A SUMMER MORNING

It was a soft damp morning, after a thundery, murky night with rain storms soaking the hot dry fields, the soil damp and steaming:

How I enjoyed the ride on Billy, the pony, from Chisnell, our farm. We cantered across the fields to the lane; the freshness of everything; all freshly washed with rain. The dairy ground, hay-maked 3 weeks ago, had lain bleached white with sun and wind, now overnight was turning green. As you looked, the sun broke through, the raindrops still clung to the grass and glistened. Over the black bridge we went, the railway line and pass the telephone cups. How many were there? 30? 40? I should know, my brother had dared me and I had, with a catapult and stone, broken them all a few months ago!

On I went. As I glanced to the right, along the track a train was pulling out of Somerton Station. “Puff Puff,” the smoke belching up in giant mushroom rings. The gates had to be opened and closed as we passed through; for a few minutes this took my attention. We went across the corner of the big dairy ground into Lamleys Field.

A dove flew out of a thorn bush as I approached ‘A late nest,’ I thought: so, steering Billy up tight to the bush, I stood on his broad back – no saddle for I rode more bare back than with saddle. There was a nest – two eggs: warm, sitting no doubt.

So on we cantered down to the running ditch gateway, a handmade bridge, through to the end field. One more gate at the lane’s end by the railway embankment, about 100 yards of straight lane, then Totonham Corner, under the first archway of the viaduct. The lane was stone and dirt and Billy cantered quietly along. I could hear all the sounds of the countryside as we sailed along. Seeing all and disturbing very few, so peaceful. The lark, so high we used to say, “At heaven’s gate, it sings.”

I cast an eye along the side of the hedgerow and counted five, six rabbits having their breakfast. One stretches and sniffs the air, relaxes and then resumes its nibbling. A covey of partridges – dust bathing in the lane, whirl noisily over the hedge into a patch of marigolds and run and dart for cover like boys playing hide and seek.

Billy jogs along, he seems to enjoy the run as much as I do, for we have been pals for years and made this run hundreds of times together. There’s trees and bushes, in the lane side are hedges, all make up different colours, shapes and variety. The eye takes it all in, and the brain regards it.

We pass our neighbour’s house and farm buildings; hens scatter as we pass through. A nod from Art as he looks up from his ditching, spade in hand, the splashing hook close by – he’s just tidying up a bit.

We pass the old green lane, not used since the new railway line was built. It is always across here, my brother and I hear our first cuckoo in the first week of April, usually in flight down Dry Leas Hill and over the Washbrook stream, upside Bicester Close fields. The hedges here are all hazelnut bushes, lots of birds nest in them in summer and nuts appear in the autumn. The double hedge on the right with open ditch deep down in the middle: Its banks full of rabbit burrows. The hedge is thick, a bird’s haven with dozens nested there every year.

Stoats and weasels kill the rabbits. The cuckoo raid the sparrows, blackbirds, linnets, thrushes and finches’ nests. Nature gives and takes away.

A pair of crows slip leisurely away out of a young oak tree by the old farmhouse set in the corner of the Paddock and Leather Cap. What names our fields have: Did a farmworker find a leather cap or did he wear one when working in the field – I wonder? The Bush Farm’s buildings come to view, built in 1826. A French partridge nests here for years with sixteen to eighteen and sometimes twenty eggs. Our farm cat never touches them! Why -when that cat could kill the biggest rat but the partridges hatched out every time? The empty eggshells were there every year to prove it. By the Rickyard gate in a clump of weeds for weeks she sat tight. I know, for I looked morning and afternoon too, after school.

I walked the last mile to school, my leather school bag on my back, a kitbag slung over my shoulder for 6 loaves from the baker on my way home. The carter was horse-hoeing in seven acres of potatoes, over the hedge in the Bush field. Seeing me ride up to the buildings, he made it to the lane hedge as I walked by:

“Does a treat today, yes the horse takes it well, makes a good job, Master John, a good job.”

Yes, the tops are not too high – I stepped through the fence and looked at the potatoes and the horse.

“Yes,” I agreed, “A fair job. The mare does well.” As he started across the field again, I looked along the potatoes stretching out of sight. That was a long field to drive horses across. I remember a hot summer, crop breaking days, when seven or eight years old, half afraid of the big shires, the other half afraid of the clods of dirt thrown by the carter. If you kept close in by the horses, you could be stepped on. If you kept away, a bit of a clod of dirt shook you out of day dreaming.

How many boys were told this story of ‘This one and then’?

The boy’s driving the horses up and down the field over great uneven clods of dirt up the field,

“Turn. Keep around. Come back, boy. Bring ’em back. Up a bit. Forwards, boy. Get to the mark.” Hour after hour.

“How many more, Gaffer?” the boy asks, for his legs ache, his tummy’s hollering, for he ate his lunch sandwiches hours ago, not a crumb was left at 12.30. So bringing the horses around again at the end of the field, he thinks it must be time to knock off.

“What you say, boy?” asks the gaffer.

“How many more, Gaffer?”

“This one and then,” he says. The boy cheers up and whistles as he trudges up the field – sixteen and a half furlongs and the same back – turns the horses alongside the hedge, back around and straight up the field.

“And then, Gaffer?” the boy sings out.

“And then another,” he says. So another gruelling bout up the field and back.

The plough-boy lived in at the farm. Next morning at breakfast the farmer’s wife put the boy’s rasher of bacon on his plate with bread and fat from the pan over it. The farmer eats his quick.

“How long, boy,” he asks, “To get them horses out to field work? How long you going to be?” he asks.

“This one and then.”

“Then what, my boy?”

“Another,” said the boy.