“The centuries have come and gone and so have the many shepherd families that used to call me home. All around me the moorland hills, now quiet and deserted, were once abuzz with the men, women and children living in this isolated spot. Once I was the centre of their lives. Now I am a ruin. But my old stone walls still echo with their voices. I am a home with a story to tell.”
Hot summer days. Hot summer nights. They are rare out here at Hoar Oak but when they come my old stones warm up, the slates on my roof get hot and my damp, swollen woodwork dries and shrinks back into shape. My doors and windows open freely. How they are meant to. How the carpenter who built them intended. It doesn’t happen often, this heat, but when it does come, me and my families love the luxury of feeling warm and relaxed. Being free of the persistent damp and drizzle and wind and all of us, me and my people, enjoy not having wet feet. My foundations begin to dry out and my people can walk about in their poor shoes or bare feet – untroubled by getting wet and cold toes. Hot days are great days and we welcome them. The blue sky is a tonic and lifts the dull spirits that our gray surroundings can sometimes cause. The children can run and play to their hearts content and at night my shepherd and his wife can sit outdoors in the long light of a hot summer evening. They breath in the luxurious smells of a warm moorland night and some of them will add another fragrance, the smoke from a well-earned pipe of tobacco at the end of the day. Short, small-bowled white clay pipes they smoke. Little pipes that don’t hold much ‘baccy – just as well for my cash-strapped families – but which offer a satisfying ‘pull on the pipe’ often for both the shepherd as well as his wife.
But like so many of the things that one longs for and waits for, these hot summer days and long sultry nights often come with a sting in their tail. Not always but sometimes, when after a couple of weeks of this weather, my lovely hot slates and warmed up stones no longer cool down in the evening. The bedrooms, low and directly under my slates, heat up and stay hot and, with no breath of a breeze through my small bedroom windows, sleep becomes difficult. Downstairs the atmosphere becomes unbearable too, for the fire in the hearth must be kept going, the water in the kettle kept boiling, food must cooked every day and at least once a week my bread oven must be fired up to bake the family’s bread. My poor housewife has little choice but to keep working in these conditions but slowly, over the hot summer days, the family begins to decamp outdoors. The shepherd’s big wooden comb back chair – ‘faithers’ chair’ as it is usually called – gets dragged out first. His wife’s smaller chair – often called the ‘nursing chair’ because its high back and comfortable arms make it easier for the housewife to settle, nurse a baby and knit or mend a sock – also makes it way out to the garden. Placed in the shade of my walls. The two trestle benches from either side of the kitchen table are dragged out for the children to sit on, but the table itself stays put. Too big and too heavy to move. It was built in my kitchen and in my kitchen it stayed until my days as a home came to an end.
One particularly hot summer, when my family included an elderly mother-in-law, (Aggy, she was called, sweet, uncomplaining, bedridden Aggy), I remember her bed was also taken out of doors so the old lady could enjoy some cool, fresh air. In fact, that summer, all of my family ended up sleeping out of doors on mattresses , pulled down from the bedrooms upstairs and laid on the warm, dry ground around my walls. For those few days there wasn’t even any early morning dew to make me or my family feel damp when we woke up to start the day. It was a good thing to do. Everyone needed their sleep for there was still work to be got on with in the day and we all needed to get some rest. This particular year the ground became dried out and the moorland bogs, usually so wet and squelchy to walk over, also became dried out and had a crispy snap to them when trod on. The shepherd crunched across the moor each morning to check the flock, worried because the animals, too, were feeling the heat. They’d try and shelter under a small hawthorn tree whose branches, blown horizontal by the winter gales, might provide a meagre bit of shade. Or the sheep would huddle up close to the stone boundaries trying to tuck themselves into any shadow those low walls might cast. The bigger trees, the ones that had been planted around me to provide a bit of winter shelter, offered a good bit of shade and were like magnets to all of the moorland animals. The sheep would come to flop down in their shade and eventually the wild animals, the deer and ponies and foxes and birds would brave the nearness to humans to find a bit of cool. To find a bit of sanctuary from the unrelenting heat.
They were thirsty too. Over those hot days, the river would begin to run very low, its angry torrents of the winter and spring long forgotten, and now only able to offer shallow pools for animals to drink at. In places, it was possible for man and beast alike to walk across the river, without getting wet. The nearby seep – a shallow spot filled with stones and through which moorland water leaked and trickled all year round – also dried up. A catastrophe for the shepherd anxious to ensure his flock had enough to drink. The animals, desperate for water, would eat away at the bog plants desperate for a bit of moisture but rarely finding enough to slake their thirst. The poor creatures would go down onto their front knees. They’d pant in distress and become anxious, craving for water. For my family, the spring by my front door continued to flow true and they managed to always have water through these dry times – but there was little, or none, to spare for their thirsty stock. I’ve heard visitors say that at Hoar Oak the spring never runs dry and in all my years of watching I can certainly say it never did. It got low sometimes and became a poor, muddy offering but my humans could always get enough water from it for eating and drinking and washing what absolutely needed washing. In those hot summer days and weeks nobody worried much about washing – bodies or clothing. My children loved it to be honest, turning into a tribe of hot, grubby summer rascals.
Of course such weather, such intense weather, never lasts. It just feels like it. Like the bad times in winter when a few vicious days of cold and snow bring well-remembered calamities to both man and beast so it is that a few long hot summer days stay in peoples’ memories and the stories about them grow. And often the end to a period of hot summer days leaves people with the strongest memories. I can tell when the change is starting because my people – sat outdoors in the gloaming, smoking a pipe and telling tales as the day cools down – begin to notice the first signs of clouds beginning to build up to the west and start moving languidly across the sky. They are thin and wispy and high, creating a pretty sight to look up at and enjoy. From my roof top, from my chimney pot, I too watch the clouds but from my vantage point can look even further out across the high moor. Out to the west and the north. Where the sea is and where the clouds are coming from. And I can see what my family can’t – a big mass of clouds growing and building and heading our way. These clouds are closer to the ground and have a dark, bruised look to them. Not light and wispy but darker and ominous. As I watch I see seagulls flying above me – a sure sign that the sea is getting rough. My humans see them too and they too know what this means. But as we all watch the wheeling flock of gulls there is a break in the cloud and a bright shaft of sun, still burning hot and true up in the summer sky, dazzles down through the gap and lights up the white the seagulls. Making them shimmer and glow. A pretty sight. But we know what it foretells and the bustle starts.
My humans begin to carry everything that had been taken out during the hot days back inside my walls. ‘Faither’s chair, the nursing chair, the trestles, the mattresses, the baby in its little rocking cradle and old Aggy’s bed all get lifted up by the strongest arms and bundled back inside my walls. I hear my housewife saying ‘Get it all in before it starts to rain. Don’t worry where you drop it, we’ll sort it later. Just get it all in.’ How quickly our worries about the heat and lack of water shrivel and get replaced by the returning fears and problems of rain and damp. This is what living at Hoar Oak really means, living inside my walls which rarely dry out and rarely are warm, and the threat of rain breaks the spell cast by the luxury of a run of hot, dry days.
The thick, dark clouds that I could see in the distance from my chimney pot are now very near. We can all see them and smell the rain in them and feel a drop in temperature and a rise in the wind. With everything safely inside my humans have gone back out of doors and together we watch as the dark belly of the cloud touches down on the moor and a flash of lightening lights up the sky. A rumble of thunder booms out – scaring the smallest children who are lifted into their parents’ arms and fascinating the older children who giggle nervously and stick their fingers in their ears. And so they stay outside my front door, watching and waiting and telling stories about people hit by lightning. Being killed by lightning – just like poor Tom up at Badgery who was cut down in his prime by a lightning flash by his own front door. But the story is told to thrill not to make them think about coming indoors. The mixture of fear and fascination and blissfully cooling air is a potent blend that keeps them outside. Watching and waiting. Not everyone mind – the dogs don’t like it and are just inside the porch crouched down, bellies and chins flat on the floor. The cats, as cats always will, do whatever they please but are mostly inside, out of the impending rain. Old Aggy is inside too, muttering to herself “Daft sods, fancy standing out there with lightning and thunder crashing around their ears.” She’d known young Tom , knew him just before he died – killed by the lightning – and she fears for her family stood outdoors. When another mighty crack of lightening and crash of thunder rends the sky her fear escapes her with a shouted, “Fer Gawds sake John bring yer wife and those kiddies inside. You’ll all ketch yer death and then what’ll we do.” It’s out before she can stop the words prompted by her fear and ancient knowledge. And why not? In all my years of watching over my humans it’s the old ones who usually know best, who have seen it all and were worth having a listen to. Fact is, they rarely were – that’s just human nature it seems – but on this occasion, on this wild night after the long hot summer days, Aggy hears her daughter-in-law say, “She’s right John. ‘Tis daft to stay out here. Come on kids. Indoors with the lot of you.” And as she turns to lead her little Hoar Oak tribe indoors the rain starts in earnest. Slow, splashy drops at first which turn, with frightening speed, into a hard downpour and they all skitter inside and shut my front door on the wet spectacle.
That night, with everyone back indoors, upstairs in my bedrooms, sleeping well in the cooling air, the incessant rain begins its work on my roof, my doors, my windows and on my old stone walls. I can feel it trickling down through my dried out tiles, stones and woodwork. By tomorrow it will be fine, my old wood will be swollen up again but tonight it falls straight through and I know what’s going to happen. And I wish I could somehow make it stop. But sure enough, before long, I hear a rustling in the big bed below and see John stirring as he feels a drop of rain splatter on his hair. He comes awake and can hear tiny splatters as rain hits the floor elsewhere in the bedroom. The end of those glorious hot summer days and hot summer nights is signaled by a groan from my shepherd as he rolls over, prods his wife and says, “Fetch the buckets girl. We got leaks all over.”
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First published July 7th, 2016 Copyright © Bette Baldwin 2016