He was a small man. Neat, elderly and charming. Making polite but engaging conversation, asking me about myself, passing the butter and filling up my glass whenever he noticed it getting low. It was summer and the subject soon moved onto holidays and thence to favourite destinations. I told him about the wonderful holiday Paul and I had enjoyed in Sri Lanka a few years previously.
“Ahh, Sri Lanka! I love Sri Lanka.” He told me it was his favourite place and went on to ask me where we’d been, and to talk knowledgeably about the various towns and historic sites we’d visited. He spoke of the country with such affection I asked him how often he’d been there.
“Well, I lived in Sri Lanka for quite a while. It was known as Ceylon in those days - when it was still part of the British Empire.”
“Really? What did you do when you were out there?”
“I ran it.”
I’d never met anyone like my new neighbours. Growing up in a provincial town and born into a fairly poor family with a proudly working class father and a middle class but politically left wing mother, the well-bred, well connected upper classes were another race to me. A race I knew I’d never meet.
Until Paul and I decided to move into the country and found ourselves in the middle of the most remarkable community I could ever have imagined.
Oh it’s true that sometimes I feel my lack of public school education. And yes, at times I’m jealous of the privileges enjoyed by the children of my friends and neighbours - privileges which will ensure them easy entrance to Oxbridge and thence to the City and a life of wealth. But this place isn’t really about privilege, although we know we are all privileged in some way. No, it’s about characters. The tiniest of hamlets, this place is chock full of real characters - artistic, unusual and, we’d all agree, often a little eccentric.
First there are the female ex-spies, of which there are more than one. Members of the undercover organisation known as SOE (Special Operations Executive) which carried out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance missions during the Second World War, the elderly women who now sit genteelly in church, or man the cake stall at the village fete, once undertook missions of such daring and danger they could have come straight from a Boys Own annual.
Whilst Jane in the vicarage was money laundering for the war effort in Shanghai (see here), Celia nearby was running agents into occupied Norway. Dropping Allied undercover agents and radio operatives behind enemy lines, she also helped co-ordinate the raid to sabotage the Norwegian heavy water plant, thereby halting German development of nuclear weapons.
Celia knows how privileged she has been. Born into a wealthy family in one of London’s great squares, she grew up with a butler and a ladies maid and, so grand and so well-connected was her family that Queen Mary came to tea on occasion. Then, some time after Her Majesty had left, a footman would appear on the doorstep with a small collection of the family’s silver teaspoons that “must have been mislaid.” Queen Mary being famous not only for her hats, but for her kleptomania...
Later Celia married David, the eldest son of a wealthy family, who sold the family business and instead raised chickens - very successfully mind you - but not before his photograph had appeared on the front page of The Times in the freezing winter of 1963. Published as an example of true English spirit, it showed David, surrounded by deep drifts of snow, driving his open-topped Aston Martin through country lanes on his way into London. The heavy snow falls and bitter temperatures of that winter had made no difference to David. No matter the weather, he would never dream of putting the roof up on the car.
Kathleen is my closest neighbour and yet another indomitable character. Born into an old and well-connected family, she met her then husband when she was one of the very last court debutantes and he a dashing ‘deb’s delight’. Their honeymoon was spent driving an open topped Jaguar from the top to the tail of Africa - a remarkable adventure for a young girl in those days so soon after the war.
But for real Boys Own stories of derring do, there’s no-one to beat Roland. Whether it’s a tale of riding at Newmarket or racing at Brands Hatch, or maybe of helping to smuggle Bishop Makarios out of Cyprus, Roland always has a story to tell. The trouble is that you’re never quite sure which of the stories to believe. But we wouldn’t have it any other way, because Roland is without a doubt one of the village’s great characters.
Most of these people are now in their late seventies and eighties. Some have already passed away. And my husband Paul worries that the village’s unique character will change forever when that generation have finally passed on.
So I gently remind him of our own age group who live here.
What about Jonathan, whose first job was looking after Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, and who went on to be part of a famous partnership designing outrageous jewellery for rock stars? The long standing captain of the village cricket team, he takes a party of villagers out to the Caribbean every year to lose to the West Indians at village cricket and attempt to beat them at hard drinking.
Or there’s Alexander, the writer, who, as a young graduate was English tutor to the many adopted children of French exotic singer/dancer Josephine Baker, moving on from a life of public school and Cambridge to be thrown in amongst the oddest cast of characters and hangers on in her enormous rented chateau in France. Maybe it was that experience that encouraged him to live for a while on an otherwise uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland and later amongst the headhunters of Borneo. Who knows? But try telling me again that our generation of residents are boring...
I know these days we might not have spirit of the generation who lived through the war years, but we’re an interesting and artistic lot. Until recently James and Emma put on full scale operas in the grounds of their ancestral home and Sarah’s family are deeply involved in the opera and theatre worlds as well as running a historic photographic library and gallery.
Then, as well as Alexander’s photographer wife Silvia, there’s Jennie, a fine embroidery artist, and John, a painter, whose wife is portrayed, clad only in her long hair and a mermaid’s tail, on the sign for local pub The Rock. And Lily, who has started a business making organic artisan chocolates from her family home.
In a tiny village of only around thirty houses, we are blessedly rich in interesting and engaging characters. And it’s not just the people who make this place so special. We’re surrounded by countryside of such gentle beauty and magic it stirs my heart and lifts my spirits throughout every season of the year.
The lane that forms the spine of the village is long and straight. It runs along the highest ridge in the High Weald of Kent and seems to be part of a line connecting an ancient Saxon fort to the west with a large rock formation in the next village, thought to be a Saxon boundary marker. Some people say it’s one of the earliest recorded ley-lines and although the road veers off to the right just outside the village boundary, you can see the line itself continuing straight ahead via a bridle path directly into an ancient wood.
The path is churned up by horses for much of the year but you can still pick your way through and follow it - straight as a die along the continuation of the ridge - through the wood. In true English tradition this is a beech wood. Small leaves of the purest, lightest green filter the sunlight to create a dreamy dappled shade, dark ponds half hidden by fallen branches seem secret and mysterious and the overpowering colour and scent of bluebells draws everyone in to experience their heady narcotic in spring.
You may hear a snapping, even a crashing of branches as wild deer try to escape your presence. If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of them speeding through the wood - twenty or more of them - soft eyed does, proud stags with full antlers, tiny fawns looking like they’re preparing for a Disney casting call. Such a large herd of sizeable animals, yet they are completely wild. So that every time I see them I find myself wondering where they sleep. How do they keep warm in winter?
They live in such proximity to us in the village that we often find deer droppings scattered across our gardens and the bark of roses or young fruit trees eaten away. Sometimes Paul and I see the whole herd crossing the field above our home. One by one, twenty-five, maybe thirty of them. A white hart in the line, gloriously endowed with an enormous set of antlers, will often stand and look down at the village from on high. Before continuing his way back into the magical wood.
Continue along the bridle path, along the ridge and if you know the place, you can plunge down the left hand side into a field. There you’ll find a cave which will take you underneath the ridge, and thence to a small, narrow entrance into another cave, guarded by enormous spiders. Dare to go through that entrance and the cave opens up into a small vault, the walls of which have niches carved into them. And on those niches, the remains of wax candles.
I’m too scared of spiders to have been there myself, but my neighbour’s sensible adult sons swear they saw the remains of the candles when they were children, knew the place as the witches cave. Scared themselves silly by going in there. And it’s not only those men who talk of local witches; other residents have spotted phials hanging from trees in the wood, and, on taking them down discovered spells written on paper folded inside.
I often imagine going into that wood at night, passing the badgers snuffling around their setts, feeling the bright eyes of the deer watching me make my way. And then sitting down on the woodland floor, my back against a broad tree trunk, waiting for a shaft of moonlight to make its way through the dark branches. And watching the fairies and wood elves dancing in the silvery light.
Instead I stand by my front door and look up at the stars. Stars of a brilliance and abundance that can never be experienced in the light-sodden towns. I breathe in the heady scent of philadelphus in summer, viburnum in winter and hear the childcry of foxes mating in the wood. A blackbird sings from the top of one of our trees, to be answered by a rival across the road.
And I marvel at the magic in this place.