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Authors: John Moore

Brensham Village

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BRENSHAM VILLAGE

JOHN MOORE

Contents

Part One
The Hill

Part Two
The Cricket-Team

Part Three
The Darts Players

Part Four
The Frost

Part Five
The Groupers

Part Six
The Syndicate

Part Seven
The Bomb

Part One
The Hill

The Landmark – The Crack–brained Village – The Fabulous People – The Way to the Hill – The Mad Lord– The Bottled Crusader – Wild Wormës in Woodës – The Sugaring Expedition – The Hermit – Bird's Eye View – Pitchers and Gormleys – Christmas Holidays – The Syndicate – The Brief Loveliness – Brensham in Blossom–time

The Landmark

Almost every morning of their lives the weather–wise people of Elmbury lift up their eyes to glance at Brensham Hill which rises solitary out of the vale, four miles away as the crow flies. According to its clearness or mistiness they make their prognosis of the day; taking into account, of course, the season of the year, the direction of the wind, and the rheumaticky pains in their backs, their legs or their elbows. It is supposed to be a bad sign - in summer at any rate - to see Brensham Hill very plainly. If you can make out the jigsaw pattern of pasture and ploughing, stone wall and hedgerow, quarry and cart track, furze-patch and bramble-patch, and identify the stone tower atop which is called Brensham Folly, ‘twill rain like as not before evening. If the hill appears as a vague grey-green shape, with the larch plantations showing as faint shadows like craters on
the moon, you can get on with your haymaking, for it's going to be fine. But if you cannot see Brensham Hill at all, if the clouds are right down on its seven-hundred-foot summit, then you recollect the old rhyme:

‘When Brensham Hill puts on his hat,
Men of the Vale, beware of that,'

and you know you are in for a sousing.

Brensham, therefore, is as much a part of Elmbury's landscape as the great Norman tower of Elmbury Abbey, as the tall chimneys of the flour-mills, as the red sandstone bridge which spans with four lovely arches the meandering river. It rises up in front of you as you walk down the wide main street; it appears behind the bowler's arm when you bat on the cricket-field; it is the first landmark of home when you approach Elmbury by train or car; and if you glance round the corner of any of the alleys which compose Elmbury's frightful slums its greenness against the sky holds out to you a prospect of better things. From Tudor House in Elmbury High Street where I spent my childhood I used to look out across the flat green fields to Brensham Hill and think of it as a mountain, its coppices as jungles, its slopes as unmapped contours awaiting an explorer.

I had to wait a few years before I could simulate that explorer; for our country roads ran less straight than the crow flew, and a child's short legs couldn't manage the distance. I suppose my nearest approach to Brensham in those days was by river, for picnics by rowing-boat were much in fashion and Brensham lay immediately upstream of us, on the river's right bank. I remember my father and my uncles in their shirt-sleeves, puffing like galley slaves as they pulled the heavy boats, my mother and numerous aunts in flowery dresses and picture hats, the yellow waterlilies
called Brandy Bottles hastily plucked in passing, the small hand trailed over the side and the pleasant sensation of water surging through the cupped fingers, the snowy tablecloth laid on the bank and the search for a site which was free from molehills, cowpats, or tuffets of grass, the usual alarm about wasps and cows, the heavy travelling-rugs: ‘Wrap yourself up, child, it's so easy to catch a chill by the river.'

Once, after a longer row than usual, we reached the ferry at Dykeham, and Brensham Hill with its patchwork fields stood only a mile away. We might have actually picnicked in the water-meadows at its foot; but there was a high wind slapping little waves against the side of the boat, and we had with us an old and crazy aunt who announced that she was going to be seasick.

‘How can you be seasick, Aunt Paddy, when you're not on the sea?'

‘I can be seasick,' she said tartly, ‘whenever I think I am going to be seasick.'

Alas, we knew this to be true; three old pleasure-steamers, the
River Queen
, the
River King
and the
Jubilee
, plied upon the river, and Aunt Paddy had even succeeded in being seasick when our boat rolled in their wash. So home we went, and Brensham Hill remained a distant prospect for another season.

The Crack-brained Village

By then I was a tough little schoolboy with three tough little friends, Dick, Donald and Ted, and a ferret called Boanerges, which I carried everywhere in my pocket, sometimes in company with a grass snake, to the discomfiture of both. We rode to Brensham, for the first time, on the
bicycles which were tenth birthday presents, and thereafter spent most of our holidays there.

I had got to know Elmbury as only an inquisitive small boy can know the place where he is born and bred; so I was ready for further exploring. I had caught striped perch and loggerheaded chub in the rivers and streams which ran round Elmbury and through it, found larks' and curlews' nests in the big meadow called the Ham, climbed the four-hundred-odd steps to the top of the Abbey tower and gazed upon the coloured counties spread out below. I had achieved immortal infamy by scratching my name with a penknife on the sandstone wall of the Abbey. (It is still there.) And I had investigated, unknown to my parents, the rabbit-warren slums of the old country town and made friends with many of the curious and disreputable characters who inhabited them: with Slosher Hook, who waged war against his wife daily at the entrance to Double Alley, giving and getting blow for blow while the neighbours applauded and jeered; with Black Sal, who'd lost her wits and given up washing and who flapped about the town squawking and cackling like an old black crow; with numberless small ruffians who had filthy faces, ringworm on their heads, rickets in their bones, bottoms showing through ragged trousers, but who knew so much more about Life than I did that they seemed positively heroic. I also got to know those three musketeers whom I have since called Pistol, Bardolph and Nym. They were famous thieves, drunkards, beggars and scroungers who had served without distinction in various wars for what they could get out of it; they were just back from the Great War, and were already cocking a bleary and appraising eye at Peace to see what they could get out of that. They taught me a lot about rabbit snares and catapults, some merry rhymes, and some wicked swearwords; therefore they possessed in my eyes a sort of ragged
nobility of which time and riper experience hasn't quite robbed them yet.

Now among the politer expressions which I learned from these rascals, among the alley catchwords, the scraps of cant and rhyming slang, and the old country names of things and places which often sounded like, and sometimes were, the uncorrupted speech of Shakespeare, there was a phrase which made me prick up my ears as soon as I heard it: ‘As crack-brained as a Brensham hare'. Black Sal went flapping by, and Pistol shrugged his shoulders: ‘As crack-brained as a Brensham hare'.

‘Are there lots of hares on Brensham?' I asked eagerly.

‘Lor' bless you, yes! Great fat lollopers!
We
knows!' He winked at Bardolph and Nym, who repeated darkly:

‘Aye, we knows summat about ‘em!'

‘What do you know?' I said.

‘As they're good to yut,' said Pistol, grinning and rubbing his belly.

‘But why are they crack-brained?'

‘All hares is crack-brained. Come to that, ‘most everybody at Brensham is crack-brained. ‘Tis a crazy place.'

‘Tain't like any other village,' said Bardolph. ‘There's summat about it.'

‘The folks is as wild as the hares,' said Nym.

‘And very proud and independent-like,' put in Pistol.

‘Three pubs they've got,' said Bardolph with a gleam in his eyes.

‘There's more drink drunk in Brensham,' said Nym, ‘than anywhere else I knows of.'

‘Fine upstanding women they have,' leered Pistol.

‘And great folks they are for horses, and cricket, and dogs, and boats, and fishing, and fighting and all kinds of sport,' said Nym.

‘They hangs together,' said Bardolph.

‘Aye, they hangs together wonderful,' agreed Pistol. ‘Pick a quarrel with a Brensham man and the whole village'll set on you.'

‘Dogs and all,' said Bardolph solemnly.

‘And they've got a Mad Lord,' said Nym.

‘A real lord?' I asked.

‘Aye. And mad. Crack-brained as a Brensham hare.'

The Fabulous People

So before I ever set foot in Brensham I already knew it as a remarkable and far-famed place, completely different in character from all the other villages and hamlets which ringed Elmbury and were her satellites. Upon the green slopes of the hill hares lolloped, Pistol, Bardolph and Nym slunk down the hedgerows, set snares, and were remorselessly hunted (if their tales were to be believed) by giant keepers with knobbly sticks and savage dogs; and there was a Mad Lord. There were also fallow-deer, we were told, which ran wild there, having escaped from his lordship's demesne. And if fallow-deer, what else might inhabit the place, what birds, beasts, butterflies, what hoopoes, what golden orioles, what fire-crested wrens, what polecats, martens, adders, lizards, Camberwell Beauties, Queen of Spain fritillaries, Bath Whites? I knew, already, my natural-history books by heart; and I peopled Brensham Hill with all the rarest creatures I could think of. It would not be at all surprising to discover Camberwell Beauties in company with a Mad Lord.

Moreover, there were other fabulous people besides the lord. There had been a murder in Brensham fifty years ago - the house where it had happened was still there, tumbledown and unoccupied, and was called the Murder House;
and the family of the murderer and the family of the murdered person still survived and carried on the ancient feud! There was also a hermit, we were reliably informed, who lived in the tower at the top of the hill - Brensham Folly - and caught rabbits with his bare hands, and ate them raw. And fabulous indeed was the Colonel, who had a farm at Brensham and whom we saw almost every day, and usually twice a day, as he passed down Elmbury High Street on his way to the Swan Hotel. He rode, in those days, upon a very old motor-cycle which made a peculiar and distinctive chuffling noise. He sat up very straight, as he had doubtless been taught to do in the Cavalry before the Boer War. He wore a faded green jacket, knee-breeches, and a deerstalker hat: a suit which, with trifling differences in the cut, might have been made for Robin Hood. But his face, as much of it as was visible between his chin-high muffler and the long peak of his deerstalker, was not like Robin Hood's at all. It was fire-red, save for the nose, which was purple. Below the nose was a badger-grizzled walrus moustache, which in winter became hoar with frost. Between the nose and the peak of his hat one could sometimes see his eyes, which were extraordinarily blue and twinkling. The general effect was curiously elfin or gnome-like. His jacket had big poacher's pockets which bulged with hares, rabbits, wild ducks and pheasants in season, and at all seasons with bottles of whisky.

For it was whisky, whispered Old Nanny, hinted our parents, declared with a leer lean spidery Pistol - whisky that beckoned the old gentleman twice daily to the Swan, sustained him in winter as he chuffled home in frost or snow, revived him when he came back from wading knee-deep through icy waters in pursuit of wild-fowl. It was the fire from the bottle, they said, that burnt in his glowing cheeks, the bottle was the paint-pot which decorated his purple nose!

But we brats were no moralists. The Colonel was weird and wonderful, he belonged to the greenwood we were sure, he had some obscure affinity with Robin Hood. He was scarcely ever to be seen without some article of sporting impedimenta strapped to his motor-bicycle or slung over his shoulder: fishing-baskets, guns, salmon-rods, otter-poles, cartridge-bags, even rat-traps! In winter when snow lay on the ground he even appeared, on his way to stalk geese, in his sister's night-shirt, with a white night-cap on his head. It was said that when he failed to borrow a night-shirt he obtained a shroud and wore that. If such beings as he must feed on whisky, that only made them more marvellous in our eyes.

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