25 AUGUST 1979, Page 24

Autumn leaves

Jeffrey Bernard

From our Country Correspondent: They started ploughing the old barley field this morning and,-after tea, we lit the first log fire since the winter. The blue smoke rose straight into the steel-cold sky, as I knew it would, having just tapped the barometer in the gun-room and a few house-martins spiralled around it, as they will soon when the warm winds of Africa beckon them.

As the apples ripen in the orchard so the border flowers begin to fade. The forgetme-nots, the spinster's hobby, bushes of strolling Tom, the soft tendrils of bachelor's knee and the thorny branches of widow's hate assume an air of surrender. Only the buttercups on the banks of Gudren's Mere still dare to stare at the now hazy sun and the lads in the village are cleaning their guns of an evening as pots of Berkshire broth bubble on the hobs. The holiday-makers, the hikers, the tourists have gone and their waste lies strewn over ditches of burgundycoloured blackberries and wild sow's ear, known in these parts as Cynthia's blush.

The empty Coca-Cola tins, bottles of HP Sauce, old french letters and empty cigarette packets serve to remind us of another world at the end of the M4, and the young village schoolmaster, Rudolf Le Grange is collecting them for a montage he hopes to exhibit at his first one-man-show next month at the Corn Exchange in Blabberton-on-the-Beyeble.

And speakingof art, last Monday evening at the WI meeting we heard a fascinating lecture by a young man sent down to us from London by the Arts Council who gave a talk entitled 'Christian Science and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance'. Miss Laetitia Frock, whose forebears are said to have been walled-up by Roundheads in the old manor just after the skirmish at Skittledown Copse in 1647, won a commenda tion for her caraway sponge and I walked home by moonlight, tired and happy, but somewhat puzzled to see a light flickering from the direction of Dooms Field Farm, They say that the new tenants, a poet from London and his wife who makes clay horse brasses, dabble in the occult. I can't say the idea frightens me but what does, since I began carrying the dried frog's head Ebenezer Grubbing gave me? It was Ebenezer who pointed out to me the strange incident of the nightingale in the night. When I remarked that I had not heard it sing for six nights he asked me if I had seen any hedgehogs recently. 'Why yes' I told him, 'We always put out a saucer of curdled goat's milk with a dash of dry sherry for any old stick-a-penny who may be around.'

He nodded appreciatively and smiled at my use of the local phrase for hedgehog, but then a strange change came over him. To my astonishment he went down on his knees and performed a strange dance on his haunches that reminded me of the ritual funeral dance of the Mbonga Mbonga tribe that we used to see in our tea-planting days in the Kashmere Kush. When he had finished, he straightened up, brushed himself down and then began to till his pipe with the cut plug that, along with bread and chestnut water, seemed to be his only sustenance. After he had lit up and his pipe was bubbling with saliva as an old man's will, he eyed me quizzically and said, 'No nflady, 1 haint be daft, but mark my words. When the nightingale stays mum and the stick-apenny sups then the corn'll be blighted and the blizzards'll come.' I thought little more about it until the following morning when I went out into the garden to cut some ploughboy's lust to put in the library. Algernon, my husband, was picking a rose for his buttonhole before setting out to preside over the Bench at Cuddlington when he turned to me and said, 'Chalmers just sent a lad from the Lodge with a message to say that the corn in the fields at Shrove Bottom has got throgmyrtle blight. You'd better tell Manners to burn all the greenhouses and move the horses to Upper Meadows. And don't wait up for me. We've got to hang that lad who was caught looking over Buffy's fence at, Lowclere. Heaven knows when I'll be home. After he had whipped Bramble into a trot and disappeared over the ridge by Nettle Spinney I felt a chill breeze touch my cheeks. Winter is near and tomorrow I'll make sure that Martha rubs hog's grease onto all the sundials.