The gate lodge once housed a large family called Bingham. Presumably they opened and shut the gates as required. I thought of what fun they must have had, swinging on the gates. To me the children seemed remarkably tall. When I saw them walking to school, in various stages of tallness, they put me in mind of organ pipes. They all had fair hair. They walked in line astern. I recalled them recently to a man whose wife is a priest in the Church of Ireland.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I remember the Binghams. They were unusual for the time. Poor Protestants.’
They were more unusual in being a large family. The gate lodge is bigger than the other Milverton gate lodges. It guards the main entrance to the demesne. There are imposing pillars and great iron gates. I sort of envied the Binghams, because they lived in a romantic place, The Shady Lane, with a wild wood at their back door. Their house was like something out of a Just William story. They had a vicar and Sunday School, just like William. (Not too keen on school on Sundays.) I imagined foxes and squirrels and maybe even fairies, in the woods. They might even have called them faeries. There was a big house and horses. There were those lovely wrought-iron railings and cut-stone walls and gate pillars, that always indicate the houses of the ‘gentry’. There were copses of magnificent trees. ‘For the house of the Planter, is known by the trees, as Austin Clarke said. He said more, about the Planter’s daughter: ‘and oh, she was the Sunday in every week.’ The Binghams went away. I hope they prospered.
It was always a popular walk on Sundays, up Toker Hill, (I’m told that it should be ‘Tochar’, an old Irish word. Told by an old Irishman, actually,) round by The Shady Lane and back by the Quarry Road. There is a lot more traffic nowadays and a lot more cyclists and joggers. There are power-walkers too. Watch out for those elbows. At any time of year it is, nonetheless a pleasant walk. Long ago, boys went along those roads to look for birds’ nests in springtime and conkers or crab-apples in the autumn. Young girls went there to gather primroses and wild woodbine for May altars. They picked blackberries in September. Sometimes they encountered the young boys. Girls, if I recall correctly, had no interest in birds’ nests or conkers. They despised our juvenile pursuits and yet we were reluctant for them to go. At such times I was usually tongue-tied, although I longed to dazzle them with witty conversation. No such luck. There was one girl in particular. I prepared a menu of casual chat and scintillating remarks in my brain, in case I should meet her. She passed on her Raleigh. It was my opportunity to shine. I said nothing. ‘Snob’ she said, as she glided out of my life. I wanted to go and throw myself in front of Healys’ bull, in defiance of the warning notice nailed to the gate post. She would hear that I had been savagely gored and would regret her harsh word, but it would be too late. I wanted to hurl myself off the highest cliff in the quarry. She would be sorry then. But I didn’t. I knew that someday she would realise how unjust were her words and that she would fly back to me (on her Raleigh Gazelle. It had a basket on the handlebars, a carrier at the back and a three-speed gearbox. I just happened to notice that. There was gold writing on the black enamel. Elegant gold writing. Ah, well!)
Winter was the best time. The evenings were short. Darkness came early. The Moon appeared through the bare branches of the trees. You would always hear the cronk cronk of a pheasant in Hattons’ Wood, or the startled flapping of wood pigeons. A shot might echo in the gathering twilight, probably the landowner shooting some boys in the Cane Wood, as we were assured, was his practice. Everybody knew that. They were good canes though, and worth the risk. There was a donkey up there somewhere. He could have been a few miles away, but his roar carried in still, frosty air. An ass’s roar is a measure of distance in Ireland. The measurement varies according to atmospheric conditions. It’s a fair distance though, even a brave distance on a calm day. You might hear the rustling flight of lapwings and their shrill piping, as great flocks descended, to alight in a stubble field. Lapwings, a sign of cold weather.
We used to go up to the big house at Christmas, to buy holly. Perhaps Yuletide would be more appropriate. I thought of the holly and the ivy and the running of the deer. When blood is nipt and ways be foul, then nightly sings the staring owl. It was a setting for a mediaeval Yuletide, with wassailing in the hall and Tom bearing logs indoors. It was not a setting, in my imagination, for an Irish Christmas. The house was vast. We went to the front door. I saw animal heads on the wall inside, water buffalo, impala, wildebeest. A tall man directed us around to the yard. We got a big bundle of holly, for one shilling and sixpence. Nobody shot at us. That wonderful house was demolished to avoid crippling rates. Our one shilling and sixpence could not avert the evil day.
A pair of peregrines nested on the high cliffs in Milverton quarry. I stopped there one still, cold evening, to try to catch a glimpse of them. I have never seen them, although I know people who know people who saw them, so it must be true. The blasting didn’t seem to worry them. I listened. The quarry dam made a soft rushing sound. From far away came the sound of singing, a group of girls on the Toker Hill. (Pace, old Irishman.) They were singing in parts, as Sister Mel had taught them. Whispering Hope, whispering hope. Sister Mel taught choir. She taught Maths too, and maintained and drove the tractor. She was a bookbinder and a cook. She could turn a hand to anything. She taught them well.
They laughed and started again.
Wait till the darkness is over,
Wait till the tempest is done,
I was transfixed. It was a perfect moment.
Will not the deepening darkness
Brighten the glimmering star?
It did. It did. I saw the star. I knew their voices. I saw them in my mind’s eye. I stayed still, not wanting to meet them, or break the spell. I have never forgotten how beautiful they were, singing together on a winter evening.
When the dark midnight is over
Watch for the breaking of day.
On Friday I will go with my grand daughter, to the Concert Hall, to hear Margaret and her friends, singing Handel’s Messiah, the perfect Wintersong.