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Sunset Ridge. The name conjures up images of a silhouetted landscape against a backdrop of orange and red, mauve and blue. It was Dad who named the cottage and it was Uncle Les who painted the name plaque that graced one of the stone walls that curved up on either side of its steep driveway. A plain but sturdy stone dwelling sitting atop an embankment, it boasted views across the open fields that stretched beyond the roof of the red brick house below towards the ridge that is as indelibly etched upon my memory as the technicolored summer sunsets themselves.
Compared to Ashcliff, Sunset Ridge was small. That’s why we moved there. As Dad reached retirement age the upkeep of such a large house began to take its toll. Before we actually did so I was excited at the prospect of moving to the new house, yet on the day we left Ashcliff I remember waking up and feeling distraught at the prospect of leaving the home I loved so much. Once we’d settled into the new place however I soon found plenty to keep me occupied.
I suppose to an eight year old, change isn’t such a bad thing.
Shortly after we moved into the cottage work began on building an extension; my bedroom. I watched with fascination and growing excitement as walls went up, floorboards were laid, windows fitted and a roof put on. Why my parents chose polystyrene tiles for the ceiling I’ll never know: some long-forgotten 60’s design innovation perhaps. I do know that when you squashed flies against them with the end of a tennis racquet it made a god-awful mess that never really came clean again. When completed, it was something of an anti-climax. Somehow, the construction was more interesting than the finished product.
Unlike Ashcliff, it’s not Sunset Ridge itself that remains with me so much as the landscape around it. Whereas Ashcliff was nestled against a cliff and situated high above the village below, Sunset Ridge was surrounded on all sides by open countryside. It’s the landscape where I first became acquainted with the company of cows; where I first learnt to build haystack houses and where my roaming instincts grew to fruition. It’s where I began to notice and appreciate the changing of the seasons and the way the landscape changed with them.
Winters were cold at Sunset Ridge, especially when it snowed. Nonetheless, I would insist on going out to play in the garden that surrounded the cottage on all four sides, stomping around in the snow in an effort to keep myself warm. Inevitably the cold would get the better of me and I’d find myself sitting back in front of the wood stove with toes so cold that I feared they might drop off. Still, some of my fondest memories are of wrapping up with my boots and scarf on a cold, grey day and pitting myself against the elements.
Behind the cottage, just over the fence, was the old train track and disused signal master’s hut, a blackened structure with one window and a chimney which, after scrambling up onto the flat roof, I used to pee down. It became my own personal refuge, a place to go and sit and think about things. Next to this was a sand quarry where I would spend hours carving an ever changing landscape of tunnels and roads for my car collection and which, once completed, I would stomp on like some gleeful Godzilla laying waste to all that I had created.
Behind the sand quarry was a large field that stretched back over the hill. It was the field where I flew first flew a kite. It was made of fabric and shaped like a bird. I remember Dad coming with me into the field to fly it, one of the few times I can remember him taking an interest in my boyhood pursuits. After numerous attempts we finally managed to get it airborne. For a while we both stood and watched it soaring high above us before the string suddenly snapped and my beautiful bird flew away from me forever.
The landscape around Sunset Ridge was a source of endless fascination and interest. My sister and I would often go into a field of cows and just sit there without moving. The cows would stare at us, absently munching on grass until inevitably one would become curious and move closer, followed by another, then another until finally one of them would lean down and start to lick our boots. We used to thrill at the way their curiosity made them seem so tame. Once bored, we’d usually jump up and start shouting and the cows would all scatter in fright.
After it had rained, huge pools of water would form in the sand quarry creating a patchwork of lakes in a moonlike landscape. For me it was like having a blank canvas with which to work. I would spend endless hours scooping out intricate networks of canals which I would then flood by allowing the water from one of the rain-filled pools to flow into them. Once the canals were in place I’d set about creating hills and mountains to grace them, always making sure I patted the sand down and smoothed everything to distinguish it from the surrounding area.
One of my most prized possessions as a boy was a penknife from which I would fashion spears, cut grooves to create bows and strip branches to make arrows. I also used it to carve miniature caves into the sides of the clay cliffs that were a little further down the disused rail track. A penknife was a badge of honour. It never occurred to me to use it for anything other than what I understood it to have been designed for, and to carry it around with me was to carry around something I considered an object of beauty.
The train track behind the cottage came into disuse after the Ventnor line was closed in 1966. By the time we moved there all but a few of the rails and sleepers had been removed although the track itself remained. It was possible to follow it for some distance before nature started to reclaim those sections hewn between steep banks making the way impassable for a small boy such as myself. Walking along the track I would imagine the days when huge steam engines pulling half a dozen carriages or more would chug back and forth between Ryde to Ventnor.
One of the best sounds of summer was the wheat harvesting hay baler rolling up and down the fields leaving a scattering of hay bales in its wake. To me and whomever I happened to be with at the time these were like giant Lego bricks with which we built haystack houses complete with windows, doors and roofed passageways. We’d end up with our arms covered in cuts and grazes honourably earned by heaving the bales up by the string and hoisting them one on top of the other. Few things were as satisfying as a day building haystack houses.
Down the road from Sunset Ridge was Southford Farm. In those days it was a common sight to see the farmer guiding a herd of cows along the main road towards Whitwell as he took them to the far field. There was no hurrying them. Cars would simply follow slowly behind while the lumbering herd of beasts slowly made their way along the narrow hedge-lined road as they tried to avoid bumping into each other. Finally they’d reach the field. The gate would be opened and the cows would slowly file in leaving a line of cars in their wake.
Southford Farm was one of my favourite haunts. Unlike Australian farms, this one had a public footpath running through the middle of it and it didn’t take me long to befriend the farmer himself, although what his name was or if I ever knew it escapes me now. What I do recall is the excitement and sense of wonder I got helping to collect eggs from the chicken coop. I’ll never forget the thrill of going into the coop and seeing where eggs actually came from; that shift from theoretical knowledge to tangible evidence that real, hands on experience enables.
No recollection of my time at Sunset Ridge would be complete without an affectionate mention of Mrs Baker, the wonderful lady who lived in a tree-enshrouded bungalow called Glengariff on the main road running through Whitwell. After introducing myself to her one day while walking though the village we became good friends. I’d take her bunches of wild flowers picked along the way and in return she would invite me into her home and give me milk and biscuits. Although only in her late 60s then, to me she was a million years old with all the wisdom therein implied.
Mrs Baker had an extraordinary way with birds. It was like she shared a special language with them. Sometimes when I’d visit we’d sit in her kitchen where she’d open the window and we’d wait until first one, then two, then more of them would fly in through the open window and wait patiently on the floor to be fed small bits of bread. Sometimes one of them would hop up onto the table and take the bread directly from her hand. Few things gave her more pleasure, and in sharing that pleasure I was nourished by a kindred spirit.
One day I stumbled upon a baby blackbird that had fallen from its nest. Cradling its fragile frame in my hand I took it to Mrs Baker to see if we could do anything for it. We took it inside where she tried to feed it with some bread softened with milk, hoping that it might be alright but sadly it failed to respond and died soon after. So we took it out into the garden where we dug a little grave and buried it. Then we made a small cross from a couple of twigs and said a prayer.
For all the rural tranquillity of my early childhood I nonetheless had a seemingly insatiable appetite for disaster scenarios. I was forever inventing scenarios to quench my thirst for calamity. A favourite pastime was to create an imaginary city block from cardboard boxes replete with cut-out doors and windows and then set one of them alight. I would revel in the delicious delight of watching first one, then the next and finally all of these imaginary buildings smoking and erupting into flames until finally they’d all collapse into a smouldering heap, leaving me strangely elated and satisfied by the experience.
I must have been about nine years old when I discovered the anonymous power of the telephone. Having tired of ringing to see what the time would be at the third stroke I hit upon the idea of making random abusive phone calls and unleashing my full arsenal of insults and swear words upon my unsuspecting victim. It didn’t occur to me that preceding each verbal assault with my father’s name would lead to a visit from the local constabulary. But it did, and it was a long time before I was allowed anywhere near the telephone again after that.
In 1968 the very first Isle of Wight Festival, or Pop Festival as it was called in those days, took place in the fields across the road from Sunset Ridge. Sadly not the festival in which Hendrix, Dylan or Joni Mitchell performed, it was nonetheless a major event and the biggest thing ever to have occurred across the road. I can still remember being completely enamoured with the appearance of real-life hippies and revelling in the excitement of live music drifting across the countryside. For years thereafter one of my greatest ambitions was to become a real life, hair-growing hippie.
It was shortly after the Pop Festival that my sister started bringing boyfriends home to meet Mum and Dad. Every so often I’d come home from school to find her sitting on the settee with her latest beau. My own personal benchmark for assessing how suitable they were was how “cool” or “with it” they looked. The longer the hair the greater my approval and the wearing of a flowery shirt or a cravat generally sealed it. Not that older sisters pay much attention to or value the opinion of their younger brothers.
Nor do their boyfriends for that matter.
I remember the young guy who lived down the road and who drove a sporty little green MG. for me it was the epitome of cool and whenever I saw him driving it along the narrow, hedge-lined roads at breakneck speed I would dream of the day when I would be old enough to own one of my own. Then one day I learned that the young driver had crashed the car and been killed. Apparently the windscreen had been thrown clear of the wreckage and, in those days before seat belts were common, let alone mandatory, so had he.
Despite my ongoing love affair with the MG, I’d always fancied us owning an Anglia. There was something about its inward leaning back window that always appealed to me. We even had one for a while when our own car was being repaired at the garage. So when Dad announced we were going to be getting a new car I naturally assumed he’d take the views of his eight year old son into account. I was sadly mistaken To my horror, he bought a sky blue, arse end up, Renault 4 tin can on wheels.
I never fully forgave him.
Due to the lay of the land it was possible to see Sunset Ridge from many vantage points and while roaming the countryside I enjoyed reaching a spot where I could gaze back across the landscape and see it sitting there, a small speck standing out from the embankment upon which it sat. I would imagine my parents gazing out and see me all that distance away and I’d wave at them just on the off chance that they might see me. Seeing it provided a sense of place; a reference point with which to place myself in the world.
Wandering through the countryside was an enduring pleasure for me regardless of the season but if I had to choose, I would say that the warm summer evenings were the best: that time of day when the sun is low in the sky, colours are tinged with a golden hue, the sky dappled with hints of orange and pink and the air is heavy with birdsong and the low humming drone of insects. Such evenings seemed to stretch on forever in the way that time does when you're a child in a rural paradise without a care in the world.
There were a couple of fruit trees in the garden, an apple and a pear. Sadly, neither bore fruit that was especially edible. The apples were small and tart while the pears were hard and unappealing. The vegetable patch was rather more successful. There we grew a variety of vegetables – lettuce, cabbages and best of all, garden peas. When it was time to pick the peas we’d crack the pods open over a saucepan to extract them. As many peas ended up in my mouth as in the pot. Forty years on and I can still vividly recall their crunchy sweetness.
Looking back it occurs to me that I was pretty contented as a kid. I enjoyed my own company, and while I had friends who lived in the vicinity there was no one with whom I was especially close. At school I socialised readily with my peers but at home I spent a lot of time by myself and never thought anything of it. I had plenty to keep me occupied and while I was never a particularly sporting type I led a pretty active life. And I was never happier than when I was out exploring the surrounding countryside.
It was while we lived at Sunset Ridge that my sister became less my tormentor and more of a companion, which given the six years gap between us was no small feat. We both enjoyed walking and sometimes we’d go off exploring together, she on her bike and me running alongside trying to keep up. We were always looking to rescue baby birds that had fallen from their nest and we were successful in raising no less than three of them which we later either released back into the wild or took up to my cousin’s bird zoo in Norwich.
A powerful memory from this time involves my nephew, 13 months my senior. I’d been learning about the concept of time at school and, utterly intrigued, I shared the concept with him one sunny afternoon on the lane across the road. I told him how one day we’d be in the future looking back at this moment which would then be in the past. We pledged to always remember the moment and, true to our word, we always have.
That was forty years ago. In another forty years I’ll be eighty-eight. He’ll be ninety.
A sobering thought, to be sure.
Reviewing the past is at best a precarious endeavour. The rosy filters of nostalgia inevitably colour what we selectively choose to remember and forget. Yet dealing on a daily basis with children all too often bereft of anything resembling what many of us would recognise as a safe and meaningful childhood, I cannot help but feel blessed to have had the privilege of growing up in such a beautiful, safe and tranquil setting. At the time I took it all for granted. That’s just the way the world was.
If only more kids in the world could be so blessed.
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