BESIDE A SUMMER FIRE
One of our favourite haunts is the old quarry.
Though it is scarcely half a mile from the village it is among the loneliest
places in the world. It is one of the greenest too, and one of the stillest,
for no sound seems to reach it, except it may be, the song of a lark overhead,
or the noise of the shallow brook across which we have to pick our way to
Nobody can tell me when it was last worked, or why it was abandoned. I suppose
some of the older houses were built from its red sandstone; perhaps some
of the illegible slabs in the graveyard were hewn out of it. No one can
Up in the fields above, a fence runs along the brink to keep the cattle
and sheep from falling over. Around it there are rowans, larches, hazels,
bushes covered with dog-roses in June; and the grass has grown thick over
the litter of chipped stone, and lichens have tinged with curious colours
the big blocks which were ready for lifting but were never carted away.
In the face of the perpendicular rock there is a hole which looks like a
cavern that might lead into the heart of the hill, but we have never ventured
to explore it. It is too uncanny, too menaceful. One of us is too old; one
is too young to be so recklessly adventurous.
We are content to gather dead wood and light a fire beneath one of the larches.
We watch the smoke curl up in blue wavering puffs and wreaths, and we sit
beside our wild summer hearth, and spread our lunch - venison from the King's
vert, we pretend, which we have brought down at the peril of losing our
right hands, so barbarous are the laws of the forest.
How is it that we both take such delight in a handful of fire under a tree
in a blazing summer day?
As I lie and listen to my companion's merry chatter I wonder at the curious
feeling of contentment, of freedom, of romance which I experience. Then
I endeavour to account for it, but I find myself baffled by the prosaic
common-sense which I presume must accompany all our grown-up attempts at
reasoning. I ask my companion to explain. She, who is so young yet, so much
nearer to Nature and the Ancestors, ought to be able to give some intelligible
account of the matter. I can see by her smile that she knows, but it becomes
manifest that she cannot find words for things so elusive. I do make out,
however, that she thinks we ought really always to live like this - under
the blue, in the clear sunny air or in the clear shadow of trees. It is
nicer than a house, it is the real house; a house is a sort of clay modelling
of this larger home - good enough in winter, but a very inferior imitation
when it is warm and one has no Kindergarten to attend.
Then fire is a most beautiful creature; 'more wonderful really that dog-roses,'
though they, too, look like a kind of fairy fire. Still it is not solely
the beauty of the fire which delights us. It appears rather to be its companiableness.
'Lightning is quarrelsome; but fire is friendly,' she thinks. I imagine
she is right. Through long centuries men and fire have been house-mates,
and mates when there was never a house.
Can this be really the clue to the mystery - that for ages and ages, beginning
far away back in the houseless nights and skin-clad days of the ancient
life, our ancestors have loved the cheerful face of fire; that the antique
joyous association of burning wood with the savage woodland was so long
a habit that the civilisation of our historic centuries has been unable
to obliterate it completely?
I can scarcely resist the conclusion that it is so. I remember the desert
islands of my boyhood, and I know it was not merely a wish to put into action
the books of adventure I had read which made me a little savage who caked
his hair into a spire with clay from the river. At any rate it is no desire
to play at pirates and outlaws which thrills me to-day with the dreadful
atavistic joy in a tramp's fire and free life under the greenwood tree.
No, we are the children of the Ancestors, and their blood in us beats true
to the old forest paths and the laws of the wilderness.
As we idle by the dull embers and white ashes my companion asks for a story.
Well, does she know where the Fens are?
Why, yes; and they were drained long ago.
Just so. Well, once upon a time there was a savage hunter who came with
his little girl up the river in a canoe hollowed out of a tree, and paddled
to a little piece of beach on the edge of the forest; for in those days
there were no Fens, but there was a mighty forest of great oaks and firs
and alder and birch and willows. And they landed and drew up the canoe,
and they gathered sticks and dead leaves and lit a fire, just as we had
And the little girl went away in among the trees to look for berries and
wild fruit, and the father piled more wood on the fire.
And when the little girl had been away a long while, and the father heard
no crackling of dry branches or rustling of bushes, he called to her, but
she did not answer. He grew uneasy, and went into the forest to seek her,
and kept calling and calling, but she never replied.
So he went deeper and deeper into the wilderness of great oaks and firs,
and continued to call her name till the sound of his voice died away.
And he fire beside the canoe smouldered, and then went out, with only half
the wood burnt.
And the forest grew older and older and older; and the great trees decayed
and fell down with age, one by one, till nearly all the forest was dead;
and storms tore up the other trees; and water lodged among the fallen trunks;
and reeds and marsh plants matted them together, till great peat bogs covered
the country many feet deep.
Then the sea broke in and flowed over the bogs, for the land sank down;
and sand and shells and sea-weed were drifted together in thick sheets.
And all this took hundreds and hundreds of years to happen.
And at last when the sand and sea-warp grew high enough, the country became
the Fenland, and the Romans, when they conquered Britain, made a roadway
across it with trunks of trees and a bed of gravel, and that was fifteen
hundred years ago.
How did I know?
Because not long ago when people were digging in the Fens they found the
canoe, and the wood piled for the fire and the burnt embers in the middle
And the little girl?
Well, she wandered into the forest and her father went to seek her.
And hundreds and hundreds of years went by.
And they never came back?
Not to the Fenland. But she wandered on and on till she came to an old quarry,
and there she lit a fire, and when she had done she turned round, and there
was her father sitting beside it.
W.V. laughed incredulously: 'Father, you said it was true!'
2nd April 2001