On just about the only sunny morning at the very end of March the insistent mewing of buzzards caused us to look up and there, directly over my house, were no less than ten individuals soaring on the early thermals to equal our previous record from a couple of years back. The scene was reminiscent of a scene from an old western where circling vultures indicate a stricken cowboy in the desert. Today they are by far our most common raptor, yet prior to the millennium they were unheard of this far east and, as our recent trip to Norfolk revealed, they have now extended their range right over to the east coast.
Last month was a bad one nationally for celebrities. We lost Trevor Bayliss, Stephen Hawking and Ken Dodd. They say that no one is irreplaceable, so just find me someone who can dream up something like a clockwork radio and much else in his garden shed, overcome unimaginable disability to become the greatest physicist of his age and work out how a black hole works on a piece of paper, or keep an audience in his thrall telling family friendly jokes at a rate of 500 an hour for five hours at a time throughout a career lasting over seventy years and I might agree. It sure as hell ain’t me.
In Hever too we have our problems. Thankfully no one died but on the last day of March came closure of yet another era in our local history, with the retirement of Steve and Rosa Gower after 48 years of tirelessly delivering our papers, seven days a week, in all weathers, without any holiday that I can remember aside of the odd day attending cricket matches near and far and the luxury of Christmas day every year. I among many others will miss them terribly but cannot argue that they deserve some time of their own for rest and recreation and wish them a long and happy retirement.
I know Steve far better than Rosa as I have seen him at our front door on an almost daily basis for the past thirty five years, as well as the occasional encounter in local hostelries. Strangely Steve is the third ‘Steve Gower’ that I have known in my life. The chairman of the students union at Ewell Technical College was a Steve Gower as was a chap at Thames Water Authority when I worked there, and then I moved here and found this one.
Originally a builder, he was always a keen sportsman and gave much of his spare time playing for Stonewall Cricket Club, coaching youngsters, or otherwise serving the local community in its many and various needs. I know part of Steve’s paper round as I worked a day or two, in an honorary capacity, for him last year while he took a little time out to listen to the chock of leather on willow. Despite the five O’clock start it was a pleasure to see how one of the last of the ‘old school’ local businesses functioned, with instructions as to how to find certain customers running along the lines of “You know that house with the huge oak tree outside it in Cowden?”. “Yes”. “Well if you come to that you’ve gone too far. You need to turn round and come back to the house where the old poacher blew his dog’s head off in front of the kids waiting for the school bus that time. Then go back towards the oak tree and its the second house on the right, with the bright red front door”. Happy days, country ways, now almost all gone forever.
Speaking of Steve, he is one of the last true locals to retain the harsh edge to his R’s that define the unique accent of this part of Kent. I can think of only around another half a dozen individuals, one of whom lives next door, where it lingers, totally different to the rolling R of the West Country. Indeed, accents are disappearing nationally, thanks to the homogenization wrought by TV, which I think a great pity as an accent is something only others can ever possess. We never have one ourselves.
Reflecting on the old ‘born and bred’ residents, what stands out is that they were all content to accept employment within, and serving, the community that surrounded them, such as driving the milk lorry, woodmen, farmers, gamekeepers and groundsmen. Not forgetting the wonderful Di who, long ago, used to deliver our fresh baked bread, still warm, from the Smart’s Hill Bakery next to the Bottle House, in her old matt red Escort van. Always with time to chat and share the latest extremely filthy joke with her customers. Sadly both she and her husband died all too young, shortly after the bakery closed, many years ago. Money mattered little to the old school, their wealth lay in the way of life and the simple pleasures that came with it. The fresh air, sun on your back and time for banter, with a smile for all and sundry. Perhaps a pint in the evening with a game of cricket, stool-ball or football at weekends.
These were friendly folk. They loved the area as it was, never tried to alter it, and seldom strayed far from it. The lovely Margaret Reynolds is a prime example. She was born in a room above The Kentish Horse and still lives in a cottage barely further than the length of a tennis court from the front door. They readily embraced like minded newcomers from all walks of life and were always happy to offer help in any way possible to all and sundry.
Perhaps the first sign of a change in attitude came when the husband of a newly arrived young couple, both in high flying jobs, was made redundant. As we all know a new mortgage is usually a large and fearsome burden and so it was here. Repossession was on the cards, but the community of those days rallied round and those who could all offered any support, including employment, that they possibly could. Stellar among these was Steve, who kept the young fella under his wing and offered a living, despite not really needing any assistance, until the time when, fortunately, he got a position back in his chosen field.
Imagine then how amazed we all were when, at a party a few months later, his wife was heard whining about what a tough year it had been and how dreadful it was that her poor husband had been expected to accept demeaning work in order to keep their heads above water. Now, most of those who offered help, myself included, had livelihoods dependent on a degree of manual labour and expected our new friend to do nothing worse in return for cash than we were happy to do ourselves on a daily basis. Let’s be clear; there is nothing demeaning in honest labour, neither it seems is there any gratitude in an arsehole!
The jackdaws have returned to nest once more in the disused chimney stack where they have bred for several seasons now. They replaced a previous pair that returned for many years before time or predators presumably caught up with one or both of them. We had a green tiger beetle scuttling around our patio on 13/4 which was somewhat of a surprise as these are typically a heathland species and I was greatly cheered to have my attention drawn to a huge numbers of frog tadpoles in my friend opposite’s pond. We used to have thousands of the beasts locally but since the advent of ‘viral red legs’ and chytrid fungus numbers have dwindled to near nil. Hopefully this may signal a recovery and I shall try and do my bit by transplanting a net full to my own pond.
One unwelcome type of wildlife in this area is the American mink. Our numbers of these fierce and indiscriminate alien killers were boosted some years ago by misguided animal rights activists who ‘liberated’ a great number from a fur farm somewhere near The Ashdown Forest. Nationally their numbers have now been greatly reduced by the introduction of raft traps although their complete elimination from our list of fauna is highly unlikely. I had not seen one locally for several years until my friend Emma returned from walking Ralph the other day with pictures of some young ones that he had discovered in their nest. He had actually got his head stuck down the hole and I can only say he was very lucky that mum was out at the time or he may well have had far less head to set free.
Not strictly a wildlife issue but thus far this season I have suffered less from the lavatorial attentions of the neighborhood’s cats in my veggie plot than last year. I won’t speak too soon.
I’m sure we all do our bit these days in trying to be green and kinder to our planet. Never mind that in my view we persist in ignoring the gigantic herd of elephants in the room, our unbridled population growth, which has been swept under the carpet for many decades and will ultimately end in a huge amount of suffering for all humankind. Unless we address this, however painful, we are doomed and all other measures are a little like trying to treat decapitation with an Elastoplast. Nevertheless, recent banner headlines in the press concerning our misuse of plastics and its disposal are, despite being long overdue, very welcome. I have always been of the opinion that plastic should be used in situations requiring long term high quality applications, not as a throw away packaging solution. Only now are we waking up to the fact that it does not decay in the manner of other organic substances and much of that ever produced is still floating about in our oceans.
My contention is that the answer must be front loaded i.e. alternatives must be found by those producing the stuff. Relying on the public to recycle is a huge waste of materials and energy at every stage of the process with only a small percentage of the population ever likely to adhere to any recommendations unless draconian measures are introduced and, most importantly, enforced. Likewise it should be set in law that all newbuild properties must incorporate state of the art energy saving/producing features rather than relying on individuals to update at a later date which inevitably costs more than if they were to be included in the initial design.
I was a bit unnerved before we even left on our exploratory house hunting trip to Norfolk. I was watching the ‘Move To The Country’ program and was more than a little concerned to hear a couple from the county, who wanted to move to Wales, say they wanted to get away from the development and traffic noise around Attleborough, despite this being well south of our intended destination. Lunch with some naturalist friends just back from a trip to the north coast was also less than encouraging, with tales of fast disappearing old cottages being converted or replaced with grand, modern monstrosities and reports that around sixty percent of all properties in that part of the world are now holiday homes.
Upon arrival, which we timed to perfection as temperatures soared to 24c, I have to say that my personal experience of the thirty by fifteen mile strip where I have always intended to end my days was far more encouraging. Sure a monstrosity of an estate is under construction west of Heacham and a great wart has been constructed to the rear of Wells Next The Sea. There is also some development around Hunstanton but the overall impression of this part of Norfolk is still of space and breathtaking beauty that has changed little in the over sixty years with with which I have been acquainted with it. I estimate that at least 98% remains much as I remember it in my youth. Granted most of the old tarred inshore fisherman’s cottages have gone or have been modernised and their flint walls stripped of tar, but such newbuilds as we saw have mostly been constructed in a style compatible with the architecture of the region and should blend well with their surroundings over time.
Our eventual return to the rush and tear of the hideously bloated south east was further cheered by news that London has now overtaken New York in terms of the number of murders carried out in each capital over the past year. What a great boon to tourism that should be, and free too. While, locally, breaking news is that permission is being sought to hold an Ibizan style rave over the weekend 13th -15th of July, doubtless to assist in the much needed enlivening of our parish.
Amid the space and tranquility of Norfolk it became clear that, given the nerve, it would be possible to exchange my humble end of terrace 2-3 bedroom cottage with tiny garden, for a detached property in a lovely location, set well back from the road, with 4 bedrooms, two bathrooms, huge conservatory, large mature garden, outbuildings and a double garage and perhaps even a substantial sum left over after all moving costs have been settled. Nothing much then to encourage me to stay put, but of course it would be a great mistake to come to any conclusion on such an important thing as relocation, based on the perspective of four days tourism. However, I have known this county all my life and all indications so far are encouraging. Prior to reaching any irrevocable decision we shall, of course, make a few more detailed forays to the area before committing to this huge change in our lives.