In 1950 my family moved to 14 The Forebury, Sawbridgeworth, and I started going to Harlow College. At Harlow College there weren’t any nature walks, and my favourite subject was singing. Of all the songs we sung the one I liked best was ‘The Ash Grove’. Many years later the song was played on the radio and I was able to add it to my collection, but they omitted the line ‘In yonder green valley where streamlets meander’ and replaced it with ‘The friends of my childhood again are before me’. It was as though the song had been rewritten especially for my benefit.

At Harlow College there was a fives court, a building called the tectum and a tuck box in the playground, where they sold sweets. I have never come across the word ‘tectum’ since, and it’s not in the dictionary. For dinner I used to have Welsh rarebit in the Cosy Café, where there was a map of East Anglia on the wall. Later I went home for dinner on the bus, and I still had time to play reducing whist with my mother before I went back to school. I remember listening to an account of the King’s funeral on the radio at school. The teacher said that this was something we would remember all our lives, but I thought that we would forget about it. My form mistress, Miss Scott, married a Mr Mathias, but I continued to call her Miss Scott. Once, when she said ‘What’s my name?’, I replied ‘Mrs Mathias, Miss Scott.’

When I was living in Sawbridgeworth I used to collect Victorian pennies. The bus conductors would save them for me. This way I obtained pennies for most of the years from 1860 to 1895. If I had two of the same date I would keep the one showing the most signs of wear. I later learned that most collectors do the opposite.

At the top of the Forebury on the right was a public hall where I once took part in a play. I don’t remember what the play was about or my part in it. All I remember is that I had to go to Cubs with make-up on because there wasn’t time to take it off. This was before I developed stage fright. It was in this public hall that I first heard one of my favourite songs ‘Over the Rainbow’.


Much Hadham

My brother and I used to explore the surrounding countryside by bicycle. The best place we discovered in this way was the village of Much Hadham, with its black-and-white tudor houses, many of which bore dates. The oldest date was 1201. I went back there in 1957 and failed to find it, but I am sure that I didn’t make a mistake. It is impossible that the house was as old as that, but the date may have recorded the fact that there had been a building on the site since that time. I asked my brother to photograph me outside some of these houses, and if you compare the resulting photographs with my illustrations in East Anglian Town Trails you will see how little my taste in architecture has changed over the years.

On the way to Much Hadham I remember seeing an enormous cross on the western horizon. It must have been on the ridge of high ground beyond Puckeridge. Much later I read that Henry Moore lived close to the route we took that day and that many of his sculptures were displayed in his front garden at the time. It is surprising that our parents didn’t tell us about this. I wanted to know what lay beyond Much Hadham, and we eventually discovered the villages of Widford and Hunsdon, but if you look at a map you will see that they are actually no farther away than Much Hadham. This was before I discovered maps.


The Traveler

In 1951, a few days before my ninth birthday, I wrote a poem called The Traveler (so spelt). When I chose the title I didn’t know that I shared a name with the patron saint of travellers, who was St Christopher. There are three verses of four lines each, and in each verse the second line rhymes with the fourth. There are no eye rhymes, and every line ends at a natural pause, which can’t be said of some of the work of celebrated poets. I have kept the original to show that I haven’t made any alterations to it since.

The only explanation I can find of my ability to write this poem is that I was blessed with luck, followed by an enormous amount of luck, followed by the sort of luck that is needed to win a large amount of money on the football pools. I intended that the poem would be part of a book called The River Rushes and I tried to write a second poem, but by then my luck had run out.

On the facing page was a long drawn-out address including ‘the world, the planet section, the Universe’. I used the phrase ‘planet section’ because I hadn’t heard of the solar system. I also failed to mention that the solar system is in the Orion Spur of the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way, or that the Milky Way is in the Local Group in the Virgo Supercluster.

Here is the poem:


The traveler goes for miles on end,

Through country-side and towns,

And sometimes for a day or two,

Goes through some lonely downs.


Through forests full of giant trees,

With flowers here and there,

He goes to lots of places,

But nobody knows where.


He sometimes stops at way side inns,

And follows lanes and streams,

Until his feet are tired and aching,

Then sits and rest and dreams.


When I was older I would often go through those lines and think how well they describe the sort of life that I was later to lead, although I’ve stayed at very few wayside inns. I have stayed at more youth hostels, but ‘youth hostels’ wouldn’t fit the rhythm of the poem, and I probably hadn’t heard of them when I was eight years old. If I were to correct the poem the only changes I would make would be to respell traveller, countryside and wayside.


Our old black-and-white cat Soda died soon after we left Whistlefield and was replaced by a Siamese cat called So So. Then a dog called Shaggy Shenka joined the family. Cats are not blessed with the power of speech, but So So was able to express his feelings for the arrangement by his behaviour. This can be translated as ‘I am a very tolerant cat. I am prepared to allow a small number of well-behaved human beings in my house, but a dog, a dog, a DOG …! I will not have a dog in my house!’ The dog had to go, and there has never been a dog in the household since.


It was in Sawbridgeworth that I first visited a public library. I particularly remember a big green book on natural history. Since then I have spent a lot of my time reading non-fiction books that I have borrowed from libraries, and I believe that I have learned more by doing this than ever I learned at school. Some of these books merely repeated things that I had read many times before, but others opened up a whole new subject for me. One of these was Languages of the World, which I discovered in 1991. Until I read this I simply had no idea that there were so many languages or so many alphabets. Another I discovered at around this time was Butterflies of the World, a collection of photographs of 5000 specimens from the Natural History Museum, all of them colorful, all of them beautiful. It would have taken a lifetime to study them and learn their Latin names.

The best book I have read about the English language is The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker; the best book I have read about palaeontology is Life: An Unauthorised Biography by Richard Fortey; the best book I have read about taxonomy is The Variety of Life by Colin Tudge; and the best book I have read about mathematics is The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers by David Wells. The best books I have read about astronomy include The Key to the Universe by Nigel Calder, Companion to the Cosmos by John Gribbin and Philip’s Astronomy Dictionary. My discovery of these books could not have taken place unless they had previously been discovered by the people who acquire them for the libraries. To such people I owe an enormous debt of gratitude.

My favourite works of fiction are the William books by Richmal Crompton, especially those published between 1924 (William the Fourth) and the end of the 1930s. I noticed that both A.A. Milne and Richmal Crompton displayed an ignorance of physics in their writing. In The House at Pooh Corner Eeyore the donkey is washed to the bank of a stream by the waves from a dropped stone, but this wouldn’t happen because the water in the waves moves up and down. Similarly, in one of the William books a snowman is given an overcoat which causes it to melt. Overcoats keep people warm because we have an internal source of heat, and the overcoat prevents the heat from escaping. A snowman has no internal source of heat and would stay at the same temperature.

One of my favourite maps is the one-inch Ordnance Survey map of the North York Moors, which was published in 1966. Unlike other one-inch maps it uses pale green for the lowlands and various shades of brown for the uplands. Another of my favourites is the Ordnance Survey physical map of Great Britain on two sheets, published in 1957, which shows only natural features. My favourite poem is The Brook, which was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1855. I learned it off by heart a century later in 1955.

Next Chapter>>