On Monday I will be appearing at the Henley Literary Festival at an event on the theme of Local Roots. I grew up in the Chiltern Hills in a village called Stoke Row which is not far from Henley. The landscape is part of Twice the Speed of Dark – not quite (as the cliché goes) a character, but certainly part of the scenery flats.
I am delighted to be included in the festival, a little bit intimidated at the thought of being taken seriously, even if it is mostly because I happen to have been born locally.
Chalk hills don’t have streams. When we visited other rural landscapes, I found the presence of streams and waterways kind of exotic. The Chilterns had wells. The house we lived in when I was born was called the Pump House – a little cottage in woodlands above Watlington. It was built, I believe, above one of the deepest wells in England.
In Stoke Row there is the Maharajah’s Well, a strange and wonderful object. The tale was that someone from a nearby village (Checkendon, as it happens) saved the Maharajah of Benares’ son from drowning and in gratitude, the Maharajah, moved by the pathos of the dirty, waterless villagers, organised and paid for the digging of a well. It was capped off with an Indian architectural housing complete with elephant and dome, and a beautiful little hexagonal cottage for the well keeper. I don’t imagine I was the only Stoke Row-ian who was baffled by the benefit to our village, when the good deed was done by an inhabitant of another village some three miles away. But it could be that, with regards to the address of the story’s hero, I have got it wrong and thus, am the only Stoke-Rowian who is perplexed in this way. (Certainly, there was a widely held belief with regards to the drowning/saving part of the story.)
I think that I am writing about wells as a response to the idea of roots. Both represent ways to reach water. In fact, roots in chalk lands, don’t go deep, they go wide. When there is a storm, beech trees fall, levering up great plates of earth, an underworld sun of clay and soil that has made the best of shallow topsoil above the un-nourishing mass of chalk. Wells, in traversing that same lifeless, permeable mass, go deep.
The Chiltern Hills, my childhood home, are as close to the territory that hold my roots as any where else I have. Being white, middle class, generically southern, with broad British ancestry, tales of heritage and belonging are not my birthright. Being opposed to nationalism and uncomfortable with patriotism, this is easy to accept. But my soul does have roots in that landscape even if generations of family do not.
I love it, not because I belong there, or because it is part of me. But because it is one of the first ways I learned of beauty, and that is, like water, something that makes us too.