The idea for my second novel, Forebears was triggered by a television documentary on the subject of human reproduction, and the interesting fact (well I think so anyway) that a female’s eggs – or the precursors of them – are created in the first few weeks of a female embryo’s development, so that not only is a future woman being gestated but the seed for fifty per cent of her child, or children, too. As the narrator remarked, ‘Truly, we are children of our grandmothers.’ This is not a novel concept of course – it’s been going on in the animal kingdom for millions of years – but it set me thinking about the idea of a continuum flowing through the female line of families.
This isn’t really a ‘one of a series’ book, but there’s a slight connection to my debut novel Convergence in that I take the sister of male protagonist Martin in that book and have her write a diary throughout her life, for reasons that become clear at the end. Extracts from her journal are interspersed with the stories of her mother, her grandmother (and, fleetingly, her radically-thinking great-grandmother) and then down to her daughter until the female line is broken when that daughter has a son.
So it is a family history running through almost all of the twentieth century to finish in the present day, exploring the changing social mores, particularly as they affect women, from socially pioneering Edwardian Suffragettes through Feminism up to the present. It’s also an anti-war polemic told from the female point of view. In one diary passage June (Martin’s sister) has been watching the siege of Sarajevo on TV and rages against the cruel snipers; ‘big brave men strutting around toting their vile firearms,’ and agrees with great-grandmother Eliza that it women ran things, the world would be a more civilised and harmonious and peaceful place; somewhere better for children to grow up in.
Forebears is now available to buy at discount at my publisher, www.autharium.com or at Amazon or most major retailers.
‘Within it’s pages you will find it all: love, life, birth, death and the full gamut of emotions.’ Susan Keefe, reviewer
‘A beautiful and intricate multi-generational novel.’ Gwendlyn Kallie, Goodreads reviewer
Here, also, is another installment of my autobiography.
Wishing For The Better/7
‘It’s a good job our mothers can’t see us now’ Steph says wryly. We’ve walked down the path-through-the-trees approach to our new place. As we emerge into the clearing there it is: our beautiful cottage. At least, it will be. Her comment comes because we’ve just moved in, in advance of the kids who are staying with their maternal granny for logistical reasons. It’s certainly a good job my parents can’t see us, particularly my dad.
The house is nowhere near finished. The brick-built shell (ie the walls and roof) of the extension is up, but still needs plastering, a staircase, electrics and plumbing. Just finishing details, you understand. Nothing at all has been done to the old part. We’ve had to move in because we sold our other house quite quickly and the buyers have been patiently waiting for vacant possession. But they couldn’t wait for ever until we were in a position to move on, and eventually we just had to complete the sale and come here regardless of whether it was habitable or not. I expect we’re breaking some sort of law about living in a condemned house or something. Never mind. A little hardship is character building.
We’ve got the services of a small builder who rejoices in the wonderful Toytown-sounding name of Arthur Crumpton. He’s your quintessential salt-of-the-earth Black Countryman: a grafter, eternally happy and unbothered by anything. He doesn’t seem to mind that we’ll now be resident and he’ll have to work around us. It’s all in a day’s work to our Arthur. When our worldly goods arrived, borne by a disbelieving furniture remover, he, his several sons and aged father happily downed tools and carried everything into the ruin end. It was all part of the service as he saw it.
He appreciates that we want to do as much work as we can ourselves, if only to keep the cost as low as possible. We did the concrete foundations for the extension and then the brickwork up to damp course level, working very late one Friday night by torchlight to get finished so we could get away on holiday leaving Arthur to continue in our absence. It was a complete botch, not that it would have been a lot better if we’d done it slowly in daylight. When we got back Arthur told us, grinning, that he’d knocked all our brickwork off and started again. He’s very tolerant.
There then followed a series of milestones to pass along the road to completion of the project. I found it more than a little frustrating that I had to leave every morning to go to work. But money had to be earned to pay for it. It would have been great to be really involved on a practical basis all the same, although I was very inexperienced. My DIY, never mind my building work CV, still didn’t amount to much. But I couldn’t wait for the weekends.
The first priority was electricity reconnection and wiring. That happened quite quickly because it didn’t rely on me, and when that was in the kids came back. They would soon have to be starting school at the nearest village; for the twins it would be their first time. Then there was the plumbing. We had a temporary cold water supply, consisting of a sink unit sitting on blocks, because there was mains water at the property. Then the bathroom was plumbed. We should now have been well away, except that there was nowhere for the waste water, particularly that from the toilet, to drain away to. It would be a little while before sanitation appeared. Because there was a watercourse nearby, we couldn’t have the usual septic tank. It had to be a cesspool, which was essentially a large brick built container capped with a concrete lid and sunk in the ground. This held all the waste from the kitchen and bathroom (so we couldn’t be too extravagant with baths) and when full was expensively emptied by a council tanker that struggled down our track every month or so.
So until that appeared, we had no sanitation. It was all right for the kids; being so young they could revert to potty use for a while. And OK for me; I was away during the day in the week, enjoying proper facilities. But it was a bit grim for Steph. Arthur made it a priority. The great day, a Saturday, came when he would cast the concrete lid. (The drainpipe was already connected, and to be honest, we’d started using the toilet, so desperate were we. We simply avoided looking too closely into the pit, and the kids were warned to keep well away). He arrived that morning, grinning as usual, with a collection of timber and old doors. These he arranged to form shuttering, and the concrete mixing began. Soon his lads were barrowing the wet mix onto his construction. We watched with mounting excitement and relief. Soon we’d have a loo!
As the very last barrow load was trundled on, there was a loud cracking sound and the entire structure collapsed. Crumpton Junior leapt smartly onto the edge of the pit. Everything, wet concrete and shuttering but (very fortunately) not the young man, slid gracefully into the void. Arthur thought it hilarious. ‘Bugger me’, he spluttered, ‘there must have been a weakness in one of the timbers. Probably a knot’. He laughed merrily. Steph almost cried. There was nothing for it but for all hands (except Steph who had disappeared inside, distraught) to bale out the wet concrete, the shuttering and the bathroom exports. ‘Never mind’, said Arthur, ‘I’ll bring some more timber and we’ll all meet here again tomorrow, by the pool’. He and his lads cleaned their equipment and left for their nice, fully plumbed flat in the Black County, leaving us surveying the wreckage in dismay. Steph is not normally a moaner, but that day she was not a happy bunny.
The following day he returned, still smiling, with more timber and cement and began the process all over again. Again he began barrowing the concrete on as I watched anxiously. The shuttering still looked a bit flimsy, a bit trampoliney, to me. Steph dare not look. It got to the final barrow, I held my breath . . . and it held. Arthur was quite relaxed. ‘There you are’, he said. ‘No problem’.
After that, everything else was a doddle. Arthur’s brother came to plaster and Frank, Steph’s dad, came to help me glaze the many-paned cottage style windows. It was getting quite civilised now, although we were still living entirely in the extension and there was still no way up to the upper floor, except via a ladder. The children, especially Simon, had to be supervised carefully. With the blessing of the council, we had modified the plans a little to suit our particular needs. They had provided for only one additional bedroom and an unnecessarily large bathroom. I worked out a way of subdividing the new front bedroom to achieve a smaller one, for Simon, and a smaller but still reasonable bathroom. The room at the rear originally intended as a bathroom became another bedroom big enough for the girls.
Looking back on it with the wonderful benefits of both hindsight and greater expertise, it was a rather a pity that that we inherited someone else’s slightly grandiose scheme. Building a four (or in our case five)-roomed extension on one end (and in a different material (brick) to the original, to boot) paid little respect to the scale of the original building. In writing this all these years later, I doodled some sketches and found that it would have been possible to leave the front façade unaltered and put a smaller extension, possibly cement rendered, on the rear, that would have given a dining room with bedroom and bathroom above, with the kitchen and a bedroom above it still in the old part. This would still have given a three-bedroom/two reception room format, without nearly doubling the size of the house, as had happened.
Apart from putting in windows, a staircase and a dry concrete sub-floor in the old part, the rest of the work was for me. Goody! Steph had a go at glazing some of the second batch of windows. She told me later how embarrassing it was as she struggled womanfully with one of them, watched by a patient Crumpton Most Senior, who was waiting for her to finish so that he could do some work in that area too. If it had been me I’d have let him do his bit first: I hate being watched as I work at the best of times.
My biggest job was to rebuild the chimneybreast, quite a major undertaking for one so inexperienced – not that I’ve ever let inexperience hold me back! On the ground floor I reused the stones that had been there before, creating what I reckoned was the original large inglenook opening. If there had been a wooden beam spanning it, it had disappeared in the demolition. It would have been nice, looking back, to have got a proper old oak one as replacement, but we were trying to do the project on a shoestring and couldn’t really afford such niceties. So, with Frank’s help, I cast a massive concrete one in situ and faced it with oak-stained softwood. I continued the breast up through the bedroom above in brick, stepping it back in a bottle shape to meet the surviving chimneystack. Then it was finished with a clay liner and insulated with vermiculite. My first major piece of building; I was quite pleased with it.
Our predecessor had removed all plaster from the sitting room walls, and as I wasn’t courageous enough to try full scale plastering (I would in later projects: it’s quite a tricky art.) I simply repointed the exposed stone and then we painted it a fresh pure white. The plaster had been left in the bedroom, and all that was needed was to restore it around the new windows. The old quarry tiles were re-laid downstairs, and I re-hung the old planked front door. It was probably destined for the skip (or shuttering for a cesspool lid: what an ignominious way to end life).
So there was a reasonable amount of the original fabric left. Gradually our rural hideaway took shape. It was a world away from 7 Bittern Walk, and I would never be remotely interested in modern houses again. Or, voluntarily anyway, again choose urban living. Country life was idyllic, and as natural and right a situation as we could imagine. But almost too much so, and it would lead to a very serious blip in my life indeed.
1972 became 1973, and that August I began my third decade. The first two had been an rapidly changing tapestry of events and bold, sometimes crazy choices and unexpected consequences, and it was by no means over yet. My thirties would be just as seismic.
The idealism and rebelliousness of the sixties, our formative years, was still echoing in the next decade – the cynicism and materialism of the eighties was still to come. In the early 70s the liberal media were raising anxious voices on a new subject: environmentalism. Concerns like climate change were still to appear; back then it was all about energy and resource depletion – and therefore sustainability and waste – and pollution. Like the anti-nuclear war movement it was both apocalyptic and inspirational. Something had to be done. Television was full of the bucolic John Seymour espousing self-sufficiency, and Rachel Carson and E F Schumacher had already written Silent Spring (what a wonderfully poignant title) and Small is Beautiful respectively. We were terribly inspired by it all. I suppose that in my case, my religious upbringing, although now rejected in terms of deity worship, left a residual morality. That and remembered student idealism mixed naturally with the attraction of Joan Baez’s passionate social protest. It was heady stuff. It just seemed so right to care about the planet, the scandal of huge global inequality, and issues like that.
Then in 1974 we saw something very interesting advertised. An organisation called the Centre for Alternative Technology had set up near Machynlleth in mid Wales. It was an exhibition centre, and we took a day trip to have a look. Only recently started, it looked a bit rough and ready in some ways. The people running it tended to be young and wear beards and long hair tied in ponytails or long flowery skirts, depending on gender. But it was fascinating and very appealing, with displays of wind turbines, solar panels, water energy and conservation, heating from woodstoves, building using natural materials like straw, recycling, organic food growing and local sewage processing.
In essence, it was all about Seymour’s self-sufficiency. The centre produced all its energy from various renewable sources, much of the food for its (vegetarian) restaurant and dealt with its own waste. (Later it would have to admit defeat and accept some electricity from the national grid, but still later, with a larger wind turbine installed and shared with the local community, it became self-sufficient again and produced a surplus, selling it back to the grid.) It was all tremendously inspiring.
Apart from being a wonderful day out, we brought two things back from our trip. The first was the discovery of woodstoves. We leaned that colder climes than ours, like northern Europe, Russia and North America use woodstoves in preference to British style coal burning open fires. Stoves are around 75% efficient and burn a renewable fuel, whereas open fires are only about 30% efficient and burn fossil fuels. Of course you can burn wood on open fires too, but you need far more for a given heat output (with 70% going to warm the air above your house) compared with stoves. And we knew this from our own experience.
When we built our chimneybreast we incorporated a traditional large opening for an open fireplace, with a specially made black iron smoke hood. It looked the part, but as a heating feature (and we had no conventional central heating) it was hopeless.
That summer, following the trip to CAT, we holidayed in North Cornwall, again at Coombe. There was a man in the area who imported Norwegian (Jotul) stoves like the one we’d seen at CAT. He also did wood-fired cooking stoves (looking like little Rayburns), also made by Jotul. We visited him and had a long, fascinating conversation as the long-suffering children looked on, bored. At the end of it, inspired, we ordered one of each. Back home, it was a Herculean task to remove the smoke hood, which I’d built in very strongly indeed. Finally it was out and the coffin-shaped stove, with its attractive moulded images of Scandinavian scenes, in. The cooking stove was installed in the kitchen, with a stainless steel flue system. It took some getting used to, being totally non-automatic, but inspired Steph to try interesting vegetarian cooking. It could equally well have been carnivorous food of course, but we were now on an idealistic high.
The room stove was much better than the open fire had been, and would have been better still if I’d heeded the seller’s advice and burnt only dry well-seasoned wood. Instead, too mean to buy a supply of dry fuel, in a spirit of self-reliance I scavenged wood (sometimes surreptitiously cut fresh from hedgerows) locally. Apart from being a wrong thing to do, it was a mistake. It burned less hotly and produced large deposits of black creosote. Nevertheless, stoves were quite a discovery. I’ve been quite evangelical about them ever since.
The second thing we brought from CAT was a magazine. We’d seen it there on display and bought a copy. It was called Undercurrents and was a radical science and technology publication covering then-experimental subjects like renewable energy and so on: in short all the issues discussed by CAT (which was why it was pushing it). Some of them, like ley-line theory, were off even our radar: others embraced matters like alternative, self-sufficient communities, such as communes. But generally speaking it was an interesting, stimulating read and really chimed with our evolving radical outlook. We thought it was mostly all good stuff.
We were surprised to find that it was sold by a mainstream shop in Stourbridge, and every second month I would eagerly scan the shelves for a new issue. Like so much else then, it was a revelation. It was like discovering a new political philosophy that transcended conventional notions of right-wing or left-wing. Although we leaned to the Left, we began to feel that conventional status quo politics was to some extent irrelevant. Nothing mattered more than the planet and its myriad species, including humanity, especially the poor. Once again, our idealism was fuelled.
And then, to add to this heady brew, there was the (relatively straightforward) growing fashion for opting out of the ‘rat race’. It was often on television and in books like Gavin Maxwell’s evocative Ring of Bright Water. Of course to some extent we’d done it: we’d escaped to the country, long before today’s bright eyed hopefuls on daytime television shows. But we hadn’t got away from the pressure of urban breadwinning. By now, with the children at school, Steph was back at work, albeit not in computing; she had a part time clerical job at an insurance broker in Stourbridge. So things were at last easier financially, but whether we were happy and fulfilled in our jobs was another matter.
We should have been satisfied. We had a much better lifestyle than many – probably most – people living to the east of us in the Black Country. And yet. And yet . . .
I was gradually becoming more the sort of ‘employee’ that Cyril wanted me to be, but it still wasn’t always easy. The pressure was ill often intense. It wasn’t just me; none of us liked it and it would sometimes lead to frayed tempers. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to have a job where your performance isn’t tied to how quickly you produce results. It had been like that at Cadburys – often going too far the other way into boredom – but nearly all of my working life has been spent working flat out. I remember reading at the time that one of the least stressed jobs with the lowest incidence of stress-related illness was postman (apart from the danger of dog bites, of course). There was one occasion when the stress level was particularly high. It was affecting Cyril too. In my panic to get things done I made a mistake that was rather costly, and over-ordered some photographic prints. Cyril was furious with me. ‘And who’s going to pay for these then?’ he fumed. ‘I will then’, I blazed back. The exchange escalated into a full-scale slanging match. I was trembling with rage (and, I suppose, guilt). Finally Cyril told me to go home.
It was a Friday, so I had the weekend to anticipate what might await me on Monday morning. Steph was very supportive. Why didn’t I jack it in and be a postman then? Bless her; she would have accepted the loss of earning power if it made me happier. I was tempted. The awful Monday came and I dragged myself into work dreading I didn’t know what. Thankfully, not a word was said. No continuation of the bollocking; no embarrassed apologies from either of us. It had blown over. I was very relieved.
That was one thing. In spite of the pressure I did still enjoy the craft aspect of the work most of the time. But there was a little demon sitting on my shoulder slyly whispering an awkward thought. Why are you going through all this stress when what you do is to all intents and purposes invisible? Your clients might be pleased with what you do but the general public never looks at printing with a critical eye. It wouldn’t know good or bad design if it saw it. The person in the street, not unreasonably, only looks at print for the information it provides. That elegant design you did for packaging for a curtain pole will go straight in the bin without a second glance when the customer gets the product home. It’s completely ephemeral, like a studio set or an exhibition stand. The only form of print that isn’t is the book. Some sensitive people might appreciate a proper bound book as a nice beautiful object in itself, but even there, in the case of paperbacks certainly, it’s only the content that matters. So why are you doing this?
And then, thirdly, Kingsnordley was just too nice. Every weekday morning it was a wrench having to drive away from it to uninspiring Stourbridge and who-knew-what hassle lying in store. If only there could be a way of earning a living at home!
For all the temptations of self-sufficiency, it didn’t look remotely possible to practice it at home, on our less than a third of an acre, in a way that would generate enough surplus to pay for all the things that would still need to be bought, like clothes for the kids or cesspool emptying. We would have needed a much bigger parcel of land – in other words a smallholding. In these computer days a few lucky people doing the right sort of job can work from home, but not back then. And I couldn’t have done mine like that anyway. It was a dilemma, and there seemed to be no answer to the problem. We’d just have to dream on. If only I could have been like my brother, been satisfied with my lot.
For the next couple of years we tried to do that: accept what we had and be thankful for it. But there was always Undercurrents and its subversive, appealing whispers. We began to think that the only chance we had of doing something fully rural was in co-operation with others. With pooled capital we could perhaps go in for a larger place that might produce a viable living. Like a smallholding. Or something radical, like a commune.
Undercurrents was still running articles now and then about Utopian-sounding communities, and in every issue there were advertisements by hopeful would-be communards seeking others of a like-minded bent. None of the ones we saw really appealed to us – they usually sounded quite juvenile and rather silly. So that left one other possibility: place a carefully worded ad ourselves. It was worth a shot anyway. If we didn’t do it, we’d probably spend the rest of our lives wondering what might have happened if we had.
So we took the plunge. It was another – major – B(C?)M.
I forget the precise wording, but it went something like this:
John and Steph, Shropshire, seek kindred spirits with whom to create a self-sufficient community practising horticulture, crafts, sustainability, harmony and love. Please reply . . .
We placed it in the next issue and waited. A few days after publication the responses began coming, from a variety of people either already in groups or, like us, wanting to form one. In the latter category there was a couple from London who seemed on our wavelength and came to spend a weekend with us to discuss things. We liked them, gave them cheese on home grown broccoli for dinner and they went on the list of ‘possibles’. I met another couple from the midlands for a preliminary chat one evening. They were a nice couple too, although they came across as rather conventional and a little dull, not passionate radicals like us. They must have assumed that we were already doing our desired thing, because at one point the lady asked me how much we spent on seed. We decided against them, and it was probably mutual.
Then there was a rather intellectual group of three or four couples who wanted to start a radical, alternative educational community. They invited us to a meeting in Malvern. We went, but decided they didn’t share our aspirations. We weren’t teachers and didn’t share theirs either. The entire meeting was spent listening to very esoteric discussions about education and sociology that meant nothing to us. And when I brought up the subject of sustainable energy they simply stared blankly at us. So they weren’t for us.
There were two groups already in existence in West Wales. Just their location was appealing in itself. They were quite close together in Carmarthenshire, and we decided to spend a day visiting them both. The first was quite a large group. They were very hospitable and gave us home grown (vegetarian) lunch. We seemed to have a fair amount in common with the older members who were in their thirties and parents, but much less with the younger ones who were essentially rebellious hippies, seemed to be there just for the ride and were constantly banging on about how their parents misunderstood them. Mentally we gave that lot a miss too.
Things weren’t going too well. After lunch we made our excuses and left, and drove to the final option, near Trelech, north-west of Carmarthen. As soon as we saw them, things looked more promising. They were two couples. Merv and Sue were about our age; he had graduated in sociology, she was from a comparatively well-heeled family: her dad was a medical officer of health. They had two children, girl and boy, both younger than ours. Chris and Alexa were a little younger and had two kids too, girls, who were younger again. I can’t recall what Chris’s background was, but he looked just as you would imagine a philosophy graduate to look: bearded (like me) a bit otherworldly and earnest. Alexa was a slight little woman, the least strong personality of the four.
Two years previously they had jointly bought a small (well, actually very small) dairy farm. The farm itself consisted of farmstead and just twelve acres, with an outer ring of a further forty acres that were rented. They had got a (very) small herd of cows, a rather motley bunch bought cheaply. Obviously, it didn’t produce anything like an adequate income in itself, but it could be built up. And there were other activities planned, such as vegetable growing and craftwork. Steph was quite a dab hand at needlework and knitting, so that sort of thing could be her contribution. I fancied some kind of craftwork too. All right, it was a very small operation now, but they had made a start. They weren’t just airy-fairy dreamers; they weren’t hippies.
But they were all nice people; we felt we could get along with them very well. We spent a long afternoon in intense conversation, putting the world to rights and fervently agreeing with each other about the need to radically re-order society. It was very stimulating, like being back at college again. Merv turned out to be the most ‘sociological’. Like me, he had a religious background although he hadn’t rejected his. He was an avowed Christian and had a strong moral sense. He had a mantra that he often repeated: ‘caring and sharing’. That was what it was all about, he maintained. No personal wealth. All that we had we shared. We would live a low-impact lifestyle that didn’t wreck the planet any more than it was already being wrecked. We would live together, redefining the orthodox nuclear family and really care for each other. We would all become parents to seven children, and that being so, ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ titles would disappear. We would be ‘Steph’ and ‘John’ both to our own biological children and all the others, and all the other ‘parents’ would be Merv, Sue, Chris and Alexa as far as all the children were concerned.
Ablaze with idealism, we thought ‘caring and sharing’ a beautiful concept that did indeed sum it all up.
From a practical housing point of view, six adults and seven children would be an impossibly tight squeeze. It was only a typical four bedroom Welsh farmhouse and totally inadequate for more than one family. No problem. We’d expand (and we had to allow for possible other joiners too). It was do-able. After all, Steph and I were highly experienced in house extension.
There was so much to talk about, but eventually we dragged ourselves away from our potential new partners – they’d said when we left that they really hoped we’d join – and drove back to Shropshire in a dream. We democratically asked the kids if they’d like to live with these people and they all enthusiastically said yes. That night we went over and over it, trying to be mature and sensible. It was a huge thing we were contemplating, and huge for the kids too. We mustn’t be rash. We tried very hard to make ourselves think about it long and hard. But it was no good. Irresistible forces were at work.
The following evening we phoned our other friends in London. Would they join too? They weren’t interested. He said he hated cows. They tried to dissuade us from joining Merv and co. and still throw in our lot with them. No, we wouldn’t be dissuaded. So we parted company.
Then we got on the phone to Ffynnonwen Fawr and told them we’d join. They were ecstatic. A long excited conversation followed. We planned another trip down to Wales the following weekend for more discussions and getting-to-know-each-other.
Steph and I had forced ourselves not to act too precipitously, and I didn’t hand in my notice to Cyril immediately. In fact, initially I kept him in the dark about this new daydream. Not so my workmates though: I couldn’t wait to tell them. They regarded me with patient expressions, trying to avoid rolling their eyes heavenwards. But I could see it in their expressions. ‘Mad’, they were probably thinking. ‘Absolutely bonkers’.
But we couldn’t afford to dither around too long (‘why not?’ I hear you thinking). Like our decision to get married, we convinced ourselves that the end of that summer would be some sort of deadline: it seemed a logical point as the children ought to be enrolled in their new school for the new term. Again there was the matter of telling parents. As usual, Steph’s parents took it in their easy-going stride. And as usual, my dad was flabbergasted. He must have thought I’d really taken leave of my senses this time.
The house selling proved to be no problem at all. When I told John at work about our plans he said, wistfully, that he and his wife would love Kingsnordley, but he doubted whether they could afford it. Steph and I talked it over, and decided to negotiate a figure that they could. I was always a lousy businessman. I suggested £15,000 to John, which he accepted with great alacrity. It was significantly less than the value of a detached cottage in Shropshire then. But it was a quick sale. John and Pat had a house in Kidderminster to sell, but that proved no problem either, and their house sale and ours went very smoothly.
Meanwhile, we spent every weekend in Wales bonding with our new friends and future partners and learning about such agricultural mysteries as milking cows. During the week it was a job to concentrate on work, anticipating Friday evenings at 5.30 when Steph and the kids picked me up from Stourbridge so that we could go straight there. We left the West Midlands and drove happily through Bewdley (where once we might have lived), Cleobury Mortimer and Ludlow. At the Welsh border at Knighton, at the sign saying Croeso Y Gymri (Welcome to Wales) a large metaphorical rainbow always appeared on the horizon. The road winding into the west took on a yellowish hue. Sometimes I almost fancied I saw four little figures on it: a pigtailed girl, a tin man, a lion and a scarecrow, and faint siren voices wafting on the summer air. ‘This way’, they’d whisper seductively, ‘we’re off to see the wizard’. All right: I made that bit up. But that’s how it felt.
At Llandrindod Wells we turned south and raced down the empty roads of Powys, then through the Cambrian Mountains at Crychan Forest, into Carmarthenshire. Soon we’d left Llandovery, Llandeilo. The magical names were becoming familiar. Westward out of Carmarthen on the A40, we turned off and up to Meidrim then climbed onto high ground, and before long we were bumping down the track to Ffynnonwen Fawr (‘Great White Well’) and the welcome of our possibly new family. Then supper, the kids to bed with their potential siblings-to-be, and talking way into the night.
Then a weekend of work. The biggest job in that hot summer of 1976 was haymaking. With such a small herd, much of the land was permanent grassland dedicated to hay production, giving a small cash crop surplus. They had no mowing and harvesting machinery but Merv had a helpful contact: to help the finances: he worked at the much larger (and conventional) farm next door. They lent machinery, tractor and trailer, and even a couple of strong young men to help. They were very polite, but must have laughed inwardly at the puny efforts of us starry-eyed English. The work was hot, heavy and prickly, but satisfying. The camaraderie, the joshing and banter in the fields and later eating around the farmhouse table was good. It smacked of Thomas Hardy. All we needed was a kerchiefed and waistcoated rustic with twine-tied corduroys in the corner playing a concertina. Already we felt authentic, and we hadn’t even joined yet.
And the talking, always talking, about things philosophical. The word ‘Nirvana’ kept cropping up. Or things pragmatic, such as how the capital we were bringing in would be used for expansion and how in return we would become joint owners. Too soon, Sunday evening arrived and reluctant departure, to impatiently wait out the last few weeks of summer and the old existence. Steph busied herself experimenting with craft needlework. She made prototype rag dolls and homespun-looking small children’s clothes, pragmatically timing how long it took her to complete them, aware that they would have to sell at a realistic price and couldn’t be too labour-intensive. I thought they were brilliant. They’d surely sell like hot cakes.
I hadn’t thought of what sort of craftwork I might do yet, but spent happy hours, in my daydreaming sort of way, doodling sketches for a large extension to the farmhouse. It would give a large dining room, to contain a big table for being communal around, about four further bedrooms and another bathroom. At weekends I presented these ideas to the others, suppressing slight feelings of irritation when, like all committees, all four found it difficult to agree and got into endless rambling discussions about every trivial point. But eventually a scheme was decided upon, and I worked it up into full working plans to submit for planning permission. I envisioned myself being the building specialist of the group, doing some of the work myself and supervising the others labouring, and overseeing the builders. It was all going to be great fun. I couldn’t wait.
So as not to waste my typographical talents, I designed a logo in an appropriate Celtic lettering style, which would be used for labelling our products. That at least won immediate approval, because no one else could question my expertise.
Thrilling times indeed. When we felt as sure about it all as we could be, and with John’s purchase of Kingsnordley assured, I gave Cyril a month’s notice of leaving. I think he was probably as incredulous as my dad, but too polite to show it. Now there was no going back.