Lunch at Leigh
6th September 2004
I had set out on one of my lone cycles through the Kent country with the intention of stopping at the Café in Penshurst. The one we usually use on our Sunday club rides, it was a Monday the café was closed so I went onto Leigh here I stopped and bought a sandwich and sat on a seat on the village green. The cricket field was dotted with the red pullovers of the local school children. Some were goal posts, others where flags, or being stretched between two argumentative opponents most where just running around on excitable children’s backs. Most of these red dots where corralled with in the bounds of a circle of coloured cones, guarded by a gang of motherly school helpers. At the far end of the green was a tweed suited gentleman (one assumed to be the head teacher) with a select group of pupils flying kites. The lunch break finished and the red dot bounced their way to one end of the green and formed lines. The kite flyers proudly escorted the Head to their class’s line. The cricket green was empty only three red dots where so involved in their game as to not move with the others. Soon the helpers had gathered them up the reluctant pupils leaving one small bundle of defiant child lying on the ground. Eventually the lines snaked across the green into the school gate and where gone. The lunch time helpers walked off in different direction their duty done. Later they would have to return, to gather up their own particular red dot and take them home. No sooner had the green cleared it self of the village children when a mini bus pulled up and out got a group of handicapped adults for a picnic. They spread a blanket on the ground under the large Oak at the far side of the Green. I was engrossed in the activity around the Green, the comings and goings that I would miss on a normal ride as I pass through on my way home. The thing about a cycle ride is that it is from home to home for the sake of the ride, the places in between are incidents on the route, the ride is the point of the activity not the getting from A to B. The passing through the landscape not stopping was the important thing.
This time a few years ago I would be the one out there trying to contain the group of children ironic that the children I taught where handicapped (special needs) like the adults. The bizarre rocking, over excited laughter, the uncontrolled shouts, had taken their toll on me over the years and I finally had to take early retirement. “Dave I am concerned about your attitude towards the pupils you appear to be losing you gripe of things, I want you to take time off and consider you position.” The headmaster had, had to intervene when I finally broke down into a screaming rage over some minor incident. I had tried to control my actions but had become increasingly aware of how much shorter my fuse had become I know longer believed I was in control. All those years of idealistic effort and I finally realized it had been wasted for every generation you battled through with, another appeared and the problems started all over again. The solutions that in your youth you thought where just around the corner never came. If only you could do things you’re way, but you knew that this was a myth even as a young teacher you knew this, but! You hoped it was not true, and some how things got better, they never did. They just got more difficult then the final straw the government hit you with the national curriculum all children must reach a certain standard or your school was deemed to be a failure.
“Ridden far?” a curious passer by, a middle aged woman looked as if she was about to drop something off at the vicarage, interrupted my thoughts. “Oh! Plumstead.” I interjected. “Where is that, is that far?” As if it was a foreign place hundreds of miles away, not just 20 odd miles away. “South East London”. “Oh London you deserve a brake weathers looking a bit threatening might rain later”. Then she disappeared on her way. The oak tree had stuck in my mind for some reason I thought of William Corbett’s rural rides. I had found this book in the library at school one day and had tried to retrace his routes on many occasions. There was something about this route in his “Rural Rides” shall have to look it up at home. I reluctantly get back on my bike I shouldn’t have stopped my leg had stiffened up and the first miles where going to be painful. I turned back on my route out to take the shortest route back home, Chiddingstone Causeway, Bough Beech, Four Elms, and then Westerham Biggin Hill, Petts Wood and home. It didn’t rain and I was home quicker than I thought. I found William Cobbett’s Rural Rides. Cobbett had dated it 6thSeptember 1823. Today was 6thSeptember 2004.
Saturday, Noon 6th Sept. 1823
Instead of going on to the Wen along the turnpike road through Sevenoaks, I turned to my left when I got about a mile out of Tonbridge, in order to come along that tract of country called the Weald of Kent; that is to say , the solid clays, which have no bottom, which are unmixed with chalk, sand, stone, or any thing else; the country of dirty roads and of oak trees. I stopped at Tonbridge only a few minutes; but in the Weald I stopped to Breackfast at a place called Leigh. From Leigh I came to Chittingstone causeway, leaving Tondbridge Wells six miles over the hills to my left. From Chittingstone I came to Bough Beech, thence to Four Elms, and thence to this little market town of Westerham, which is just on the border of Kent. Indeed, Kent, Surrey and Sussex form a joining not very near this town. Westerham, exactly like Reigate and Godstone, and Sevenoaks, and Dorking, and Folkestone, lies between the sand-ridge and the chalk–ridge. The valley is here a little wider than at Reigate, and that is all the difference there is between the places. As soon as you get over the sand hill to the south of Reigate, you get into the Weald of Surrey; and here, as soon as you get over the sand hill to the south of Westerham, you get into the weald of Kent. I have come now, in order to get to the Wen, to cross the chalk-ridge once more, and at a point where I never crossed it before. Coming through the Weald I found corn very good; and, low as the ground is, wet as it is, cold as it is, there will be very little of the wheat that will not be housed before Saturday night. All the corn is good, and the barley excellent. Not far from Bough Beech, I saw two oak trees, one of which was, they told me, more than thirty feet round, and the other twenty seven; but they have been hollow for half a century.
They are not much bigger than the oak upon Tilford Green, if any. I mean the trunk; but they are hollow, while that tree is sound in all its parts and growing still. I have had the most beautiful ride through the Weald. The day is very hot; but I have been in the shade; and my horse’s feet very often in rivulets and wet lanes. I rode about a mile completely arched over by the boughs of the underwood, growing from the banks of the lane. What an odd taste that man must have who prefers turnpike-roads to the lanes.
Over the years I had explored these lanes ever since Dad had started us on our bikes in the mid fifties. We would go out as a family group Dad and Pete on a Tandem Tricycle John, Mum and I riding on solo‘s we started with short rides to Green Street Green near Orpington then slowly expanded our routes until we could do quiet long rides. Ide Hill was one of our Sunday rides there was a café on Goatshurst common we would meet up with Dads old cycling club for a lunch stop then we would ride down through Westerham up Westerham Hill to a tea stop at Biggin Hill.
“We had a picnic on Ide Hill during a raid the planes came so low we where looking down on the pilots from the top of the hill.” Rene reminisced about the summer of 1940. (Official records of the time records a Me.109 crashing into Brasted Woods on 1stSeptember 1940). “One of their fighters crashed into a field near Brasted. It had lost one engine; the crew bailed out and disappeared over towards Edenbridge.” “We would wave to the spitfire pilots when they victory rolled back towards Biggin Hill. Dad was on leave; he’d borrow a bike and cycled up from the coast.” “What’s for pudding Mum.” I interrupted the story. “Nothing until you eat those greens.” “Mum!” “Go on eat them up, or your get spots.” “More meat for you George?” “Thank’ won’t say no, more Yorkshire if you got it.” George was ready to fuel himself for more yarns. “You boys want any more, more greens Dave.” “YUK! No thanks. What’s for pudding?” “Bread and butter pudding, so eat those green.”
I would battle over eating my meals, Mum sometimes made me sit in front of a plate of cold food for hours before relenting and letting me eat my pudding. It was even worse at school I was set aside from the other pupils, for not eating school meals.
“We had to eat what we could during the war none of this picking out the best bits eat it or starved.” “Look at Uncle George do you think he’d survived POW camp if he had refused to eat things he didn’t like.” “That right we’d eat anything, we’d pick nettles and boil them up, potato peelings, it was only our Red Cross pastels that kept us alive. The guards where staving worst than us they just got a few potato’s or turnips no meat, hard black bread. In the end they would swap cigarettes for chocolate from our Red Cross pastels. We had to be careful; we were supposed to keep the chocolate for the Hospital.” George was in full flow. How they buried a local saboteur in the camps cesspit, with just a straw to breathe through. They had to hide him in the hospital while he recovered from the experience. Dad joined in and the afternoon was in full swing. The pudding was dished up and we ended up around the fire listening to war stories Mum had made coffee and Dad had pour out a couple of Scotch’s for George and himself. Tails of how Granddad had taken the pledge and no drinking was allowed at 21 Cuff Crescent.