In the Spring and Autumn Wally the Reed cutter would be busy along the river wall, just he and his little dog Rosie, Ben’s friend. I refer to the river bank as the river wall because it was built up higher than the marsh land to prevent it flooding. Some mornings I would look out from my lawn and way over would see smoke rising. There I knew I would find Wally. I would say to Ben ‘come on, let’s find Rosie.’ We would load up in the Daihatsu Four Track and off we went down the lanes to where Wally was working. We would sit, have a ‘roll-up’ and put the world to rights for half an hour. Wally led a lonely working life and welcomed my company as I did his. He was an interesting man and I enjoyed our chats. Ben was quite content playing with Rosie. Wally would put the long reeds he had cut into bundles and cart them to near a better track from where they would be collected at some time later by a lorry. The reeds were sold and used for thatching. I don’t think there was too much in it for Wally’s labours.
I moved from Hardley in 1992 and once or twice a year Wally and I have a chat by telephone. His three boys must always have a few words with Uncle Basil. He does invite me over there for special occasions but I haven’t made it so far. When I left the youngest son, Drew was just one year old.
At the cottage I always put out food for my visiting dozen or more pheasants and the occasional partridge onto the lawn overlooked by the kitchen window. One partridge seemed to stay all the time, sitting on the outhouse roof making its odd call which sounded like ‘chuck chucker’ repeated continuously. It got so the visits from the pheasants were every day. Then there were no visits for a couple of days which made me wonder why.
On the third day, surprise, surprise, mother pheasant proudly brought her chicks to see me. What trust she had in me! They were hopping about in and out of the food and water dishes. They only came that once as chicks but as they grey they visited with the adults. Ben would lay on the lawn in the sunshine. I had taught him to leave the birds alone and they learned to feed happily round him. He did keep one wary eye open just in case they went too close! We should thank the Normans for bringing these pretty birds, the pheasant , to our country in the eleventh century. These colourful birds find most of their food on the ground but at night they generally roost in trees away from predators such as foxes.
I believe it was Colin the gardener who have me half a dozen tomato plants and Philip told me where there was supply of well rotted manure. Off I went armed with a couple of strong plastic bags. The manure was well impacted and dried out so there seemed no harm in putting pieces into the bags by hand. Oh Dear, never do that, the stench of manure on one’s hands takes days and days of frequent washing to get rid of it – even Ben wouldn’t come near me. But I did have a good crop of tomatoes that year!
In the Spring the first hardy souls were chugging up and down the river on their hire craft. On the Chet they could only get upstream as far as Loddon, perhaps stay a night and replenish stores then return back to the Yare and left to Norwich or right to Reedham.
Philip the farmer and I became very good friends, he allowing Ben and me to go anywhere on the thousand acres of land in his jurisdiction. He would come down to the cottage a couple of times a week and we would partake of a sip or two of medicine – whisky ! As the year moved on the mature sheep were given a bath in the sheep dip in insecticides to protect them against external parasites such as blow fly, tics and lice. The water they went through was a disgusting khaki colour but they had no choice in the matter being driven down a slope with narrow sides, passing into the dip where they became submerged briefly and then clambered out the other side. On reflection I believe this took place some weeks after the shearing operation. I can’t remember quite when but the mature sheep were shorn of their fleece by professionals using electric sheers. Apparently real experts at shearing in Australia can do one sheep in about three minutes. Shirley would then roll up the fleece into bales and then sold. After being shorn the sheep would leap about wondering what had happened, rather like me after an occasional haircut!
On one occasion I came across a sheep with its head stuck through a hole in a wire fence. Trying to get out, the silly thing kept pushing instead of pulling. With some effort I managed to extricate it. It ran off without a word of thanks! Similarly on another occasion I found one with its head stuck in a plastic carton.
Having ‘serviced ‘ many ewes, the rams, about a dozen of them, were turned out on a small meadow at the bottom of the lane past the cottage. I was given the job of feeding them with beet stored in a little building near them. I did this about 9a.m. each morning and they would be at the gate waiting for me. Given the chance they would still have butted me. Sometimes ewes were put into this meadow. Unbeknown to Shirley once I put Ben in with them to see whether the collie in him would get him to act accordingly. Sure enough he herded them into one corner of the meadow then sat, looked at me to ask what he should do next! I believe that dog was too bright for his own good.
Once when Philip was knocking in some fencing posts he accidently hit the bridge of his nose with the heavy tool he was using. He came to the cottage with his nose streaming with blood. I was able to put ice cubes on the wound to stem the flow of blood then got him down to the surgery in Loddon post haste. He had to have some stitches inserted. He looked like a Roman soldier until the dressing was removed!
In summer evenings one wonderful sight about sunset was hundreds of Greylag geese flying towards The Floods to roost. They seemed to use the cottage as a landmark to find the water. They made a lot of noise with their calling and would fly in long horizontal lines. If one wobbled so did the others near it making what was a dignified flight into one ungainly! One summer Sunday morning Ben barked and called me to the front of the cottage. Up the lane I could see a balloon that had come down. The service vehicle was with it and very soon it was packed up and taken away. On another Sunday morning a small herd of heifers came trotting down the lane from the direction of the farm having escaped from their pen. I quickly call to Philip and we rounded them up.
A few times I saw a Muntjac deer at a distance in waist high corn but as soon as it saw me it was off, head down, so it could not be seen. We ‘locals’ would tell each other when and where we had seen it. On one occasion Ben found it spoor which he trailed and it led us along the edge of a corn field to a small copse. It was possible to see its cloven hoof marks and in the copse where it had lain overnight. A day or two after the last sighting there was a report of a deer being run over and killed about three miles away on the main road at Loddon. Another name for the Muntjac is Barking Deer. It is the smallest deer in this country and apparently originated from Asia.
During the summer months, in fact from about April, Swallows and Sand Martins are seen in abundance over the river and Floods, feeding off the flying insects. At late evenings over the Floods the air is full of insects especially gnats and midges which bite ferociously – you know when you have been bitten! It was a sure sign that autumn was coming when I saw these birds gathering on the telephone and electric cables ready for their long flight to South Africa. I found it a bit depressing.
Graylags and sometimes Canada geese were quite a problem when whole flocks would settle to feed on the crops. It has been suggested the Graylags got their name from the fact they were the grey geese which lagged behind others in flight. Ben and I did our bit to move them off the crops. I would say to him ‘Find ‘em, Ben’ and he would run at them in sweeping circles until they had all gone from that spot. He would then run back to me very pleased with himself as much as to say ‘I did it, Dad’!
On hot summer days we would go to ‘our’ beach at the Floods. I would sunbathe or sit with binoculars bird watching and Ben would splash about. The different birds and ducks which made their home there in addition to the mallards, greylags and swans was amazing. I saw Canadas, Egyptian, Shelduck, Shovelers, Tufted and Eider duck. Probably a few more which I have forgotten. Sometimes late on summer evenings we would take a walk along the lanes to the river. On more than one occasion I remember seeing at dusk a largish white bird swooping and diving over a field of corn. At first I thought it was an owl but discovered it was a seagull having its supper of insects.
Ben just loved to search and hunt in the fields and meadows. He seemed to sense when there was a rabbit or pheasant about and he would persevere with his hunting, whether it was in a field of sugar beet or long grass until the pheasant had taken flight. He learned to search as a Springer spaniel, jumping up on his hind legs every few feet to look for any movement of his quarry. He didn’t catch them but he enjoyed the chase.
I may have created the wrong mental impression when I have written about the marshes. In the main they have been drained and cultivated, growing mostly cereal crops. The edge of the marshes reach almost to the river bank where Wally would cut the reed crop. There was a footpath right along the river banks of both the Chet and Yare, coming from Chedgrave round to the Staithe at Hardley. In one of the small meadows at the bottom of our lane one of our first friends was ‘Jersey’ a clean looking cow with big sorrowful eyes. She would recognize us and come to the gate for a fuss.
One evening Ben and I were walking in the cool of the day along by the River Yare. There had been a most colourful sunset, the water was calm and slow moving. The pinks and purples of the sky were reflected perfectly, then along came proud pair of swans with three cygnets gliding along causing the merest ripple to the colours. On another occasion we walked down ‘our’ lane at dawn. A heavy mist hung over the Chet and above it lovely colours were showing the breaking of the dawn. The patterns woven by spiders in their cobwebs on these misty mornings were incredible. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke out one sunny summer’s morning. The sun was shining through torrential rain which produced a perfect rainbow. On another summer’s morning I saw an unusually dark brown fox along the edge of a field close to the river. I suspect he was heading towards Hall Carr. I doubt if he had a lair there as a Carr is a small wet woodland.
Once the corn was ready for cutting it was ‘all go’ on the farm. Often two combines would be at work in the same field in a race to beat the weather. Even in dry weather the work could not start too early because of the damp from the morning mists. Usually Philip’s Dad would drive one combine and Philip’s brother Kevin the other. Sometimes Kevin’s young son would hang about hoping for a ride with his Dad. Philip would drive along a combine and the corn would be transferred from the combine onto the trailer without stopping. The corn would then be taken to the large grain stores, unloaded and then back to the second combine. When they were working near the cottage they would find time to have a cup of tea on my front lawn.
Up the track along Broom Hill I once found a lonely cornflower, the only one I saw on the whole estate of a thousand acres. It was along here at the base of a tree that Ben caught a weasel. It was about ten inches in length with a tail almost as long of light brown colour and a white belly. Weasels are smaller than stoats. They are reputed to mesmerize small creatures also being very clever but this one wasn’t clever enough not to be caught. I shouted at Ben who dropped it. It climbed a little way up the tree trunk, recovered from the shock then got lost in the undergrowth. I hope it survived.
The first year I was there I had a Renault Estate. It developed a puzzling rattle until I removed the top from the air filter and there was the answer– A mouse had been storing some of Ben’s dry food in it! One of the most exciting things that happened to me was one bright summer’s morning when suddenly three American Air Forcewere A 10 fighter planes.
My cottage stood on a hill, was painted off white and it was a prime target for these planes to practice strafing. They had a clear run from the River Chet side. They kept this up for several minutes one after the other, in fact in time for me to go indoors and get my camcorder to film them. After a while somehow they indicated they were leaving. I gave them a salute and each plane in turn waggled its wings as a farewell.
After the harvest came Autumn and preparation for winter. At the farm was a large heap of tree trunks and Philip arranged for ‘Fatty’ from a neighbouring village to come along with his saw bench and cut up the trunks into manageable sized pieces for our fires. Fatty was perhaps an unkind nickname but he was really fat. The amazing thing was he did not have a safety guard on his saw bench which he balanced precariously on uneven ground, without having an accident! Afterwards Philip brought a trailer full down to the cottage for me which he unloaded at the front of the cottage and I got busy transferring the wood to the outhouse at the back using my sack barrow. The labour was well worth it come the chilly days and nights of winter.
I cannot remember whether it was Spring or Autumn when it was very windy, stormy weather that swans were coming to grieve in the meadow at the bottom of the lane. In strong winds they would get blown into some electric cables and killed themselves. Rather than they lay where they fell and rot I took them up to the farm and Philip buried them in a pit. On the third occasion, one stormy night, the electric light flickered and I thought ‘there’s another one down’. I went down the lane and sure enough there was the third dead swan. I did complain to the electricity board about this and soon after they strung some orange balls on the wires. I got to thinking maybe I could make some quills from the large wing feathers and so I laboriously carted the swan up to the cottage precariously balanced on the old cycle I had. Having got the bird into the light I thought ‘What a lot of meat to throw away’ so I set to and it must have taken at least two hours of plucking it and then I had a naked looking swan on the kitchen table, covered in goose pimples you might say! At one stage I got my hands wet which meant feathers and down sticking to them. What a mess! I got a little worried in case Dick the game keeper came round, as he did occasionally. All this time Ben was sitting beside me drooling, with his tongue hanging out. I sliced off very large fillets of meat, cleared up and put the remainder into a large plastic bag. I then put a slice of the swan meat into a dish with water and cooked it in the microwave. Unfortunately there was nothing in any of my cook books on how to cook swan meat! After it had cooled I gave some to Ben. He really enjoyed it but the small piece I sampled was very tough and tasted very muddy. Another piece I soaked all night in salt water tasted a little better but not enough to enjoy it. I can’t say I found it a delicacy, perhaps it was because I cooked it in the microwave. It so happened a day or two later two old police colleagues, Stanley and Aleck, rode all the way from Norwich, some twenty miles on their cycles to see me. There was a head wind but this didn’t put them off. They were most impressed to sample swan meat sandwiches for their lunch. I have little doubt they were chewing all the way back. By the time they went back the wind had changed so they were faced with a head wind again. I tried another piece of raw swan meet in an old sock tied with a piece of binder twine and lowered into the ditch at the bottom of the lane. The next morning and several after I hauled up my bait but no eel as I had hoped. I gave up that project. The annoying thing was that Wally had caught a very large eel in another ditch, skinned it and gave it to me. It did not taste the same as if I had caught it! As well as normal food while at the cottage I cooked hare, pheasant, partridge as well as swan and eel.
Late summer and early autumn was the time to go mushrooming. I found these grew in abundance in the meadow at the bottom of my lane near the river wall. Some were as big as dinner plates. They seemed to appear over night. Shirley the shepherdess gave me a little country advice, don’t be greedy, always leave one for seed. About this time the blackberries were ripe and in abundance also. No matter which lane I walked down I had a feast every morning. Sometimes I would gather a bag full and take them back to the cottage and have them with carnation milk for my ‘afters’. One autumn morning there was a lot of noise coming from the fields the other side of the Chet. I was able to see several horses and riders obviously in chase of a fox but I was glad to see they gave up and went back the way they had come.
Ben used to like it when Philip could spare the time to come down to the cottage for a couple of hours and enjoy a drink. Philip would sit on the settee and Ben would lay on it beside him with his head on Philip’s lap. Of course Philip had more time to spare when autumn and winter came. About half past three or so I would draw the curtains to shut out the dark and cold. The fire I kept going night and day, giving it a good rake out but keeping some burning pieces to build up on it again. Evenings was the time to put on large dry pieces of wood.
One winter Ben and I were snowed in for three days. The snow had drifted and blocked the road between us and the church. Eventually Philip’s Dad came to the rescue with a digger and cleared the road. On our walks Ben was still able to detect small creatures in the soil beneath the snow. He had a horrible habit of catching mice, shrews, moles and eating them. That bad winter he cut one paw which required attention. I took him to Mr. Evans the Vet in Loddon who treated it and bound it up. I had to put fresh plastic bags over the dressing to try to keep it dry with limited success.
During the winters I often went three days or more without seeing anyone which made it lonely. I found it was getting almost too much trouble to drive into Loddon once a week for food and coal. This was a bad sign and it made me think I should be finding somewhere to live nearer to people and have more mod cons. This I did in 1992, my third Autumn at Hardley. I was then sixty-four. Once I asked Philip if I was regarded by the locals as an ‘odd bod’. He assured me that I had fitted in well and very quickly become one of them. Whether he meant they were all ‘odd bods’ I didn’t like to ask! So many happy memories of my stay there remain with me and I know my mate Ben had the time of his life. It was such a very special part of our lives. We became free of almost every restriction and I feel we were most privileged to have seen and experienced so much of nature that the vast majority of people have not and probably would not wish to. On reflection it was in a way a repeat of my very early days with my grandparents at their cottage at Holt Heath and the freedom I had there. This may well account for me being basically a loner and at times insufferably independent! Farewell little cottage.