Saturday, July 16, 2011

Precious memories of childhood. Told by Michael Heseltine's daughter, Annabel Heseltine

There is a special place for me too: Etty Bay -- JR

Behind the house where I lived as a child there was an ancient caravan, rusting and overhung with dark green ivy. Inside were old, dank benches covered in yellow-and-brown cushions, and windows coated in dead flies.

To the gang of small children that I was a part of, tucked away in the deepest part of south Devon, that caravan was a haven.

It was our camp, a place where the adults never came, nor wanted to. It was where we lived out our Famous Five dreams — even though there were only four of us. There was Roger, the farmer’s son, who led us; Anne, his sister, and, when, she was home, the nice but rather grown-up Anna, who was a neighbour. Then there was little me, the hanger-on who was allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, to join in, and to whom they were always kind.

I have no idea how old they were, but I know I was no more than nine — because that is how old I was when we left Devon and moved to a property outside Henley on Thames in south Oxfordshire.

Our house in Devon was called Pamflete, and there was never another home that meant as much to me, though I have lived in many properties since.

Childhood memories are etched so deeply in our psyche. No matter how much pain, loneliness or unhappiness we encounter as adults, those memories can never be tainted.

As the summer holidays begin, many families will be returning to their ‘special places’ with that curious mix of delight and wistful longing for summers past. It doesn’t have to be a childhood home. It could be a rented cottage or favourite hotel, a patch of woodland or a hidden cove.

Wherever it is, it is special not just because of where or what it is, but also because it is steeped in family memories. It has become a repository for childhood joy, just as Pamflete was for me.

I had a happy childhood but found growing up difficult, especially when I was in my late teens and early 20s with a very famous father, Michael, who was a senior Conservative politician.

Childhood memories are etched so deeply in our psyche. No matter how much pain, loneliness or unhappiness we encounter as adults, those memories can never be tainted.

Whatever the reason — perhaps because of the age I was when I lived there, or the fact that I was almost an only child (my sister Alexandra was still a baby and my brother, Rupert, was born a year later in 1967) — those memories of a house where we lived for six years, and then only part-time, eclipsed the rest of my childhood, and continue to influence me even today.

Pamflete, hidden away, beautiful and wild, is a safe place to which I return in my mind, time after time, and remember those easy, halcyon days.

Even now, as my husband, Peter, and I search for our own house in the country, Pamflete is the template for my ideals; a pretty house near the sea, which in today’s world is almost impossible to find.

Pamflete wasn’t even our property. It belonged to an old Devon family, the Mildmay-Whites, who owned both sides of the estuary of the River Erme.

My father rented it for £520 a year when he was Member of Parliament for Tavistock, from 1966 when I was three, to 1973, and we went there for half-terms and holidays.

I would lie in bed in the mornings listening to the rooks cawing up in the Scots pines and the sheep down in the valley below, and felt it was mine.

It was here I saw my first badger, after being taken out at night by the gardener to crawl through the blue rhododendrons. It was here I learned to swim in the river, and to fish for crabs using bacon swiped from the kitchen as bait. It was here I was given my kitten, Mimi, and here that I got dressed ready to be a bridesmaid to my friend Anna’s elder sister, Caroline, in the local church.

Since my father was often away working or campaigning, my mother, Anne, always employed someone to come and help her during the summer. Of all of them, John was the most colourful character. Hippy John, with long brown hair, who rowed with the tide up the river to collect our food from the village store. He would have a beer in the pub, then come back down when the tide changed.

Sometimes, in the afternoon, he would clear away the food from the kitchen table, produce some playing cards, and teach me how to play poker.

My parents let me wander and, left to my own devices, I found solace in the company of others. We didn’t go out much and I was probably quite lonely, but people were kind to me. Anne, the farmer’s daughter, let me play with her even though she was so much older than me. If it all sounds impossibly old-fashioned, that’s because it often was.

Sometimes my mother invited my school friends to stay. One of them was Barbara Cartland’s grand-daughter, Charlotte, who arrived pasty-faced from London with her own nanny and a medicine-bag full of vitamins, provided by her grandmother who was a health fanatic.

My mother found Charlotte’s nanny crying in the bathroom the following morning with pills scattered all over the floor. She had dropped the bag so all the pills were muddled up, and she didn’t know which ones should be taken when.

My mother solved the problem by throwing the lot down the loo. ‘Charlotte won’t need them here,’ she said. ‘All she needs is our Devon air and the sea.’ A week later, Charlotte went home blooming with health; I remember being impressed by my mother’s audacity.

When there were no friends to stay, I would spend my days in the caravan or down by the stream, building dams and fighting off midges.

Best of all was the estuary beach. When the tide was out, there was a beautiful table-cloth of white sand which stretched across the huge bay down to the sea where horses could gallop and children sail dinghies.

This beach enchanted me with its dangerous and ever-changing tides, which could shrink the river to a ribbon of shallow water or swell the estuary beyond to a wide, rushing flow.

Above it, there was Pamflete beach, which wasn’t always so pretty, but it was my beach. Except for the occasional dog walker, it seemed as if no one except our family came here. At high tide it was covered in seaweed and driftwood, and garnished with shells.

It was the cowries — tiny sea snails’ shells — which became my enduring memory of that time, which came to tell their own story, and became a symbol of longed-for new life in my family.

I never forgot Pamflete. Later, after I had learned to drive, I returned to have another look. I sidled down the rocky path onto the beach and scoured the seaweed for my little friends. After that, it became a sort of ritual.

Every few years, I drove through Devonshire hedges gaudy with blackberries, purple foxgloves and orange hawkweed, just to catch a glimpse of the house. Some people say it is a mistake to return to the treasured places of our past, because the danger is they will have changed beyond recognition and the magic will be lost forever.

But Pamflete was always there, exactly as I had left it, and so were the cowries. Sometimes I took boyfriends. Sometimes I went alone. Then I took my husband.

We walked down the estuary. I told him about my childhood, and how much I loved this part of Devon. I told him about the cowries. It was at the end of our first year of marriage, and we were in mourning for the three babies I had lost in ectopic pregnancies.

I scanned the sand for cowries, and found only three. I couldn’t help thinking of the three babies. In my mind, they were symbolised by the cowries in my hand. If I found any more, they were our future.

I had lost so many babies, so quickly, that I wanted to find lots and lots of cowries, just in case. But, try as I might, I could only find four more. My husband waited patiently, knowing there was more to this than casual beachcombing. Finally we had to go, but I took those seven cowries with me and put them away, wrapped in hope.

My faith was vindicated. I went on to have four children, and as they grew up, I longed to take them back to Devon and my home by the sea.

One day, I contacted the MildmayWhites and asked them to let me know if Pamflete would ever be rented out again. What I had in mind made no sense whatsoever, since my husband was a professor working in a London hospital and I was looking after four young children.

But the Mildmay-Whites said they would be renting the house out as a holiday home the following year, and we could be their guinea pigs. I booked it for three weeks in August, and prayed for good weather.

I knew it would be strange, walking back into a house where I had lived 30 years earlier. There was the drawing-room where we had played Monopoly and I had finished my Tutankhamun project for school; the old kitchen with a coal Aga that had to be swept and fired every day and where, aged six, I had played poker with Hippy John.

I explored what was the playroom and my bedroom, joined to my parents’ room by a hidden passage, which they used as their dressing-room, inside which we had once accidentally locked Rudi the dachshund when we went for a picnic on Dartmoor, only to find on our return that he had chewed through my father’s Gucci shoes.

The hidden corridor had gone, transformed into two bathrooms. Smart wooden stables had replaced the rusting caravan, and Roger, Anne and Anna had moved away long ago. The Scots pines had been cut down, as had the rhododendrons.

Pamflete was still beautiful and magical and perhaps, to the stranger, an improvement on the old, with its new bathrooms, smart kitchen and modern Aga. But my Pamflete had gone, and getting to know the new one took time.

Somehow I had to reconcile a perfect childhood memory with the present reality — a holiday home where we were paying guests.

I was putting off the moment when I went back to my beloved beach. Would that be different, too? When my husband’s family arrived from Dublin, I used the excuse of preparing lunch to send them off to the sea without me. But on their return, over lunch, they asked me if I was sure the beach was beautiful because they hadn’t been particularly impressed.

I exploded. I left the table, left the house, and walked off furiously to the beach.
Pamflete was still beautiful and magical and perhaps, to the stranger, an improvement on the old, with its new bathrooms, smart kitchen and modern Aga. But my Pamflete had gone, and getting to know the new one took time.

They were right. It did look awful that day. It was covered in smelly seaweed and plastic bottles. I had forgotten the damage caused by a spring tide which jettisons its rubbish, only to collect it a couple of days later.

But that wasn’t the problem, I realised. The problem was that I was chasing a dream. A childhood idyll where everything seemed perfect, only I wasn’t a child any more. I was a wife, and the mother of four children.

I remember my mother, who couldn’t drive at the time, telling me how lonely she had been when we lived at Pamflete — even though we, her children, had been so happy. Now I was a mother, and it was my chance to make summer memories for my children.

I couldn’t give them what my parents gave me: nobody rents out houses like this for £500 a year any more. But we had Pamflete for three weeks, and I was going to make the most of it.

So we did. The sun shone as we boated, swam and sailed. I showed my children where to find crabs, and how to float down the river on the current. I invited old friends for dinner, and my husband fished.

As the children played hide-and-seek and tennis, and swam, my old memories were replaced with new ones. In a different way from in my childhood, I was really happy.

I loved having friends to stay; a family in their camper van, my brother and sister with my nephews and nieces, even my parents, who came for a couple of nights and ate hot dogs on the one rainy weekend of the summer.

The family-of-five who had picnicked on Pamflete beach in the Seventies had become 17-strong. We did everything we had first done at Pamflete and more, discovering that it was no longer a lonely place.

Instead it is lovingly protected by the same families, many of them friends of the Mildmay-Whites, who return year after year to rent the coastguards’ cottages, and the little houses by the river.

We met them on the beach. Sitting under the low cliffs where I had fished as a child, I learned how they had filled in the years when we weren’t there, and now it was just as much their place as mine. Three magical weeks later, we packed up and left. I felt sad, but also released from my old memories. Staying at Pamflete was wonderful, but I knew then that what I wanted was a home of my own in the West Country.

A few months later we sold our house and started looking for somewhere close to the sea and the rolling hills bridged by Scots pine. It won’t be Pamflete. The house of my childhood is not for sale, but at least I know now that we can go back there whenever we like.

Perhaps one day I will even take my grandchildren there, and bore them with tales of when Granny was a little girl and spent a magical childhood in a special house called Pamflete.


No comments: