Sara M is one of the best raconteurs I’ve ever encountered, and I’m thrilled that she’s my 19th villager. When I arrive it’s clear that she’s prepped herself not to divulge too much. However, five minutes into our conversation – sat outside in Autumn sunshine, a view across garden and fields stretching far ahead, the church to the left of us – and she’s off, telling me the story of her time in Piddlehinton. And what a story it is…
“I’ve lived in Piddlehinton for 37 years; so that’s pretty much half my life. I’m 74 now… no I’m not. She chuckles. I was born in ’45, so I must be 75. I came here when my first husband, Alex, started working in London, and – because he wore the trousers really – he’d decided that we would have a flat in London and a house down here. We were both born in the South West, and had had a cottage near the Friary at Hilfield for twenty years, so we knew the area.
Alex found the house – saw it advertised in Country Life – went to look at it and said, ‘I think we should make an offer’. So the first time I saw it was when we moved in. I thought it was lovely – how could one not? I’m not an interior designer, so the house, its furniture and colour schemes have just sort of happened by accident over the years. Meaning that everything has a past; each object a memory going way back – perhaps to my childhood, or my parents or grandparents. The pictures on the walls are all my ancestors. I have Samuel Taylor Coleridge looking down at me, and Sara Coleridge – his daughter, who I was named after – stares down at me too. And all the judges. There have been lots of judges in our family.
I was born in a little village called Belbroughton in Worcestershire, because my father ran an armaments factory there during the war. He was the third of three boys, and meant to be a girl. Given that he wasn’t, my grandfather soon dispatched him off to South Africa, with sort of £10 in his pocket and instructions to go and survive. There he flew into the side of Table Mountain or somewhere and lost both a kidney and a lung, then he got Blackwater Fever, which is a sort of malaria. When war broke out he didn’t pass any medicals, so, much to his father’s renewed horror, couldn’t join the army or fight. But he was sent to run this armaments factory, so I happened to be born there. And after the war we came back to Devon, near Huniton. (Honiton.)
Initially I went to a state boarding school near Crediton: The High School, but when I decided, for some reason, I can’t remember why, that I wanted to read Russian for A level I went to Bishop Blackall in Exeter. Here I had a one-armed Russian teacher. She covered her fake arm in a long satin glove, the hand part covered with the most beautiful rings you’ve ever seen – the only things she’d managed to get out of Russia when she’d escaped. She taught us the most wonderful things, even though I was only with her from September until about January. Which isn’t very long, is it? In that time we were reading Izvestia – the Russian newspaper – and Turgenev novels. Which are so romantic? Have you ever read a Turgenev novel? Ahh! Gorgeous. Gorgeous. I loved it, but then I went and caught polio when swimming in a public pool in Exeter.
I was very ill, and in an isolation hospital in Taunton for months and months. Luckily, I’d had the salk vaccine on a sugar lump, so I didn’t die. But I lay there, in a white glass cubicle, for week after week, the doctors expecting me to get worse and probably die. But I didn’t. I was sixteen at the time. It was extraordinary – like a glass racing stable – and nobody could come and see me unless they were dressed from head to toe in protective clothing – all white, including the wellington boots. In some ways, this virus business reminds me of it. Only my parents were allowed to visit, except that my cousin Bill also somehow wooed his way through the nurses.
I ask if that experience has made her more fearful of the virus, this time around?
I’m quite careful now, but I’m not fearful. I mean, I’m 75, didn’t we say? And I’ve lived a long life, which has got better for me over the last two or three years, so now I actually, sort of don’t terribly want to die. For life’s rather fun; in a way that perhaps it wasn’t for a while. Would I would take the vaccine? Oh yes.
And I certainly don’t think that the young should be having to closet themselves away. I think it’s for us wrinklies to do that. I feel very sorry for them for I think they’re having a very rough time and I don’t think their futures should be in any way thwarted by us. I think it’s up to us wrinklies – if we want to survive we’ve just got to hibernate.
I was actually rather ill just before lockdown started. One day in February, I’d just come back from Dorchester, having been to an Italian lesson, and was going through the house to let the dog out. And then I don’t remember any more. I was found unconscious, in a coma, on the floor, with Cracker, my black Lab, licking me to try and get me to wake up. I’d had a cerebral aneurism for no apparent reason – no warning, no headaches. No nothing.
Fortunately, I was pretty much on much on my feet again within three months, having moved to Cerne Abbas to recuperate; for the chaos caused by Covid meant one of my daughters had to move into my house. Luckily in Cerne I was living with the most marvellous cook. So how could one fail to get better?
I think when you’re ill, and you have time to reflect, it does make one think about life differently. One is not swept along by daily endeavours. One can look at the long term in a way that one doesn’t when one’s 100% healthy, because one’s so busy. But if you’re just sitting quietly, reflecting, you have a longer perspective, which is interesting.
You realise the value of your friends, enormously. Also, those people who you think aren’t very great friends, but you know slightly in the village. When I first came home they would just drop food on the doorstep. People are incredibly kind. The people of Cerne were also wonderful, and it was fun, getting to know a new community – which is very similar to Piddlehinton in lots of ways, but very dissimilar in others.
Before we dissect these differences, I ask her to finish telling me how she first came to Piddlehinton, and once again we’re back in the 1950s.
By the time I’d recovered from polio I’d missed my A Levels, so my parents asked if I’d like to go to Paris. I said yes (of course), and lived with friends of theirs, whose children I taught English. I had a lovely, lovely time, then did the same thing in Florence for another year. After that I came home and, aged 19, married a childhood friend, Alexander. Our parents were friends and we’d lived in the same bit of Devon.
Alex did all sorts of things. He was at Cambridge studying Architecture, then spent five years flying helicopters in the Fleet Air Arm – despite his father, who was also in the navy, telling him that he wasn’t at all suited to it.
He went on to defy his father and survive the experience. Which was wonderful, because most of the pilots in those days were killed as the helicopters were so unsafe. I remember two thirds of the previous squadron went out to the Far East during the Malaysian confrontation and were dead within eighteen months. The helicopters had single engines, and if yours went when you were flying over primary jungle, you just burst into flames and that was the end of you. But my husband lived; and the helicopters changed while he was out there to two-engine ones, which were much safer.
When he came out of the Fleet Air Arm he did two more years in Search and Rescue at Portland, and then we went to London where he returned to architecture and we bought a little Victorian house in Putney, down by the river where the boat race starts. We painted the outside scarlet, while the inside was all white and very, very minimalist – everything was glass, stainless steel and plain wood.
At this point I suddenly realised that I wasn’t a widow – unlike many of my Fleet air contemporaries – but was unqualified to do anything. I’d had my first child by the time I was twenty, my second by 22. So at the beginning of the sixties I decided to go to University, aged twenty-six. Alex was very supportive, but my mother was furious, saying it was an illness I needed to get out of my system; that I wasn’t fulfilling my role as a mother and a wife.
I loved my time at University. I read Biology with Social Biology and mixed with all sorts of people. It was all so fun and interesting; the world on the verge of a revolution. I was the only wrinkly – I used to hold the hand of the younger students who were straight from school – but part of the first generation to have the freedom to do what I wanted. Freedom created through contraception. People older than me had all these dozens of children, because it was only then that contraception became really reliable, easy to take, and easy to deal with.
After that we moved to Cambridge, where Alex went back to University and did a Masters and PhD before forming a research group once he’d become a professor. I taught Physics and Chemistry in a little boys’ prep school called The Perse. A job for which I was completely unqualified. It was lovely!
After a few years there, Alex’s work moved to London and so we bought the house in Piddlehinton. However, within a year we’d separated and…
And thus, dear reader, so begins Sara’s next chapter… And at this point I’d love to tell you the story Sara told me, but can’t, because it’s not really hers to tell – and that’s one of my rules. Let’s just say that the point at which Sara met her second husband, he had also, somewhat unfortunately, recently mislaid his wife.
I met my second husband, Sandy about a year later. He was so sweet. So nice. Finding himself once again single, he’d moved in with his twin brother, Kenneth and his wife, Barbara, over the hill from here at Milton Abbas.
Barbara was a great character, Anglo Chillean, loved big parties, very sociable. But even she, after about a fortnight, really couldn’t cope with having both twins living with her. Sandy was meant to be staying in a wing of the house, but of course he kept gravitating back into their bit. He and Kenneth, to whom he was very close, would sit on the sofa together, and one would say, ‘I’ll have a whisky and soda’ and the other would say, ‘No, no I’d like a whisky and water, with a little ice.’ Then the other would say ‘No ice for me.’
Poor Barbara couldn’t stand this, and so after two or three weeks she held a party for all the single people she could think of in Dorset – and one of them was me. I didn’t know her very well but our children knew each. So I went off to this lunch party – the bigger the party, the happier she was. Meaning there were about sixteen single people, and Sandy was at one end of the table and I was right down at the other and I never said a word to him. I’d never met him. I didn’t know him. Well, one thought I knew him, because I knew his twin, but I didn’t actually.
Then at the end of the event – by which time it was a dirty January evening – he helped me on with my coat and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I haven’t said a word to you, would you ever like to go out for a meal, or to the cinema?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, that would be lovely,’ in a rather feeble sort of way, having been on my own for a year and not thinking that anything would happen.
But then the phone rang two or three days later and he said, ‘Look, Tuesday alright? I’ll pick you up at half past seven.’
Half past seven came. No Sandy. And then about an hour later he appeared, looking very dishevelled because he’d found, on Snowdrop Corner, a girl, upside down in a car. He’d turned the car back the right way and helped the girl – she wasn’t badly injured – but when he eventually arrived I said, ‘Perhaps you’d prefer not to go out to supper?’ And he said, ‘No no, of course I’ll go out to supper. No, no. Absolutely.’
So we went to this little place, I always forget the name, somewhere near Halstock, and we had supper and it was just wonderful. For he was just so gloriously normal.
You see, the year I’d been on my own I’d had endless suitors – including, you know, husbands of friends, all sorts of things, I can’t tell you. I was only 39 and it appears that divorcees were fair game, in men’s eyes. Widows, they respected. Divorcees they didn’t.
When Sandy dropped me home I said, ‘Thank you so much, that was a most wonderful evening,’ and he said, ‘I think that was really lovely too. I think we should have lots more. And I think we should get married. Don’t you?’ So I said, (she’s really chuckling now), ‘Yes, I think that’s a very good idea.’ And within days he’d moved in, and a year later to the day, almost, we were married in the church.
Before that, I’d rather nervously rung up Derek Parry, who was our lovely Rector, and asked if we could we go and see him – because we had been going to church, sort of. So we went into his office and I said, ‘We wondered whether we could possibly have a blessing?’ And there was a long silence, and he said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Oh dear’. Then he said, ‘I shall marry you properly. Or not at all.’ And after that, Sandy and I had thirty really happy years. He was always so positive. Very cheerful. Clever. Particularly good on History.
I ask what’s been her highlight of this year, and she sits contemplating the question.
I suppose coming home, coming back to the village. You appreciate the kindness of everyone, and the atmosphere. We’re quite a cohesive group of people and, despite the fact people come and go, incomers seem to catch it – the sense of community.
I think it’s because we’re built around a crossroads, with a church in the middle. We’re all within walking distance of the church and the village hall, so we all get to know each other quite quickly.
Of course, the village has changed enormously in my 37 years. People come and go. There were families here who’d been here for generations when I came, whose names are on the War Memorial. It’s a much more floating population now, and it’s become a very young village. I don’t know what the percentage of people say under forty is, but it must be quite high, in comparison with lots of similar villages.
When I came back from Cerne Abbas, because I’d been watching the Piddlehinton WhatsApp I thought, ‘All these people that I don’t really know, all these young people. I’m going to have a big party.’ And now I can’t have a party, because we’re not allowed to, and I really want to have one.
Ah yes, I remember, what about those differences between here and Cerne Abbas?
Well… it’s more… it’s grander there, in some ways. There are an awful lot of generals. And at one stage, about twenty years ago, there were four bishops. Whereas I don’t think we’ve had one bishop live in Piddlehinton, certainly not during my time here. We’re rather more low church.
Although I can’t think of the number of Rectors we’ve had. Derek Parry was here when I first arrived. He’d bicycle up and down the valley – chatting to everybody and we all adored him. Tony Monds was also lovely, very kind.
Before him there was a Rector who I think really would have liked to have owned an estate. I think he’d read too much Trollope or something, because he kept sheep and cattle around every corner. Which were always escaping. I remember one day waking up and there were about forty sheep on my lawn.
At one point this vicar felt that he needed to have a pig, so he moved one into the Rectory, Augusta she was called. He put up a fence but then, in the spring, Augusta dug her way under the fence, swam the river Piddle and ended up in Bert Condon’s garden (who was the chairman of the Parish council). Augusta ate all his very best cabbages and roses, I think, and, you can imagine, Bert was furious with the Rector.
So, poor Augusta, I’m afraid she bit the dust. But then, when the Rector took round a leg of Augusta to Bert, the door was slammed in his face. Now that was a man who was longing to be a country gentleman, but sadly found that life in the Piddle Valley wasn’t quite like that.
People are awfully kind though, endlessly so. We needed a bus shelter, because the children were all standing in the cold and the rain on the crossroads. So I suggested could we build one, and I’d persuade some chaps to come and help. Then I remember another chap coming and saying, ‘Sara, you want to build a bus shelter? I’ve got a whole load of old cedar tiles, which were left over from building my garage, I think they’d do very nicely.’
Then, when Geoff Lord was alive… (He was evacuated here as a child. Do you know there were seven children evacuated here, in the Old Rectory, during the war?)
Anyway, Geoff was wonderfully good to the village, but had to play the hymns in the church on some awful old harmonium. So I said, ‘Would you like a proper organ?’ ‘Ooh, yes,’ he said, ‘I really would love a proper organ.’ So then I got ten people together and said, ‘Look, if we can each find ten people and they can each raise £10 on a sponsored walk, then we’ll raise the £1,000,’ – which would pay for this second-hand organ he’d found.
At the time, there was a general in the village, General Ramsbottom (who became a prison inspector after he left the army). So he led the sponsored walk; all the way up around Lyscombe. We’d taken up everyone’s food beforehand, so then we had a village picnic right up on the top. I’d also got a great deal of beer and cider from Hall & Woodhouse in Blandford, so it was a rather drunken picnic, and then we all walked back to the village. It was a long walk, really, and there must have been hundred people doing it, led by the General. But we raised all the money we needed and bought the organ that’s in the church now.
People are also very willing. There were no bells in the church when I came and people said, ‘Oh no, the bells are silent. They’re dead. Nobody wants to ring them.’ So I said, ‘Aren’t the bells okay?’ And yes, they were. So I found a bell ringing instructor and got six or eight people together and we all started ringing the bells.
Ringing the bells, over the years
I was hopeless, I broke two stays, I used to have nightmares about it. Coz you know, as you ring, you go, boing, boing, and if you go too hard you break the stay, which is an awful hassle for everybody. And I broke two of them – I was hopeless. But they’ve never been silent since – so that’s really good. They’ve stayed alive. Because we need the church. Even if you don’t go to church, it’s a symbol.
We’ve had terrible dramas here too. Lantern Cottage once burnt down completely, the fire starting in the chimney minutes after the wood burner had been lit. It spread to the next door cottage, and, despite the amazing efforts of the fire service to pull the thatch off, both houses burned. Unfortunately, the next cottage wasn’t insured, because they’d just had a flood and the insurance premium had gone up so they were looking around for a better quote.
But talk about the village rising to the occasion. They lived in your house for a time, with Jane H, and all their stuff was stored in our stables. People were bringing in meals for them; taking their child to school. The village was fantastically generous – I mean, goodness me the village is wonderful If you ask them.
If you ask them, they will do it. All you have to do is send round a little note and they will come, I promise you. And they did. Paid off all their bills, got the roof rethatched. And then they moved back in and a few days later it was burning again. I kid you not.
There were scaffolders finalising repairs to Lantern Cottage using angle irons. And the sparks from the irons caught the brand-new thatch and the whole thing went up again.
Luckily the scaffolders were a big national company and they paid. But still, it was an awful thing for both cottages to experience and I’m so glad the village was able to help.
I ask if she thinks that Covid has strengthened the spirit of community.
I do. Although, really, it’s always present.
We have the fete in my garden every other year and on a Friday night, twenty, thirty people will turn up to put up the tents. I don’t know who organises them but they all appear. I put out lots of drinks and things to eat and they all have a jolly time, sorting everything. It’s amazing. And then on Sunday they all come and take them down again. So there’s always been this underlying sense of community within the village, which is wonderful.
Many iterations of the village fete – where there’s often a dressing-up theme
I ask what her lowest point has been this year?
I suppose not being able to walk along the street and chat to people. Normally, the joy of this house is that it’s in centre of the village. You walk outside, or you go to the post box and you’re almost sure to bump into somebody, or somebody stops in the car. I love it here. I love it.
I wonder what committees she’s been involved with.
I was chairman of the Parish council and Parochial Parish Council for years. I was only working part-time, for the Macmillan service, so I had the time to be able to do these things. I think it’s much harder for the young now. it’s very hard to get people onto committees because they’re all working so hard.
When I was a school governor at Piddletrenthide, we got the new school built – raising money for that too. That was good. Hanford Farms, you see, were very big and active and then they had a terrible downturn and fifteen families left with all their children. That was after we’d got the planning permission – these days we’d never get the permission for it.
The old school is now divided into three houses, and the gates, which were once at the entrance there, are now in the new school. For originally they came from Westminster Abbey, through Mr Bridges – who was the owner of the Manor House in Piddletrenthide.
He was a jeweller, and had something to do with conserving Westminster Abbey. And he decided, when he paid for the original Victorian school, that he had these beautiful gates sitting about and that it should use them.
But then, when the new school was built, the planning officers in Dorchester wouldn’t let us move them, because they said they were part of the school. So we said, ‘They’re actually not, they’re from Westminster Abbey and they’re 16th century’. Anyway, I got this chap who was staying with me – Sir Bernard F, part of English Heritage or something – I told him this funny story and he was marvellous. He promptly dealt with the local planning officers and said that we should have them and move them to the new school. So the old sixteenth century gates are now part of the school, and of course they look after them beautifully.
The valley has so much history, including the old army camp, where the travellers live now. Have you heard the story of the 99th Infantry Division? No? Let me tell you that.
In 1993 I had this phone call from a woman in Philadelphia. I can’t imagine how she found me. She must have just looked up the village on the net. Anyway, she said she was coming to England and could she come and visit me, for her father had been in the 99th Infantry Division.
I said, ‘Of course, ring me just before you come and it will be nice to see you. Come and have a cup of tea.’
Well, a couple of weeks before the date she rang, and said she was bringing a few friends. ‘How many,’ I asked? ‘About ninety-three,’ she said. So I said, ‘Oh.’ And she said, ‘Well I’m planning to visit the camp and could you tell me all about it.’
So I said, ‘Well, ok, you’d better all come and have lunch.’ But I had no money to entertain ninety-three people to lunch, and I knew nothing about the camp, so I put word out, the way one does if one has a problem in Piddlehinton. You can always find people who’ll come to the fore and help you out.
And they did.
We put up all these green tents on the lawn – which I borrowed from Bovington – old fashioned dark green ones, which James B persuaded somebody to dig out, and lots of men then came and helped put them up. Learning how to do it was a challenge – they were very old fashioned, very low. And I borrowed a builders’ loo, and had to scrub cement off the handles.
On the day, two or three large coachloads arrived, and lots of people from the village turned up too. Because of course the children from the village had used to run up there and be given sweets. Tights and lipsticks were also terribly important.
I’d found other people in the valley who were here in 1944 – so they came and we first all went into church where the bells were run and the flags flew and I’d got trumpeters from Bovington to come and trumpet. I think the Bishop came and gave us a sermon. It was all very tear-jerking.
Then we came back here and had coffee and then went to the camp, where Brett Easter showed us around – and they all remembered. They’d fought in the Battle of the Bulge – in Belgium. In the Ardennes. The 99thInfantry Division was just one of many infantry divisions. And it was so sweet, and then they came back here for lunch.
And of course the village was marvellous. We’d cooked lots of turkey and baked potatoes and had masses of salad. We also had blackberry and apple crumble and cream and coffee and lots of drink – probably from Hall & Woodhouse again; always very helpful. And we talked in the tents, all about the war. And, oh dear, such a lot of tears – they all burst into tears. And lots of the English people did too – because half of them never came back.
It was wonderful, seeing the many types of people of the 99th Infantry division. Senior lawyers, surgeons and congressman, eating alongside people who, after the war, had never left Philadelphia again, working all their lives as garage hands or in factories. Obviously, they knew they were in England again, but really they had no idea where they were.
Then after lunch we went back to the camp, and then we came back here, at which point I divided everyone into groups and they went to individual houses all over the village. They’d been a bit worried about that part; worried that our lavatories wouldn’t work as they thought we were very primitive, but it was all fine. And then at 6.30 they all turned up in The Thimble and got completely drunk and then the coaches came and in a staggering state of euphoria they went on their way.
The one thing I hadn’t thought to organise on the day was a First Aider. So in a way it was lucky that when one of them dropped dead, it was on the coach. But if we’d needed a doctor, I’m sure we’d have found one, soon enough.
Because that is the joy of Piddlehinton. If you send out a call for help in this village, people will come. They just do.
Which is wonderful really.”
Many thanks to Gay H, Vickey S and Julian W and the website for the 99th Infantry Division for providing so many wonderful photos.