Tuesday, 21 August 2012

How a book can take you back

More about the Picts shortly, but harking back to one of my earlier How We Came to be in  Wales posts, I picked up a hardback copy of a book I had previously only owned in paperback.  That is a plus.  Good friends should be for life and the paperback version was very shabby now.  It was Elizabeth West's "Garden in the Hills", sequel to "Hovel in the Hills" where they moved to Hafod, a.tiny Welsh cottage in North Wales.  It was worth buying, because the hardback copies had photographs to illustrate them, which my humble little paperback didn't.

The photos show how basically they had really lived - the little spring where they went for water was little more than a wet spot in a wilderness back in 1963.  A later (1977) photo shows the author sat waiting for her bucket to fill.  We have a spring here, but it is quite a rumbustious one and provided something like 2,000 gallons in one working day when the men came to line the bottom inglenook chimney with volcanic ash (mixed with water).  Another photograph shows the author giving her husband a shower in the garden using a watering can.  We have done basic here, but never quite THAT basic . . .
But then, they had more success at growing some things than I ever did.  I have yet to grow a decent onion - I know, I am doing SOMETHING wrong, as they don't even grow from sets with me, but I can grow a half-decent leek when I try hard enough. It was interesting to read again how successful their gooseberry bushes were, even though they looked like the illustrations in their gardening books of just how a gooseberry bush should NOT look!  You could ignore them totally bar a little judicious pruning once they had been picked, but year after year they delivered huge amounts of fruit.  Mine are the same.

I'll add to this in the morning, with a couple of extracts from the book.  It has been a real trip down memory lane reading bits of it again but golly-gosh, I thought we lived hand-to-mouth.  They mention at the end not even having the money to spare for a stamp . . .

Here is the first page of the "Garden in the Hills" book:

"  'The trouble with you,' said Alan, 'is that you just don't concentrate.

I eased my aching insteps one at a time from the rung of the ladder, and reflected upon his remark.  Last night's snowstorm had now abated and we were mending the shippen roof.  Leastways, Alan was mending the roof, I was standing on top of a ladder and holding the end of another ladder which lay up the slope of the roof and supported him and his tools, a pile of slates and some wire netting.  My arms, stretched upwards and clasping the sides of his ladder, were numb with the cold.  A bitter wind laced with snow and occasional hailstones lashed at my exposed wrists and face.  Occasional gobbets of icy snow and bits of broken slate hurtled down the roof and straight into my gaping coat sleeves.  I was shivering, aching and bad-tempered.  I couldn't see what concentration had to do with it.  'If you'd fixed the damned roof in the summer we wouldn't be spending Christmas Day doing this!' I snarled back.

It was an unfair retort.  I knew perfectly well that during fine summer days there were other things to do - like repointing the chimney-stack,lime-washing the south-west facing front of the cottage, repainting doors and window frames, repairing fences, cutting thistles and earning a living.  It wasn't as though the shippen was needed to shelter cows.  It contained stacks of timber, fencing wire, slates, useful junk and a quantity of packing cases whose contents have been partially investigated since we moved here from Bristol thirteen years ago.  The only livestock using the shippen these days are a roosting blackbird, an occasional nesting wren and a colony of field-mice who make cosy nests each year in a packing case of old Tatler magazines.  There is little danger of a population explosion amongst our township of field-mice, because during the winter months a polecat moves in from the moors and makes short work of the Tatlerville residents.  This nicely balanced community of wildlife is welcome to the facilities of our shippen, but has to be content with premises that are but roughly patched up as and when necessary."


  1. That book has a lot to teach us, with them taking showers in the garden from a watering can, and not having money for a stamp. I imagine they loved the life they chose and the books sound worth reading.

  2. Hard work, even if the cottage and its situation was idyllic!

  3. I love that kind of book BB - reading about the transformation of some property or other without the hard work. But, seriously, it is good to look back and to compare one's struggle with that of someone else. The sort of events she relates are probably better in retrospect than they were at the time though.

  4. I have all three Hafod 'In the Hills' books, ( kitchen, garden.. hovel) 2 hardbacks, 1 paperback I think, and they are keepers, I would never part with them


  5. I have all three books too,I had to replace my 'Kitchen in the Hills' book recently as it was falling to pieces.I love these sort of books and wish there were more people writing them.

  6. They are among my favourite books. I know they went back to "civilisation" for a time and then retired to the Forest of Dean - there's a sort of follow-up book "A Patch in the Forest". I wonder if they know how many folks they've inspired and delighted with their books?

  7. I loved those books and would have loved to see the photos.

    I believe Hafod lives on and is occupied by a chap who said he still gets callers looking for the Wests.

    I still have Hovel, I bought the other 2 for my dad but I think my Mum took them to Oxfam after he died :-(

  8. Oh dear! I've gone and bought these books. I'm such a weak willed woman :D

  9. Hah! Yarrow - Why am I not surprised?! You'll love them.

    Kath - I will have to see if I can download the scanner bumf for the printer (it was G's and she lost the CD-ROM for it) and put them on here.

    Halfrida - welcome. That Forest of Dean book is one which is always on my scanner and I hope to come across it at Hay-on-Wye one of these days (or better still, at a car boot sale, more cheaply!)

    Rosemary - I have to say that they ate extremely frugally at times - she would have coped admirably during Rationing! I've tried some of the recipes but not recently, I have to confess.

    Leanne - I agree, these books are all "keepers". It was you that kindly photocopied the Kitchen in the Hills book for me wasn't it? I have always appreciated that.

    Weaver - they only did enough on their cottage to make it more habitable - they didn't miss electricity or running water or the lack of a bathroom or washing machine! I think their constant problem was damp though : (

    DW - I think they found life hard there in the winter, and having to lock up and leave the cottage to go and do live-in jobs to have enough money to get by on wasn't their ideal set-up.

    Terra - they did indeed choose to live that way, and certainly pre-empted all the Green Living ideals we have nowadays. Their lifestyle was compared with the Good Life programmes of the 1970s but as they said, there was no real comparison.

  10. yes it was jennie, a long time ago now!

    Leanne x

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