My childhood had been spent on Exmoor. My Uncle Sam up on Exmoor had three or four head of cattle, the odd pig, endless numbers of chickens, and a very small flock of sheep. He had a wonderful garden with fruit trees at the end of it and a walnut tree next to the house. The house was approached along a cobbled casi we called it; causeway I suppose is the proper name for it.
The house had been a mill, and the floor was made of old millstones. It had a big open fireplace and all the cooking was done on this big open fire. For an oven we had a pot hanging over the fire and you put hot ashes on top of the pot, that was our oven for doing the baking and roasting the dinners. And that was the place for sitting around and telling stories.
There was also a parlour. It had a cabinet with lots of china and bits of glass and three glass monkeys on the mantelpiece. This parlour was only used on high days and holidays. The lavatory was what we called a thunder box in the garden.
Uncle Sam once a week took a basket on his arm and he took his surplus produce, eggs, butter and cream if the cows had calved, honey because he had hives of bees, and wool at shearing time.
He'd walk 5 miles with his basket on his arm, across Exmoor, over stiles and then through woods and, as he had his regular customers on the way down, often he'd have sold the whole lot before he arrived in the market at Porlock. He'd come home in the evening having bought Jacob's Cream Crackers, Horniman's Tea, maybe a couple of fresh herrings.
It was a poor man's way of life but it was ideal. He was a small landowner.
Now a London banker has taken the place for his holiday home. He comes down for the weekend sometimes. Money has enabled someone to displace our little world. There won't be any generations of country kids born there again for a while.
As often as I could I ran away to live with my Uncle Sam. I came to feel that that was my place by rights, should be my place. Often he'd send me out to check on the sheep. It might be the middle of the morning or the middle of the night and it didn't matter what the weather was, I had to get out there, to walk around to see that the sheep were alright. Because if a sheep gets on its back it sometimes can't get up again and it can die very quickly.
Exmoor is big, the moors are very big and it can take hours and hours to walk around the territory. There weren't many tarred roads through there until the middle sixties and people never drove cars past our way. Certainly very few of us had cars. Uncle Sam never had one. We didn't have electricity. We did have a battery radio. Hot water was off the wood burning Rayburn. We still worked a horse.
Sometimes as I was shepherding, I'd encounter a herd of fifty or sixty deer. In the autumn I'd hear those stags fighting during the rutting season, the clash of their antlers could be heard a long way away. I'd go and I'd listen to the stags on Tarbor Hill, and maybe as I went round a tree I'd come upon a stag and there she'd be and she'd up and she'd bound away from me.
I was at Uncle Sam's so much because my childhood at home was an unhappy one. My father married again when I was six, and I can see now that I probably owe to being brought up by my stepmother a lot of the gifts that I now have. But I got on badly with her. It was a hard way to learn.
I was a lonely child. I walked alone on the top of Exmoor, walked around in the streams, caught little fish from under stones. I had no playmates and I used to daydream worlds in which people were actually nice to one another. I dreamed into existence communities of people and how they might live together.
I'm still very strongly a creature of Exmoor and of those hills; even though I've lived in exile from them now since I was fifteen years old. It comes from my real love for Exmoor as a child and from the solitariness and loneliness of Exmoor and being a small farmer's son coming from an Exmoor family that goes back hundreds of years. The vision that has sustained me since comes from my childhood on Exmoor.
That vision was there long before I'd heard of William Blake, before I'd heard of city deprivation, before I'd ever sung that we will build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.
I went to the village school at Exton and Mrs Evans was the teacher and she had taught my father and her teaching methods were not very up to date. I remember when I was sitting to take my eleven plus she said something like, 'I am obliged by law to sit you here, even though I know you haven't got a chance, most of you, of getting through.'
I'm a dyslexic person and in the fifties on Exmoor this wasn't understood. I was backward, I was slow at learning, and people didn't realise then that some brains function in a different way. So I couldn't write when I left school at sixteen.
I did read, especially the Bible. That gave me an opportunity to touch what I now call the Great Spirit.
I remember going to the local priest at 13 or 14 and saying to him, 'Look, I have a calling in life, to be a missionary.' And I remember him talking me out of this delusion as he saw it, and sending me on my way. He didn't suggest that I might have a calling somewhere else.
My father hunted three times a week. At about the age of six I decided that I didn’t like fox hunting and stag hunting. These are both very important on Exmoor. Suddenly I wasn't encouraged to ride any more. I never became a horseman. I should have been one. But riding meant riding to hounds and since I didn't ride to hounds I wasn’t allowed to go on riding.
My father used to say to me, 'Never go to the cities, never work in the factories.' What work he thought I'd find in the country I don't know. Certainly not the life’s work that I have since made for myself.
My generation were brought up with the expectation that we'd leave Exmoor. Exmoor doesn't solve its own economic problems, it exports them. These Tory regions, the shires, all of them, export their problems. Broadly speaking, they don't have an unemployment or housing problem because they export these to the city. So they can sit there in their splendid isolation with their huge numbers of acres, tut-tutting about the problems in the cities. Actually it's all their surplus population and the descendants of the surplus populations of the generations before and the generations before, that weren't able to stay on the land, that are now in the cities and that’s the problem.
My father lost his land and become a shepherd on another man's land. He sold our farm, which had been jointly inherited. I have a strong feeling that I will return to Exmoor. It is a very special place. Potentially it could be a really strong bio-region. All those villages have a lot of land between them and the next village. I have somewhere deep within me a resentment of my elders because they did not make for me a space in that community. I was certainly too young at fifteen to actually turn and fight to make that space myself.
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