My grandfather, George Bennett, was the farm manager on a Hampshire estate belonging to some titled types who owned a broadsheet and bred race horses. There was some arable, some sheep and some cattle and for four weeks every summer as well as many school holidays throughout the year it was my home and playground. My parents were busy in their shop and I was left in the care of my grandmother from whom I learned to cook, darn, make ginger beer and use a twin-tub washing machine.
The farm provided endless opportunity for my entertainment and childish fantasies. There was an old disused dairy still equipped with cream and butter-making equipment, pint and ⅓pt milk bottles (the small ones were for school milk) and foil discs for bottle tops. I once came across an orphaned baby rabbit and took it to the dairy in a shoe box, knowing that my grandmother would not have let it into the house. I spent an afternoon “nursing” it and the next day it had completely vanished. This was my first lesson in not meddling with wildlife.
Bordering the yard was a row of former farmworkers’ cottages; tiny one-up one-down homes still complete with fireplaces and stoves, hurricane lamps and strange tools. Although the farm was run with modern machinery which George had introduced after the war, the old cart shed was still there, full of obsolete tools, machines and vehicles. Today to allow a child in there would be seen as a health and safety hazard – to me it was the best history lesson I could have had.
Adjacent to the farmyard was the wood yard which was not part of George’s domain, and therefore forbidden territory. I made the acquaintance of Jayne, daughter of one of the woodmen, and gained access to that secret place. I found the tea room where the workers came twice a day to drink their dark brew and look through their girly mags – quite an education for a young girl who had no idea about the “birds and bees”.
Through the heavy gates of the yard was the crater of a lake that had been drained during the war so as not to be a landmark for enemy bombers. A herd of fallow deer was kept here behind fifteen feet chain link fences. The gamekeepers used the fence to display their kill: – grey squirrels, magpies and beautiful jays. I always felt a chill seeing these corpses; my grandmother told me they stole the pheasants’ eggs and so were killed and their bodies displayed as a deterrent to others.
Through the hedge at the back of Granny’s veg patch and along the track was the kitchen garden that supplied the “big house” with all its produce. It was surrounded by a red brick and flint wall and was the most beautiful and orderly vegetable garden I’d ever laid eyes on. From time to time I would accompany Granny here with a brace of pigeon or pheasant which were exchanged with the head gardener for a basket of glasshouse grown peaches and the sweetest yellow tomatoes which I’d eat on the way home, warm from the sun.
I made my dens under the arches of the bridge that crossed the “lake” and in the beech woods which were subsequently laid waste in the storms of 1987. It was a mainly solitary existence and I wonder whether it paved the way for my often solitary existence now where I’m happy and contented in my own company.
*This piece was inspired by an Estate Agent’s brochure advertising the sale of The Orangery, Hackwood Park, Basingstoke for £1,490,000 in June 2012, a former gardener’s cottage.