Thursday, 18 April 2013

Chapter 1 1982


The sun is setting across Loch Sunart as we near the end of a long day’s journey from Glastonbury.   It is summer 1982 and four years have elapsed since our last holiday, during which time we have contrived to lose the greater part of the small business lovingly developed with such high hopes during the Seventies, together with the home we created during 30 years of marriage, sold to pay off the debts.

The tide is out and some birds are still feeding amongst the rocks.   A heron rises awkwardly and flies out across the water;    I am crying, so John is driving.   Though these are not the bitter tears which I shed at the beginning of the crisis in 1979, when the annual holiday had to be cancelled as we struggled to cope with the downturn in our business.   These are tears of pure happiness at being back in our beloved Scotland again

“Do you remember coming to Strontian for the first time ten years ago with the children, staying in Kilcamb Lodge and driving for hours on that narrow road to the end of the penninsular to Sanna Beach, getting back just in time for supper?” I said, with a lump in my throat as John negotiated the turning onto the A884 road to Lochaline on the Morvern peninsular, where the road sign warns of sheep and passing places.   (The correct pronunciation is “Loch-a-lin”.)   “And then over the next couple of years, when we spent our fortnight self catering in Mrs Jack Cameron’s cottage, Rockfield, in the morning we would ask her opinion as to whether the sun would shine if we went to Sanna today.   She would crinkle her eyes and look up at the sky and, after some pondering, she would say yes.   It would take us three hours to drive 30 miles from Strontian to Sanna, allowing extra time when we had to stop and help dig the caravans out of the ditch as people weren’t used to negotiating the passing places.   And the sun always did shine.”  

When we were going through that horrible time, I used to say to myself firmly:  the sun always shines on Sanna Beach.”   It was the only way to retain a glimmer of hope for the future.   For by November 1979 we had lost £40,000 and the nightmare had begun.  

Sanna is the most westerly point of the UK mainland – an enormous deserted white shell beach with a cluster of little crofts and the Ardnamurchan lighthouse close by.   Icy cold, clear blue sea and a solitary telephone kiosk.   It must have been a gorgeous day at Sanna today.   “We found the seaside pansy on those dunes,” I said.   (You will hear more about that later).   “And do you remember reading “Night Falls on Ardnamurchan” – that book of reminiscences by the son of a crofter living on Sanna beach?”  

We must have been staying at the time in one of the cottages at Laudale (pronounced “Lau-dle”) and Julie and her husband Simon with us. 
   Laudale is a Georgian shooting lodge on the shore of Loch Sunart, listed Category B by Historic Buildings, with an estate over 12,000 acres and an income from forestry and fish farming.   
Without realising the similarity, they had spent all one afternoon sitting in their car somewhere near Camasnacroise, people watching through their binoculars.  The author of the book (which alas I cannot find now) described how one had to check – through the binoculars – whether it was convenient to visit their neighbours after supper.   Was another visitor already on the way – or were the neighbours just leaving to visit someone else?    Julie described how, first of all, the postman visited the pair of cottages across the bay, obviously stopping for refreshment or gossip with each occupant.   Then the old lady came out and shook her doormat and the old man next door fed his chickens;  greetings were exchanged over the garden fence.   And so on.
“I suppose we started renting the cottages at Laudale a few years later,” said John.  “And in those days, before the Ballachuilish Bridge was built in 1976, we used to queue for two hours for the ferry across Loch Leven.”   “And the Corran Ferry used to have a notice which said:  This is NOT the Ballachuilish Ferry.” I added. 

We have passed the fish farm where the salmon were leaping in their nets and have turned off the main road past Liddesdale, winding along the couple of miles of single track which follows the shoreline to the estate.   I can smell wood smoke;  sheep and rabbits bundle out of our way and the delicate white bark of the birch trees shines in the gloaming.   Huge spires of foxgloves line the road.   The sunset is up to expectation – is that a mackerel sky?   We negotiate the corner, where the remains of the old jetty rise stark above the loch, and there is the Big House which sleeps 14 and which, a few years later, we were to rent for a memorable holiday with all the family.   This time, we will be staying in one of the two wooden chalets, now called Osprey and Eagle, which were originally built for the estate workers   There are wildflowers in a jam jar on the table and a welcoming note from Geoff and Liz.   It is quiet except for the stream and the sheep.   Nothing has changed.   We shall sleep well tonight.

John and I met at Sidcot School during the war - a Quaker boarding school on the edge of the Mendips.  I am not a Quaker.   I was sent to live with an aunt on Exmoor in 1940 after an acrimonious divorce the previous year and packed off to boarding school.   To begin with I had lived with my mother and younger sister near my grandparents in Chester, but she couldn’t cope with a ‘seriously disturbed child’, and threw me back at my father.  He made me a Ward of Court and  I was forbidden to have anything to do with my mother (and younger sister) until I was eighteen.   My father and stepmother (Jane) meanwhile sailed from Scapa Flow in the autumn of 1940 with all the books from the British Library under the aegis of the British Council,  taking them to South America where they were left with embassies or ministries for safe keeping.   They had to flee from Bilbao in a cargo ship “chased by  the Japanese”, and after various adventures they  ended up in Calcutta.   We kept in touch with aerogrammes;  one had to write the letter on a special sheet of paper purchased from the Post Office.   This was photographed and reduced to a negative before being sent across the world;  it was  then printed again in a size resembling A5 and delivered by the postman.

John was born in 1930 in his grandmother’s bed in Ynyswytryn at the bottom of Wick Hollow in Glastonbury – the family home made into flats in the 1960’s by Uncle Humphrey Morland. 
  John’s father, Bry, was the youngest brother and there was no room for him at the factory.    John’s Great Grandfather married Mary Clark in 1865 (the Quaker family who were already producing shoes in Street) and in 1899 the partnership of these families became  “Clark Son & Morland Ltd”, occupying the site at Northover now named The Red Brick Building.   In its time, it was the biggest sheepskin tannery in Europe.   By the outbreak of war in 1939 Bry and his wife Deena lived in Hampstead.  John remembers going up to the Elephant & Castle in the holidays and looking out at London burning, with the silhouette of St Paul’s standing firm against the crimson flames.  

John left school in 1947 and I left the following year.   My aunt and I were not getting on very well (teenage troubles no doubt!) and as my father and Jane had returned from India following Partition,  I went to live with them in Chelsea.   
   John and I got together again and after a couple of years of courting, we were married in December 1951. 
John was 21 but I was three months younger and had to ask my father’s permission.   Because of the family break-up, I couldn’t decide whether to have a Quaker wedding, or to be married by Grandad the Bish – my paternal grandfather - who had retired to the Lake District.    So we compromised and were married in Chelsea Registry Office with only my father and Jane, Deena and Bry (John’s parents) and a couple of friends in attendance.   The Bishop’s sister, Great Aunt Beatrice, wrote to me afterwards:  “What a pity you didn’t have a proper wedding with all the presents and good wishes that go with it.”   I wish I had kept that letter;  it caused much amusement when we celebrated our Diamond Wedding recently!

John had spent two years studying tanning at the National Leathersellers College in Bermondsey, followed by two years (deferred) National Service.  This finished in August 1952, after which we came down to Glastonbury.  He was the fourth generation of the family to join Clark Son & Morland Ltd, working to begin with in the Development Department;  he designed and produced the first sheepskin coats in 1958 and was made a Director.    By this time we had two children – Rob was born in 1954 and Julie in 1955.  
But clashes of personality with Uncle Humphrey Morland, then Managing Director, took its toll.   By the Sixties,  soon after our youngest daughter Ruth was born, poor John was suffering from migraines which continued to haunt him for the next 30 odd years until he had an angioplasty.   So it must have been a heart problem all that time.   He would get one or two migraines each week, which entailed having to sit quietly for an hour or so while his pills took effect

In 1954 we bought an acre of orchard at the top of Bushy Coombe from Uncle Humphrey;  as he was chairman of the Planning Committee of the Borough Council, we (together with other members of the family) built four houses in the Coombe, three of which were designed by Jack Hepworth, who worked at Morlands and who was married to John’s first cousin.  
In 1962/3 we doubled the size of our house, renaming it “Schehallion” after our first holiday in Scotland in the early Sixties.   This is the name of a mountain in Perthshire – with spelling somewhat modified – and which the whole family, including Ruth aged about 5, managed to climb in gum boots.   

 Now I have filled you in with our back history, we must return to Laudale.   It is 6 o’clock as we begin unpacking the car.   We have taken 12 hours to drive nearly 500 miles from Glastonbury and we are tired.   “Let’s have baked beans on toast”, I say as we struggle to carry the gas fridge (borrowed from our neighbours) into the kitchen.   There is no electricity, unless it rains, when their own hydro electric comes into operation. 
  Only once, in all the years we spent there, did we enjoy electricity and then it was only for the first day or two of the holiday, as it had rained the previous week.   Another time, we returned home after a perfect fortnight in Scotland, when some French visitors to Strontian had complained of the heat, to find that the floods were out on the moor at Cowbridge.

Tilley lamp and candles are the order of the day;  large stocks of food ordered in advance from our nearest shop, Munroe’s store at Strontian (about 8 miles away, round the top of Loch Sunart), await in large boxes.   We even have to bring our own bed linen.   The trouble is that sometimes the milk was not fresh.   This was delivered to Strontian from Inverness, a hundred miles away, mostly by single track road in the seventies;  it was presented in plastic tetra bags which were just piled up in the shop with no thought for rotating the stock, so it would often be sour when opened.   And snipping the corner was quite an art – milk would spurt out before we could pour it into a jug.  

The week’s ration of a half hundredweight sack of anthracite sits beside the Rayburn.   Before Geoff and Liz Abbott managed the estate, an old man living in a cottage a couple of miles down the road seemed to be in charge of the holiday lets;  we used to call him “the good fairy” when he brought our second bag of coal as we were always running out.   On one occasion, we had even travelled up with an extra sack on the roof rack, together with a box of worms for the fishing.   Otherwise one had to drive about 30 miles to Fort William (across the Corran Ferry) to get more – and make a second journey in order to return the empty the coal merchant.

After supper we go down to the water’s edge.   It is 9 o’clock and the sun is setting, but it will never get really dark at this time of the year.   The sandpiper is still calling from the other side of the loch and the cool gentle breeze smells so fresh – I feel surrounded by the scent of mountain streams, heather, shell fish and seaweed, and wood smoke from the cottage occupied by Liz and Geoff.   But the midges are everywhere.   After fishing for mackrell from our inflatable dinghy on the loch one evening a few years ago, we had come ashore and lit two fires; 
  one on which to cook the fish and the other of dried seaweed.We stood in the smoke of the latter for awhile to escape their attention.   Then, before these became commercially available,  John had got his mother to buy some fine dark material from Harrods from which he made his own protective veil – the only alternative in those days was a dab of oil of citronella.   “We’d better go back now”, I said.  

I wonder if we will find mushrooms this year and whether the raspberries are ripe yet.   We will pick raspberries for supper tomorrow.   “Tomorrow is Sunday” said John.   “Let’s rest after all that driving, then we can go to Sanna on Monday if it is fine.”

I look at the sky.   Perhaps the weather will hold for a day or two.  “All right”, I say and give him a hug.   “And I hope the sheep don’t keep us awake this time”.   On one occasion they had wandered round the cottage all night, calling for their lambs.   Ruth can do a good rendering of a Scottish sheep.

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