ETCETERA: COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS an almost trivial image, but it is the one from our local anthology of wartime memories that I know I shan't forget: the women cycling home "in droves" from the munitions factory, down ice-bound lanes, lamps pointed downwards, tyres half-deflated to hold the road, and carrying lengths of string to use as tow-ropes. It caught for me both the closeness and distance of those days. I know those twisting Chiltern lanes in winter, but nothing about what it must have been like to confront them - and six years of one's life - in an incongruous and unrelenting mixture of anxiety, camaraderie and sacrifice.

Now the VE anniversary is over, these stories will start to fade, and where will the memories live then? Almost every major event in our history has left enduring reminders engraved in the landscape. Vast parish churches and pagan hill carvings, tracks worn yards deep by centuries of trudging, massive Celtic boundary ditches, probably dug by slaves, running through my home hills, the sheer ubiquity of mud after winter rain - all tell uncompromising stories about the meaning of religion, labour and authority to our ancestors. They are, perhaps, even more than written records, the most dramatic records of the feel of the past.

The war itself was pure landscape to me, born as I was in its middle years. I remember gathering strips of radar-scrambling "window" from the garden, and watching searchlights and barrage balloons. It is all I remember. War, like sex, seems to convey some in- tuitive sense of its importance to children long before they understand what it means. Now that I do understand, I have confused feelings of guilt and longing at having "missed" it.

And the tangible evidence that it happened is vanishing inexorably. The emergency air-strips have mostly been dug up, the pill-boxes we played in as children in the late Forties and Fifties bulldozed away. What are left are vestiges: a couple of fields taken out of the common, and only now being allowed to "tumble back"; a wood marked on the map as "The Larches", but which locals call "The Italian Wood". It was planted by prisoners of war who I remember walking in the lanes, with black patches on their sleeves and eyes a thousand miles away. They also looked after the wood I came to own. When they went home, they gave their neighbour in the village a strawberry basket woven from willow and hazel, split and chamfered with a pen-knife, and cut from trees I have coppiced myself half a century later. It passed to some friends on the neighbour's death, an exquisite reminder of one of the better culture shocks of wartime.

The most solid relics are the road blocks - "tank traps", as they were called - on a road up to the common, where my own dad's army did guard duty. They sit at the edge of a field, like bulky concrete pears, moss- bound and mysterious. A while ago, I found myself walking behind two ramblers who were discussing the traps' origins as glacier-torn examples of a local rock, Hertfordshire puddingstone. They are drifting into the realms of mythology, like Avebury's standing stones. Perhaps this is how landscape humanises war. 8

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