March 30, 2009

“And to my dear grandson, I leave the Village of Buckland”

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 3:45 pm

For twenty five years I have lived in a rural English village about twelve miles southwest of the Oxford city limits, and on the edge of the Cotswolds.  Almost all the houses are built of the characteristic yellow stone from nearby rolling hills.  Some are finished with thatch, and most of the rest, like mine, have fine, old slate roofs.

Until recently virtually every cottage in the village was owned, as they had been since medieval times, by the lord of the manor.  (These days not a lord, and indeed not even a knight of the realm – but the Squire none the less.)

Falling on hard(ish) times, in 1968 the Squire began to sell off some of the cottages, and for the first time people other than those serving either his estate or the local community moved in. 

My house, Hedges, was once part of the commercial centre of the village.  Hedges was a draper’s shop (run by Mr and Mrs Hedges – hence the name – don’t go looking for tall bushes if you come to visit).  Next door on one side, now given over mainly to cats, was the brewery.  On the other side were the general stores; behind, the bakery, and across the road, the malt house and (somewhat incongruously) a Baptist Chapel, a temporary early 20th century enthusiasm.

The last time I asked there were about 500 adults on the Parish Rolls, and I don’t suppose the number has changed much.  In the quarter of a century I have lived here a lovely old mulberry tree, the malt house, and a bizarrely out of place petrol station have all been knocked down to make way for modest development.  The estate’s stables were converted to courtyard dwellings, and I suppose a dozen or so more new houses have been erected.

The shop and post office, once my next door neighbours, have shut.  The Baptist Chapel is long gone, and a couple of years ago the Catholic Church closed down too, its site deconsecrated, but, in the property collapse, still empty. The 13th century Church of England remains, and the pub struggles on; Australian waiters serve yuppie food to visitors while the locals bugger off to the Trout, an old pub down the hill by the Thames, on the river’s last few navigable miles before it peters out at Lechlade.

Buckland still has a village school; 35 children were enrolled when Silverbridge walked the 50 yards or so from our front door to its, but I think there are more than double that number now.  Almost all come from outside the village and create mini traffic jams outside my house twice daily.

Not long after I moved to the village, the Squire, the one who had inherited the village from his grandmother, and who had seen the first sales of village houses, died.  His elder son, a man about my age, succeeded.  The estate still owned a great deal of property in the village, and all the surrounding land. 

The new Squire, a late 20th century gentleman farmer, shouldered the responsibility manfully, honed his enterprise, reluctantly sacked his father’s servants, went partly organic (grumbling publicly about what that had cost him), planted hedgerows, shot pheasant in season, spoke with finely clipped vowels, and knelt and prayed in church with his wife and two little girls exactly as often as it was seemly so to do.  

Last week he loaded his retrievers into his Land Rover, drove to the now mature woods his father planted for grouse cover half a century ago, and shot himself.  Used to gunshot, the dogs waited patiently for their master’s return until the gamekeeper found them, and the dead Squire, some hours later.

This Saturday morning I heard the sound of sirens, and seeing smoke billowing above the houses across the street, I followed the trail around the corner to what was once my babysitter’s home, now a weekend cottage for Londoners.  An early sixteenth century pair of tied houses for labourers and their families, it was one of the oldest surviving dwellings (originally two cottages) in the village. 

This is what I saw:

Through the afternoon most of the village came out to see the slow, smokey and undramatic conflagration.  At one point there were 15 fire vehicles lining the road, the firefighters moving with unhurried determination. They emptied the two swimming pools in the village and reduced our mains water supply to a trickle. 

Four hours later the frame that had lasted almost 500 years still stood, shrouded in smoke;

This morning, almost 48 hours after the fire broke out, two engines were still in the village, but by tonight they were finally gone, and I took this sad picture:

At the height of the blaze I ran into the woman who sold me Hedges twenty five years ago.  We chatted a bit, she wondering that I couldn’t sell that lovely house.  Her theory was (because it couldn’t possibly be the lovely house) that too many people were now parking on the village streets.  It wasn’t like that in her day. 

I hadn’t seen her in a while, though she is sometimes in the village because she still has family here.  I remembered, right after I asked her what brought her back this time, that her mother had been nanny to the young Squire.

I came for Charlie’s funeral, she said.

The funeral is tomorrow.  It has not been a good week in this every day story of country folk.


  1. A sad story…I can’t help wondering why he would take his dogs with him into the woods to do what he intended to do…

    Comment by Liz — March 30, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  2. You have the uncanny ability to make my mouth just drop open in astonishment – I was not expecting to read about that poor man’s suicide. I thought perhaps you were building up to his death, but not in that manner.

    I agree with Liz – whatever could have possessed him to take his dogs with him? Perhaps he didn’t want the neighbors to be suspicious, but still…

    Comment by Jan — March 31, 2009 @ 4:31 am

  3. The young Squires suicide just proves that appearances are deceiving. Everyone has troubles and some more than others. It’s how we handle those problems that set our course in life. Surely he felt his shoulders could bear no more of the burdens that he felt compelled to carry.

    We had our own bit of tragedies a couple of weeks ago. When it rains it seems to drench us to the very core.

    Comment by Midlife Slices — March 31, 2009 @ 8:41 am

  4. I think I understand about the dogs: he brought them along for company in his solitary, last act. It was not possible for him to have a person beside him, and yet he didn’t want to be alone, or without the comfort of a loving, loved creature.

    I thought it was the saddest part of that sad story.

    Comment by Duchess — March 31, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

  5. What a sad, beautifully written story. Makes me think of this poem:

    Richard Cory
    by Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1869-1935

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him;

    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;

    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    “Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
    And admirably schooled in every grace:

    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.

    Comment by ruth pennebaker — March 31, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

  6. What a sad story. When I was a child my older cousin was driving his truck down a windy mountain road near where I lived. He was going too fast, lost control and went off a cliff on the side of the road. They found his truck with his body in it three days later. His dog survived the accident and wouldn’t leave his body. It refused to be moved. Finally they had to pick it up and carry it away. Sad.

    Comment by Twenty Four At Heart — March 31, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  7. Both tragedies are heart-breaking and yet you told them so beautifully. I remember seeing your tweet about the cottage burning. So sad. I agree with MLS, you never know what is going on in someone’s life and mind. I was with a family friend the day before he killed himself and you never would have known that anything was bothering him.

    Comment by Smart Mouth Broad — March 31, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

  8. Ruth — thanks for quoting the poem, which is very apt. I am ashamed to say I only knew the Simon and Garfunkel adaptation.

    Comment by Duchess — April 1, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  9. What an absolutely riveting story, Duchess, and told so well. It definitely would have kept Archers’ fans tuning in for more revelations …

    I absolutely agree with you about the dogs. He knew that they would stay with him and mount vigil until someone came. And, let’s face it, they probably came because they knew the dogs were missing; otherwise his body might have stayed undiscovered for much longer.

    Btw, is it absolutely certain that the Squire killed himself? I remember reading some time ago about a hunter who carelessly left his gun uncocked, and his dog shot him … True story.

    Comment by Tessa — April 2, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  10. What a sad, sad story. I didn’t see the ending coming at all. I was enjoying the quaintness of the village and learning about its history.

    Comment by Pseudo — April 3, 2009 @ 6:56 am

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