Heaven: An English village

photo of Polly and Edward Symes

Polly and Edward at home on Coldharbour Farm. Polly spoke wittily to her classmates at Reunion 1996 about the pitfalls of British expressions. She has also written for the Bulletin the following recollections of life in an English village from an American point of view.

In 1942, Vrylena Olney Symes '40 embarked from Montreal to join her husband Edward Douglas, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy who had been posted back to England. The sea crossing promptly turned into a misadventure for “Polly,” as her ship sunk at Halifax after being rammed in the fog by a Norwegian vessel. Wartime censorship resulted in her mother's less than perfect understanding of what had happened, and she spread the word that “the Nazis had torpedoed our Polly. When months later, the truth could be told, all my friends and relations were furious that I had misled them.” Polly doesn't consider herself especially “brave” to have settled in wartime London. “I spend my whole life in a state of mild alarm punctuated by extreme panic,” she said.“I might as well be frightened by bombs as something else!”

After seven years in London, where their three sons were born, the Symes moved to the village of Easton in Northamptonshire. In her 35 years there, from 1951 to 1986, Polly encountered many of the traditional country ways of life chronicled by Flora Thompson in her trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford. (Thompson lived in the hamlet of Juniper Hill, near where the Symes now live, which is the setting for her semi-autobiographical account. Polly was steward of a flower festival to raise funds for the church in which Thompson worshipped as a child.)

“All Englishmen wish to live in a country village,” Polly told Samantha Walker '90 in an interview this spring. “It's their idea of heaven. They want to go to the pub on Saturday morning. Quite a lot of them want to be church wardens. They want to have their dogs and dig their garden. But children don't like living in the country that much. They're not allowed to walk along the river because of fishing, they're not allowed to go in the wood because of pheasants, and they're not allowed to throw stones at the jam jars in the churchyard. ... And what do the children want to do? They want to watch the telly and listen to the pop [radio] and eat mad cow hamburgers!”

By Vrylena Olney Symes '40
When we moved to the country in 1951, Douglas was away doing naval business. Charley, 7, and Dougie, 6, had been dispatched to the dread English boarding school. Three-year-old Peter, I and Annie the dog started our country life alone.

The house was a big, shabby old residence of character. We didn't have anything like enough furniture, so the rooms were bare and beautiful — and cold and uncomfortable. The garden was very overgrown and full of exciting crumbling steps and dank hiding places. Under the enormous syringa bush we found a dog's gravestone engraved to “Faithful Nellie, born in India, 1892.” Peter, born and bred in London, was bemused. “Listen to the birds squeaking!” he said. “Shut up, birds!”

I felt as if I had moved into a book. The river, which looked like the Wind in the Willows, flowed a bowshot from my bower eaves. It was October and mellow fruitfulness was everywhere. The fields were full of harvesters, the lanes were full of blackberries, the garden was full of apples, and I expected to see the rabbits wearing little blue coats.

We were lonely. The village was full of people, and they were friendly and polite, but they weren't very interested in us. I don't know what I expected, but I felt in some way neglected. I think I was inhibited, and also protected, by what Miss Stapleton (K. Laurence, Professor of English) called my unassailable New Englandism.

Fortunately, this period of sulkiness didn't last very long. Douglas and the boys came home, my mother came over for a visit and there was a tremendous lot to do in our vast new establishment. By the time Christmas came, we were all busy and happy. Of course, after Christmas, Douglas went back to his naval duties, the boys went back to school and my mother went home, but the ice was broken.

The ice was broken, but it still took quite a long time to melt. One or two ladies politely called, but they couldn't really understand why an odd American with one little boy was living in a big, shabby, rather bleak house. I must say, there were days when I couldn't understand it myself. But time passed. We got to know the butcher, the grocer, the postman and the nice lady who ran the shop. The farm manager and his wife became our great friends. When Douglas returned, we went to the pub on Saturday mornings. The village pub had two bars, the Saloon Bar where the village lads and the picturesque oldest living inhabitants foregathered and played dominoes or the pinball machine, and the Private Bar, for ladies and gentlemen.

Once a month, the village branch of The Women's Institute met in the Village Hall. The W.I. was started during the first World War, primarily to help the rural women cope with life when their husbands went off to war. The aim was to teach them how to make the most of their gardens, bottling fruit, keeping chickens, etc. and to give them one evening a month for a social get-together. Each meeting was supposed to have an improving talk or demonstration and a social half hour, which could take the form of a spelling bee or a silly game, and of course the inevitable cup of tea and chat. One of the objects of the exercise, although never put into words, was to bridge the ever present gap between Us and Them. To a certain extent it worked, but most of the upper echelon found it all too, too boring, and some of the lower echelon didn't like feeling condescended to. I enjoyed it, however, cookery demonstrations and needlework competitions and all, particularly the silly games. Ladies would say, “Oh, you're president of the W.I.! I think it's wonderful of you to do so much in the village!” Thinks: Wants head examined!

Looking back I can hardly believe we sent the boys to boarding school at such a tender age. I must confess that I was almost overwhelmed by trying to keep everybody in order at home. All my American connections expressed horror at what we were doing, and I was dreading what what my mother would say when she came. In fact, she took one look at the sturdy little gray suited boys and was delighted. She said it was a wonderful idea to keep them busy and disciplined all term time and then have them free in the holidays without having to clean their shoes, catch the bus, do their homework, and go to and from school every day.

There is no doubt in my mind that our children were happier, healthier, better mannered and better educated because they went away to school instead of being left to me shouting at them. Perhaps we have missed out by having them away from home so much, but also perhaps we all get on a bit better because having them at home was a treat. They learned at a tender age that it is important to get on with other people, that one boy can disrupt a family, but one boy can't disrupt a school.

At first I didn't find the English particularly friendly. To be honest, I think they found me rather prickly, too. I learned to make allowances for some of their more insensitive remarks. “You speak so nicely, I had no idea you were American!” “Why do you Americans have such awful presidents?” “You wouldn't ever want to go back to America to live, would you?” “Of course you're English now.” I finally understood that the English make friends slowly and thoroughly. They are very tolerant of other people's peculiarities, and respect each other's privacy. This makes for a pleasant way of life, but I do miss the friendly curiosity and enthusiasm of Americans.

It's embarrassing to be held responsible for the government of the United States. I tried to keep informed by reading the Economist, but my eyelids kept snapping shut, so now I just play dumb, which isn't very difficult. Now that I have reached the last of life for which the first was made, I think I shall stop striving for self- improvement. I shall relax and enjoy living in the land of greengrocers and iron mongers, barristers and solicitors, vicars and rectors, “rarsberries” and “banarnas,” and “shedules” and “aluminium.” As the British say, “A little of what you fancy does you good!”

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