What we used to call ‘the old road’ runs beside an ancient waterway that links the English Channel with the Sussex Weald. A thousand years ago one of the companions of the Conqueror fortified a bluff above the river, and sixty years ago the ruined walls of the Norman castle marked the beginning of a bicycle journey that my brother and I made each summer weekend to a grass-runwayed airfield at the river mouth.
We would race past a Saxon church, its western hindquarters sunk into the hillside, a kindly beast emerging from its lair. We would teeter in slow motion beside the dark timbers of a medieval bridge. And by the time we dismounted to wheel our bicycles across the main road beneath the glass escarpment of a public school’s immense chapel, we would be looking seawards to the windsock of the airfield and skywards for the light aircraft – Tiger Moths, Chipmunks, Dragon Rapides – which were the objects of our plane-spotting pilgrimage.
I am reminded of those sunlit days, and of the ‘whooshpering’ sound of the canvas wings as the aircraft swept in above us, whenever I take down my copy of T. H. White’s England Have My Bones (1936). It is a book for browsing, for it takes the form of a journal which White kept through four seasons in 1934–5, the year he took flying lessons at a small airfield in the middle of England. Flying was his main summer activity; he spent the spring fishing for salmon in Scotland; the autumn rough shooting; the winter riding to hounds. The journal also contains delightful passages about entirely random matters. He writes about the grass snakes which he keeps loose in his study; about the surging kick of the super-charger on the engine of his Bentley; and about the effects of weather on mood: ‘If your senses become sharpened it generally means wet. Thus country people redouble their efforts at harvest if they can hear distant railways . . .’
Each of his journal entries can be savoured like a poem. T
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