It’s human nature perhaps to look back on our early years as a time of enchantment. Kenneth Grahame, Angela Thirkell and Laurie Lee, among others, have all attempted to recapture the ‘golden age’ of their childhood. My own golden age was spent in a picturesque village on the banks of the River Dart. Most villagers then were from old Devon families of farmers and fishermen whose ancestors’ gravestones in the churchyard stood witness to their antiquity. The oldest church chorister and chief bell-ringer had been singing and ringing there since Victorian times. Over surrounding hillsides, horse-drawn ploughs turned green fields into patches of deep red earth each September, and along the lanes at evening the ploughman still did ‘homeward plod his weary way’.
Time lends such memories a nostalgic glow, but few have recalled that now distant rural way of life with such riveting honesty as Richard Hillyer in his memoir Country Boy. Richard Hillyer was the pseudonym used by Charles James Stranks, the son of a poor farm labourer, born at the dawn of the last century in the isolated Buckinghamshire village of Hardwick (here called Byfield). It was a village unchanged since Saxon times, where work was governed by the ‘immemorial rhythm’ of the seasons and social life revolved mostly around church and chapel and cricket pitch. It was an essentially feudal world in which the lives of the poor were dictated by the various local gentry.
Hillyer sets out to recapture a way of life which, after the Great War, had begun to disappear and was gradually fading from memory. However, his aim is more than that of mere fond recall. He wants to rescue the old English village from those who, like Hardy, offered a middle-class intellectual view of rural life, and romanticists who saw the countryside either as a place of quaint customs and ancient ways or a ‘cesspit of strange iniquities peopled . . . with sadists and psychopaths’. He portrays with unflinching reality the squalor and misery of village life before the First World War, where impoverished labourers were often at the mercy of cruel and heartless farmers. Yet though his writing is unsentimental it is also wonderfully poetic, for he recaptures the magic of that remote countryside, and the effect it had on the imagination of a sensitive and highly intelligent boy with few outlets for his feelings and no one to share his interests.
For Hillyer, the impoverished labourers among whom he grew up, descendants of the old English peasantry, are the real creators of the village’s character and guardians of its traditions, and it is their powers of endurance, ‘courage, wisdom and sly humour’ which have enabled them to survive. In old Byfield, the social order is unchangeable – everyone knows his or her place and all leave this life no better off than when they entered it. Above the Hillyers stand the Rector Mr Driffield, the Minister of the chapel Mr Bilbee, and the schoolmaster Mr Wickens, while on the very top of the heap sits the wealthy owner of Byfield House, Mr du Cane, and the Squire, Lord Postern, to whom all are expected to defer.
[Lord Postern] would call at a cottage or two . . . not getting off his horse, but thumping with his hunting crop on the door . . . until somebody came out. Generally it was a woman . . . and she would stand in the doorway with her hands respectfully hidden under her apron, hardly daring to answer his questions with more than a plain, ‘Yes, my Lord,’ or ‘No, my Lord.’ ‘Tell your husband his potatoes are looking well.’ ‘Yes, my Lord.’ ‘These your children?’ nodding toward any that might have followed their mother to the door . . . ‘Yes, my Lord.’ ‘Well good day to you, good day.’ A touch with the crop, and the mare would move on to another.
At the very bottom lies the wretched figure of the reclusive outcast Barky Britnell, exploited and terrorized since childhood by cruel local farmers and taunted by wanton village boys.
When [Barky] flew into one of his rages he just made hoarse, strangled sounds like a tormented animal. Some lout, who ha worked him up and was enjoying the fun, showing off before other grinning louts one day, said, ‘He is like a dog. Listen to him barking. Barky Britnell!’ And so Barky he was.
Poor Barky’s cabin is squalid beyond belief – ‘a one-storeyed hut’ lit by three small windows, with no fire-grate and peeling walls ‘showing the yellow clay underneath festering like a sore’.
But life in Hillyer’s Byfield is not all wretchedness. Blazing summer days for the children mean bathing in the village pond, and Richard recalls ‘the full, rich, sensual pleasure of lying naked on the short grass, until the skin was dry, and prickly with heat, and then to plunge down into the quiet depths of the pool, among the long, smooth water-lily roots that caressed the body in passing like delicate fingers’.
And there is the annual flower show in the Rectory garden, with fruit and vegetable competitions, where everybody turns out in their Sunday best for the judging, and there is dancing on the lawn to a band hired by the Rector.
Richard’s immediate family – father, mother and brother John – exist on 15 shillings a week, so for them life is frugal in the extreme. In the evening, the children’s supper consists of two slices of bread and dripping and a cup of cold water. Their future looks bleak. Richard, as the son of a poor labourer, can expect little more than a life crushed beneath ‘the suffocating weight of endless toil’.
But this is a story of metamorphosis, of success against the heaviest odds. Richard is a bright, attentive schoolboy eager to learn. From passages of Ben Jonson, Tennyson, Dickens and the Bible which are randomly handed out in class, he discovers the magic of language that opens doors to worlds unimagined. Soon he is reading any book he can find, and Mr Wickens hints at a place at the grammar school. But hopes raised are quickly dashed. His parents could never afford the fees.
Even so, his hunger for learning remains insatiable. Salvaging an old copy of Scott’s Waverley discarded for burning he starts a library, and the discovery of a second-hand bookstall in Billington, the nearby market town, adds poetry and classics to his collection. Then, when a prosperous uncle from Canada dies, there is hope of an inheritance which will both alleviate the family’s poverty and help Richard to the grammar school. But everything goes to Mr Hillyer’s sister, and the disappointment is unbearable.
So Richard is sent to work on a local farm and arrives just in time for haymaking.
When the mowing stopped, and the horses were turned out to graze, everybody set to work to turn over yesterday’s cutting. Men and boys moved in a line, each a step or two behind the other, backwards and forwards across the field at a quick walk, turning the swathe, with a deft touch of the rake, in an unbroken ribbon. It was hard to keep up at first, but as the knack grew and the movements became familiar, there was something soothing in it. All day there were the changing scents of the hayfield. The raw smell of the fresh grass in the morning, the honey smell of clover, the earthy dampness of the underside as the rakes exposed the long lines of drying grass to the sun, the sweet, dry perfume of the hay that was loaded in the evening; all of it unique, primeval, satisfying.
It was tough, backbreaking work, yet ‘I was happy in a new experience,’ he writes, ‘something had been added to the delight of life.’ In the same way the writer in him glories in the silence of the dawn as he makes his way towards the farm to do the milking:
There has been rain in the night, and the last leaves that still cling to the bushes hang wet and dejected. It is just growing light enough to see that they are there . . . In front of me the path, without footsteps to mark it since the rain fell, looks bright and new; even the muddy places have been flattened out, and catch what light there is on their wet surfaces. For the five minutes that it takes to walk to work I am alone, in a friendly world.
For Richard the life of learning now seems to be well out of reach, but he is not discouraged. From old schoolbooks he begins to teach himself Latin, and he so astonishes the Rector with his knowledge that he is offered coaching and the prospect of sitting for a scholarship to Durham University.
Meanwhile Byfield is undergoing change. Lloyd George’s old age pension brings hope to poor parishioners, and ‘The Kaiser’s War’ further disturbs the settled order. Richard’s brother John and the local farm-horses depart for France, villagers are directed into factory work, and soldiers from the industrial north are stationed in Byfield.
Then there are portents of a new, less leisurely age. The horsedrawn van, which once trundled the road to Billington slowly enough for passengers to study wildlife along the hedges, is replaced by an old gas-fuelled London bus which rattles along at speed. In a new age of travel, the old Byfield which ‘imprisoned and consumed its own children’ will slowly disappear.
Richard Hillyer recaptures the lost world of an old English village with realism and compassion. He depicts the villagers of Byfield with the caring eye of a Zola or a Van Gogh, lost souls resurrected – the lowly ploughman, the wretched outcast, the village schoolmaster, the pedlar, the women worn down by hopeless poverty. Hillyer is their camera, their quiet observer.
Eventually, thanks to the Rector, young Richard does manage to escape, winning a scholarship to Durham University. From the minute he first sees the city, with its great cathedral – ‘that wonder among buildings’ – rising above the winding medieval streets, Durham seems to have been his spiritual home. It represented everything he had longed for, cultivation and refinement and the rich life of the mind from which he had so long been excluded. When he receives the news of his scholarship we, like him, can hardly believe he has done it, the odds stacked against him were so great.
Searches have revealed little about the later life of this fascinating man, apart from the fact that he wrote a good many books, mainly on ecclesiastical subjects, and became a canon of Durham Cathedral. But in his youth we come to know him intimately. There can be few more painfully honest and moving accounts of growing up poor than Country Boy. It is not only a fine piece of social history, but a cliffhanger that keeps one gripped right to the end.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Gordon Bowker 2013
This article also appears as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 22: Country Boy
About the contributor
Gordon Bowker has written four literary biographies – of Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, George Orwell and James Joyce.