Alan and I have been mates since we were both around 8 years old, that would have been in about 1968, and this is in spite of not having lived within 250 miles of each other since 1989. We still manage to meet up for a beer, (or three), or perhaps at the odd gig every now and then. We first met at Shalford primary school, when his family relocated to Wonersh, another lovely rural village in the beautiful Surrey hills, just a couple of miles away from my own family home. We soon became friends, along with a few other lads. We bonded over our love of football, fishing the pretty Tillingbourne, riding bikes and climbing the old oaks in the copse behind my home.
Somewhere along the line Alan and I realised, via talking in the school yard, (probably whilst swapping our ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ bubble gum cards), and back at home talking with our respective Dads, that our Dads had worked together back in the nineteen fifties. Fred Hill, (Alan’s dad), had been a steam engine driver on the S.R. (Southern railway), and my dad, Bob, (better known to his mates as ‘Lofty’, on account of being six feet four inches tall), had been a fireman/driver, and had often worked alongside Fred on the footplate. Fred had a very dry sense of humour, he would say things like “Is Dad still puffing away on that pipe and smelling like an old bonfire? Tell him to throw it away, your Mum will thank me for it!” My Dad, in turn, enjoyed making sarcastic remarks about Fred’s baggy corduroy trousers!
My dad left the railways in the late summer of 1961, when I was still a baby, and he joined the Royal Mail in Guildford. The pay on the post office was better than the railways paid and dad had a growing family to support. He stayed with the Royal Mail, and gave them, and the general public, exemplary service until he retired 33 years later. In those days the mailmen always wore smart uniforms, they had to be well turned out on duty wearing their caps and ties. There were regular inspections by ‘Inspectors’, and these were often old army type blokes with a penchant for ‘discipline’. Fred had also left the railways, (to set himself up as a self-employed gardener), but not until about ten years later, by which time Alan and I were both attending Tillingbourne County Secondary school, in Chilworth, another local village, that was situated between our two villages.
Sadly my dad finally ‘ran out of steam’ in 2012, but his old adversary Fred is still puffing away, and he is now into his mid-eighties. Fred, like my dad, was also a tall man in his prime, and age still hasn’t bowed him. He stands at around six feet two inches. There was never a lot of weight on Fred, a testament to his hard working lifestyle. He was a slim, wiry man, and tough as old nails. I expect that he still wears the same ‘trademark’ beige baggy corduroy trousers, held up with a well worn leather belt, and no doubt his ‘M and S’ cotton check shirts with their frayed collars too. I’m told by Alan that he has a lot of hair for a man of his age, it is a thick mop of grey-ish brown, parted from the left to the right, in a style not dissimilar to that which the Beatles briefly made trendy, all those years ago. Fred has always had a weather beaten, well lived-in sort of a face, and the complexion of a man who has done lots of outdoor, hard, physical graft for most of his life. He has bright, eagle-like, inquisitive, green eyes, and they still provide the sparkle for his ever ready smile. If a mad scientist was to cross the D.N.A. of Keith Richards and Monty Don the result would be a bloke who looked a bit like Fred!
If you have read the piece that precedes ‘Fred’ you will know how I was offered a Saturday gardening job with Alan and his Dad Fred, so I won’t bore you by telling you how that came about again here.
Fred and Alan would pick me up on their way through Shalford early on Saturday mornings, on their way to which ever job we were going to do that week. I would stand waiting in Station road, by the old ‘Nelco’ factory. I would see Alan and his dad approaching in an old Hillman Hunter estate, driving slowly along the residential road, past ‘Cheales’ the greengrocers (where my sister Jacqueline worked on Saturday mornings) and the old Victorian terrace houses. When Alan’s dad spotted me he would smile in recognition, pull over and stop. I would get in and sit amongst all the greasy, smelly garden machinery. I would sniff away happily at the workman-like stench. It was that lovely heady mix of oil, petrol, grease, and earthy odours that gardeners and petrol-heads alike would instantly recognise, and some, like me, still love.
One of Fred’s jobs that I have particularly fond memories of was at a beautiful old stately home called ‘Polstead Manor’, it was a few miles away, near Godalming. This sprawling red-brick aristocratic dwelling was still employing butlers and maids back then, and they still dressed up in their traditional ‘service’ uniforms, which had remained unchanged in style since the early years of the twentieth century. I sometimes wonder who owns that rambling old house these days and if they are aware of, or even care about, it’s former residents and workers.
On arrival, Fred would soon set me and Alan to work cutting the huge formal lawns on a couple of ‘Mountfield’ roller motor mowers. The lawns were all on slightly different levels in the extensive grounds, and were divided up by little sandstone walls and neat little Buxus (Box) hedges. Alan had at that time far more gardening experience than me, having already worked for his dad for a few months, and he always did a professional job, but back then I wasn’t as strong as I am now, and as a result of that, together with my poor, inexperienced handling skills, the industrial sized mower was sometimes just that little bit too powerful for little me to handle! Sometimes the throttle would get jammed on and I would end up hurtling along a lawn at about thirty miles an hour, trying desperately to cling on! I would fly along horizontally behind the handlebar until the mower would finally hit an obstruction to stop us, a tree perhaps, or maybe a boundary wall, the stables, or maybe even Fred! There would also be the occasional mishap at the end of my lawn stripes, where I couldn’t quite turn the runaway mower back around quickly enough, and I and the mower would leave the lawn and bump down to plough through one of Fred’s once immaculate flower borders. But Fred, to his ever-lasting credit, never once made a big deal out of my occasional horticultural mishaps, and he always paid me very generously too, regardless of how awful my standard of work may have been at the time.
On one memorable Saturday morning at the manor, Alan and I had spotted a grass snake, it was perhaps ten feet long, and with a diameter of about four inches at its widest girth. It was winding its lazy, slithery way across the lawn that Fred was in the process of cutting. Alan had called out excitedly “Look out Dad, there’s a snake!” Fred, on hearing the commotion from us and seeing where we were pointing away to his left, some twenty feet from him, had ‘clocked’ the snake, and then promptly re-steered his huge, powerful ‘Atco’ motor mower towards it. Fred comically chased the snake across the big lawn, ‘Benny Hill’ style, but it was all only done for effect, just to entertain us boys, and not with any genuine, malicious intent on his part. He had deliberately let the snake escape into the long grass by a Beech hedgerow, to let him live to tell his exciting story to his slithery family and friends back in the longer uncut border grass. The lawn had looked really funny with all of its flawless military style, precision, regulation roller lines, except for this one wavy, meandering one, which was much like the snake’s own getaway movements, as it had shimmied and weaved its way towards the hedgerow, and eventual safety in the longer grass, not unlike George Best cutting through a Spurs defence a few years earlier!
Fred was an old Sussex country boy, he hailed from the ‘South Downs’ away to our south, and when taking a short break from his hard, sweaty labours, he could often be found smoking a ‘rollie’, or ruminatively chewing on a bit of straw in the corner of his mouth. I once saw him leaning on his spade, taking a breather, he had a little Robin perched on his left shoulder. He was peering dreamily southwards, over the lush rolling little green hills and the beautiful trees, towards his Sussex homeland, about forty miles away. I disturbed his thoughts by saying “What are you looking at Fred?” He had slowly become aware of me, and of my enquiry. He turned and slowly looked me over, scratching at his stubbly chin as he did so. After what seemed like about five minutes had passed, he thoughtfully replied. “It looks a bit grim over Will’s mother’s don’t it lad?” Now, being young and naive at the time I had of course asked Fred who this Will might be, assuming naturally that Will was perhaps a relation, or maybe a friend of the Hill family. He would always have plenty of these old Sussex country sayings in his ‘verbal arsenal’, and he liked to unleash them all from time to time.
One Saturday morning the air was really warm and heavy, we knew there was a big storm on its way up from the Sussex coast and that we had to get our work finished fast before we got a real soaking. “Strewth, have yer seen it boys? It looks as black as old Harry’s nutting bag over there!” We boys of course had no idea who ‘old Harry’ was, or what a ‘nutting bag’ was, and I suspect that neither did Fred. He had probably heard his own father say it, who in turn had heard his uncle use the expression….you get the picture.
My favourite Fred story, which occasionally gets brought up if Alan and I have had a few too many pints in the pub, also comes from our ‘Polstead manor’ gardening days. It was a gloriously hot Saturday morning in July. We had all been hard at it for a couple of hours. We were in dire need of refreshments. I was gasping. Bang on cue this elderly housemaid had emerged from the big house and slowly, very slowly, swaying from side to side, she had made her way down towards us across one of the already cut and now immaculate lawns. She was holding at waist level, against her pristine, starched white pinafore, a silver tray, and on that tray were three big white china mugs of tea, a matching bowl of sugar (with a silver spoon stood up in it), and a blue and white hooped jug, (like the Reading F.C. shirts,) of milk. There were also assorted biscuits on three flowery, gold braid rimmed, chipped porcelain saucers. We all stood there patiently waiting, hungry, thirsty and sweaty. We watched her sluggish, meandering, shaky, slow progress towards us. She was dressed in the traditional parlour maid’s uniform, looking very much like an extra off of the ‘Downton Abbey’ television series. I remember saying to Fred “Should I go and help her? She’s struggling a bit, by the time she gets here our tea will all be floating in the tray”. Fred had looked down at me and chuckled, “Oh no, no, no! What? I wouldn’t dream of it. What? Ruin our entertainment would you? Are you daft lad?” And then, looking back at the old dear still wobbling her way ever closer, he had added in a quieter, more confidential, reflective tone, “In any case, it would hurt her pride wouldn’t it, and you wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight with that on your conscience now would you lad?”
Eventually of course the elderly maid did arrive. We all exchanged pleasantries and we thanked her for the tea and biscuits. But then, horror of horrors, (for two teenage boys anyway), Alan and I both spotted that one of the three mugs of tea had an enormous blow fly floating in it, and it had also evacuated it’s bowels in to the tea too. The fly was still moving, but only erratically, it was clearly making last ditch desperate attempts not to drown in the ‘P.G.Tips’, it appeared to be frantically trying to cling on to its own considerable evacuated stomach waste contents, as if they were being used as some sort of macabre blow-fly life-raft. Alan and I had looked at each other and, just like when we were on the football pitch on the same team, we had instinctively known exactly what the other one was thinking, and going to do next! Without a second thought we had both thrust out our hands towards the tea tray. We had quickly laid claim to one of the unblemished mugs of tea each. We were like two cowboys on a land grab in the old wild west, each of us quickly thrusting our own flags into our chosen plots! Poor old Fred, he had been far too busy charming the old dear that he had been left with no other choice than a cup of tea with added obese blow-fly. He turned and forlornly looked at each of us in turn, a bit pissed off with us pesky kids no doubt, but also, perhaps inwardly, secretly rather proud of our speed of thought. After a short pause while he gathered his own thoughts, he laughed, then said to the little old lady. “Oh, a blow-fly, how did you know that I had wanted a blow-fly in my tea, my dear? How very thoughtful of you, oh, how divine, thank you so very, very much my dear, how enchanting!” Fred then gave us a smile and a wink and proceeded to take big gulps from his mug of tea. He threw his head right back, for added drama and excitement of course, and then gurgled it around as if he was washing his mouth out with ‘Listerine’. He swallowed. Yuck. Then he had taken another long swig and swallowed the remaining contents of the mug down, huge bloated fly and all. We both watched in horror as his large manly boney ‘Adams apple’ had moved up and down as he swallowed. I almost threw up at the thought of that poor rotund blow-fly, and its recently evacuated muck, going down Fred’s throat. “Ah, that’s much better missus.” Said Fred, enjoying his moment in the spotlight, “Now that really hit the spot!” His party piece now over, he had looked at us boys again, and with a little grin and a twinkle in his eyes, he had said. “Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it lads, it adds to the flavour don’t you know!”
As I sit here in my study, or at least in what passes for a study if you haven’t yet been offered a major book deal, (it also doubles as a music room, a place for the dog to curl up and lick his privates, and as a spare bedroom for unexpected but always welcomed guests), writing down some of these memories for posterity, I should add that Fred, at the age of almost ninety, is still out there in the Tillingbourne Valley and beyond, working on a couple of gardening jobs every week. He doesn’t do it because he has to, but because he wants to, and according to Alan his dad will continue to do so until his body tells him to stop. Fred, like many of the men of his generation, (the lucky ones who survived wars, poverty, diseases and fatal accidents) is definitely made of the ‘right stuff’, whatever that ‘right stuff’ might be. (My own body, thirty plus years younger than his, told me to stop several years ago but I’m ignoring it). Fred is of the type that will probably never retire; he likes to stay active. As he himself has said a few times. “There’s plenty of life in the old dog yet!”
There are stately home head gardeners, a few odd-jobbing gardeners, and even an (alternative style) ‘plant hunter’ in my family history, but it was perhaps my best mate’s dad, old Fred, even more than all of those green fingered gardeners in my family’s past, who I now have to thank for the satisfying horticultural lifestyle that I now enjoy. Despite doing several gardening jobs as a young lad, I never actually became a gardener on leaving school. I even turned down the opportunity of a gardening apprenticeship at Guildford castle grounds. I had chosen another, or to be honest, I had blindly stumbled upon another career path. (One which I have written about elsewhere, and that in large part I also enjoyed).
In fact it wasn’t until 1999 that I eventually left that 24 year long ‘other’ career, and that I finally returned to my…(now please excuse the oncoming pun and cheesy cliche)….roots! And yes, the grass was much ‘greener on the other side’! I think that deep down, subconsciously, I had always wanted that same freedom that I knew Fred had enjoyed. I had longed to be my own boss too, working happily in the open air with nobody telling me what to do. Thirty plus years on, when I’m having a break from my gardening, leaning on an old wall looking at the sheep in the fields on the North Cornish cliffs, my mind still often wanders back to those happy days working with Fred and my mate Alan around the Tillingbourne Valley. If the sky is a bit dark over the Atlantic, as it rolls towards me in an exposed garden near Bude, I will sometimes hear myself saying “It’s a bit grim over Davy Jones’s locker”. Yes, there’s more than a little bit of old Fred in me! They were wonderful days and I am very grateful to Fred for employing me, for entertaining me, for teaching me, and of course for planting that green dream in my head so many years ago! Thanks Fred! (Now, where on earth did I put that bleeding nutting bag?)
Constructive comments below are very welcomed. Glowing praise even more so. It’s how I know that you have been here. Offers of highly paid writing gigs, though highly unlikely, would be lovely too. But just for the record, all spammers can just go and **** themselves.
All written work by Mark Anthony Wyatt, Bude, Cornwall. Edited August, 2016.
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