At the top of the hill, Phineas left the road and crossed the two humped fields called Peny Brin, Bill Sikes, with a sudden show of interest in the morning, scattering rabbits feeding among the moon daisies and buttercups, Phineas’s boots shining like wet tar in the dew. And up into Cutterbach, a stretch of ancient woodland flushed each September by the Batch Valley Chase, home to badgers and owls as well as foxes, and fallow deer, relics of an ornamental deer park and a time when the Strange family and the village were young still.
They were on the very edge of the wood overlooking the valley, on a ride rutted with the recent weather and punched with the hooves of horses, when with no hint of its coming, the sun rose, and hung there, burning the trees on the skyline black, before ballooning above them as if released, a cock somewhere below crowing as if caught napping as its light swept across the valley.
Phineas felt it touch his face, warming it like a cow’s summer breath, fragrant with flowering grasses and meadow herbs and clover. With all the scents of summer ripening in the valley, under a creamy, blue and white marbled sky.
He stood looking down at the scene, as if coming on it for the first time. A field of buttercups seemed to slide, glistening, off the side of a hill, as if melting under the sweep of the sun, and among the trees above them the pale fire of rhododendrons. The meadow grasses falling away below him glinting here and there under frail webs of dew and mist, catching the light like things hidden. And the river, smoking in the sudden warmth, with the houseboats, the four paddle steamers that had once plied the home waters and a Victorian Thames, now tied permanently to the land, held there on their ropes, and the island called Snails Eye sitting at the heart of the river, where it bulged on a meander like a lake.
The small black and white farms of the valley among orchards, and the houses and half-timbered cottages of Batch Magna, a Marcher village, the cross of St George, flown from the Steamer Inn, a riposte to the red dragon of Wales above the door of the Pughs’ post office and shop. The cricket field and pavilion behind the churchyard, and the great, immemorial yew, the centuries in its vast girth corseted with rusting iron bands, shading a church which bore in its nave the marks of Norman chisels, and among its gravestones a sundial which told the time in Jerusalem.
And the tall, star-shaped chimneys and gabled black and white timbers of Batch Hall, home to the Strange family for over four hundred years, set with Elizabethan ornateness in what was left of its park, its lawns, under horse chestnuts heavy with bloom, running down to the Cluny. And the castle, a fortress once against border incursions and the forces of Cromwell, open now to Welsh rain and rabbits, the archers’ loopholes in the ruined towers blinded with creeper, its red sandstone turning to coral in the sun.
The forgotten country, this part of the Marches had been called. A country largely ignored by the rest of the world, apart from a trickle of tourists on their way to somewhere else, and the odd company rep who had taken the wrong turning, in a place with need for few road signs. A valley lost among its ancient wooded hillsides and winding high-banked lanes, on a road to nowhere in particular.
Phineas had arrived there by accident, after taking a wrong turning himself, when on a road to nowhere in particular. Falling into the valley, as he came to see it, like Alice, and five years later was still there.
He thought occasionally, in a vague sort of way, about moving on, getting back to what he vaguely thought of as the real world. But there never seemed to be any particular hurry to do so.
And that of course was the trouble with the river, as he’d had occasion to point out before, to himself and to others, sparing no one. Whether boating up and down it, or simply sitting on it, there never seemed to be any particular hurry to do anything.
Well, now he had the feeling that all that was about to change. That now, with the General no longer at the wheel, they stood exposed to more unsettled weather. That the real world, which had always been over there somewhere, beyond the blue hills, was perhaps about to come to them.
He whistled for Sikes, busy putting up a few panicking pheasants and the smell of wild garlic as he blundered through the undergrowth after the scent of fox or badger.
They had walked this wood together in all the seasons. In autumn, when it ran like a damp fire through the trees, and in weather that had shrivelled Sikes’s testicles as he padded warily through undergrowth crackling with ice or got himself buried in snowdrifts along the rides. The winter bareness like a ruin now in early summer, overgrown with new growth, letting in the sun and with the sound of birdsong up under its roof.
The sunlight lay among the drifts of bluebells and red campion, and reached with long slender fingers deep into the wood, where the new grass and ferns were tender in the shade between trees. And above him, high in the green and golden heart of an oak, a blackcap opened in sudden song. The sweet, poignantly brief notes flung, carelessly, on the morning air like a handful of bright coin.
About the author
Peter Maughan, an ex-actor, fringe theatre director and script writer, is married and lives in the Welsh Marches, the border between England and Wales, and the backdrop to the Batch Magna novels. All the books in the series feature converted paddle steamers on Batch Magna’s river the Cluny, and he is a former houseboat dweller himself, living for a while in the mid-1970s (the time frame for the novels) on a converted Thames sailing barge among a small colony of houseboats on the Medway, deep in rural Kent. An idyllic time, heedless days of freedom in that other world of the river which inspired the novels, set in a place called Batch Magna.
The Cuckoos of Batch Magna is available for Kindle or print at Amazon.