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Summer Sunrise, Winter Twilight

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Numbed with despair over the threat to the fragile beauty of the Chilterns and the villages of Buckinghamshire posed by the new high-speed rail link, I went in search of solace. I badly needed a dose of that reassuring country writing which once enjoyed such a boom, but which now seems to have slipped out of fashion. For me, the first and only choice was J. H. B. Peel.

Thirty or so years ago, John Hugh Brignal Peel would have needed no introduction. For years he wrote a fortnightly column, ‘Country Talk’, for the Daily Telegraph, essays subsequently gathered into a series of books; he was a talented poet; and in later years he appeared regularly on country-themed television and radio programmes.

His style is neither that of a nature notebook nor the ramblings of a rural weekender. Rather, he revived the art of the essay and in doing so provided a true picture of what country life really means in our time, not only its surface but also its deep-rooted patterns and perennial challenges. He writes of farming and hunting; of shepherds and postmen and squires; of ancient monuments, historic buildings, modern motorways. Above all, he tells us of the things that rarely make news – summer sunrise, winter twilight, the look of the land. This is the pulse of rural Britain, recorded by a poet of whom John Masefield said: ‘Mr Peel knows more than any other living man about the life of the English countryside.’

J. H. B. Peel spent a third of his life liv

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Numbed with despair over the threat to the fragile beauty of the Chilterns and the villages of Buckinghamshire posed by the new high-speed rail link, I went in search of solace. I badly needed a dose of that reassuring country writing which once enjoyed such a boom, but which now seems to have slipped out of fashion. For me, the first and only choice was J. H. B. Peel.

Thirty or so years ago, John Hugh Brignal Peel would have needed no introduction. For years he wrote a fortnightly column, ‘Country Talk’, for the Daily Telegraph, essays subsequently gathered into a series of books; he was a talented poet; and in later years he appeared regularly on country-themed television and radio programmes. His style is neither that of a nature notebook nor the ramblings of a rural weekender. Rather, he revived the art of the essay and in doing so provided a true picture of what country life really means in our time, not only its surface but also its deep-rooted patterns and perennial challenges. He writes of farming and hunting; of shepherds and postmen and squires; of ancient monuments, historic buildings, modern motorways. Above all, he tells us of the things that rarely make news – summer sunrise, winter twilight, the look of the land. This is the pulse of rural Britain, recorded by a poet of whom John Masefield said: ‘Mr Peel knows more than any other living man about the life of the English countryside.’ J. H. B. Peel spent a third of his life living high in a remote part of the Chilterns and then moved to an even lonelier part of Exmoor, writing extensively about both, but he also travelled around 20,000 miles a year throughout Britain gathering material for his work. An early example of his flair for description came in his book The Chilterns (1950), published as part of the publisher Paul Elek’s ‘Visions of England’ series.

In the valley, yet so deeply set that you cannot see them, lie a farmhouse, two flint cottages, and a barn whose switch-back roof is encrusted with the moss and lichen and green-gold rind that need a century in which to season, and two centuries in which to mature. Smoke from the farm sidles up – blue and veerless and lazy – but its source, the chimneys, is invisible, hidden by the brow’s sheer slope.

Ahead, and perhaps one mile away, the valley’s opposite flank climbs to meet the skyline, stretching to left and right as far as the eye can see, and all the way plumed by beechwoods that are sombre in winter, gaudy in autumn, sedate in summer, and in spring a vast nave of fluted and delicate emerald . . .

Peel was born in 1913, and came from an old North Devon family. He went to Merchant Taylors’ School in Northwood, Middlesex, and then up to Oriel College, Oxford. During the Second World War he served as a naval officer, and he remained a keen sailor for the rest of his life. Indeed, several of his essays combine his two loves – of land and sea. Here, for example, is his arrival in a quiet tributary of the Helford River in Cornwall at dusk:

When I went below, the clock said midnight or Middle Watch; the barometer was poised between Fair and Very Dry; the dog slept on his locker seat. Utter peace prevailed, the only man-made sound being a simmer from the stove. And there I sat, in a glow of gentle light in a world of creaking sibilance, less than two miles from telephones and transistors, yet feeling as though I were a day’s voyage from the nearest inhabited island.

He would doubtless have been appalled, though probably not surprised,  by the advent of the high-speed rail plan. In Country Talk, back in 1970, he described what he saw as the fatal decline of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire: ‘During the 1950s, however, the village began to show disturbing symptoms. Commercial travellers took to using the street as a short cut, which meant that the street became a main road. More commuters arrived, bristling the station with briefcases. Meadows fetched many pieces of silver, not because the natives needed houses, but because the strangers demanded dormitories.’

In Peel’s view, suburbs were all very well, but they spelled death for places like Great Missenden. ‘Anyone who pretends otherwise is equating “life” with shops, season tickets, and estate agents.’ Though this essay was written more than forty years ago, Peel had already spotted a pattern of decline with which we are now all too familiar.

I have the suburbanite’s classic love of the countryside and its people, and have fed it with the likes of George Ewart Evans, H. J. Massingham, Cecil Torr, Richard Mabey, Alison Uttley, Roger Deakin and S. L. Bensusan. But somehow J. H. B. Peel is in an entirely different league. His portraits of characters are moving and poetical, and there is always the strong sense of genuine emotion. A regular theme throughout his County Talk series was visits to a man he described as ‘the Chiltern hermit’, who lived alone in a remote cottage ‘atop a steep hill’ – in much the same way as Peel did himself.

In one tale, Peel relates the local vicar’s concern when he hears the hermit has not been seen for some time. The man is eventually traced to a nearby hospital. The vicar sets off to visit him and is surprised to find such a rustic and apparently poor countryman in a private room. The hermit is quick to explain: ‘Oi value my privacy. Oi always ’ave done, ever since my auntie took to growing roses round the garden toilet. “One o’ these days,” oi said to myself, “you’re going to need a hoperation, and you won’t loike it when they take your teeth out in front of all them other patients. So”, oi said, “you’d better do something about it.”’ He had ‘put summat by’ each month, and was pleased with the result.

Peel can have a persuasive effect on his readers, too, as I found when his knowledgeable writing compelled me to buy a walking-stick, my trusty companion still, twenty years later (silver birch and bought in Chagford, by the way). He owned several sticks, matching each to the terrain or occasion.
Myself, I prefer ash, a light yet strong companion. In youth it wears a grey bloom; in age, a subdued gloss, deepened by mud and some honourable scars. Beware the stick with a curved handle, for the curve was imposed artificially, and will begin to uncurl after a few months. Handles should form a right angle with the rest of the stick, and the angle itself should result from natural growth. On short walks there is much to be said for sticks with a knobbly handle, about the size of a pullet’s egg, which fits like a castor in the palm of the hand.

At the other extreme comes the blackthorn, a self-defensive companion, much favoured in the years when criminals carried cudgels. My own blackthorn weighs nearly three pounds, and could crack the thickest skull. It is indeed a stick, descended etymologically from the Old Teutonic stik, meaning ‘to pierce’.

Despite his prodigious output, Peel remains something of an enigma. He was clearly a confirmed loner by nature – his one attempt at marriage did not last – and he certainly did not care for London. One of his essays in Country Talk Again sums it up neatly: ‘London and I get along very well without each other.’ But he was very fond of dogs and one in particular, Shap, a Lakeland Terrier, became a familiar sight by his side on television. This close bond brought out some of the very best of Peel’s writing, and his description of Shap’s declining years still brings a tear to my eye.

In his thirteenth year Shap walked twenty miles between dawn and dusk and then asked for an after-dinner stroll. In his fourteenth year, however, his sight and hearing lost something of their keenness . . . In his sixteenth year, he could still plod a mile uphill. Indeed, I had sometimes to restrain his doggedness lest he should strain his heart.

Last night he complained of not feeling well, and a few hours later he died, swiftly and easily, with his head in my hands. Such is the price of love, which exacts nothing less than a part of ourselves, great or small, according as the occasion and our temperament decree. A dog is, of course, only a dog. His death is universal and not new. Two thousand years ago a Greek countryman suffered a similar bereavement, whereof the monument was discovered by archaeologists. ‘If ’, said the inscription, ‘you pass this way, and happen to notice this stone, do not laugh, even although it is only a dog’s grave. Tears fell for my sake, and the earth was heaped above me by a master’s hand, who likewise carved these words.’

J. H. B. Peel died where he had lived, in a tiny two-bedroom cottage in Charles parish on Exmoor, in 1983. A year later, the Daily Telegraph paid for a fittingly practical monument to him – a toposcope at County Gate nearby, which describes the panorama over the East Lyn and Badgworthy valleys.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Anthony Longden 2012


About the contributor

Anthony Longden spent 30 years in local newspapers around London and sat on the Press Complaints Commission until its recent demise. Now a consultant, he can frequently be found wedged into the narrower reaches of the Topography stacks at the London Library, indulging his passion for country writing.

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