Saturday, 23 July 2011

Lark Rise to Sulgrave

Forget the soapy Sunday night TV series.  Flora Thompson’s three books: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green, provide probably the finest account of the lost rural life of ordinary people in southern England we have.  I need no better excuse to detour from the route of HS2 than to make a pilgrimage to the village where she worked in the post office.  I’ve never been here before, but I can already picture clearly the rolling wheat fields, the children running down the lane to school, and the big house in its park where Flora delivered the private bag of mail each day.
The post office and forge were in Fringford, about 2 miles from the route.  The big thatched limestone building is a private house now.  There’s a beautiful old AA sign on the front wall giving the distances to Brackley and Bicester (two towns which provided much of the material for Flora’s fictional town of Candleford).  There is no blue plaque.  In truth there is not much evidence of her or her world in Fringford today.  And that is only as it should be really.  She was in her sixties when she wrote the books, living far away in Devon, and the life she described was long gone.  They struck a deep chord in an England at war when they were published in the 1940’s, and they can still do so today. 

I go into the church.  There is a plaque on the wall in her memory (pictured above), newly installed after the success of the TV series, but that’s all.  I come out and follow the path to Shelswell Park.  The “big house” is gone now, but as I cross the park, among the cattle and sheep, it is easy to imagine the young Flora being engaged in conversation by a gamekeeper, and flattered, if a bit scared, by the attention.
I leave the park by the lodge gate and walk down the road back towards the route of HS2.  At a road junction I pass a signpost to Juniper.  As I look to the left I can just make out the small hamlet on the hill with the copse behind.  Juniper Hill, where Flora was born, is Lark Rise.  It’s too far off my route to visit today, but I’m glad the signpost reminded me to look.

Then I am back on the route of HS2 at Mixbury, where the line will leave the old Great Central and make its own way again.  I chat to people in the village.  They are some way away from it here – “maybe a kilometre”, a man tells me.  But he thinks the rumble of the trains will still affect them, and maybe the noise too.  MIxbury is a pretty place of identical Victorian model workers’ cottages (pictured above).  There isn’t much new development in the village, but a valiant attempt has been made to build three detached houses in the model cottage style.  As ever though, it hasn’t quite come off.  They look a bit like modern houses at a fancy dress party.
Beyond Mixbury I scramble up on the old Great Central embankment and stand at the spot where Bucks, Northants and Oxon meet.  This is pretty much half way in my journey, and as good a place as any to take stock:
I’m really enjoying the peace of rural southern England, and since leaving Aylesbury I’ve had plenty of it.  The route through the Chilterns was pretty of course, but nothing like as peaceful as these quiet rolling acres.   The people who live here value this tranquillity, and really struggle to understand the point of view of politicians and business leaders in London, Birmingham and Manchester, who see the opportunity for investment, jobs and greater prosperity.  The longer I spend here, the more I become in tune with their way of thinking.  That’s why walking through Birmingham is such an important part of my journey.  But I’m still 50 miles away from that…

The county boundary is a meandering thing here.  I’m now back in Bucks at Turweston.  At a point above the village, where the line will pass by in a deep cutting, a lady out walking her dog points out a house and stables which will have to be demolished.  “All that money spent on the house, and they’ve got all these lovely horses”, she says.  “And of course until a decision is made nobody can sell a house anywhere in the village”.
I’ve been putting off mentioning this, but I’ve got to do it some time.  The effect on the value of people’s property is often one of the first things they speak about.  There’s nothing new in this of course.  Ewan McColl picked up on it in 1964 in his “Moving On Song”, from the radio ballad “The Travelling People”.  And Samuel Pepys devoted pages of his diary for 1665 to the impact the digging of plague pits nearby would have on the rent he would get for his London properties.
Ok, I made that last one up, but an obsession with the value of our property is not a new thing, nor something we can easily dismiss as loved only by “Thatcher’s children”.  For some people it is of course all about the money, but I’m feeling in a generous spirit, and I think it is often about something deeper than that.  Something about wanting to know that we made the right decision buying that house, that all the hard work getting the extension done, putting the new kitchen in, wasn’t wasted.  Something about needing to be sure that a place so important to us is properly valued by the outside world.
And actually I’m not sure people in Turweston will notice HS2 much.  They’ve got the Brackley By Pass on the other side of them and it isn’t a quiet place today.  Very pretty, yes.  Quiet no.

I finally enter Northants properly at Brackley, a handsome town with a fine stone town hall and a wide market place (pictured above).  Although I’m in a new County, the opinions are no different.  I go into a shop to buy a sandwich and see the front page of the Brackley and Towcester Advertiser.  “HS2 - the fast track to noise and poverty” is the headline.
I’m also still firmly in arable country here.  I take a bridleway out of Brackley by the side of a bean crop.  Ten minutes later I realise I’m still walking past it.  I check the map.  The field is half a mile square!   Once I’m back home writing up the blog I look at the first series Ordnance Survey Map of the area.  The huge bean field was six smaller fields in 1891.  Today it just goes on and on.
The pretty limestone villages of Northamptonshire are no keener on HS2 than were the brick villages of Bucks.  In Greatworth I stop and speak to someone coming back from her allotment.  She tells me the whole village hates the idea.  She ridiculed the sound booth provided at the HS2 roadshow.  “The birdsong was louder than the train noise”, she told me.  “That can’t be right.” 

I stay overnight in nearby Sulgrave – as peaceful and pretty a place as many a Cotswold village, with its clematis covered limestone houses under their thatch (pictured above).  I’m nearer Birmingham than London now, but the talk in the pub is about commuting to the capital.  “Soon there will be a train from Banbury that only takes an hour.”  “You can drive to Milton Keynes easily and it’s only 35 minutes from there.”  Nobody sees the point of HS2, and everybody knows which homes, farms and businesses will be affected by it.  In the morning I will get the chance to see some of them…
You can follow my route here .

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