Tales of flooding and freeze-ups - and growing up in a rural idyll
In another leaf from his book of memories about growing up on a Devon farm David Hill remembers Bible stories...and boats on a man-made lake.
When I was a little tacker on the family farm at East Knowstone in the mid 1950s, water was a precious commodity. Mains water was not piped through the village by the North Devon Water Board until the mid 1960s. Before that date parishioners relied either on well water, spring water privately piped into their homes, or the parish pumps.
Every other night when it was my aged maiden aunt's turn to tuck me in, and blow out the candle or take the Aladdin lamp downstairs, she would sit on the eiderdown on my double iron and brass bed and read to me. Even though I had been a fluent reader from the age of four, we both enjoyed the shared experience. Stories from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Wind In The Willows. were my favourites together with stories from the Old Testament.
Resting on her knees, the ancient family Bible was her treasure chest containing a trove of precious stories. Opening back the hard-board cover lid, my aunt reached in to remove a gem. My bedtime story read in her own inimitable style with additions of her own. "And what shall it be tonight?" Her face lighting up in a smile, her eyes twinkling as she anticipated my request.
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"The flood! The flood! Please auntie, with all the animals and birds." A long story, putting off the dreaded moment when my bedroom world would be plunged into blackness, and the creaks and groans of my farmhouse tree would be magnified in my imagination.
"The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits and the height of it thirty cubits. Higher and longer than our barn. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark. Pigs, cows, sheep, horses, hens. In they went. Your favourite birds – robins, blackbirds, thrushes, wrens. And do you know what? Even the ol' fox. Then the rain came. Poured and poured. And the flood was 40 days over the earth. Just think of that. Fifteen cubits upward did the water prevail, and the mountains were covered."
Half listening to the story that I knew so well, my mind awash with unanswered questions. How could Noah be six hundred years old? What did he do with all the dung? Would the fox kill and eat the rabbits and the hens? How long was a cubit? The terrifying thought of water that was deep enough to cover my small world of the farmhouse tree, front and back courts, outbuildings and the thirteen fields including Higher Orchard.
Higher Orchard where Listner, Tom Putt, Quarrander and Duck's Bill grew, and where below the lank grass tussocks a natural spring, our water of life, bubbled up. Tucked away in the back of a drawer in the eight-foot-long oak kitchen table, documents relating to the history of the farm. One letter with its intricately designed heading. "August 11th 1904. Dear Sir, We can supply two hundred and thirty yards of lead pipe at sixteen pounds, seventeen shillings and sixpence. Brass taps at four and sixpence each, best quality high pressure taps at an extra one and threepence at five and nine pence. Our charge per hour for fixing same to be discussed and determined. We hope to be favoured with your order which shall receive our every attention. We are, Yours very obediently, Stenner and Gunn."
Installed that year by my grandparents Thomas and Grace, neither of whom I ever met, both having died twenty-six and fifteen years before I was born.
In back kitchen the granite trough and cast iron pump. Priming it with a pint of tap water, working the handle to suck up the piped spring beneath the flagstone floor. In a gush-rush of liquid diamond bubbles, a laughing cascade erupts, cupped hands dipped and raised to my lips. An explosion of cold sweetness.
In winter, frost penetrated the farmhouse tree right through to the heartwood, with ice fern fronds flourishing on the inside of small iron framed window panes. Muslin-bag breath ballooning up to the white washed dairy ceiling, an Arctic land chilling my fingers as I plucked a stored apple from a slate shelf. The water solid in lead pipes, refusing to run through pump and taps.
"Where will it all end I ask myself," said my aunt as she pressed a rubber hot water bottle filled with water dipped from front court stream and boiled in a black iron kettle suspended from a crook and handymaid over the open kitchen fire. At last the drip-drip-drip, my aunt's weary face breaking into a smile of relief. Outside, blade length icicles hanging from the guttering, to be snapped off and sucked as lollypops or used in crystal sword fights with my imaginary playfriends.
Throughout the year, excess water from the spring in Higher Orchard gurgled into a gulley by the side of the East Knowstone road, and ran through front court where swallows and martins skimmed for mud at nesting time with which to build on shippen rafters, and along the cob walled barn. On a summer's day dad created a dam with two hessian sacks crammed with golden barley straw, which he rammed beneath the stepping stone bridge. For an afternoon, front court is an uncharted stretch of sea. Dad nimbly creating boats from sheets of brown paper and a bicorne from the weekly Western Times, promoting me to Admiral of the Eastacott fleet. At five o'clock the plug was pulled, and in a surge my mythical ocean was sucked under the bridge, under the outside double seat lavatory, through the pond, drained when I was born, through a gap under the hedge, through ditches in Bull's Mead, Furze Close, Moory Ground and into the Crooked Oak river.
During the winter months dad diverted the flow and the water washed over the grass in Bull's Mead. The lavatory buckets tipped into the water to enrich the grass for springtime grazing for the Devon steers. Here, peewit, snipe and hen billed the soil for worms and grubs, nurtured on the night waste spoil.
In summer, the Crooked Oak was thin, a meandering stillness, pollen-flecked, where one year mum and I bathed naked when Higher Orchard spring threatened to run dry. On one occasion a dead sheep, haloed in flies floated slowly by as we picnicked on the bank.
In autumn it was swollen and gorged with fish which my dad and his neighbouring farmer cousin gaffed with iron hooks attached to stout ash poles.
One August day, the sky as black as the pitch-painted corrugated iron linhay roof, was split asunder by jagged lightning flashes and deep thunder crashes. Front court stream became a raging beast of a torrent which threatened to break down the barricaded pine front door.
My aunt's voice interrupting my wandering thoughts,"I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a token of a covenant between me and the earth. Richard of York gave battle in vain. All your colours in a simple sentence for you to memorise. And the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.Your animals and birds, all safe forever. Beast and man. No more drowning. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty and he died."
The treasure chest closed with a gentle movement.One night a brown paper bag produced from the pocket in her floral patterned nylon overall, and passed to me. A surprise present from her South Molton market day bus trip. The gift excitedly examined. In my hands a "1001 pictures kaleidoscope".
Today, with each twist of the tinplate container, childhood memories from almost sixty years ago are relived in patterns which split, shatter and reform. Recalling her soft, gentle, voice when first I drank from the King James well of language rich in cadences and rhythms.