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 shirtsleeves, puffing like galley slaves as they pulled the heavy boats, my mother and numerous aunts in flowery dresses and picture hats, the yellow water lilies 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.
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 swear-words; therefore they possessed in my eyes a sort of ragged nobility of which time and riper experience hasn’t quite robbed them yet. . .
Extract from Brensham Village, Part 1 © John Moore 1946