April has been a month of profound contrasts. Remarkably warm days a couple of weeks ago have brought wildflowers, garden blooms (many tulips have come and gone) and fruit blossom out much earlier than usual. Apple blossom is not usual in Plaxtol until the start of May, but now the trees are already covered in pink and white – just in time to be ruined by this morning’s astonishing, penetrating frost. I cannot recall ever seeing a field of young wheat bleached white with ice crystals, as I did this morning.
Unusually for me, I did not hear the cuckoo when he first arrived. I was told that he had called on 12th April, but I did not hear him until the 22nd. Yet there he was this morning, despite the frost, calling faint but insistent alongside the rest of the dawn chorus.
The arrival of spring also means something more unexpected, but equally fitting, in Plaxtol – the return of a Spitfire to our skies. This plane, with its unmistakable engine sound and iconic shape, comes from some distant airfield, but the Plaxtol airspace seems to be ideal for ‘stooging around’, as it used to be called, performing the aerobatics which kept the fighter pilots of World War Two engaged between sorties and gave them a way of expressing their aptitude, their skill or even their bittersweet defiance at being amongst those still alive.
In 1940, the sky over Plaxtol was frequently criss-crossed by aircraft, both friendly and enemy, engaged in deadly aerial combat. Plaxtol was no safer than many other Kent parishes during the war, but perhaps one of the best-recorded ‘close shaves’ is the experience of Pilot Office (later Flight Lieutenant) R E Jones, who, with the rest of his squadron, engaged German Dornier bombers and ME109 fighters in this area on 15 September 1940 – the date known now as Battle of Britain Day – although not in a Spitfire, but in a Hurricane. Jones recounted how he was shot down, wounded, but succeeded in bailing from his aircraft.
‘I started a dive towards the earth, pulled the canopy open and at the same time stuck my head out. The force of the speed of the aircraft – the engine was on full power and at fine pitch – sucked me out of the aircraft and I came to in my parachute swinging peacefully backwards and forwards.
‘There was just silence - no aircraft noise and no wind. As I looked around I saw a column of white smoke about a mile or so away. It was here my aircraft had hit the ground. I was drifting toward a building, Old Soar Manor and the house next door. I drifted over a line of tall trees and then suddenly I was on the ground on my back and watching a green apple roll along the ground. I had landed in an apple orchard.’
Jones’s Hurricane had continued its descent and crashed in a plum orchard on the opposite side of the valley, narrowly missing the house and barns of nearby Duck’s Farm. By strange coincidence, Jones knew Plaxtol quite well, having visited before the war. The detail of the green apple, rolling in the grass, adds an unexpected twist of poignancy to his story. Today, I feel for the fruit farmers who rely upon the income from their crops, and hope they have some later-blossoming, second flush varieties to soften the blow of both today’s frost damage and yesterday’s crushing hailstones and provide them with apples this coming September.
The return of one of the defining summer birds and the promised summer flights of one of the defining aircraft in Britain’s history seem somehow bound together in an amalgam which represents so much about our past and present. This month I have also been reminded of another summer bird and its ties to another wartime incident, and to the way in which both past and present are being threatened by the future.
To my shame, I had not heard of Lodge Hill, on Kent’s Hoo Peninsula, until a few weeks ago. Yet this abandoned military base has always offered a haven for wildlife. Its decaying structures, including a replica street built to train British soldiers for urban warfare in Northern Ireland, lend Lodge Hill a surreal quality, But it is the accompanying mixture of woodland, scrub and grassland which has made it of such vital importance to rare plant, insect, animal and birdlife, most especially to nightingales, of which tens of pairs nest there each summer. On the strength of these nightingales alone, Lodge Hill was made a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2013, but just a few years later the Medway local plan proposes that 5,000 houses should be built on the site.
Others have expressed the magnitude of this potential loss and I will not seek to emulate them. Instead, I have provided links below. But in the course of reading up about Lodge Hill, I was reminded of another story, another coming-together of summer birds and summer flights: the by-now-famous story of the nightingales singing in the garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison, their broadcasting to the nation by the BBC, and the interrupted transmission of a single night in 1942, when the rich, emotive song was accompanied by the deep throb of waves of British bombers flying over on their way to Germany.
There used to be nightingales here in Plaxtol. I give thanks to whatever power may be that I was born soon enough to have heard them. The memory of standing poised in our cottage garden and listening to that song both familiar and strange as it streamed from woodland a small distance away is one that will stay with me forever. I even had the immense good fortune to see a nightingale, on a hot summer afternoon, singing in the depths of a tangled belt of hawthorn and spindle, quite close to the road where cars pass too fast. The fortitude inherent in the nightingales’ ardent, persistent declamations, tested by mechanised challenges from the air or on the ground; in its unique song; and in the countryside – indeed, the country – that it represents, makes its absence here all the more intense and the Lodge Hill proposal all the more appalling.
Some might argue that as a relic of past, ignoble conflicts Lodge Hill should be razed; that humanity should trump wildlife and the future should trump the past. I would not. As politicians vie for our attention, in what threatens to be a single-issue election, the simmering pot of debate over the very nature of Britishness may well come to the boil. The British, we are told, live too much in the past and lean too heavily upon nostalgia. Yet the past is a rich, dense and many-tiered resource, present nostalgia may yet hold the key to achieving our aspirations for the future, and I can think of worse things to be defined by than our response to the song of a nightingale.
Somehow, in this month of contrasts, my encounters with the cuckoo and the Spitfire, real memories of nightingales and race memory of bombers crossing the night sky have all come together to dress the set of Plaxtol past, present and future. They are each a part of the textured, multi-layered experience that comes from living in this place for so long. I hope I can begin to express that coherence once more.
© New Moons For Old 2017
Photo: Frosted wheat and cow parsley in early morning sunlight © New Moons For Old 2017
- The deadline for responses to the Lodge Hill proposal has been extended until 30 May, which means it is not too late to make our feelings known. More information on the campaign to save Lodge Hill and how you can get involved is available here and here.
- There is an excellent piece by Julian Hoffman, who has called Lodge Hill ‘a beacon of possibility,’ here, and a film which captures Lodge Hill’s startling qualities can be seen here.
- The excerpt from R E Jones’s recollections is reproduced from the website of the Battle of Britain Historical Society.