I had a visitor to the cottage some days ago, nothing unusual in that but this was a special person who enlightened me a little as to how the cottage was many years ago. In my eyes that’s a priceless treasure to hold close.
Out of the blue, on a glorious hot afternoon as I worked in my garden pottering about with a few weedy things, a kindly gentleman came to call. He asked if he could take a quick look at the garden to see if it had changed much since he’d lived in the cottage. I smiled, as he did, and instinctively knew that this was going to be a special few minutes.
My visitor had a broad Somerset accent and explained that he’d been born in the cottage some ninety-two years ago! I’d never have guessed his age to be anywhere near that figure. He climbed the few stone steps, which lead to my colourful garden, without a thought to his bones or body. The steps were as he remembered and I wondered how many times he’d climbed them before as a child and adult alike.
I felt quite a proud gardener as we leaned on the paddock fence and took in the scene before us. To witness the stranger’s face as he looked around him at the bursting Sweet William, roses, herbs, pinks and a wild array of mis-placed cottage plants, was a magical moment. I’ve longed to meet him, because I knew of him but had no idea, however, that he’d been born in my cottage, so full of history, of character and stories – yet to be known. I’d been told of the man who had once lived here and who had loved his flowers and vegetables. Neighbours had said that he would be pleased I’d taken his patch over, tending it with a love that only gardeners can understand…and here he was, standing with me at the fence looking over my handiwork and he was in a world of his own.
My gentleman explained that the paddock had been full of vegetables grown by his father and carried on by him. His parents had kept bees in the far corner with several bee hives. There had been no running water and no electricity and with an outside toilet, in the still standing outhouse, a little way from the cottage – things seemed tough. But to him, it was a life well-lived. The outhouse is now covered in succulent ivy which curls around a green man tile. At the moment it houses a multitude of useful items but I guess, like the cottage, it would have its own story to tell.
I was trying to explain to him what the cottage means to me – how it has tales in its walls, how its heart beats if you stand in the hallway and listen carefully, how its character is built from those that lived here before me. He smiled and nodded and I knew he understood where I was coming from and that I wasn’t away with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, like most people think I am.
I asked if he’d like to come look around inside and the invitation was welcomed. I learned that there had been no kitchen extension back then but the bank of shrubs and flowers up to the garden was still intact. A water pump outside the now dining room window had long since disappeared but he recalled his mother pumping water from it with a clear memory – back then, it would have been outside the kitchen door. The well, we know, still remains but is hidden now with stone slabs and gravel.
My dining room was his kitchen and he could see his mother sitting in a chair before the large stove in the corner. Where my book shelf now stands there was a dresser and beside that a table running under the window. Under the stairs was their only larder and food store – it now houses my own store cupboard but in a very different manner to what was there originally. On the walls their light came from mantles with chain pulleys that could be pulled one way or the other to increase or decrease the light and he remembers a tiled floor in the porch, which is now our boot room. In the corner of the lounge there is a cupboard that houses my excess crockery – he told me it was originally there, all those years ago, but it used to house the jars of honey collected from the bees. I was amazed to realise that the cupboard had been there all that time.
He marvelled at the chaffinch and blue tits feeding at the table outside the kitchen window but most of all he took pleasure in knowing that the old holly tree was still standing to the side of the cottage. It is my special holly tree as it has ivy twisting and twirling all the way up the trunk and I love to look at it, to chat to it and ask for its protection. Again, to think that the special tree has stood for quite a number of years is a revelation to me. You can instinctively know these things but it’s always good to have it confirmed.
As my gentleman thanked me for my time, I thanked him for his stories and told him I’d look after his cottage. It all goes to building up a picture of what life was like here on Exmoor those ninety-two years ago. He hesitated outside the back door, looking around him and said ‘Well, I never thought I’d be tinkling this way ever again – thank you so much – it’s wonderful, just wonderful!’
It made me wonder about things that happen when I’m on my knees working in the front part of the garden. I’m not far from the old wooden five bar gate and I often have feelings of being observed in my work. Anyone can pass by the gate – walkers, riders, cyclists but this is a different sense of being watched. Several times I’ve turned slowly trying to catch whoever it is who keeps an eye on me and, believe me or not, I have caught a fleeting glimpse, more than once, of an old man in a rather too large cap, baggy trousers and shirt (his sleeves rolled up around the elbow) with braces, leaning on the gate in a relaxed manner.
Chatting to neighbours but not letting on what I’ve seen, it appears that a previous owner used to stand at the gate once or twice a day, nodding at passers-by. Whether my company on those special days was my kindly gentleman’s father or another previous occupant remains to be seen, but I know he’s there and keeping an eye on what I’m doing in the garden. I cherish times such as that afternoon visit.
There’s always something happening around the cottage to make me smile and I know in my heart of hearts that some things will never really change – they may develop a little but they’ll never really alter that much where I live. I’m happy to exist on a mixture of both the old and the new as I go about my daily business here at the cottage and I’ll look after the memories and stories, for those that will come after me, here in what is for now, my special home, my little bit of Exmoor.