This year, the UK youth nature network A Focus on Nature are launching our second major campaign, #NowForNature, celebrating young people acting now for conservation. This was launched with the splendid AFON advent, in which blogs from different members each day in the festive run-up reflected on the heroes that inspired them to do what they are doing.
My first blog on Martin Noble can be read here. The second piece took longer than planned to write, as I realised how difficult it would be to surmise just how great an effect this woman had on my life at a very early age, and the circumstances that later followed. But I owe her so much, and knew I had to get this down in words.
There are three knocks on the door; it’s the sound I’ve been waiting for all day. For the next week, this four year-old boy will be temporarily putting his mother’s attention aside for an upgraded model, who’s now stepping through the porch with a battered leather suitcase and an infectious smile. I eagerly accept the plastic tub, a lemon drizzle cake and dozens of beaming gingerbread men inside. But an even greater gift are the stories she brings.
The next morning, I wake to see if the sky contains but the slightest grey hint of daylight in the dawn gloom. If I can clearly distinguish the canopy of the woods that looms over the garden fence from the skyline, it’s good enough. I swim through a throng of soft animal toys, bounce onto the bedroom floor, and pitter-patter along the corridor, down the stairs and across the ground floor to a bedroom directly below my own. I knock twice, and wait.
“I heard the ‘bump’ as you jumped out of bed!” says a voice remarkably cheery for one woken at the crack of dawn. Eagerly I fling open the door to see Auntie Barbara sitting up on the bed, happy eyes glinting through square spectacles and her neatly curled grey hair barely tussled. Now is the time for stories. I’m regaled by introductions to all the songbirds that call in the gardens, hedges and copses of Stogumber, her tiny village on the eastern edge of Exmoor. Of the badgers and hedgehogs that snuffle and snort in her front lawn (of the former I was especially eager to hear – I had never seen one and I longed to do so). Stories of the barn owls that drifted silent as the spirits they resembled from the churchyard, sending ghostly wails over the fields at night, or how the weasels in the hedgerows were so lithe they could slip through a wedding ring. And atop the high moors, the red deer stags that bellowed and hollered come the rut, primeval life when the autumn mists made it seem otherwise bleak.
Before my parents and brothers had barely started stirring, we were wide-awake and would often walk to the garden centre – frequently the long way round, through the woods. Here I would be tested on my remembrance of the birdcalls as and when we heard them. Among them were the ‘teacher, teacher’ of the great tit, the ‘weeee’ of the greenfinch, and (while this is commonly attributed to the yellowhammer), the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese!’ of the chaffinch.
The tales of her country idyll and her animal neighbours were better than any fairy story; just as magic, but best of all because they were real. I wasn’t entirely disconnected from country life. We lived, and still do, right on the edge of a quaint market town, and the woods and fields are literally behind the garden gate. From deepest Somerset, however, Auntie Barbara’s stories connected me to a far more raw and real natural world.
This strong bond to the countryside unsurprisingly resulted in some stories reflecting the ‘traditional’ lifestyles of her community: I frequently asked her if she’d ever seen otters, but she never had – instead telling me how she would regularly see the local otter hunter come back from a day’s ‘sport’ at the time the species was undergoing decline. “Caught any otters?” she’d always ask nonchalantly to a shaken head in reply. And her debate on fox hunting with Christine, our home-help, who has the gentlest soul you could meet and who wouldn’t hurt a fly and who left the household spiders’ webs intact ‘because they were spiders’ homes’, was more heated than the Earth’s core and is practically the stuff of family legend.
Regardless, her love for her local wildlife was hugely passionate, so much so that she had become enamoured with filming as much of it as she could – even if it meant looking away from the road while driving her battered car to obtain footage of rare birds in a hedge! Often the creatures on film came to her, orphans bought in such as bedraggled blackbird fledglings or bouncy fox cubs.
Although very much a grandmother-like figure in my life, Auntie Barbara wasn’t a blood relative – in fact, the story of how she became integrated with the maternal side of my family and her mysterious past are worthy of a novel or Sunday night BBC drama. Raised in an orphanage, barely anything is known about her own family, bar that her mother was a maid in a well-to-do London household. Based on what scant knowledge there is, Mum suspects the father was a hot-blooded aristocrat – whether there were genuine feelings for this woman or it was simply a ‘quick fix’ that lead to Barbara Trundle’s conception, we’ll never know.
We know that Barbara begun her nursing career tending to the wounded soldiers on the battlefields of World War II, and later took her career to Somerset’s Stogumber; to this day, many in the village have fond memories of ‘Nurse Trundle’.
Eventually, she was befriended by my grandmother. Their relationship became intensely important to Barbara, bearing in mind her own difficult loveless upbringing. Auntie Barbara became a stalwart additional parental figure to my own mother and her younger sister, much as she would be the grandmother like figure for me in later life. When my Grandmother died of breast cancer, when Mum was only 14, Barbara was there for her, and continued to be a significant figure in Mum’s life as she progressed to medical school in Leeds, where she met Dad, to her GP training in Hampshire and settling down in Romsey to start a family.
Throughout all these years Barbara remained in Stogumber as the community’s devoted Nurse Trundle. But she was still very much a part of our family, and it wasn’t long before she became Auntie Barbara me and my four brothers and my Auntie Diana’s two daughters.
* * *
One of my favourite stories was that of the dormouse that would rest contently in full Lewis Carrollian style within a teacup. It was filmed but, like all her films, she never quite got round to bringing it out of the loft when she came to visit. “I must remember to bring the dormouse film next time!” she would tell herself after recounting the story once more.
As the months, and then the years, passed, I had to remind her to bring the dormouse tape with her next time more often. Eventually, I had to remind her that the film even existed.
There’s nothing more venomously corrosive to the memories you have of someone than dementia. Auntie Barbara was taken from us bit by bit, the cruel clouting of her mind eroding away the memories that made her who she was. The driving license and car, now so long disused that wood mice were nesting under the bonnet, went first. Her ability to look after herself followed, and the wonderful house she had lived most of her life in Stogumber was closed up when we brought her to a nursing home in Romsey; closer to family, but leaving behind forever the village community she had cared for and the children she had brought into the world as the community nurse and midwife.
But the most heart-breaking inevitability was when she had to be reminded of who we were.
By the time I was 11 years old, the Auntie Barbara I now knew could barely speak. The real Auntie Barbara of my childhood had vanished. On one of our weekend visits to the nursing home, Mum briefly left me alone with Barbara in her room while she went downstairs to fetch something from reception. “Keep her entertained” Mum instructed me as she closed the door. Barbara gazed at me with an open-mouthed smile, gentle but bewildered with the same random twitch and uncertainty of a recent-born infant trying to work out how to operate its facial muscles. I tried making conversation, like nothing was wrong. Still the same dumbfound expression, and no sense of connection. All I could do was cry.
Her death not long after was followed by a complicated grieving process. I felt guilty I wasn’t so instantly devastated – the Auntie Barbara I knew had gone a long time ago. I volunteered to read a eulogy, despite my age, as she had been so fundamental to my life. But as this was rehearsed and revised with Mum and Auntie Diana, it felt more like a typical English lesson than a coming to terms with my thoughts. Only when it was a day to go before we made the journey to Stogumber for the ceremony itself, did I finally, completely, break down in front of Mum. Only now could I not comprehend the notion she that she no longer existed.
I managed to hold it together on the day, with what amounted to nearly the entire populace of Stogumber filling the village church as witnesses. Her influence on Stogumber’s social fabric was made starkly clear. It was the first time I had understood the life she had had beyond the stories she told me.
But I’ve never remembered a day quite like it. One of those early spring days embellished with warmth and the promise of brighter times to come, and as we silently proceeded into the cemetery, it was alive with birdsong. No other sound filled the air. The ‘teacher teacher’ of the great tit, the piping of long-tailed tits in the yews, and the victory song of the season itself, the chiffchaff. I always thought my love of nature was somehow inherent within me. But, looking back, I realise the window onto this world was opened for me by Auntie Barbara. And that I’ll never forget.