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COUNTRY & GARDEN: The little hills shall rejoice

Country Matters
The Millennium celebrations being planned in our village will no doubt be mirrored in hundreds of other rural communities all over Britain - and I am sure that thousands of people must be as anxious as we are about what the weather will be like on the night. Our two pubs will be going full blast, of course, and their customers will be impervious to rain, wind or snow, as will everyone who attends the special service and American-style supper in the church; but the biggest events - street parties, bonfires and a torchlight procession - will take place in the open air, and if the night is wild, they are going to demand some stamina.

As it happens, our most important initiative was taken months ago, when the village made an all-out effort and bought a nine-acre meadow, now known as the Millennium Green, which falls away from the houses towards the river, with fine views of open country beyond. The aim was, and is, to preserve the field in perpetuity, to save it from being built on, and make it available to everybody for informal recreation such as dog-walking, kite-flying and so on. Of the purchase price of pounds 41,000, three-quarters was raised locally, and the balance was lottery money, paid in the form of a grant through the Countryside Agency.

Compared with that exercise - or indeed with the millions spent on the dreaded Dome - our outlay on celebrations has been modest in the extreme: pounds 50 or so for insurance, and a bit for the maroons that will signal midnight. Nevertheless, people are looking forward to the last night of the year with keen anticipation.

Planning began months ago when Ron, who runs the shop and post office, and has his ear closer to the ground than anyone else, sensed that most of the natives had no intention of travelling to exotic destinations, but wanted to see in the new year at home.

He therefore set up a small committee and got things organised. When a benefactor produced a magnum of champagne, he put it on the counter in the shop along with raffle tickets costing 50 pence apiece. After a couple of weeks there, and a week in each of the pubs, the bottle had raised over pounds 150 and given us a useful float.

To remind everyone that the event is primarily a Christian anniversary, a large, illuminated wooden cross will blaze out over the valley from the rim of the steep-sided hill known as the Bury, which towers 400 feet behind the village. The siting of this symbol proved one of our trickiest problems. Because the whole hill-top was once an iron-age fort, and later occupied by the Romans, who built a race-track round the perimeter, the Bury is a Scheduled Ancient Monument; and the idea of our digging or boring a hole in it, to receive the foot of the cross, did not go down well with its guardians, English Heritage.

Although the sides of the hill are extremely steep, its top is nearly flat, and the 33-acre field encompassed by the race-course is certainly of high archaeological interest. Air photos reveal the outlines of many buildings, some round, some rectangular, and only a few years ago a dig in another field nearby brought to light a fascinating 2nd-century AD temple dedicated to the god Mercury, complete with a well full of curses inscribed on small lead scrolls.

Yet the Bury field is ploughed, harrowed and drilled with corn every year by the farmer who owns it, and it seemed to us that one hole 12 inches in diameter would scarcely endanger the site. (I calculated that the area of the field amounts to just under 1,500,000 square feet, so that the chances of hitting anything important are infinitesimal.) In the end, after routine bureaucratic obstruction, English Heritage agreed that if we kept off the precipitous earth ramparts that crown the edges of the hill, we could go ahead; so now the hole has been dug - yielding no treasure, alas - and the cross is about to go up at a point which will make it visible from many of the houses below.

The most spectacular sights on the night - we hope - will be two bonfires, one on the Millennium Green, low down, and one on the heights, close to the cross. Your correspondent is in charge of the high fire, and on his mettle to produce a memorable blaze. Offers of combustibles are pouring in, but I have already decreed that no tyres or plastic objects are to be burnt. In the last bonfire we built on that eminence - for the night of countryside protest beacons last February - our core heat came from mighty planks, nine inches by three, which had once formed part of the pier at Weston-super-Mare but had somehow found their way to the village brewery. This time we shall have to rely on old telegraph poles, with their useful impregnation of creosote.

The idea is that we should light our fire at 11.30pm, and that revellers, tumbling out of various hostelries below, should form a torchlit procession and wend their way up to the heights. There they should find Chas, the brewer, ensconced in a horse-box (to protect him from the elements), along with a barrel or two of his special, 6.1 per cent millennium ale.

Rockets will split the sky at midnight, and if the air is clear, our blaze will be visible from as far afield as the Forest of Dean, across the Severn, and the Malvern Hills away to the north west. How long people will go on worshipping the fire, it is impossible to say; as I say, a good deal will depend on the weather.

But I know that I for one shall feel the presence at my shoulder of all our human predecessors who lived and fought and died on that wind-swept hill-top, not just during the Christian era, but over a millennium or two before that.