmanageable loss, Dad had never taken me there, never retraced those steps. I stood and tried to piece this part of me together. Maybe nothing ends if we remember.
I didn’t intend this blog to be so raw, but that is how life has been, and that does not mean bleak. It is the common crossroad, in my family’s case with the greatest blessing of a very long, fruitful life. There has been sun as well as rain (not least the phenomenal care of everyone at Sun Court Nursing Home in Sheringham), and just before Dad was laid to rest with my step-mother Eve it was so good to honour in my rambling epitaph his heart, humour and that refusal to be beaten. I even blew a raspberry.
When tests finally proved that this one-time Norwich cinema organist, Royal Artillery veteran, car paint specialist, music teacher, co-founder of the North Norfolk Aeromodellers and member of the Last of the Holt Summer Wine was unable to see where he was going and the DVLA took his beloved driving licence away there were no complaints.
His solution was an electric cycle that would do a hair-raising 25mph. I couldn’t watch and I certainly couldn’t argue. And when after an alarming couple of years the rapid onset of glaucoma meant even he decided it was all getting a bit risky for the good people of Holt there was a plan C.
“I’m goin’ into production, boy.”
“What do you mean Dad?”
“I’m goin’ to make bird tables.”
“I’ve bought a tabletop saw. Now stop your worryin’. I’ve thought it all out. I’ll do it by feel.”
He died of old age, by the way, with all his fingers attached.
FOOTNOTE: My apologies for the late arrival of this post but, perhaps, the reason is obvious. Watch this space for news of a different nature in the coming week. Best wishes to all, and thank you for reading. Martin.
Our kitchen sink window frames a scene of distant England as June sunshine pours dreamy first light through the plum and hazel leaves.
A watering can stands unevenly in the rough grass between the rhubarb and the dome of lavender that marks the resting place of our Norfolk-born springer spaniels, who ended their days scenting a different land. Poppies run in a ragged, enchanting picture from my Holt Ridge childhood along the edge of our potato patch, from our plastic North Norfolk District Council compost bins to the ballooning walnut tree. The poppy petals are now losing their lustre with the onset of the wilting season, but the eye turns easily to the life in the runner bean blooms that spiral up two wigwams of cane, and to the immeasurable depth of the pink, cerise and maroon roses.
Runner beans in withering heat? Only copious amounts of water dawn and dusk, both to the roots and on the flowers, have brought us to this beauty. Only time will tell if the beans brought from my mother-in-law’s mid-Norfolk garden of plenty will defy the fiery odds.
And amid the green of the potato tops you might spy a spasmodic spray of dirt as our terriers dig for frogs.
While England gasped for spring rain we ran through countless storms and stood at the window and watched mountains vanish in the density of downpours. The reservoir is full and fresh enough for swimming because our spring is running at a rate we have not seen in years. So I have corrected a failing and watered for all my worth, hence the amphibian residents among the spuds and the disastrous consequence of the hounds burrowing in the worst possible place.
But for the irony of the water it could be Norfolk. Only this Mother’s Garden scene has the faintest cast of grey – the effect of the fine net stretched across the window that keeps at bay some less savoury aspects of this enchanting world.
A month ago I received an email from a disconsolate reader of my candid chronicle No Going Back – Journey To Mother’s Garden (which, staggeringly, is still in print after eight years, just). He said he was going to cancel his camping holiday in Catalonia on account of my blood-curdling encounters with creepy crawlies, reptiles and assorted rodents.
Hang on a minute, I countered, these are experiences spanning years and are all set in, I might add, a particularly wild and furry place. I don’t think I ever mentioned the black widow spider or the stinkbug beetle. “Just pack a non-toxic insect repellent, watch where you are walking and savour the wonders”.
I never heard from him again, and am beginning to worry I might be stifling the urge in some of you to get close to Iberian nature. I sincerely hope not. We humans are invariably the problem, not the other residents. Which reminds me: Anyone remotely interested in life beyond the costas should check out one of my favourite websites, www.iberianature.com – rich in knowledge and guidance.
But, yes, the biters are out in the twilight, some even during the thumping heat of the day.
There are constant reasons to be in the great outdoors – noisy, jumbo, gentle carpenter bees working the flower spikes of bear’s breeches, a buzzard riding the sky, the glimpse of a yellow-beaked Alpine chough, hollyhocks trumpeting the summer – but June is alive with newly hatched winged critters that want blood, hence we regularly slap our bare legs like dancers in leather shorts from Bavaria.
Maybe it is all the garlic I consume, or the toughness of hide, but for some reason they tend to spare me the intolerable pain and swelling inflicted on others, although my ankles itch as I write. What is far worse is the heaviness of heart.
There has been great sadness in the wake of shock. Our young pony, La Remoli, who came to live with us when she was just a few days old, died the day before her fifth birthday. In the delicate days that followed (and roll on) we have asked ourselves all the obvious questions, and have been comforted by the vets who tended her. A week earlier she had somehow pulled a tendon in her knee, her first illness of any description. She rallied, then was lame again, but it was not deemed a life-threatening condition. Then she was gone.
All of which, beyond the emptiness, leaves us with the dilemma of La Petita, her mother.
She paced and called into the night, so we put the word out that we can offer a home to a pony in need of one. That was four weeks ago.
La Petita has settled remarkably quickly – she spent her young life alone in fairly grim circumstances – but she must be grieving. We spend as much time with her as we can, tethering her close when we are working on the land, grooming and talking to her, while the hunt for a companion goes on, with the support of knowledgeable friends and the vets.
Hand on heart I am loathed to rush into yet more responsibility, although there are two reasons why we probably will. Horses and ponies are herd animals, social creatures, and La Petita should not be alone. Nor is parting with her an option. The old girl is weaved into the Mother’s Garden story and our hearts and lives, and as our equestrian contacts advise, she has been so happy here. Some people have suggested that getting a goat or donkey might work, but the other matter we must balance is the yearning of our children. Joe Joe and Ella both want to ride, and already we know of heart-breaking rescue centres full of animals in need of freedom.
That would mean a horse rather a pony, so again I walk the land, gazing the earth, a muddle of ponderings and emotions. I promise to let you know what transpires.
Maggie’s appearance at the Gentleman’s Walk Farmers’ Market in Norwich a week ago was so enjoyable and rewarding, hence a big thank you to everyone who came to taste and buy our fresh olive oil.
Following her England visit, and as news of the website and our oil widens, the orders and new customers increase.
These include the The Hub Cafe and Gallery at 9 Netherconesford, King St, Norwich, and also Dolly’s Country Larder in King’s Parade, Cottingham, East Yorkshire.
Our shipments to the UK are increasing all the time, so see our online shop for details or, if you are a chef of deli owner, get in touch.
And the pies and fudge?
On the farmers’ market stall next to Maggie were Perfect Pies, the award winning Norfolk feasts made by Nell Montgomery and Sarah Pettegree of Bray’s Cottage, Hindolveston. Maggie even managed to get an intact pie back to Mother’s Garden, by way of apology for failing to organize a pork pie for Christmas breakfast. (My grandpa was from near Melton Mowbray and family traditions are to be devoured not sniffed at.) So I am a discerning connoisseur of pork pies and have to say, Nell and Sarah, it was, underlined, utterly magnificent.
Maggie also brought back some Fab Fudge, made by the market organisers Tracey Farrow and Jeff Betts. Cor and double cor.