Image: Pixabay

 

As a young child, I would sit in the garden of my family home on a small orange chair, gazing out onto the spectacular view while I ate Petits Filous yoghurts and listened to the stories my parents read to me. The place where I spent my childhood and where my father still lives is a quaint bungalow in Purley, Surrey. Although it is unfortunately located on a main road that seems to get busier by the day, the beautiful garden backs onto fields, which plays host to nature and the local wildlife.

The bungalow itself was built by my great grandfather Bob Roach in 1928 and has been occupied by my family for four generations. A year after building the house, my grandmother was born, followed two years later by her sister. The air raid shelter that was built to provide safety and sanctuary during the Blitz still stands at the bottom of the garden, almost completely concealed under an overgrown yellow hypericum.

My grandmother was eleven years old the first time forty German planes flew overhead to bomb London; she and her sister would later collect any pieces of shrapnel they came across. Even now, the winter of 1940 is forever enshrined in my grandmother’s mind. She spent much of it in the shelter, freezing and miserable, attempting to avoid the bombs with her parents and sister, all fearing for their lives. They had reason to fear. She tells me of the dog fights that happened overhead between the English Spitfires and Hurricanes that battled the German Messerschmitt planes, along with the ack-ack gun posted outside by the front gate, and the sergeant who came to say goodnight to the family every evening. After the Messerschmitt planes had come to bomb London, on their return flight home to Germany they would drop any surplus bombs left over onto England as they could not land whilst still carrying them. One such bomb fell in the field, where a large impression in the ground still remains to this day. Another landed a few houses down from ours, on the family’s air raid shelter, killing the mother and children inside. The father had momentarily gone back to the house for a cup of tea, returning to find his world forever and irreparably destroyed. When I ask what happened to him after this, my grandmother cannot remember, although she knows her father went over to try fruitlessly to search for survivors. I suspect her parents told her as little as possible in an effort to shield her and her sister from the brutalities of war. On another occasion a German fighter pilot was shot down, crashing at the end of the field, which caused arguments between the two parishes as his body had landed on the border, and neither could work out whose responsibility it was to dispose of him.

Not all of the memories were sad. Much of the history of my family can be recounted through nature. My grandmother recalls her and her sister watching their father in awe as he fed his friendly pet robin outside the kitchen door with cheese from an open matchbox held in his hand, passing on his fascination with birds. Even now she has her table and chair right by the window, noting the different types of birds that frequent her garden.

The bungalow’s magnificent garden has its own share of memories, most of which can be told through the trees. My aunt took her first steps on the lawn aged thirteen months while years later my father climbed the greengage in the old orchard at the top. My grandmother gladly shows me pictures of them as young children sitting in the field together, smiles stretched across their faces, while in another they pose on an old tractor with their cousin. Thanks to the honey fungus invasion, which is every gardener’s nightmare, all of the old orchard trees have now died, leaving a dwindling population of newer trees remaining, none of which ever provides much fruit. Even the cherry tree that I would climb and hide in as a child succumbed in 2015, much to my dismay. Still, dying plants were always replaced, simply continuing the unstoppable and inevitable circle of life. The dawn redwood that was grown from seed becomes stronger each year, and the sweet chestnut that my father planted when I was born still stands proudly at the front of the house. The gorgeously scented purple wisteria, planted by my great grandfather, still climbs the trellis at the back, while his four beloved rose beds continue to thrive. The yew hedge, planted some twenty years ago to separate the garden from the field now spans a colossal eight feet in width in places, and is almost the same in height.

My father bought the house at the age of twenty-five, although he did not move in until 1981, shortly before my parents married in 1982. Over time, the shape of the garden and of the house changed and developed. There was an upstairs loft conversion and bits of modernising inside, while outside raspberry canes were replaced by mock oranges and new rhododendron beds. The gigantic flood of 1985 was caused by my father and left every room in the house under several inches of water. It all started when he decided it would a good idea to put insulation in the upstairs ceiling, without realising this would prevent any heat from getting into the loft. The end result was that during a very cold winter, all the pipes froze and consequently burst, flooding the house and ruining half the furniture and interior. My parents came home from work to find water spilling out onto the drive, forcing them to completely vacate the premises until repairs were made.

I arrived five years later in April 1990 (thankfully by this point my parents and the house had recovered), while the garden was bursting with tulips of every colour that my mother had planted. She still buys me a bunch of tulips every birthday to commemorate the occasion. My grandmother from Guyana had visited to meet me, and although she is no longer here, I treasure a photograph of her standing beside my mother’s tomato plants, holding me up while joy radiates from her face. As all my family are keen gardeners and nature enthusiasts, an appreciation of the natural world has always been immensely encouraged. My earliest memory is of my parents together in the garden working on their vegetable patch. As a child, they created my own flower bed that ran along the garage wall, cramming it with all number of flowers and plants and teaching me their names in an effort to inspire my interest. One day, when I was about eighteen months old, I have been told that my parents and my grandmother had been in the garden pottering around, when suddenly they noticed my absence. I had made a disappearing act, and my parents both began to frantically search for me, probably concerned I might have stumbled towards the busy main road. Suddenly, my grandmother spotted me, a tiny red dot far in the distance, determinedly trudging across the field, perfectly happy among the tall grass and wildflowers, blissfully unaware of the panic my unplanned exploration had caused. I was speedily retrieved, and I suspect they both kept a closer eye on me after this.

I remember walking to the house a few doors down when I was a young child, the one that got bombed in the war and was later re-built. Two elderly sisters lived there and although their garden was completely overgrown and unkempt, there was a blackberry hedge along the side that produced the largest most gorgeous blackberries I have ever seen. My mother would take over homemade jam made from damsons that grow on one edge of the field, and they would let us pick the blackberries in return. I also recall that throughout the course of my childhood, various stray cats would appear in the garden, travelling across the fields, arriving shabby and thin and mewing for food. I don’t know what it was that bought them to our door, but they were never turned away and my parents always rescued them.

The field beyond used to be a poppy meadow full of wildflowers, but then the farmer began to plough the land, converting it into grass with a horse track for training running around the perimeter, marked out by white fence posts. I was too young to recall the meadow, but I am told it was beautiful, full of poppies, scabious, vetch, clover, mallow, buttercups, thistle and cornflowers as blue as a summer’s sky. Now years later, no trace of the track remains after it fell into disrepair, and sadly, apart from the daisies, many of the wildflowers have not returned. However, it is still a place of myriad nature; a perfect habitat for foxes, badgers, hedgehogs and field mice, although their numbers have notably decreased over the years. The relic hedgerow that used to divide the field was ploughed by the farmer in order to increase the size, and although the remaining section still provides some safe harbour for small mammals like moles, mice and voles, it no longer acts as a safe highway for them from one end to another, meaning that the population has become isolated. This loss of cover takes away the small animals’ refuge, exposing them to the open and making them easy targets for birds of prey, such as sparrow hawks and owls that circulate above. These birds of prey also stalk out the garden; sadly they have noted that we have many small bird visitors, such as sparrows and dunnocks that frequent the bird feeder, which has now been repositioned closer to the tree to increase safety for them. Slightly less welcome visitors to the garden a few years ago were several deer that came in from a few fields away, easily scaling the fence to snack on the rose shoots, much to my father’s annoyance. Watching him run out to chase them away whilst shouting various expletives was fairly hilarious. He had to put up wire mesh along all the fencing around the whole garden to increase the height and prevent them from jumping in, allowing the stunted roses a chance to re-grow. A much less welcome visitor to the garden recently was a very large rat, although thankfully he has since been relocated.

For as long as I can remember, we have fed the foxes, making them jam sandwiches and throwing them out with sausages, dog food and leftover dinner scraps. Watching them play across the lawn, chasing each other and bickering over food is heart-warming. They are truly beautiful creatures, with their soft orange fur, white stomachs, pointed ears and bushy tails. Often misrepresented as ‘vermin’ or a nuisance, many people behave cruelly to them. In fact, they are wonderful and immensely playful creatures that are full of life. They are particularly caring and helpful towards young foxes; I often watch them carry food away for the young; any adult fox will look after any cub, whether they are related or not. Several times my father has tamed them, one of which several years ago would take food out of his hand.

Up until recently, for the last two years, we had several regular foxes that arrived each night at a similar time, all sitting together on the lawn and waiting for their food. Naturally, you become attached to them as you begin to be able to tell them apart and understand each of their individual personalities; some are immediately tame and comical, jumping up on the wall in order to get attention, as if to say ‘Here I am, now where is my food? Come on hurry up!’ One in particular was always exceptionally bold and intelligent. He understood that he wanted to help him and that he was safe. My father remembers that from the first night he arrived, he immediately become tame, walking towards him across the lawn and unhurriedly snacking on the food he threw to him. After this, he would often jump on the wall to announce his arrival, and would usually be the last to leave at night, contently relaxing in the safety of the garden. Over the years, he arrived injured on several occasions, so we would put antibiotics from a wildlife sanctuary into the sandwiches to help him heal. Even after feeding them, a few would continue to sit on the grass, intently staring at the lounge window, imploring you to relent and throw out another sandwich. I always crack pretty quickly, and normally they get several extra ones. My father went on holiday at the end of last year, so I stayed at the bungalow to feed the foxes. Upon his return he found he had four unfamiliar faces joining the regular ones because I kept putting out extra food for them which attracted new arrivals.

This pursuit is as enriching as it is heart-breaking. Typically, foxes have short life spans thanks to the many obstacles people have put in their way; they must contend with increasingly busy roads, persecution from those who hunt these remarkable and inspiring creatures in the name of ‘sport’, along with a forever decreasing habitat. Although foxes are able to survive until around ten, tragically not many make it beyond their first year, with only around twelve percent surviving to three years. Their lives are harsh and fraught with danger. Over the years, it has always ended in tragedy, either finding them run over (as has happened recently), or finding them shot. The several foxes that have been present every night for two years have in the last few months turned into one. As it has done each previous time, grief follows, and it feels as if you have lost a pet or family friend. And then later, new ones arrive, and the cycle begins once more, although you never forget the old ones. Whenever I visit my father, I still jump up every time the security light comes on in the evening, hoping to see my old favourite and always sad when I don’t. I continue to hope he has not met with tragedy, and continue to wish to see him again. Following in my father’s footsteps, I myself put out food every night, and will always continue to do so. As humans have placed so much adversity in nature’s path I believe people should do what little they can to help attempt to counterbalance this.

Although my parents’ marriage didn’t last, as not many things do, I have many happy memories here, and am very fond of this old house and garden, along with the fields behind. I feel as if they are somehow a part of me, an extension of me. Just as the sweet chestnut tree my father planted when I was born gives shelter to the sparrows and dunnocks, so this house is like an old tree whose roots run down right into the heart of things. It is as if it were its own being, for it has after all been a safe haven and protector of my family for almost a hundred years, providing a connection between the much cherished memories of the past, and the promise and possibilities of what I hope to be a bright future.

Lorna Guy

Lorna Guy

Lorna Guy from Purley, Surrey, especially enjoys writing creative non-fiction and poetry, centring her work around her love for nature wherever possible. A keen reader from a young age, favourites include works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Shakespeare, Thomas Harris, Jane Austen and the poetry of William Wordsworth. Looking forward to starting an MA in September and then teaching English abroad, she ultimately hopes to find a career where she can pursue her passion for nature writing.