Sunday, July 21, 2013

Orchard Dene and Lower Assendon revisited – I go on an unexpected and unplanned sentimental journey

Lower Assendon will mean very little to almost everyone reading this blog, unless you live in Henley-on-Thames or nearby – Watlingon, Bix, Fawley, Middle Assendon or, obviously, Lower Assendon. But it means something to me because it was where I grew up, by which I mean where I lived from the age of three to eight. It is at the end of the Fair Mile, the road leading out of Henley to Oxford, and is just beyond the junction where one road will take you to Watlington and the other onto Oxford, via Nettlebed and Nuffield.

It isn’t even a hamlet, let alone a village. It has no shop, and not even a proper pub. What was once a proper pub, The Golden Ball, is now a little more than a gastro-pub and a little less than a restaurant: if you eat there, you’ll not get away with spending at least, with drinks – who eats without drinking? - £40 a head and as you didn’t go on your own and are either a guest or a host, that can for many be something of a dent in your wallet, though not much of a dent for the good people of Henley and environs (which, I understand, is French for ‘the surrounding area’ - no slouch, me). I was there yesterday and could well have counted the houses there, but I didn’t, so all I can say is that Lower Assendon is made up of around ten or eleven houses, none near each other.

I got back from France on Friday afternoon, and as it seemed rather pointless to drive 240 miles home to Cornwall, only to drive the same 240 miles back up to London to get to work this morning, I decided to stay in London. I had planned to take Susan Wharton, Michael ‘Peter Simple’ wife, out for lunch, but just after she said yes, she rang back and told me she had looked at her diary and was promised to a party in Kent to celebrate the 90th birthday of a friend. It might sound like the bum’s rush, but I know Susan and it wasn’t.

So my next plan was to take Mark to The Golden Ball (it might just be the Golden Ball with a lower case ‘t’ – sub please check as all the really well-paid columnists are apt to say) for lunch. That was before we got there and discovered our local pub – local implies more than a hamlet, so if I tell you that when you are in Lower Assendon, it will take you more than three or four minutes to get to your neighbours house, you’ll understand why I say it is less than a hamlet – had transformed itself into what it is now. (If on the very, very rare occasion I am prepared to spend more than £40 a head on a meal, I shan’t do so in what was once a pub and should still be a pub.) So we had a pint of Brakspear’s bitter – the brewery as such no longer exists and has been bought out by some big brewing conglomerate or other though I have to say whoever brews Brakspear’s bitter has managed to keep it as good as ever – and after looking through the menu we decided we wouldn’t eat there. ‘Delightful Cornish scallops’ and ‘friendly, humanely slaughtered local pork’ really aren’t my thing, so knowing that the Rainbow Inn was a two-minute drive up the road, we ‘dined’ there. That wasn’t particularly brilliant, but substantially cheaper. Then we did what I had come to do which was to roam a little and to visit my haunts of – well, I must be honest – 60 years ago.

Nothing had changed, except that it all, naturally, looked rather smaller. I should say that I loved growing up there. There were about seven or eight of us who lived locally and we did all the things lads and lasses of six, seven and eight do. We built fires and tried to roast apples, which were, of course, inedible, rode our bikes here and there – I learnt to ride a bike on the gravel outside the Golden Ball (I’ve settle for the lower case ‘t’) – roamed the nearby woods and generally had a good time.

Here are the names of my companions in case any of them happen upon this blog: Ann Gibbons (of whom a little more later), Lindsay and Mandy Cooper, John Valentine, John Lovejoy, Richard Bryant, and myself and my older brother Ian. I had my first kiss with Mandy. She was about five and I was about six. The big house there was Orchard Dene, which consisted of the owner’s house, and around the back three flats, of which ours was by far the smallest. The owner was Jim Gibbons and his wife (whose name I can’t remember. Ann was their daughter.

We lived at 3 Orchard Dene, up a green, cast-iron set of stairs. Curious, I left my brother Mark in the car – which was his decision as he is somewhat ‘shy’ (odd for a man who is now 55) and didn’t want to come, and went to the big house and knocked on the door. A woman in her late 60s answered and I asked her whether she was Ann Gibbons. She was. I had similarly visited with my older brother Ian (who is now mentally ill) several years ago, but this time the visit was longer. We chatted for a while and were soon joined by her husband Peter, who asked me whether I would like to look inside 3 Orchard Dene. The present tenant, he said, was a very pleasant, very amenable man, who wouldn’t mind at all, and so I did. The tenant was on his way out to work, so he told us to let ourselves in.

The flat is small, just two bedrooms, one for Ian and myself and one for my parents. It has been thoroughly modernised, so the open fire in the living room and the coke burner in our room have gone and it is now centrally heated. What was once our larder now has a washing machine. The windows are now all modern. I spent some time chatting with Ann and her husband, and she reminded me of what I had forgotten and I reminded her of what she had forgotten. If you carry on up the lane, which leads to Bix, you’ll soon go passed what was once a diary farm run by – the name is not made up up – Farmer Smallbones. She said he taught her how to milk a cow. He didn’t teach me, but I do remember tumbling around in his hay loft and once, after learning the red was a colour bulls hated, parading up and down the other side of a gate to the yard which contained his bull, in a pair of red socks.

The Coopers lived in a small cottage at the end of the drive, but that has now been substantially gentrified and the owners run a B&B business. I have to say that this was not really a sentimental journey at all. I didn’t experience some kind of heaving in my breast or anything like that, but – the sun was out and it was a glorious day, I realised how lucky I was to have spent the early part of my childhood in such a lovely part of the country. Henley was not close for a young lad and although Ian and I went to primary school there, the Sacred Heart School, we had to catch a bus every morning to get there and then again at night to get home.

Ann has grandchildren who come and stay – they live in Bristol and so a visit to the countryside is always welcome – and these days they are not allowed to roam: it’s the increased traffic, she said, nothing else. But 60 years ago we roamed everywhere. In the holidays we had breakfast and then buggered off for the morning, came back home for lunch, and then buggered off again for the rest of the afternoon. In those days, as we all know, it was perpetual summer and I can’t, after all these years, remember one single drop of rain.

I now live in rural North Cornwall and am very grateful that my own two children, now 17 in two weeks and 14 a month or two ago, living next to their uncle’s beef farm and have several cousins, are also able to grow up in a very pleasant part of the country. It’s luck really. Many children cannot, but then children being children, until they are ten or eleven, most all things are an adventure whether you grow up in the country or a city.

Thank the Lord for small mercies.

PS ‘Lower Assendon’ – look it up on Google maps and switch to whatever the function is to allow you to go down the roads and byways.

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