Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wednesday 15th March 1944

Afternoon “off”. My heavy, hob-nailed Army boots, which made walking a slippery and uncomfortable business, were replaced by my “civvie” brown shoes and I went down into Kent and the English countryside.

I “wangled” the trains so that the journey to Gravesend and back cost 1/1d altogether. I got aboard the 1:38p.m. at Woolwich straight into wonderfully warm carriage where four men were excitedly playing cards. About £10 besides odd silver lay in the “kity” in the middle of the overcoat they'd spread across their knees. They talked in loud voices and were all red-faced.

“From London?” I asked during a lull, “Much damage last night?” “Yes, in some parts,” replied my neighbour. “Was there any trouble in Romford?” I asked. “I don't think there was,” bawled a man, throwing down a 10/- note, “And I was on fire-watch near there myself. Your folks live in Romford, mate?” “Yes.” “Ah! Nice place, Romford! Here, want to have a look at my paper?” “Thanks!”

I found the bus stop easily enough when I got into Gravesend High Street. It was beside what vaguely seemed a drapery or gown shop. I caught a Dickens Road bus, as I had done several times, years before. “I haven't paid yet, “ I remarked gloomily when we reached the town boundary. “Getting off here?” asked the conductress. “Yes.” “That's alright then.” “What? Baksheesh?” “Sure.”

At first the old path was clearly defined, running diagonally across the fields but it was not the same now. The aerodrome had grown larger; I saw grey hangers where once was arable land; there were thick fences of rolled barbed wire; fighter planes constantly roared low overhead. However I pushed on over the crest into the valley beyond. The sound of aero engines grew fainter and the path became a cart-track.

“Swings the way still, by hollow and hill...”

A river mist had hung around Gravesend but as I walked on it cleared, the sun shone and I sighted Shorn windmill. It was quite accidental that I should make this pilgrimage today. I might have been packing to go north; I might not have been off duty. Indeed I had planned to come here last Monday but the weather was wet and I felt tired. It is curious I should eventually ramble into Kent today, as April followed this same path, in the same lonely and reminiscent mood, exactly two years ago.

Her diary says: “15th March 1942... It took me some time to find the path at the corner of the T-road but this done, the country spread before me and the air seemed clear and fresh...”

Today, I found the quarry which April that afternoon in 1939 called “the dene holes” and went into the three caves which are the actual “holes”. I lit my pipe and looked around; it was dark, musty and dusty down there. I wondered where it was – in which cave – that April had marked our names. Perhaps I should not have gone in anyway for April's diary (written when there was every chance that we might never meet again) remarks: “I didn't look for the lost handkerchief or our names in the cave, because we said, “We will come back and find them some day”... and who knows – perhaps WE shall.”

Outside the quarry I met a farm worker. He was rather voluble about the way to Shorn, of which I was doubtful. “Straight on down theer, surr,” he declaimed eagerly, “And then up the lane right into the village!”

Perhaps I should not have accepted his anxious directions, for they brought me into the main village, which I'd never seen before. Lost! Strolling disconsolately through the street, met a kind parson (one of the dear, old-fashioned sort of padres) and consulted him. At last I showed him a picture of my April of 1939, sitting on a wall (this was the picture that reached the desert almost as soon as I did and stayed with me there) and he recognised the wall! (not April!)

“Why, I'm sure that's Peartree Lane way,” he said, “There is a footpath to Cobham Woods not far from there.” “I think the path went down by a pub,” I said dubiously. “Was it the See Ho?” “Maybe!” I cried in awakened hope.

Then by an utterly unfamiliar road, I came to a remembered cross-roads (alas! there was an air raid shelter there now) and saw an inn, not far away. Yes! It was the See Ho, where I once had a refreshing pint of beer one hot noontide with – whom? - some men.

Down beyond; across the main road and into beloved Cobham Woods, where I now had a rude surprise. The ugly tin huts of a small searchlight detachment were sprawled athwart the footpath. Soldiers gazed curiously at me. One self-important individual in overalls halted me, demanded my pay book and gazed at it suspiciously.

“Where were you born?” “Grimsby, Lincolnshire,” I replied wearily. “And your number?” “870844! It's there, look.” He cunningly covered the pages with his hand, peered at a few more pages and then said, “What's your number, again?” “870844!” I snarled loudly and fiercely. “Alright” he mumbled and clumped away awkwardly. Another soldier winked at me and commented, “Pretty keen, 'ain't 'e!”

I hurried on into the woods. When I came to the high stile where April once sat (and not until then) I felt a sense of peace and “escape”. Taking off my greatcoat, I sat down and lit my pipe. At last the world had grown quiet. The faint drone of planes was here subdued to an un-disturbing whisper by the louder sounds of grey squirrels rustling among dead leaves close at hand.

Somewhere along this path, I remember a pacifist once said to me, as a plane fired it's machine guns in play and exercise, “Now I suppose you'll roll in ecstasy Stephen!” I've once rolled – but in fear, not ecstasy! - at the sound of a plane's chattering guns; and that was in a little valley between Agedabia and Mersa Beega, just over three years ago. However, now in 1944, I'm far more anti-militaristic than that man ever was! I'm more anti-military than anti-war!

The stile in the woods is the furthest point of “escape” if one turns right, towards Cobham; if one goes straight on, an attractive dark track disappears downhill into thick trees and undergrowth. Cobham is really only on the fringe, just on the fringe, of the escape country – that lovely maze of footpaths through wooded valleys and across hills. At least, I suppose that today one still escapes more as one pushes further into Kent. April and I must go beyond Cobham one day.

April! I turn again to her diary for March 15th 1942. Sitting on this same stile she wrote me a letter which never reached me: “Hullo my dear Stephen John... you could never guess where I am writing this letter from, but I'll tell you – Kent! From the stile where you said... “You look very lovely sitting there”... I've never felt as near to you as I do now – I think your spirit has come home for a little while to keep me company on this – our day. Do you remember lighting your pipe just before we left this stile?...”

Perhaps I'm glad that letter never reached me. It would have made me sad, even though it might be what April in her diary calls “a sad sort of happy gladness.”

“I stopped writing and slowly slung my haversack and continued through the woods. The sun was shining and it was marvellous to feel the leaves crunch and shuffle beneath my feet... How glad I am to have come again... a sad sort of happy gladness...”

Still feeling warm, carrying my soldier's cap in my hand, with my soldier's greatcoat slung neatly across my right shoulder, but with my own khaki scarf wound carelessly around my neck as in olden times, I too left the stile.

Shuffle-shuffle, through dead leaves...

“I had tea at The Leather Bottle, that certainly hadn't changed...”

I also had tea at the “Bottle”, with a glowing fire, brasses and many Dicken's prints on the walls. Two ladies were there, finishing their tea. They were aged about 35-40; they had macintosh coats and wore brogue shoes. I felt a pang of nostalgia at sight of them.

My tea consisted of a boiled egg(!), three rolls, plenty of tea and much jam and butter. The maid asked, had I enough sugar? I had. “This must be THE egg!” I exclaimed.

“You see what a uniform does,” said one of the ladies wistfully. They were typical walkers; we talked of footpaths that had vanished. They described paths which had been closed with barbed-wire, or ploughed over. I told them of the way by which I had come through the woods.

Outside, I waited for a Gravesend bus. “Nice to hear the birds again,” remarked a pipe-smoking countryman, standing beside me. Sure enough, when I listened, the air was full of twittering and song and the dismal caw! - caw! of rooks!

“Have those roofs been damaged by AA fire?” I asked, looking as some picturesque old houses. (As though anxious to hurt myself with reminders of war and ruin!) “No!” said the countryman, to my relief,”A high wind got under and lifted those tiles. Pretty old, those houses, y'know. Don't build like that in these days!” “No, indeed,” I agreed.

Then the bus came and I got on board and ended my afternoon.

April's diary commented: “I wish I knew if there might be a future for you and I, but perhaps I don't, it would be so awful to find there wasn't, but it has been a grand day, rather a rude awakening from my dreams – remember the wedding we planned... crazy weren't we but oh! so very happy – as the ferry bumped against the landing stage, for here my day ends.”

But, thank God, after all, our Day is not yet ended; and we are married. There has been and is and shall be a future for us now.

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