I feel Old old Wooburn more and more every day – the village where I grew up and where a recent family history binge showed roots running deep through the chalk and flint. The sense of it was almost overpowering as I crested the hill marked by Hard-to-Find Farm and approached Bloom Wood. ‘Always was a cold wood, Bloom Wood’, my Dad had said on the phone when I called him on the walk out across Wycombe Rye. And as I discussed my route he could only imagine it coming from the opposite direction – the way from Wooburn, despite the amount of times I reminded him I was approaching from the opposite direction.
Bloom was indeed a cold wood, dense and dark. I was fascinated as a kid by the stories of ‘devil worshippers’ dancing round fires seen from below on Sheepridge Lane. I can’t recall ever entering Bloom Wood. I liked the idea of stumbling upon a coven of Satanists, but it was no longer the 1970’s and too early at 7pm, midsummer. It was exactly where I wanted to be, pushed off the sofa in Leytonstone, out on the edge of East London, mid-afternoon watching Dr Who with the youngest teenager I saw myself on a hill at sunset and knew where the hill would be, more or less. This dappled wood was exactly where I wanted to be right now.
I dropped down the hill and emerged at the edge of the wood where the corn fields had been given over to pasture with a smattering of sheep. Below was Sheepridge Lane where my Nan had lived as a girl in a cottage behind the Crooked Billet earning some coins picking flints from the fields and providing the pub landlord with fresh stinging nettles with which the thrash his wife to ease her rheumatism. The footpath led out into the narrow lane that would have been Nan’s way home, the workers cottages now appeared to be knocked all into one and carrying a hefty price I imagine. The old man had instructed me to have a pint in the Billet garden looking across the lane to the fields rising on the far side, a garden where he told me he’d encountered what must have been one of the last traveling minstrels, an old fella who went from pub to pub singing for beer and a bite to eat kipping down in hedgerows and barns at night. By then, the 1960’s, these old travellers were an unwelcome feature of the countryside.
The pub was empty, the landlady the same as when my sister had worked behind the bar thirty years or more ago. I took my pint of Brakespears (brewed nearby in Henley) out into the garden and looked across at Noel’s fields. Red Kites, wing-spans wider than my outstretched arms, rode the thermals in great wide arcs and dove down on fresh roadkill.
The hill in my mind was just across the road, topped with a spinny above Pigeon House Farm. A legsore winter sunset, I was walking back over those fields with my Dad, must have been four of five years old and I’d just raced to pick up a pigeon he’d shot. He hoisted me up on his shoulders, a drop of blood hung from the pigeon’s beak and I marvelled at the impossible beauty of the colour of the feathers around its throat. I passed the orchard the Old Man planted beside the lane and then rang him from the top of the hill, the view stretching out across Marlow to a wide bend in the River Thames. He remembered that day clearly, and told me a funny story about the burial of a beloved cow in the spinny behind me.
I moved on through Flackwell Heath, echoes of teenage years bouncing off the pavement that followed me over the golf course and down to Wooburn. There was a beer festival in the garden of The Falcon, calling me, tempting me, but my way ahead was along the A40 in the dark, past the Highwaymen’s cave in Cut Throat Wood to the station at Beaconsfield and back to a sofa in Leytonstone.