Christmas is approaching fast, for me the anticipation made all the more delightful because this time all my small family will be present to share turkey and the trimmings. It will also be a time for giving thanks (and gaily wrapped gifts), for reflection, and for storytelling. Because at present the London weather is damp and blustery, I am tempted to cheer my children and grandchildren with tales about the warm summers of my own childhood.
In those summers we usually spent holidays in Yorkshire, at Honey Pot Farm in Wilsden. The journey from Morecambe, on the Lancashire coast, featured a huge black steam locomotive with a moustachioed driver and muscular men who shovelled coal into the fiery red firebox. This wondrous and magical contrivance, followed by a train of caterpillar carriages, took us over the Pennine hills with stops at places with intriguing names like Giggleswick, Carnforth, and Hellifield. I loved the smell of coal smoke from the engines, and didn’t mind when a stray particle of ash found its way into my eye: it was an indispensable part of the adventure.
Auntie Annis was a big, jolly, bustling woman with a wart on her cheek, married to a wiry, olive-skinned farmer, Ted Bower. I loved to sit in their front room, the place smelling of farm; the steady-ticking grandfather clock in the corner; coals glowing in the ancient cast-iron fireplace/oven; the mantel, plateracks and picture rails crowded with knick-knacks, mementoes and crockery; a greyhound (or two) sometimes lounging on the couch. Giant pigs grubbed their days away in the great wallow outside the front door. Cows pushed their noses on little levers to fill their water bowls. Cats were everywhere, and there was always a friendly black and white border collie scamperng around. In those days before TV and the internet, there was little to distract a young lad’s mind from the wonder of such things.
Ted was talented with a sly, wry sense of humor. He had gypsy friends in his younger days and would work when he felt like it, a disposition for which my mother never forgave him, for like my father she and her siblings had been brought up to believe that hard work was both necessary and virtuous, something that one would never dare (or wish) to shirk. But when not sitting in his rocker with a cigarette, staring into the fire, or studying the nasturtiums climbing around the front window, Ted much preferred to stroll around the farm talking to the animals or, better yet, to walk down to the Ling Bob pub for a pint or two and a bit of gossip and horse-betting with his pals.
You had to like Ted because of his humor and his easy-going ways, but he was a slightly shady character who did some black market deals with his livestock during the war. “He’s a rascal, that Ted,” my mother would say, and I could see her lip curling slightly in disapproval.
Ted was quite unlike his sister Emma, an austere, chain-smoking old lady much admired around the village, who had an educated air and a fondness for antiques and tournament tennis. Aunt Em’s environment was crowded with old carved furniture, useless but curious ornaments, and family photographs. The pictures on the wall were dingy, and when I moved them aside to peek behind I found only pale rectangular squares, where the wallpaper had been shielded from the sticky pall of Aunt Em’s cigarette smoke.
Auntie Annis’ twin sister Elsie was similarly different from her closest sibling. She was a stringy old spinster until she mysteriously married a Mr. Yewdall in her late middle age. Though she had a reputation for selfishness I reserved a special, youthful fondness for her. Reason: she would treat me to fine desserts when I visited and never failed to present me with a big bag of cake, chocolates and sweets for the road when we said our goodbyes. . .
The food was unwaveringly good at Honey Pot. Wartime rationing had little effect, since this was a working farm with plenty of meat and vegetables on hand. Late in the evenings when the farm work was done we would have Supper, which meant a thick slab of bread slathered with genuine beef dripping, taken cold from the pan and sparkling with salt. It was heavenly. The only thing I didn’t like about Honey Pot in those days was the long damp walk down the garden flagstones to the privy, with its pair of ice-cold seats, no more than carved holes in a flagstone, when I had a call of nature that I could not postpone. When it was raining, and/or when nature called in the night, the misery was quadrupled.
Em died in the 1970s and I bought her house. Then, summer or winter, Sue and I and usually my children would visit Honey Pot and see Gordon and Marie Mitchell, who now owned the farm, and Uncle Ted, who lived next door in the farm workers’ cottage that he occupied in perpetuity as a condition of the sale. After we eased his garden gate open to walk down the flagstone path to his cottage he would see us through his window and we would walk in without knocking, greeting him with a hearty Yorkshire “’Eigh up!” We invariably found Ted in his old mahogany rocker, a cigarette close by, staring into the glowing red fireplace coals, his diabetic whippet Bluey curled up nearby, dreaming of her warm bedtime saucer of milk laced with whisky. I made a few trips to the vet in Bingley to pick up her pills, and ended up burying her thin little body, wrapped lovingly by Ted in a shroud of burlap sacking, in his garden border.
These visits were generally made merrier with several glasses of Scotch whisky, Grants usually, and sometimes Uncle Ted would totter from the fireplace to the piano and sing “Danny Boy” in a high, quavering voice, Sue accompanying him at the piano.
Ted is long gone now, preceded by all my other Yorkshire aunts and uncles. But I still visit Honey Pot, and only a couple of weeks ago stopped for tea and biscuits with its current grande dame, Marie Mitchell. It was a pleasant rendezvous and I found it hard to believe she has been at Honey Pot for more than half a century now.
The content of this blog was largely extracted from my book Wonderment, published in October 2012.