From a Country Hilltop

 

 

FROM A COUNTRY HILLTOP

 

 

country hilltop     
First edition, HWS, 1988  
   
country hilltop ebook  
E-book edition, HWS, 2013  
   

Introduction, by John Gregory

 

List of Contents

 

Extracts

 

Critical reception

 

Book covers

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 1988, paperback, 132 pp, illus.; 450 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 1988; quarter-bound in green morocco with straw-coloured cloth boards, 50 numbered copies

 

E-book edition, 2013

 

 

 

Between 1951 and 1969 Henry Williamson published his great work, the fifteen-volume novel sequence A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, the story of Phillip Maddison. While he was writing these he was also continuing to write the short pieces for newspapers and magazines for which he was renowned.

 

From a Country Hilltop is a collection of 58 such essays written between 1958 and 1964, 42 of which (untitled, just numbered) were published in the Co-operative Society’s Home Magazine and the remainder in The Sunday Times, in its 'Out of Doors' series. The ‘country hilltop’ was HW's haven, the field at Ox’s Cross in North Devon that he had bought after the success of Tarka the Otter, and where he had built his writing hut.

 

These short essays – personal musings on life, his children, North Devon (now known as ‘Tarka Country’) and other subjects – show HW’s descriptive powers at their best. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in ‘The Last Summer’, a longer piece that is an evocative personal re-creation of that last golden summer of 1914 before the outbreak of the First World War and life changed forever; it was published in 1964 in the Sunday Times Magazine to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the war. The Henry Williamson Society reprinted the essay in its April 1985 Journal, and there is a link to it from the List of Contents.

 

 

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Introduction

 

John Gregory

 

 

The Co-operative Society first produced a monthly magazine, The Wheatsheaf, for its members in July 1896. Fifty years later, in August 1946, it was relaunched as The Co-operative Home Magazine, becoming just Home Magazine in January 1959. In April 1958 Henry Williamson began a regular monthly column, ‘From a Country Hilltop’, which continued without break – apart from four months when the magazine itself did not appear – until January 1962. The following month the magazine was re-vamped, with new features and a different style for the swinging sixties; publication finally ceased with the September 1964 issue.

 

Perhaps writing these articles came as welcome light relief to Henry, then deeply immersed in creating his long-cherished ambition, the novel sequence A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Or were they an unwelcome but necessary intrusion into creative memory, earning him a bare subsistence? For he wrote to Alexandra Wigginton on 13 January 1959 ‘. . . no income except £15 a month from the Co-op HOME Magazine, wherein one small superficial article has appeared FROM A COUNTRY HILLTOP for 12 times now . . .’ Be that as it may, the column has a freshness about it that readers welcomed:

 

 

Thanks to you and your admirable magazine I am able to read something by Henry Williamson each month. In my opinion, the man is a superb creative artist, and through HOME MAGAZINE something of him, I like to think, is brought to the minds of many thousands of people each month.

 

But I wonder if the true greatness of the man is fully appreciated. He has written something like forty-one books, and among these are three great nature dramas, Tarka the Otter, Salar the Salmon, and The Phasian Bird.

 

In them Williamson has made God’s creation almost visible, audible, and tangible. I wish more people today could be made aware of all that Williamson has written. I feel very sure that they would quickly find that through his writing Williamson has shown that impersonal love is a far greater force than any material engine or explosive, and by it incredible results may be achieved.

 

May I say that I do not know Henry Williamson, only his books. I feel the presence of a very great man. How wholly wonderful that you have been able to secure for readers the most distinguished writer of the age! 

 

*****

 

. . . H.W. is my favourite author and I eagerly await every book. When is he going to finish his books about Phillip Maddison?

 

His nature books are superb, and it is a pleasure to be able to read a monthly article by such a splendid writer . . .

 

*****

 

. . . many, many thanks to Henry Williamson for his lovely and moving little tale of his pet mouse. I must confess I shed a few tears, and so did my teenage daughter. I think I shall always remember it.

 

 

Just as ‘From a Country Hilltop’ finished, The Sunday Times was beginning its ‘Out of Doors’ series on a regular basis: it had started in 1961 as an occasional column contributed pseudonymously by ‘Countryman’. From January 1962 it appeared weekly, written in turn by Henry, Maurice Wiggin, John Moore and James Fisher. After seven months ‘Out of Doors’ reverted to its occasional appearance, with Henry the sole survivor of the contributors.

 

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, The Sunday Times Magazine published ‘The Last Summer’, a marvellous piece of evocative writing re-creating that golden time: Henry at his best.

 

 

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Contents:

 

The Co-operative Home Magazine, 1958

Nos. I–IX  

 

Home Magazine, 1959–1962

 

Nos. X–XLII  

 

The Sunday Times, 'Out of Doors' series

 

Return to the fold

Echo of the gale

Timid Wat and Robbie

War and peace at Cranborne

Bird listening

On the Braunton Burrows

Two for a farthing

When the salmon run into the purse

Time out on the Burrows

The caviare-eater

End of the galleypot

Bird of fire

A natural being again

A long day out of the dungeon

Out of doors

 

The Sunday Times Magazine, 2 August 1964

 

The Last Summer

 

 

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Extracts:

 

I

 

 

Every animal, bird, fish, and plant, to be happy, must have a base or place of security. In the nature of things, individuals grow old, and come to value memories – more and more. That is part of their security.

 

The longer I live, the more I believe that animals, including fish (which I have studied), are related not only structurally to man, broadly speaking, but also spiritually. By spirit, I mean the essence of life. And while that essence remains in the body, we all need security, or a base from which to live outwardly.

 

The body is related to the earth, it comes from the earth and returns in due course. Old countrymen speak of the top soil of a field, its fertility, as the mother soil.

 

When I went to farm in Norfolk some years ago – hoping to make a new base for my then-growing family of four sons – I was puzzled by my stockman, a sensitive, intuitive man, saying that “the marther had been hided” on the near-derelict fields.

 

The fertility, which is a living balance of bacteria ever re-making the soil, had been filched, crop after crop had been taken, and “narthing put back.” It was nearly barren. The mother soil had been outraged. The basis of life, health, happiness, had been removed. Unemployment on the land; rotting cottages; near-bitter spirit in the village, based on decayed love, which is hatred and fear.

 

It was a hard struggle, in those days before the war, to alter things; and when the war was over, I returned to the West Country, to a particular field, which I loved more than any place on earth. Originally it was two acres of grazing, by four cross-ways, and  "hedged” by raised banks of earth and stone, topped by thorns. I had bought it in my youth with the prize money from a book I had written about an otter here in Devon.

 

What excitement, to own a piece of land for the first time! With tape measure and prismatic compass I made a map of my field of would-be mathematical accuracy, and related its position to the stars above, wheeling around Stella Polaris, behind the beech spinney to the north. My young self was a discoverer, charting a new continent. My little boy rolled with me in the summer grass, and watched butterflies and bees among the shaking pollen.

 

The field was 600 feet above the Atlantic, which rolled upon sands a mile away and below, to the west. Winds blew hard at times. I planned a wooden hut, with open hearth. First, wind-belts of trees to be planted, to enclose all sides except the south, with its views over a distant estuary, and farther on, the grey tors of Dartmoor.

 

Thus the first year; then the hut was built, teaching myself the trade. It had an oak frame like a wooden ship, bolted to a concrete sill. Panels of compressed straw and wire covered the frames. They were water-proofed with 40 gallons of bitumen, before being roofed on top with Cornish peggle slates, held by copper nails, and the sides enclosed in wavy elmboard.

 

Inside, across one corner, stood my open hearth. There I sat, while gales of salt-wind and rain blurred the windows, before a drift-wood fire, while the chimney roared, making my first pot of tea from the heavy cast-iron kettle hanging from the chimney bar.

 

To-day, nearly 30 years later, my hut is still the same, strong and friendly. The oak frame is now dark brown. Outside, the trees rise 30 feet and more into the sky – pine, oak, beech, ash, larch.

 

The drive I dug and laid with stones, the seaweed-composted garden and orchard, lie within my domain. Here I have known a tame fox, a pipistrelle bat that got tiddly on six drops of sherry.

 

A pair of buzzard hawks nest in one particular tree every year. Tom-tits roost behind the elmboards.

 

Here I enjoy my life and work, content with a small scope which permits the happiness within to arise and spread outwards. I am content.

 

After trials and errors I have found my true home, and serene in that my son will have, and care for, the same things when in due course I go back to the “marther.” Fortunate is the man, animal, or bird on its own base.

 

 

April, 1958

 

 

Echo of the gale

 

 

The beeches at Windwhistle Spinney, 600 feet above the sea, had withstood so many Atlantic gales that it was a shock to arrive there late one afternoon and see the biggest tree down, and already lopped and topped by the Devon roadmen. I had come from my cottage down by the harbour, sheltered from the south-west by the great shoulder of the hill, and had slept through the gale of the night.

 

The Taw and Torridge had risen with the rain on Dartmoor and the catchment area north-west of the Great Kneeset, and added to the weight of the spring tide some miles up the estuary. Normally this means a seven- to eight-knot tide-race in the estuary, the Pool buoy held flat marked by a plume of fearsome water (I was once in a small sailing boat in such a midnight ebb) and next morning a rufous stain spreading out to Lundy.

 

But such was the force of the wind from the Atlantic the other night that the water rushing seaward under the stone arches of Barnstaple and Bideford bridges in full spate, sea and fresh together, began to return, not twelve hours later, but two. The ebb was in full race, mind you, when it began to move up the valley again. When the tide should have emptied the estuary, the wind returned it prematurely with a thrust of 110 m.p.h., as registered at Hartland Point lighthouse.

 

And that wind, roaring through my beeches less than a mile from the coast and 600 feet up, blew down my tree. This would never do, I thought, as I hurried into my field, to see if my studio was roofless. It stood! Those great beams of red Columbian pine had held the Swiss-type mountain roof securely. Not a tile was off.

 

The old hut, lower down the field, was unchanged; the windows merely plastered with seasalt and beech leaves. Soon a fire was going in the open hearth. Now I hadn’t been inside for some weeks, and had left a folded corn sack, one of the old four-bushel jute sacks from the Norfolk farm, in one corner.

 

For some reason which I can’t explain I opened the fold quietly and carefully – to see, in the candle light, two plump field mice asleep in the middle of the fold, forelegs around one another’s necks. I knew they were asleep because when I got down on my knees, with an electric torch, I saw that their eyes were closed and their heart-beats slow and almost imperceptible. They were hibernating.

 

I put the fold back in place, and slowly lifted the top half of the sack to make a tunnel from the hinge, as it were, and I put a digestive biscuit at the mouth of the “cave.” Lying on my rather damp couch while the fire flamed up, I put on my spectacles, prepared to watch, while the hut warmed up and the candle burned down.

 

I must have dropped asleep, for when I looked again the candle was two-thirds gone and so was the biscuit. It was 9 p.m. I crept off the couch and put on more oak logs. At 10 p.m. it was time for me to go home. Were the mice tucked up and asleep again in each other’s arms? What would Robert Burns have done? But had they not broken bread with me? Outside the owls were calling in the beech plantation.

 

I was about to sit up when I heard a sound. It was a quiet night, the movements of flames in the fireplace were audible. A scraping noise, then a slight tap. The two mice were dragging the biscuit over the bare oak floor. They got it going, partly upright, then it fell over. They hauled again, taking it to a hole at the edge of the floor.

 

There had been a cork in that hole; now it was in fragments, and the way out, and in, open again. But they couldn’t get the piece of biscuit down a hole the size of a bottle neck. One got down and pulled, the other began to nibble the rim. The one below did likewise. A full black eye stared at me, then the mouse went on nibbling.

 

I waited; then moved. A rectangular biscuit fell, the mouse above tried to get down the hole, but was too fat now. It ran back to the sack, into the tunnel. And there I left it.

 

Did its mate return, did they hole up again, as though for the rest of the winter? I don’t know; I haven’t been back yet.

 

 

February 11, 1962

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

Durham University Journal (Dr J. Wheatley Blench), June 1989 (Dr Blench reviewed both Days of Wonder and From a Country Hilltop within the same piece; the extract below reviews From a Country Hilltop):

 

The second collection of articles, From a Country Hilltop, reprints pieces of a slightly earlier date from the Co-operative Home Magazine, which became Home Magazine during their publication (1958–62). The hilltop in question is that at Ox's Cross containing Williamson's field and writing-hut, and the articles are centred largely on the field itself, Williamson's life there, his family, his pets and the wild creatures with whom he shares his life. They have a gentleness  and kindness about them which is particularly attractive, and like the nature articles in Days of Wonder they show a fine blend of observation and feeling. One of the best is that dated August 1958 which tells the story of Nig, a pet mouse who feels four days' neglect so keenly that he hardly eats and nearly dies (pp. 16–18). When eventually he does die Williamson is deeply sorrowful, and so in sympathy is the reader, who endorses the adaptation of some lines from Francis Thompson:

 

All things linkèd are;

Thou canst not tread a flower,

But for the troubling of a star.

 

[cf. 'The Mistress of Vision, stanza XXII]

 

Williamson's conviction, stated in the first of the articles, shines throughout the series:

 

The longer I live, the more I believe that animals, including fish (which I have studied), are related not only structurally to man, broadly speakinbg, but also spiritually. (p. 9)

 

Included in this volume is a group of articles in somewhat similar vein, the 'Out of Doors' series from The Sunday Times (1962–4). One of the finest of these is the richly evocative 'On the Braunton Burrows' (pp. 102–4). Here Williamson recollects his earlt delight in this strange landscape, threatened alas at the time of writing by the motor car. 'Must Nature die always', he asks, 'where man goes on wheels?'

 

The most substantial piece in the book, and the best of all in my opinion is 'The Last Summer' which first appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine, 2 August 1964. This beautifully crafted article amply recreates the joy which Williamson experienced during his first visit to North Devon in 1914; a joy rendered poignant in memory because it was the last summer of his boyhood before his involvement in the First World War (pp. 125–31).

 

 

 

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Book covers:

 

country hilltop large

 

 

The photograph on the e-book cover was taken in 1968, on the occasion of the editor's first visit to Ox's Cross and meeting HW; the signpost is long gone:

 

 

country hilltop ebook large

 

 

 

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