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Clouds of glory

It was about a mile from the cottage to his head, and all uphill. A little more than halfway, just as we had started to become a bit out of breath, there was the windmill. Nothing much was left of it, just a soft depression in the springy downland turf and a chalk and flint path fading into the grasses as it wandered down back to the lane.

But the windmill was half-time for us, and we had a little sit-down to try and catch our breaths and to rest from the labour of having to carry the big black tin tray which banged our knees, or rather the knees of the one who was carrying it. We used to pick straws for who would take it on the first leg of the journey to the Giant, and swapped over at the windmill. So it was a rather important stop: and sometimes, if we had the grub-bag with us, we'd have a swig of Tizer or eat an apple before going on up.

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We called him the Giant. Most people just called him the Long Man, and that's how he was called on the postcards in the village. When we got to the top of Windover Hill we were very nearly at his head. Just Long Barrow and a few clumps of gorse and we were on the crest looking down his white outlined body, standing legs astride, holding two poles or something.

We were on top of Our World.

Within that frame all belonged to us. Or so we steadfastly believed, for we shared it with few others. A shepherd from time to time chivvying his sheep gently across the tyme-scented turf towards Winchester's Pond, a very deep dew-pond from which, if once you slipped in, it was quite impossible to be extracted, so deep was it and so steep the sloping sides.

The reason that we made this long trek to the head of the Giant was quite simple. We slid down beside the length of him on the tin tray. It was a dizzying experience, and seldom ever fully accomplished. I had fixed a piece of rope through two holes at the side, and hanging on to this, with one or other of us giving a hefty shove to start the trip, we careered breathlessly from his head to far beyond his feet, ending up in a cornfield about 30 yeards below. And that was that.

Nothing much to it really, I suppose, but it was a never-failing delight, fraught with frightful dangers like falling off, which we did constantly, or hurtling into a dense thicket of hawthorn at his side, which was most disagreeable.

The first to go down (we drew straws, or grasses rather, for that too), had to drag the tray back up to the top again for the other rider. Which was not much fun and make you excessively hot, so the grub-bag was very useful, what with Tizer and apples. In a way, after the excitement of the ride, this was really perhaps the best part. You could just lie there in the grasses and listen to the wind wuthering gently above you head, the larks singing high in the blue intensity if the sky, the bleat of lambs and the clonkle-clankle of the sheep bells. There was no other sound.

Even in the winter the view from Our World was very beautiful, when the downs were softly silvered with the first frosts, and the ice lay along the edge of the river glittering in the pale orange sun like crushed glass. The trees were black and twisted by the winds which raced in from the sea, sending the low clouds scudding fast towards the far horizon where, in the clear winter light, the harsh, healthy ridge of Ashdown Forest lay like a black chalk-line across the umber and blue of the woods below.

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We hardly ever saw the forest in the summer because the haze blurred it into the fields and sky.

But the summer was best. Armed with wooden rakes, bare legs in wellingtons against the razor cuts of the stubble, we gathered up the fallen barley stalks into neat bundles and bound them tight with rough twine; a scattering of us walking across the broad field behind the rattle and clatter of the machine, the women in old straw hats, the children gathering great bunches of deep blue cornflowers, the elms standing tall and cool among the hedgerow where the tea and the patties were stored in wicker baskets thatched with fresh green grasses.

Sometimes Mr. Ben would let out a holler above the rattle and clang and we'd find the neat ball of a field-mouse's nest spilled among the tumbled stalks. Once I put a wholde family into the pocket of my shorts, but they nibbled through and fell into my wellingtons and there was a terrific fuss of laughter and cheers and pulling and pushing; and often a hare zigzagged away across the stubble, leaping and looping with the dogs in full cry until they lost him on the soft flank of the downs above the barley field.

I first saw Our World in 1927 when I was six and my father had walked me up to the windmill to show me what he called the "most beautiful place in all England," and I knew then that it was. It was "ours" for over a decade, and every hedge, thicket, track, or tumulus which it contained became our personal, and very private, property. Sadly, in 1938, we left, and for one reason and another I never went back again until one autumn day in 1960.

I stood on the top of the Giant and looked about me. Topographically, little seemed to have changed, but childhood, along with much else, had gone forever. White bricks outlined the Giant now: wire fences surrounded him, the soft downland grass was thick and coarse, stuck about with thistle and ragwort, gorse had cruelly scabbed the smooth sides of Windover Hill, for no sheep ever grazed here now, and there was no Mr. Dick with smock, crook, and gaitered trousers to chivvy them towards the green sludge which once had been Winchester's Pond.

From the top of our World, which once had been "the most beautiful place in all England" looked almost, the same. The wind whipped in from the sea, speeding low clouds raggedly across the whale-backed downs on which I stood, just as it always had done, the upturned prow of Firle Beacon still poked gently into the Weald. Rooks swung high, planing out over the copse at Hunters Burgh, and far below the serpentine Cuckmere gleamed like pewter in the fast-fading light. It was nearly all the same. But it, and I, had grown older.

Excerpts from "Windover Hill", by Dirk Bogarde, from Places: an Anthology of Britain, chosen by Ronald Blythe and published by Oxford University Press.

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