“concept arising from change experienced and observed: a quantity measured by angle through which earth turns on its axis : a moment at which, or stretch of duration in which, things happen : season: due, appointed, usual time : hour of death or parturition…”
And it continues in that vein for two more pages. I’m talking of course about time. That theoretical concept of movement; we look back to a time with fondness, rush to be present at a point in time, and look forward to a moment in time with excitement.
My thoughts on time gathered pace yesterday. I believe it is because of the effect Wiltshire has on me. It makes me think and feel in an altogether different way than anywhere else I know. I slow down. Time stands still somehow.
I began ruminating on the process of time after arriving at the Waggon and Horses pub in Beckhampton. This ancient public house in the Avebury hinterland, hard by Silbury Hill was, and remains so, a favourite pub of ours. And, in addition, the inspiration for the famous coaching inn scene in Charles Dickens’s ,The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (also known as The Pickwick Papers).
"Tom cast a hasty glance at the upper part of the house as he threw the reins to the hostler, and stuck the whip in the box. It was a strange old place, built of a kind of shingle, inlaid, as it were, with cross-beams, with gabled-topped windows projecting completely over the pathway, and a low door with a dark porch, and a couple of steep steps leading down into the house, instead of the modern fashion of half a dozen shallow ones leading up to it. It was a comfortable-looking place though, for there was a strong cheerful light in the bar-window, which shed a bright ray across the road, and even lighted up the hedge on the other side; and there was a red flickering light in the opposite window, one moment but faintly discernible, and the next gleaming strongly through the drawn curtains, which intimated that a rousing fire was blazing within. Marking these little evidences with the eye of an experienced traveller, Tom dismounted with as much agility as his half-frozen limbs would permit, and entered the house"
The book continues on to report groaning table of fine vitals in this comfortable coaching inn, whereupon the characters of the novel meet and exchange a bonhomie story or two before the inevitable disaster strikes.
And bonhomie it remains.
I was due to attend a Trustees meeting at the Richard Jefferies Museum near Swindon. Finding I had a couple of hours to spare, time enough to visit the Waggon and Horses for a light luncheon before the main event.
The bar was quite empty for a Friday lunchtime. A couple of middle aged men in working attire reading the papers, pint glasses in hand; an elderly chap on a table by himself surrounded by a selection of post vitals crockery, a pair of ladies in deep conversation in the window seat, gin and tonics in hand, and a characterful dog cum engaging ragged mat called Katy who was causing consternation to her owner perched on a bar stool, by wandering about getting her lead entangled in table and chair legs.
Low beams, dark wood, old paintings of stagecoaches, wooden floors, every time I enter this favourite hostility it feels like a timeless place to rest the traveller’s bones.
“I last came here in 1947 when I was stationed at Larkhill just after the war”
I’d just sat down with my pint of Wadsworth’s bitter when the old gentleman hidden from view behind the settle announced to the two paper reading gentlemen opposite this point in time.
“It’s changed a lot since those days, yes, I last had a pint in this pub in 1947 – great days, I was stationed at RAF Larkhill, me and the boys would come down on the Garry and spend the night here, no breathalysing in those days, how we got home I’ve no idea. I’m 87 you know but I still drive. I was stationed at Larkhill you know, it’s a long long time ago, a whole lifetime ago. This place has changed so much since then”
The newsprint pair joined in this conversation and as it wheeled around I half listened, to their conversation. All of which was reminiscing of the good old days, things were never as good again, more especially from the octogenarian how much this place had changed since his last visit, a lifetime ago.
It abruptly ended when a lady arrived and remonstrated with the Larkhill wanderer;
“There you are, I’ve been sitting in the car for ages, I thought you’d gone there”
One only has to guess why the lady, presumably Mrs Larkhill was in the car, or why Mr L had not joined her there. But all was well and they left out the very same door Charles Dickens would have entered close to two centuries ago en-route to Bath, when presumably like me he observed the goings on at this ancient pub and then put pen to paper. My guess is should Charles Dickens have returned in 1947 (unlikely considering his demise in 1870, but stick with me) he too would have struck up a conversation bemoaning how much the place had changed since his last visit.
Time has that effect on life, and on the generations, and therefore time distorts.
There is an environmental discipline which has many names, such as baseline shift, but the term generational amnesia is one that is growing in popularity. Origins of this recent idea are vague but in 1995 a marine biologist Daniel Pauly used the term ‘shifting baselines’. This attempts to define the way in which each generation develops a set point in time (a base line if you like) when they are accustomed to the way their countryside and environment looks and feels. This for that generation is the norm from which everything else is judged, what went before was possibly better (greater biodiversity in nature terms), everything which has happened since their developmental stage shows how much the environment has degraded over time. In other words time distant clouds exact knowledge and function in history. It was different back then.
Of course it was, time moves on.
This generational amnesia also applies to life in general. We all look back with fondness to our childhood and formative adult years. Experiences were new and exciting. That first tree climbed, our first kiss, the first car, first holiday without parents. All markers in the passage of time. Inevitability in one’s lifetime.
I feel blessed myself that memories of my early years remain razor sharp, it’s only what I did this week that fails in my 51 year old brain.
The scent of wet grass, the bubbling sound the river coquet made over riverbed pebbles, my parents endless house parties, playing with friends in a disused market garden, my father in his art studio seeming always covered in glitter, mother always in the garden or talking to people as I wished to keep walking, glorious pre-school breakfasts on the beach, endless summer days and day trips in the car to the Lake District, Yorkshire or Scotland. Pleasurable events and should I suffer from generational amnesia then this was the norm. Life was always picnics, sunshine and happiness.
It wasn’t of course. I remember the dull drudgery of November Sundays where boredom literally clawed at my soul. I can still remember one such afternoon, dark, cold and miserable and in the distance an ice cream van’s optimistic jingle attempted to lure people into the grey forbidding streets of the Colliery Village a few miles away (where we from our village never dared to go). Village life as an only child could be excruciatingly tedious. Mastering the ability to ride a bicycle alleviated some of this as I could travel far and wide, well at least as far as the coast 3 miles away to have an ice cream.
Having arrived at the Museum I was eager to see the changes and I have to say astonishing improvements in the last 6 months. The Jefferies Museum in 2015 is definitely not one that has stood still recently; it has changed quite a bit, time has not stood still here. Dr Mike Pringle the Museum Curator and Hilda the Education Officer have worked tirelessly to rescue this fading gem, and as volunteers for little financial reward.
One of these changes is the arrival of a miniature railway to the back of the Museum. Swindon Borough Council is building this at their Coate Water Country Park, the boundary of which abuts the Museum grounds. Negotiations are now complete and a station, or more correctly a halt, will be created at the Museum, allowing visitors to arrive by train. Something Mike is sure Richard Jefferies himself would have approved of. The Museum is actually the farmhouse where he was born and where his formative years were spent. These formative years rooted Jefferies in a love of the pastoral countryside around this part of Wiltshire, something he wrote fondly of as an adult having moved away for work and living near London.
What marks Jefferies out from many countryside writers is that he did not dwell on the past as if in a golden hued aspic, he embraced change and lived very much in the time, that time being the expansion of Victorian engineering, quest for knowledge and societal development. He looked forward too, to a time he would never see, in such works as his 1885 novel After London an early example of "post-apocalyptic fiction": following an unspecified catastrophe, England is depopulated and the land reverts to nature. What few survivors remain, return to a quasi-medieval way of life. Many now say this is the time this may happen as we degrade the environment beyond its ability to recover.
Likewise the rusting speedometer I discovered in the Museum grounds had befallen an unspecified catastrophe and was slowly reverting to nature. It had been unearthed as part of the general clearing of the Museum area which over decades has become a dumping ground for all manner of detritus. And there it lay having travelled, within a vehicle of course, for 96100.1 miles.
I have absolutely no idea what car or vehicle this came from, this however is part of the history of time I love. Rusting and decayed, no longer able to work, yet this can inform us of so much of the passage of time, should we let our imagination run wild.
In a time not too distant past, a brand new vehicle would have rolled out of a garage showroom. Mileage 00001. The new owner excited at his or her gleaming purchase, maybe children excitedly in the back seats looking around in wonder at the shiny new seats and bright metalwork. The adventure begins.
As in life, there would have been a honeymoon period. Everything was new and exciting, it all worked beautifully, it went on holiday, to picnics, to the workplace. As this mileometer travelled over hill or dale, what did it see I wonder? Gazed at continuously by its owner, a relationship and bond would have developed. It would have informed of the passage of time, 500 miles, 1000 miles, endlessly it’s numbers crept up as time after time it served the owner well. I love this car.
Yet time took its toll. Eventually irritating hiccups developed into annoying breakdowns and in time the milometer became unloved, a reminder that age was increasingly making this vehicle unreliable. At 96000 miles this car was a wreck, hiccup, was that the last breath, destined to become nothing but scrap. Its gleaming hedonistic days of 00001miles but a distant memory, a new generation of faster, more powerful vehicles now criss-crossed the roads. I’d love one of these new cars, this pile of rust is not worth keeping any more.
Outdated and unloved at 96099 miles it still ran, but only just. Barely connect to an engine and body it like a dying swan performed its last mile, the engine revs dropped, the wheels stopped moving and with a final click of the ignition key it stopped. Time had caught up with it and with the engine cooling silenced forever. It was a good innings 96100.1 miles.
The world never stands still. Had the vehicle this belonged to survived battered but intact maybe in an old barn, a new generation would have discovered it and now it would be a much loved object again. Restored as a classic car, it would be paraded and feted with maybe children excitedly looking around in the back in wonderment at how something ‘so old’ could have such shiny and bright metalwork.
“Dad this is a lovely old car, can we have a car like this?”
“Not today son – but I remember my grandfather having one – ahh happy days going on summer picnics in the back, they just don’t make cars like they used to in the old days son, these were proper cars, had such characters, wonderful memories, I wish he’d kept his, would be worth a fortune now”
Tempest fugit forgets the oil leaks and dodgy breaks, handling of an ocean liner, thin tyres with no grip, headlamps with the candlepower of a firefly, wipers that never worked, no heaters, picnics in rain soaked cars, or the 0-60 speed of 2 hours!
You see, time changes everything quite a bit, for every generation.
Now where did I put my watch…