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Charlie Lancaster: fifty year-old memories

Fifty years ago, to fund my burgeoning archaeology hobby, I got a real job. It was after the Prague spring as the summer of love took off. Miss Methuen in a big mysterious house on the edge of Ditteridge wanted gardening help. A Dickensian spinster, Miss Methuen was nervous, dressed in voluminous baggy clothes worthy of a plump scarecrow, only given to speaking in monosyllabic phrases. Shy as I was, she was infinitely more timid as though the light terrified her. The kitchen smelled of rotting food mixed with summer damp. Everything was time-warped from the ‘thirties when Miss Methuen presumably inherited the house.

The Methuens were military stock. Faint traces of order existed in the garden: a grand driveway, a tennis court, and a sprawling kitchen garden arranged for fruits and veg. Along one side were potting sheds. When it rained, this was shelter. One other thing, Miss Methuen entrusted everything to Charlie.

Charlie was well into his seventies. Thick set, square-headed, large ruddy cheeks and a perpetual flat cap, he belonged to a lost age of countrymen. He had worked on Goulstone’s farm since 1929 when he married a war widow with a 12 year old, managed the livestock, and drove sheep to Chippenham market once a week, on foot. Charlie organized my tasks, pruning trees, clipping hedges, turning the ground over, and mowing the lawns, home to lusty moles. All at half a crown an hour.

Why do I recall Charlie? Simple: he was the only veteran I’ve met of the First World War. His fifty year old memories were sharp and concise. Born in Edington on the edge of Salisbury Plain, below Bratton white horse, he was a farmer-worker’s son. He and his brother saw the war as escape from minding sheep. Aged 21 in 1914 the two sons enlisted at once. His brother died in France. Charlie ended up in Mesopotamia, hot, dusty, flies, Turks and once a glimpse of T.E Lawrence. A little man. Dandy.

Bratton hillfort and white horse

Charlie, to be honest, had me do everything arduous. He ambled around in his domain in an old pressed suit, waistcoat with old fob watch, and a thick stained tie. Duty done he retired to the potting shed, repeatedly adjusted his cap and settled down to read old copies of the (by then defunct) Daily Sketch.

He loved to tell stories, his eyes brightening, the burr of his moonraker’s accent thickening as my minutes liberated from turning the ground lengthened. Most of all he took pleasure in my little lectures about the 13th century thin green glazed sherds that I plucked from the soil. Lawrence too had had a passion for medieval pottery I told him, though I could tell he thought it an odd pastime.

Charlie passed away in the early ‘seventies. A modest rectangular stone graced with affectionate words recalls him in Ditteridge churchyard. He is part of my teenage experience as Lawrence was a moment in his brutal introduction to a larger world. Thinking of him, of the spans of fifty years, I motored over to Edington Church. Literally at the foot of the chalk scarp, the sound of sheep bleating, as he recalled, is a constant. Inside this stolid late medieval barn of a building the vicar is self-consciously rescuing fragments from the immense painted Jacobean roof that have detached and plunged into the nave. Commiserating with his plight, I ambled away to the south transept. Much as I had hoped, here hung high are framed photographs of Edington’s war heroes. The images are dark and brown but the figures more than a century old are timeless. In moments I have found Charlie as I never knew him. The same large head and broad cheeks. In his dress uniform, a soldier, his pose martial yet relaxed and proud, his face, though, is young, innocent.

Fifty years ago I knew a man who fifty years earlier ‘knew’ Lawrence of Arabia, I mutter to myself and took an iPhoto.

Charley Lancaster

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