Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 12 March 2011

Aidan Hartlety's Wild life

Wild life  | 12 March 2011
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In a Jakarta traffic jam it hits me. After decades of frenetic travel, I have learnt less of the world than I might have, had I simply stayed on a farm in Devon. After my family’s land was expropriated in Tanzania in the 1960s, we lived for some years at Hill Farm near the village of Iddesleigh. Our neighbours knew us as ‘those Africans’. They hardly knew what Africa was, of course, since few had ventured beyond Hatherleigh on market day.

As he grew up, my eldest brother Richard sought wider horizons and went overseas. More than two years later, he returned and entered Iddesleigh’s pub, the Duke of York. ‘Hullo, Richard,’ said Bill, one of the regulars. ‘Where you been then?’ ‘I’ve been to Belize,’ said Richard. ‘That over abroad, is it, Richard?’ ‘Yes, it is.’ ‘I been over abroad once,’ said Bill. ‘Oh,’ said Richard. ‘Yurr,’ said the old regular. ‘1944. Some fugger shot me.’

Hill Farm looked out on a pagan landscape described by Ted Hughes, our neighbour, in his Moortown poems. His cattle broke into our fields. I shot his crows with my airgun. The brooks were full of crayfish; the meadows full of butterflies and flowers. Shoals of elvers migrated across fields on moonlit nights. Casting for sea trout with my father on summer evenings probably form my very happiest memories. Home was a Devon longhouse with thatch and very low ceilings and cob walls so old the builders, while opening a new door in the kitchen, found a hoarded James VI gold coin the size of a tin lid. Blackthorn hedgerows, huge granite gateposts and a great barn held up by huge oak timbers.

In the shadow of Dartmoor locals spoke with an accent as yet unpolluted by television. The village boys who were my friends taught me songs, one of which I recall ended, ‘Oh, fug me, fug me, she crid as he throd her on the sod as woz iz wod on a Saturday night in Exeter!’ Shepherds in the 1970s still spoke an ancient farming language, a slang from Pre-Roman Britain. Counting sheep, they said, ‘Yan, tan, tethera, pethora, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, covera, dik!’ Fifteen was ‘bumfit’ and 20 was ‘figgit’.

The Luxtons lived a mile away on West Chapple farm: a sister and two brothers, one of whom my mother said was ‘not all there’. Some mornings while on the way to kindergarten in Okehampton I would see Alan, the mad brother, standing on a blackthorn-decked bank working his mouth as our Ford Cortina swept past. That’s as far as he went. The Luxtons rarely left their farm. One Sunday in the great drought summer of 1976, my mother and I were in the garden after lunch when we heard several sharp reports in the distance. ‘Odd that,’ said Mum. ‘Shooting on a Sunday.’ We later heard the Luxtons had been about to lose West Chapple to the bank. Rather than submitting to a life away from the farm, that Sunday the eldest Luxton had taken his gun and shot his siblings point-blank and then himself.

That following winter the snow fell so thickly that Hill Farm was cut off. The local policeman, Constable Waycott, escorted me from school across Ted Hughes’s farm to my mother’s arms. Some days later in the sparkling snow in the orchard — with its ancient apples that had names like Cornish honeypin, Coeur de boeuf, Scarlet Pearmain, Rivers Nonsuch and Guelph — we discovered cloven-hoofed tracks walking up the hill towards the house. The animal was neither a sheep nor a deer for these tracks were of a creature on two legs. We followed the tracks up to the garden and were astonished to find they stopped at the front of the house — but continued in a straight line over the snowy thatched roof. We checked at the rear of the house and, sure enough, the tracks resumed and marched north into the fields.

In 1980 my parents sold Hill Farm to return to East Africa and I have been travelling ever since. The last news I had of the place came from Ted Hughes when he came to read his poetry at Oxford in 1985. Afterwards, I had a drink with Ted and his wife Carol Orchard. He told me, ‘They’ve knocked down the hedgerows to enlarge the fields. Slurry is running into the brook. They tore down your great barn and they’ve carried out renovations on the house — double-glazing windows, I think. I’m sorry, Aidan.’

In the past couple of years, I have dreamed often about Hill Farm as if it’s still there and I am walking up the drive and into the house. What I remember is no longer there. And then I wake up from my daydream to find myself surrounded by thousands of motorbikes on a Jakarta thoroughfare lined with frangipani.