In Gloucestershire, my maternal grandfather passed away in the mid-fifties when I was eight. The following year Mum inherited enough money, when the will was probated, to take herself and us two children to visit her widowed mother for the last time, for three months. Dad was to stay behind in South Africa to mind the farm.
When the family drove to Durban to catch the Union Castle liner, the Carnarvon Castle, I had never seen the sea before. I pouted and sulked and whined until at last Dad took us all down to the beach. So joyously indelibly memorable, that first experience of sand and salt and ocean. So exciting! However, also locked in perpetuity is the resentment that so many hours were wasted in the city, doing whatever un-beachly things which grownups do…
But two weeks (and two weeks back!) on the liner were heaven, sneaking from steerage into first class or into the crew’s quarters on spying missions, tarzanning from deck to deck without troubling the stairs and ladders. No fear of heights, no doubt in my skinny athleticism.
Imagine an African Dennis-the-Menace released in a small Cotswold brewery, exploring long-unopened panels in the oast-house, ankle-deep flooded cellars – dungeons, with my wooden sword in hand – under the three-hundred year old stone house, and dipping naughty fingers into irresistible malt! Or ranging literally miles away across the green fields in the long English evenings at nine o’clock and wondering what the fuss was about when returning to furious adults.
And the smells! Africa’s smells are subtle and dry and fleeting, but damper climes provide the nostrils with a huge variety of scents that remain as much a part of my memory as the sights. So, imagine a brewery in the country! Hops and malt and mash and beer. Apple-rooms, larders and gardens. Hedges, mown grass and moss. A whole new olfactory kaleidoscope!
Meet Aunty Edith, who gave me an air-pistol, taught me to use it and had target practice with me. Although she never said so, I suppose Mum was pretty hurt when I tried to trade her in for Aunty Edith…
Edith took us to exciting places; the Rare Breeds Farm with its four-horned goats, to Longleat to see the African animals that my own country hadn’t yet shown me, and to Point-to-Points races. I returned to Donnington Brewery and immediately built my own course, galloping and jumping myself as if I was the horse and the jockey, sometimes tossing myself off and falling into the nettles… but Africans are too tough for nettles. Edith must have thought they were pretty stupid, too.
You don’t find enough bicycle parts in a hedge in Africato make a whole bike; there are too many eager hands to relieve anyone willing to part with them. But at the Brewery, my brother and I found a frame here and a wheel there and fished a second wheel out of the mill pond. (It drove the mill-wheel that could run the brewery when the power failed). We put them all together and, sans pedals, ran the contraption down steep banks until it disintegrated and threw me tumbling down the slope. We tied barrel staves to our feet and tried skiing. The slopes were so steep that it almost worked, but sheep-mown grass is no substitute for snow…
Ever tried that?
Oh, yes, my grandmother. Well, when my uncle Claude drove us home to Donnington Brewery, there was this little wrinkly old lady, standing in the doorway to welcome us. Mum told me to kiss her! Well, I ask you! Yech. Well, I couldn’t get out of it, but the memory is still there when I’ve forgotten a lot of other things. Poor dear.
Sad, that. Here he is with my daughter, Nicci Earle.