A LIFE IN BURY by Malcolm D. Welshman
There’s a corner of Sussex that shall forever hold a place in my heart. Nestling beneath the Downs, flanked by the silent rush of the Arun, and wrapped in bowers of trees, that place is Bury. I feel as if I know each blade of grass in its banks, each flint in its cottage walls, each tile on its red-capped roofs.
We moved there when I was a boy, in the days when the village had no street lighting; when opening the front door on a winter’s night meant great pools of darkness would spill in from the lane. The only light visible was from the Dog and Duck up the road; the faint glow of the lamp above the pub’s door – pale as a distant star.
Our cottage was set back, half-hidden by a steep bank which, in Spring, was carpeted in daffodils and framed by pink clouds of cherry blossom. It had black timbered walls with sandstone infill; and a huge thatch of grey that drooped over the eaves like a shawl on an old lady’s shoulders. Opposite was the village store where, to spend my pocket money on gob stoppers and sherbet lemons, I had to run the gauntlet of grimacing gargoyles over the door - a stone Puck, a satyr, the head of a horse; all carved centuries ago by the then house’s owner, a stonemason working on Chichester Cathedral.
With gob-stoppered cheeks, I would skip past scented drifts of primroses and dog violets and enter the dark tunnel of Church Lane with its towering walls of flint and canopy of ivy clad trees. April sun filtered through emerald buds, dappling the lane with shadows that danced with me past Jasmine and Ferry Cottages, once home to the ferry workers, and on down on to the banks of the river Arun.
Here there used to be a wooden jetty. Villagers would be ferried across in a punt; some to walk up to the Chalk Pits to mine sand and lime; others to head for Amberley Castle, employed there as staff.
Where I sit now, on a wooden bench atop an embankment built in 1964 to prevent flooding of the village, the view has scarcely changed since I was there as a boy. A sliding, tidal river to the front; dark and dangerous, it glides past in murmuring ripples to cut through the gap in the Downs and flow swiftly out to sea. Banks lined with paper-brown reeds, a breeze rustling through their tousle-headed ranks, now peppered with fresh spears of green; and where a moorhen jerkily paddles through the stalks looking for a place to nest. Beyond lie brook pastures, grid-lined by silver pencils of water and between which black beef cattle snort and graze. This flat expanse of meadows is dotted with scrubby pockets of grey-green willow and alder. In May, clumps of hawthorn grow heavy with blossom and white-edge the meadows like drifts of snow.
A heron flaps lazily past – one deep, harsh ‘frarnk’ echoing across the water. My mind wings back to the twilight of a winter’s day when my father and I stood here, our breath hanging in the air, a pallid sun throwing long shadows across the frost-whitened meadows. He told me of the last ferryman – Bob Dudden – who could never be rushed. If sawing logs in his garden, you would have to wait until the last log dropped to the ground before Bob would walk leisurely to the river bank, untie the painter of his punt and pole you across. Behind me is Bob’s cottage, its lattice windows twinkling amber, reflecting the glow from a fire within. As smoke drifts down from the chimney and the sweet scent of burning apple wood fills the air, I can still feel the warmth of my father’s hand as he firmly held mine and we hurried home for tea.
The backcloth to the meadows is the South Downs, their smooth, rounded contours the result of two million years of glacial polishing. Chasing shadows now bruise their tops and wandering sheep lace the grassy slopes. As a teenager, I climbed the Downs above Bury. Blazing summer days, zigzagging up chalky paths cracked like crockery, the grass to each side flopped and faded, hedgerows powdered white with dust, the sun beating down from a bleached blue sky. It was on the Downs, deep in a sea of shimmering corn, the only sound the muted zeep-zeep of a yellowhammer, that I asked my love to marry me.
In the autumn of my life, I sit atop of Bury Hill and gaze down at the village, the grey shingle spire of St. John the Evangelist glinting between the burnished leaves; beyond, the distant fields of yellow stubble, drawn in long, straight lines like the bristles of a worn-out scrubbing brush. My memories tumble across the soft, springy turf. They leap and whirl with the fallen leaves; spiral through the hedgerows clustered with blackberries, purple sloes, and reddened hips; spin between dew-diamonded threads of spiders’ silk. And so down memory lane I descend. Back to the heart of the village. Back to the church and through the gate. Up the sloping path to the porch where, last June, I proudly stood with my just-wedded daughter, her face radiant, her cheeks flushed pink, soft as the rose petals that were cascading around us.
It seems only yesterday that I came here as a boy, to this corner of Sussex, beneath the Downs. Yet only a day’s needed, one precious memory of the years spent in Bury, for my heart, like the lark in the meadow, to soar and soar.