During the fifteen years I have been a member of Solihull Writers Workshop, we have always met in the Margaret Wharam room in Solihull Methodist church next to the railway station and bus depot. The room is named after a woman I knew as a teacher from Dorridge, whose junior school choir would accompany the Chandos choir during our Christmas concerts. The room was named in her memory after her death.
On the wall behind the Chairman's table hangs a faded green and brown print of a road/trackway leading up and over an English hillside in winter time, flanked by three leafless trees. It always reminds me of the 3 miles of Icknield Street between Condicote and our farm.
Our theme for last Wednesday's meeting of the Writer's Workshop was to write something inspired by the picture. There was a wide selection of poetry and prose at the usual high and thought proving standard from Mark's version of "My Last Duchess" to Alex's varied soliloquay.
The following story was my contribution. Although the details are taken from my own memories, I have yet to walk the three miles again. Something to put on next year's "to do" list!
Sophie parked her car on the wet grass verge. Her closing door startled a black cloud of rooks in the nearby sycamore tree, which flew off scolding both herself and each other.
The tree was larger than she remembered. The air was chill but autumn sun warmed her face. She could see the path winding off up into the distant horizon. For a few moment she stood listening for sounds of sheep and lambs, but wind rustling in the grass was all she could hear.
No-one would be driving sheep today. The flock existed only in her memory. How many times had she walked in front along the three miles of neglected Roman Road on their way to the sheep dip on her uncle’s farm.
There was no point in trying to dip them at home. With only thirty broken mouthed ewes and their lambs it made no sense to dig a large enough hole to immerse them when family would be filling their trough with treated fluid for the large flock of Suffolks and Kerry Hills.
Summers were always hot in Sophie’s childhood. She remembered the thrill of watching the sheep moving through the holding pen towards the dip. Her father and uncle standing either side as the animals swam across or leaped on each other’s back, using their friends as stepping stones in an attempt to escape the noxious liquid.
They never did. Both men held shepherd’s crooks, the curved handle capturing each errant sheep and pushing it firmly under the water. Sophie worried sometimes the animal would drown, only reassure when they climbed out the other side coughing and shaking their whole bodies to remove as much of the fluid as possible.
It was for their own good. Sophie had never known their flock catch any of the dreadful diseased the dip protected them against – sheep scab and others. No-one knew then about the dreadful neurological harm caused to humans by the dipping liquid. No-one wore protective clothing or masks or rushed to wash off any ovine induced splashes. Thankfully, no-one suffered any damage that they could tell.
Sophie looked again at the track in front of her. Was she going to explore further or remain walking down memory’s lane? She locked the car, took a deep breath and set off up the hill.
It was steeper this way. She could only remember walking downhill before. Three miles was enough for small legs. The return journey was usually done by car with her mother and sister, racing to reach the crossroads to stop any traffic as the flock approached.
The fields were empty on both sides of the track. She looked in vain for her great uncle’s wild, long horned cattle. She could not remember the year he passed away, dying alone in a foreign institution, away from his land and his beasts. A stranger owned the farm now. One field lay brown with recently ploughed stubble, the other pale green cropped short by hungry mouths.
The track was rough under her feet. On either side deep ditches dug by Roman soldiers with short axes still remained. Hedgerow trees of hawthorn and blackthorn lined stone walls, their branches now red with hips and haws, purple sloes hiding in shadows.
It was difficult to say which barriers grew of their own accord and which placed deliberately either as boundary fencing or after the enclosures act. Whatever their origin, they respected the line of the road, even though modern authorities left it to crumble away, preferring later roads defined by Norman rulers.
Sophie plodded upwards, eventually reaching the crest of the hill where a roadman's hut lay derelict on her right hand side. When they first moved to the farm and local councils still employed men to mend the roads, this hut served as a resting point to keep tools and brew dark mugs of workman’s tea. In summer months, smoke could sometimes be seen rising from the chimney in the evening showing the presence of a nocturnal visitor.
The local tramp was well known and tolerated in the area. Sophie didn’t know if this gentleman of the road was the same man who survived sleeping under their own barn outbuilding, woken by falling rubble as the roof collapsed. The neighbouring farmer removed the stone from the barn before her family bought the land. She remembered hearing about the tramp staying in the roadmenders' hut, but never saw him. She was always too afraid of disturbing him to look through the window when they walked past.
The road drew straight for a short while before beginning its descent to the next valley where it would meet up with another Roman road. If she looked hard along the opposite hill, she could see puffs of steam rising in her mind’s eye.
“Look at the ghost train, Sophie,” her parents said, directing her six year old gaze into the distance. The small goods train was too far away to be heard and within a year or so Beacham cut the line. Someone decided the large viaduct was too expensive to maintain and it, too was destroyed, ensuring the railway would never return to this quiet place.
So many different lives and buildings decaying, Sophie thought. The weight of her memories was too much. She turned and made her way back down the track to her waiting car. She could travel to another life, another world. Maybe she would return and remember more another day.