Below: Isabel’s grandmother’s house Burrow’s Hill, Shere, Surrey.
or bike rides on the downs, up along the Ridgeway, the Vale of Oxford below, the cooling towers of Didcot and the Harwell Atomic Research station to the east, while to the west was the Neolithic, equally powerful world of Wayland’s Smithy and the Uffington White Horse. We made all sorts of dens and headquarters, furnished with Challow finds and a lot of army surplus – billy cans, gas masks and Sam Browne belts, our father’s kit from the war. In the outhouses frosted with furry saltpetre walls we got a ‘Cosystove’ going and toasted toast, stored apples that went fascinatingly mouldy, brewed beer and fermented filthy wine with plums and apples from the garden. We caught, skinned, cured and ate rabbits. We collected dead things and their nests, eggs and young and tried to rear them. We ate lots of raw vegetables and rhubarb because we were always hungry and there were no snacks to be had, except at Esme’s house down the road which was 1920s Arts and Crafts – like Bag End in The Hobbit. My father grew marrows and fabulous small artichokes he got as ‘slips’ from the Italians who lived at Rowstock Corner. Once I was allowed to go camping with my father and the others – my mother loathed all things outdoors – at Talybont on the Usk in Wales. I had never been happier.
I found when I went to boarding school just before I was ten that I loved the camaraderie of school life, loved routine, loved making things, making up plays, making music, making clothes, making toast on an iron, and making coffee with an element that you put in the mug. The latter two things were forbidden and hence deeply exciting, and I learnt to be rebellious about received ideas, to think strategically about how to outwit the nuns. I also learnt to love the smell and the peace of the library and to escape from the hurly burly of bells and screaming girls by getting outdoors. We were made to go for very long walks at weekends to keep us quietly exhausted and out of mischief. Den-making was done in rhododendron groves like mangrove swamps: smoking dens, drinking dens and dens to dream in, for that is what dens are for. As a refuge from London there was also my paternal grandmother’s house. Burrows Hill was in Surrey. The gardener was called Dickinson; I think he had ‘war wounds’ because he seemed always in pain and was very tall and stiff and cross – rather as Julian and I find ourselves now. He inspired such terror in us children that the gratification of stealing raspberries from the fruit cage and tomatoes from the greenhouse was magnificently intense. Charlie’s first tree house was the one here in the strawberry tree or arbutus; it was a fine vantage point for spying on Dickinson’s movements. Once a redoubtable memsahib in Calcutta, Grandmamma was also passionate about her dahlias, which had a bed solely for their glory, spiked with bamboos wearing flower pots for the collection of earwigs and looked upon by a rather green bust of Dante. She gardened in a tweed skirt; an apron; heavy tights; the chic-est of Italian loafers; and her gardening watch was an early silver Rolex. We were all happy to garden with her because she was a great sport, although less so when it meant afternoons