Reflections on - almost - a hundred years of memories.

When I was a little girl, we lived in Farming country, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. My childhood spanned the end of the depression, World War II, and its aftermath. We were in no danger from the war, but material comforts were hard to come by.

Our stone house, with its walled garden, was built in 1749, and little had been done since to modernize it. 

We had no car or electric domestic appliances, such as a washing machine, refrigerator or vacuum cleaner, of any kind. We had no telephone.


It was almost always cold. We had no central heating. We relied on coal and wood for fires, and there was a shortage of both. Pretty frost patterns would appear on the inside of the windows in winter. and the water pipes froze. Sometimes I walked to school through snowdrifts. In summer, rambling roses would climb to my bedroom windowsill, but in winter, I wore a coat and gloves, and scarf to do my homework.

We had running water in the house, but the water was piped in from the moor, pure and soft and sweet. Except after a heavy rain, when it would turn brown and upset my mother if that happened on wash-day.

Hot water was almost a luxury. 

We had a kitchen garden of course, as did many people during the war. Sometimes there was not much to eat except the Brussels sprouts which seemed to be able to survive the frost of winter, and eggs from the chickens we kept. Though in summer, vegetables were more plentiful, and there was a stream outside our house where my mother grew watercress.

There wasn’t much in the way of delivery services. I would be sent to the village to get bread, and on my way home from school I would pick up milk from the local farmer. The milk was put in a metal quart can with a lid and a handle for carrying.

And the rain! I would walk to school in my wellies and put my coat, alongside those of other children, to dry by the classroom fire - as at home, the school relied on fires for heat. The room would get steamy. Snowy, the school cat, there to catch the mice, would wave her tail in annoyance at being displaced from her basket on the hearth.

Yet despite the hardships, my most vivid memories are of breathtaking beauty and peace.

Walking home from my three-room schoolhouse, my way led along an unpaved road. On one side a bank 

sloped upwards, on the other, downwards towards a little stream, full of brown moss and minnows. In the springtime I could find violets amid the grass, and, where moisture seeped from the bank above down to the stream below, an abundance of primroses. Later, there would be bluebells, which I would sometimes gather and take to school in a jam-jar. Hawthorn bushes would be weighted with blooms and heavy with scent. Trees would burst into the delicate translucent green of new leaves. The tiny feathery needles emerging from a larch tree were like a mist.

Summer brought daisies in the pastures, and hay time, with meadows full of buttercups and clover and a myriad flowers ripening into seed. The local farmer would bring out his horse-drawn mowing machine and sometimes invite me to sit on his lap as he held the reins and the horse plodded steadily up and down the meadow. The farmer didn’t say much, and one could hear the swish of the grass being cut, or occasionally the cry of a lapwing, soaring startled from the ground. Rabbits and field mice would scuttle. The scent of new-mown hay pervaded. Later, lines of farmworkers would rake the hay into rows, ready to be stacked on a horse-drawn cart and taken to the barn. 

The farmer’s wife would bring tea in an enamel pail and lots of sandwiches for the workers, and they would sit and eat among the hay in the meadow.

Often the silence was palpable, so deep it seemed to envelop one. Sometimes all one could hear was the wind in the grass or the bees buzzing among the flowers in our garden. Though on a dark winter night, the wind seemed like the chilling wails of a lonely animal.

Sleepless, one cold winter night, I opened my bedroom window. The moonlight was brilliant, and I could see clearly, albeit in black and white. Beyond the trees and the garden was the hay meadow, now a pasture for sheep. They were grazing peacefully in the moonlight.The chimes of the church clock, a mile away, rang out in the frosty air. Further away, across the valley, the lights of a little town twinkled, as if a few stars had fallen from heaven. Later, the Pastoral Symphony came to mind  - this is what Handel meant. 

It was at moments like this that I came to realize that in my early years  I had experienced life in a way it had been before industrialization, before the internal combustion engine, before electronics and technology. Maybe my childhood was not so different from that of a child in Shakespeare’s time. Change has come so fast in recent years, but for most of humanity’s existence, it came slowly. The change from hunting and gathering to agriculture, urbanization and the working of metal, printing, took centuries to become widespread.  Most of our culture, especially our literature, reflects life as it was before recent technological changes. Rural life is the backdrop of many a poet and novelist.  And truly, Shakespeare’s lines:

When daisies pied and violets blue 

      And lady-smocks all silver-white 

And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue 

     Do paint the meadows with delight……are woven into the memories of my childhood.

So, in our virtual world, is something being lost? How well can the children of today, without the experience of rural life before the days of technology, really understand the works of say, Hardy, Emily Bronte, Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, the King James’s Bible?  But it can work both ways.

Paradoxically, without the language of poets and novelists, and yes, a musician, and of course, historians - I would not have realized that my childhood experiences were so similar to those of previous times.


It is language that has borne our culture from one generation, century, millennium, to the next, changing, but ever alive. In these days of rapid change and progressively diminishing rural life, language is all we have to help us understand the past of more than a couple of centuries ago, and we have to relate it to personal experience as best we can.

In later years, having left my rural fastness for college and eventually London and the United States, and encountering the English-Speaking Union along the way, I came to increasingly value our language, the language perhaps the most beautiful in the world.  And how important it is to share it. This, of course, is what the English-Speaking Union does. It helps to carry our language, not only along the river of time, but across all the oceans of the world. With it, it carries our culture, so that the flowers and trees of my childhood - and Shakespeare’s - and generations of other writers - can be shared with people everywhere. It enables us to share not only our literature, but our ideas, our philosophy, our science, our history. 

And so, with the people all over the world - to quote George Eliot in that achingly moving ending to “The Mill on the Floss,” we can, hand in hand, roam “the daisied fields together.”