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Golden days tinged by autumn melancholy

PUBLISHED: 17:50 23 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:53 20 February 2013

Golden days tinged by autumn melancholy

Golden days tinged by autumn melancholy

Peter Sampson remembers with nostalgia sweet September days of haystacks and hedgerows

Peter Sampson remembers with nostalgia sweet September days of haystacks and hedgerows

Septembers come round again and, ah, the days dwindle down to a precious few. Unless the weather continues to be as freakish as it was earlier in the year, the days of wine and roses are over for now, the croquet mallets have been put away and therell be no more cucumber sandwiches and plum cake for tea.
Its time for crumpets and buttered toast once again.
Time, too, for Harvest Festivals, now that all is safely gathered in and now theyve finished bringing in the sheaves.
Actually, thats nonsense, of course. They dont bring in the sheaves any more. They dont even make sheaves any more, just roll everything up into sheets of black plastic and pile up the bundles like Brobdingnagian black puddings. As a result, there are no more haystacks. And thats an unexpected sadness. A minor one, I know, but its one more draining away of joy and playtime from the Suffolk countryside.
Nowadays, a haystack almost anywhere in Suffolk is no more than that: just a utilitarian stack of hay bales jumbled untidily in the corner of a field or farmyard. But your real, your true haystack, the haystack of long ago, was carefully shaped like a small cottage, with a pitched roof, and the farmer would take chunks out of it as he needed. As a child, you could climb into it and the cut surface would reveal what Laurie Lee described as the heart of the rick, packed tight as tobacco flake, with grass and wild flowers juicily fossilised within, a whole summer embalmed in our arms.
It was a structure which any child could clamber over and turn into a castle or a pirate ship, an aircraft or a secret cave with treasure trove. It was a place where they could get safely away from the grown-ups for long, long afternoons.
Even in the depths of a Suffolk landscape, there are fewer and fewer of these hidey-holes where children can lead their busy, intense, secret lives.

Hidden in the cool shadows under the hedgerow,boys can busy themselves for long hot hours building an elaborate den, known only to those who have the secret password

Take hedges, for example. Just after the war, England had something like half a million miles of hedgerows. By the 1990s, the figure was down to about half that, as successive governments urged farmers to extract the last square foot of productivity out of their land to provide cheap food for you and me. So farmers either dug out their hedgerows or ploughed right up to the hedgerow edge, instead of leaving a grass strip, and damaged the roots. Hedges died.
Things have improved since then, thank heavens, and Suffolk now has somewhere between 12,500 and 15,000 kilometres of hedgerow. Good people, volunteers all, have carried out Parish Hedgerow Surveys all over the county and theyve discovered that about 40% of our hedgerows date back to beyond the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and early 19th centuries. So theyre worth keeping if only as a built-in history of Suffolks past.
Theres another reason, though, why they should be cherished.
We know theyre natural refuges and corridors for wild life, which is their most important function, of course, but theyre also places where half a dozen ten-year-olds can safely burrow and dig and hide away among the dormice and blackbirds eggs and clattering pheasants.
Hidden in the cool shadows under the hedgerow, they can busy themselves for long hot hours building an elaborate den, known only to those who have the secret password, and while away a whole baking summer afternoon with a can of warm lemonade and a melting cheese sandwich, to come home at teatime with nettle stings and bramble scratches and scabbed knees and memories of green and golden salad days that will last a lifetime.
Children cant easily do that where prairie farming is the norm, let alone in the tidy suburban sprawl thats spreading like a growth around even some of the smaller and nicer of Suffolks towns.
Ah, well. Its all just woolly nostalgia, you think? The product of an over-rich childhood diet of Swallows and Amazons or The Famous Five or Richmal Crompton? Sentimental ramblings about Never-Never Land, perhaps?
You may be right. Call it autumnal melancholy.
Incidentally, Ive always argued that in Constables Haywain, if you look very, very closely, youll see that on the far side of those background fields where the haymakers are making haystacks theres a gang of small boys peering out from their den under the hedgerow.
Thats their dog in the foreground.


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