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My mother led the way. A tiny lady, full of fire and gusto. She loved this: walking, telling stories, her son home for the holidays. Alongside my mother; my father, my grandfather and I trudged across the familiar farmland towards the pub. The walk is not long, but owing to the steady drizzle over the last three days, the footpaths became a mire of churned grass and cow-pat fragranced dirt. Our shoes became one with the mud. My grandfather was dressed for the occasion, he tucked his maroon trousers into grey woolen socks. We were pulled along by Ruby, our yapping dog companion – a six-year-old King Charles Cavalier. I’d offered to hold the lead as she operates like a ski-lift on these slick hillsides.
Eventually, our motley crew arrived at the promised land: The White Lion. A 17th-century conversion that, like many of the houses, is raised off the road level by 14 concrete steps. They become rather more challenging after time has been spent enjoying the establishment. The Inn is painted white, moss and ivy grow on its slate-tiled roof. Above the black, thick wooden door reads “The White Lion Inn”– painted with black ink, in an authentic old-style font. The windows are single paned, and seem brittle from age; every night, warm light and laughter pour from them. Local beers are offered on tap. Chips are offered essentially all day, and on Sundays, a roast of oil covered baked vegetables, gravy, and rich meats are served. Dogs were allowed inside, but owing to the fact ours had practically swum through cow manure for the last 20 minutes, we elected to keep her outside, rotating one of us to keep her company – my Mother offered to take the first shift.
There is not much space inside The White Lion – which is why it is often described as “cosy”. The little space there is, is made of us. The taps and bar are centrally located, so seekers of the ale can be served from either side. The south side is little more than a walkway with a windowsill seat for three. The north-side opens into an irregular rectangle, with a little more room for easy conversations, and canine companions.
I procured the selection, and settled upon “Greyhound, please”. I’d been told it was brewed less than a mile away; it felt right. My father ordered himself “London Pride, please”. My grandfather selected “Sussex Best Bitter, please”. The round-faced bartender poured our drinks with experience whilst we all looked vacantly for seats. Eventually, we happily perched our rear’s upon the padded window seat. My father furthest to the right, my grandfather in the middle, and myself on the left. My grandfather is smaller than my father and looked amusingly tiny between us. He’d lost his hair in a motorbike accident (a fact he enjoys making fun of himself for). His deep eye wrinkles stand out from an otherwise unwrinkled face, most likely caused by many years of belly laughing and running. A wispy Scottish Deerhound sauntered in and smelled my legs.
In unison we took slurps from our, warm, warm, and cold beers. I sensed the presence of a tradition that felt right. We all lazily nodded our heads in a habit that had been passed along for who-knows-how-many generations. Our top lips becoming encased in foam.
“Didn’t you used to make your own beer, Dad?” My own father asked in a way intended to open the older man into a story.
“Yeah, yeah”. He spoke slowly to collect his own thoughts. “I’d make it upstairs. Just got together a bunch of buckets and bowls from around the house. Your mum didn’t like it much though – bloody thing stunk… and I used her new tights to strain the beer.” We all laughed. “Got it wrong once, mind you. I was trying to make a Brown Ale, mixed it up wrong, too much pressure and bang! The top blew off.” We laughed harder. “A big brown stain came through the floor… I made wine after that.” I laughed so hard I almost slid off the seat.
I took my turn to stand outside in the cold with the dog, and remembered all the reasons I loved here.
Here, you don’t make love under midnight trees – this is not Italy. The people don’t sit outside drinking wine all day – this is not France. But perhaps, in the rolling countryside hills of Southern England, you might enjoy a golden beer, watch newborn lambs frolic in fields, and listen to the sound of house mice assembling their nests.
This is Thakeham.
A village with an area of 4.5 miles, with 1,800 people, set 41 miles south of London (one hour and a half by train or car). This is also my home, and I don’t get to visit it often. I live 4,500 miles away, but I am here always.
On 1st January 2015 I left on the adventure of a lifetime. In the following 18 months, I rock climbed, kayaked through rapids, drank gallons of American coffee, wrote thousands of pages, and met a redheaded beauty with a playful, (mostly) angelic personality to match. Somehow, I convinced her to be my girlfriend and further, still I talked her in to coming back to England with me for 3 weeks.
The nights before we left Boise for England were filled with dreams of verdant meadows, pockmarked with sheep. Eight-foot high hedgerows cultivated to act as boarders. Dirt covered lanes, and tractor drivers bobbing up and down with a jovial ease and tranquil belief that the future will be good.
We landed in the morning, and took a walk. The only decision: left toward the neighbouring village, or right towards the fields of my childhood. We chose left.
It’s hard to describe the sheer smallness of Thakeham. Even the pavements are small; perhaps designed just so only two people can walk along together, holding hands. And so we did.
It was a slow amble full of conversation, my mother, Molly and myself. Our rather crazy canine companion insisted on chasing passing cars… fortunately, there are not many. Off the beaten path and into the fields, then out the fields into the woods. The greenness was astounding.
“Oh let me get a photo of you two!” exclaimed my tiny mother. “Get Ruby in too!”.
We slept well that night under an open window and the song of a thousand harmonised country birds.
But if adventure and exploration has taught me anything, it is that nothing stays as it was, no matter how you might wish it to.
We took the right turn the next day.
Lorries the size of houses, bright yellow diggers, bearded men with hard hats and hi-visibility jackets. A £3.5 million investment had been made into building 146 new houses in our small, sleepy village. The fields were submerged by a mound of dirt and houses. The open fields of marauding dairy cows and corn were buried. The rows of Horse Chestnuts cut down and the acres of wildlife evicted. A faux “Village Green” had been built around a circle of 15 houses. I had known about the plans (accepted in the Spring of 2011), and it was foolish to hope that somehow the scheme would never be realised. I wanted to bring this girl to my home, and show her it.
We made our way around the green chain link fences and “PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO ENTRY” signs. I intended for us to take “The Village Day Walk”, but found access to the path was shut off to the public. After a few miles through farms and over fields, we escaped the sight of the work. But at no point could we really lose it; a chalky-like Sulphur smell, the echo of construction rebounding off every hillside. We took the long way around to the pub.
For three weeks Molly and I gallivanted around Southern England. Taking trains to London and Brighton; using the underground; walking the streets; eating the food; drinking the ciders. We saw galleries and skipped rocks on the seaside. We climbed over fences and picnicked on hillsides. I avoided the building as much as I could, but due to some explosive car-sickness, Molly and I decided to spend a few days exploring via our feet. Spurred on by my foreign companion I learned about my little village. It was established in records 809 years ago. Thakeham: Saxon for “a homestead of thatched rooves”. The main road acts as an indicator of its age: Strawberry Hill, or if you consult a road map the B1239 (a far less endearing government issued name). History and hearsay quietly reject this boring label: two portions of this old road are carved very deeply through hills – quite certainly by hand as the earth rises 15ft on each side. It is said that the road was cut by French prisoners, by hand, during the Napoleonic wars (somewhere between 1805-1815). The street upon which the White Lion is located is also a testament to its age and traditions. On this one road is a pub, a primary school, and a 14th-century church. It is an old, old road; in fact, it is a hollow: sunken lanes that have been worn down by feet, horses, carriages and cars. This road, “The Street”, has sunk at least 5ft from its original height.
Our gallivanting fittingly came to an end with a walk. In May the woods of England are famous for their bluebells. There are three nearby woods full of them. The most meaningful for me is behind the new houses. It took some emotional courage to take the steps that led to the beaten heart of Thakeham. Pools of shimmering orange sunlight cast everything in a hue of orange.
I did my best to avoid the sorry sight of the mud field where I learned to kick a football. Keeping my eyes down was just as bad, the grass trail had become a hodge-podge of concrete, torn up pieces of stone and a few florescent orange energy drinks. I felt embarrassed that the home I had described so much to Molly was in such a state. I looked up for a moment. What I saw hit me like a ton of feathers. Inside the circle of houses, on the green that I had learned to loathe, a small plastic goal had been erected. Two figures chased each other. A father and his young son were playing soccer, running and laughing. The man was teaching his boy how to shoot. Over the singing of Skylarks and Nightingales, I heard the words “Use your laces” … “Goal!” and intermingled laughter.
We strolled into the woods without taking a step, deep in quite conversation – the boy stuck in my mind. The carpet of luscious green gave way to a shaggy layer of purple bluebells, like a thousand mulberry teardrops. She climbed a gap between leafy trees.
The silence was piercing, the birdsong the only sound. I am brought to smile at the thoughts of those ephemeral moments. I think that is the thing: Home only exists in moments. Sparks in our memories that are fleeting but won’t ever be forgotten. Home is the smell, the sounds, the people. It doesn’t last forever, it has to disappear, to be reinvented for somebody else. It has to change; in a lot of ways, you have to let it. That’s where climbing rocks and boarding planes and drinking too much alcohol comes in. The adventure is a respite for the loss.