Thursday, 20 January 2022
A forgotten wartime drama
This country church, high on a hill-top in Worcestershire, England, has had a long connection with The Archers. Back in 1951 the carol service in the show’s fictional St Stephen’s Church was recorded here. Then at Easter, 1955, an even bigger event took place – the wedding of young Philip Archer and Grace Fairbrother. It was a marriage destined to end in tragedy. Grace was killed trying to rescue her horse from a stable fire.
On the day of the big wedding more than 500 Archers fans packed the pews in this lovely, 13th century church. The lane outside became so blocked with cars, the BBC’s outside broadcast vehicle couldn’t reach the venue. The real-life parish rector had to call out the registration numbers of cars that needed to be moved before the recording – and the wedding – could take place.
These days things are a little quieter. There were no crowds on the day I walked up to the church. No vehicles passed me in the tree-lined lane. After its brief frenzied moment under the nation’s gaze, this quiet corner of England had returned to its usual slumber. Even so, the steep climb in the summer sun turned out to be worthwhile. Built of handsome, red sandstone, the church of St Mary the Virgin, Hanbury is a beautiful place occupying a dramatic position overlooking the Worcestershire countryside.
From the church gate I took the path through the churchyard with its lichen-covered gravestones. While some of the grassy areas had been mown, most had been allowed to grow tall and lank, presumably to encourage wildlife. Bees and butterflies flickered among the grass seed-heads. A large, tiger-striped Cinnabar moth caterpillar chewed on a ragwort plant.
At the edge of the churchyard a grassy bank dropped steeply away to the south, providing a spectacular view across Archers country. The Ordnance Survey map told me I was looking across Worcestershire towards Evesham and the River Avon, with the distant Cotswold Hills to the south-east and the distinctive spine of the Malverns to the south-west.
This was what the map said but I knew the truth. I was in the county of Borsetshire, location of Ambridge, Penny Hassett, Loxley Barrett, Darrington and a host of other villages whose names were known only to Radio Four listeners. Seen from the churchyard, it was a land of gentle hillsides, fields and hedges, copses and slow, meandering waterways. Among them were a scattering of farmhouses and cottages, many black-and-white timbered or of mellow red brick.
In the July sunshine it was easy to imagine this landscape hadn’t changed in centuries. When butcher’s boy Godfrey Baseley cycled across it delivering his dad’s meat, most of the houses and cottages were occupied by farming families. This was overwhelmingly a landscape of small, family farms. They’d created a mosaic of small fields, hedges, orchards, meadows and pastures, plentifully stocked with cattle and sheep. And teeming with wildlife.
When the war came Baseley again travelled the countryside, this time making farming programmes for his new employers, the BBC. Soon he would be working on the new rural drama series that would take the nation by storm. His inspiration was the south Worcestershire he knew so well, a land of thriving village communities. But even as he planned his new drama, the age-old farming pattern was beginning to unravel.
Nitrate fertilisers and large-scale mechanised agriculture were about to change these landscapes and communities for ever. Some of these changes were to be reflected in The Archers – but not all of them. Some were even encouraged by the daily radio drama. In the early days of the programme it wasn’t unusual to have Ministry of Agriculture press releases virtually read out by the characters.
As I sat on the sunlit hillside I couldn’t help thinking about my dad. He’d been stationed at an aerodrome not far from here in the second half of World War Two as he retrained to fly as an air observer/navigator in one of the fast, new fighter-bombers, the de Haviland Mosquito. As he flew across the country doing his navigational ‘fixes’ he must surely have noticed this hilltop church. Probably it became a useful landmark.
It seemed odd to think of him looking down on the little churchyard and the fields around it. Through my childhood my relationship with him hadn’t been great. He seemed a remote figure, prone to sudden outbursts of rage. As we grew up my brother and I linked his troubles to some trauma that happened in his wartime days. Whatever it was he would never talk of it, not even to my mother.
As I sat in that quiet church-yard I almost expected the throb of the twin Merlin engines to shatter the silence and for his aircraft to come skimming over the treetops in the low-level flying the Mosquito was noted for. I decided then and there that I would finally investigate the mystery of the wartime experience that had troubled him all his life.
At that time both my parents had been dead for many years. In that quiet churchyard that held so many memories of lost Archers characters, I decided it was time to unravel the mystery event that had troubled my dad for so long and which had cast a dark shadow over our family life. What I discovered was about the last thing I’d have expected.
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