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A STAKE IN TRANSYLVANIA FROM RIVER TO HILL

From River to Hill


Orchard House is on the market for two million, three hundred thousand quid. Commented [AM1]: new quote

One of the most crucial reasons for buying a house in Mgura, and maybe even the deciding
factor, was that I felt so much at home here. I noticed the sensation the first time we tipped
off the town road and on to the gravel of the national park, a bunch of English tourists in a
cru heading up to a mountain village for the day. This was part of my firs t holiday in
Trans ylvania, in August 2003 little did I know, as we trundled up the pale limestone road,
what would be sparked by that days excursion. What struck me, though, was that I could
easily have been in Amberley, the West Sussex village where my fathers family had lived
and worked for well over a century. The chalk white road; beech trees soaring overhead,
and lush undergrowth; silence punctuated by birdsong and the crunch of hooves and
cartwheels on gravel. There was something in the air, an almost physical sensation of
familiarity.
I was born in River, a West Sussex hamlet, smaller than a village, no more than a half-
mile string of houses; no shop, no church, no pub. It lay on the Weald, rolling terrain just
inland of the solid chalk South Downs that run east-west for 80 miles between London and
the English Channel. Our hrchard House stood on rich alkaline loam, where everything grew Commented [AM2]: .
except azaleas and camellias, my mothers favourites. A few miles to the west the geology
changed to sandy acid soil, home to pine woods, heathers and bracken, a type of land
where I instinctively felt uncomfortable. Still do. The woods round us were beech, oak, larch
and hazel bluebells woods in April, with starry white wood anemones dotted through the
blue haze, great yellow king cups down by the river; there were swathes of single and
double snowdrops in February on the banks of our orchards, which gave way to primroses in
s oft yellow drifts that hid secretive violets. Cowslips grew on the chalk of the Downs, and
larks sang in the sweet warm air rising from the rabbit-cropped grass of the hills, perfectly
rounded, separated by wooded clefts and folds dropping steeply to s treams, threaded with
footpaths and bridleways.
I always felt as though Id been grown like a sapling in the Sussex soil, deeply rooted. In
this era of hospital births, I have always been proud to have been born at home, not
s urrounded by medics and clinical equipment, absorbing drugs pumped into my mother.
The truth was that I emerged so fast there would have been no time to get me to the
nearest hospital in Chichester, 17 miles away, even if my parents had planned it. My mother
s aid she had started cooking Sunday lunch when she felt the first twangs of pain, and she
barely had time to get into bed before I pinged out of her like a cherry s tone squeezed
between thumb and finger. Arriving at 11.32am, before the doctor could get there, I was
only five pounds in weight (2.3 kg), half the birth weight of my eldest brother, who nearly
did for my s mall-boned, slim-hipped mother fifteen years earlier.
My life was fixed around Orchard House, the 15th century row of three cottages turned
into a single house by my parents, surrounded by a garden of lawns and herbaceous
borders , in turn s urrounded by three orchards planted with long-forgotten English varieties
of apple and plum trees well over a hundred ancient trees, trunks covered in mosses and
lichens, pruned over the decades and fruiting faithfully.
My fathers family had for over 100 years run a thriving business quarrying chalk from the
South Downs in the picturesque village of Amberley, 14 miles from our home, and I spent a
good deal of my childhood playing in the chalk pits, the surrounding woodland, fields and
A STAKE IN TRANSYLVANIA FROM RIVER TO HILL

quarry buildings. My father would bring home ammonites and other fossils found by the
men in the pits, and I used chunks of chalk to mark hopscotch boxes on the terrace outside
the house. So chalk (calcium carbonate, different to gypsum, the blackboard chalk) was in
my blood. Literally, sometimes, as I often came home with white grazes on hands, elbows
and knees from scrambling up and sliding down the steep quarry s lopes. The Pepper family Commented [B3]: Please forgive me if I am being too nosey,
but The readers might wonder why it is the Pepper family, and
were major employers in the area, and there are several Pepper gravestones in the yet your last name is McIntyre-Brown. Is there a story to tell/ that
churchyard, including my fathers. The chalk pits, which furred over with shrubs and you can tell?
groundcover plants in the dead years after the firm went bust, have since become the Commented [AM4]: Not a long story but where to put it? It
excellent Amberley Heritage Museum, where the Pepper family is an exhibit, part of the doesnt fit into this chapter maybe at the end of the chapter
about my sisters and mothers deaths it would work there.
areas history, dead and gone. There are still Peppers around, but few have stayed in the
area, and even fewer of us remember the chalk pits as working entities. If youve watched
the Bond movie A View to a Kill, the chalk pits stand in for the Zorin silver mine, and Grace
Jones is blown to smithereens in the main quarry.
Not a natural businessman, my poor father had the business foisted on him, although he
was more creative than managerial, and his twin passions were gardening and photography.
He had three older brothers, John, Pat, and Bob I only remember Uncle John, who
emigrated to New York and made several fortunes on Wall Street but it was my father
Tom who got s tuck with the business, and eventually broke it, the family and himself. The
irony is that just as my father was happiest in his garden, so was his eldest s on, my brother
George. Forced to train as an accountant and expected to take over the business, George
had the sense and courage to rebel, emigrated to Canada in the early 1970s with his new
wife Norma, and made a good life as a landscape gardener.
I have strong memories of helping my father pot up tomato seedlings in the little
greenhouse, weeding the asparagus bed, harvesting apples and plums from the three large
orchards, and helping my mother pick gladioli, roses, and sprays of japonica from the flower
beds around the house. When I was five, my father gave me a narrow bed beside a garden
path, and handed me packets of annual flower s eeds, teaching me to sieve the soil into a
fine tilth, plant the tiny seeds in rows, water them and take pleasure in watching the plants
grow and flower. Ive never forgotten the names, even after half a century: ageratum,
alyssum and aubretia pretty low-growing clumps of colour, in perfect s cale for a child. I
was hooked: I loved digging my fingers into warm s oil and caring for fragile plants, and have
been growing things ever since even if only in window boxes at my London flat. Now, in
Mgura, I have a patch of land, and am gradually turning part of the virgin meadow into a
mix of veg and flower planting, fruit bushes alongside lavender; plum and apple trees
underplanted with mixed annuals and flowering shrubs; mint and catmint on opposite sides
of the path, salads and herbs growing with marigolds and borage under clambering peas
and beans. Not quite permaculture, but organic, and as satisfying as anything can be. Unlike
mos t acts of creativity, the art of gardening is to be a catalyst. Once given a start, plants
keep growing; your creation has a life of its own and in many cases may well outlive you.
Planting trees, planting bulbs around their roots, will give pleasure for generations of
humans, food and shelter for many more generations of birds and insects. Investing in life.
The incentive for growing fruit and veg apart from the satisfaction of watching them
grow is the eventual plucking and eating. I have a distinct childhood memory of s itting
under gooseberry bus hes, picking the hard green berries with their bristly s kins, feeling
them pop between my teeth and flood my mouth with sourness. To this day I prefer the
tang of unripe gooseberries to the pulpy sweetness of ripe ones. Id pick hazel nuts from the
trees on the orchard margins, cracking shells with my molars to get at the juicy white
A STAKE IN TRANSYLVANIA FROM RIVER TO HILL

kernels. In the garden, my father planted greengages and damsons, Early River plums,
ras pberries, strawberries, black and redcurrants, peas (I still prefer them raw from the pod),
and apples none more delicious than the hard, white-pipped Bramley cookers from the
old tree in the drive: sour, crunchy delights. I used to sit up in a crook of a branch, reaching
for apples until my teeth went furry from the acid. Youll make yourself ill, eating those
apples, my mother warned, uselessly. I never did. Never do now, when I can find Bramleys
that arent soft and too sweet, only good for cooking. I used to climb the laburnum tree,
too, although I wasnt stupid enough to eat anything from that. Its poisonous, Arabella, all
of its poisonous. My mother issued endless warnings, all unheeded, but I came to no harm
in trees beyond scrapes and scratches on arms and legs.
Ive given up climbing trees, but I still search out sour fruit. My Romanian friends and
neighbours are astounded by my liking for its sharp taste, preferring theirs tender and
burs ting with fructose.
Later memories of my father werent s o happy but in those first years of my life, he
instilled in me the deep love of animals, gardens and growing things, along with the
freedom of tomboy delights climbing trees, mucking about in water, playing with dogs and
hors es and pigs, and creating small eddies of havoc unsupervised by adults. Ive inherited his
love for photography, too, though not his talent.
The great sadness of my childhood was the watershed of leaving Orchard House when I
was ten. My fathers business the chalk pits had gone bust, one of many firms
bankrupted in the building slump of 1968. His alcoholism was out of control (as was my
mothers ), his loathing of business and his failure to steer it through the crisis all led to
disaster for the firm and the family. We lost almost everything, including the house the
centre of my world. It was sold to a townie woman, a chiffon pink twitterer who should
never have moved away from whatever town she came from. She was the symbol of
cras hing disaster for me, and I loathed her. Her s in was magnified into crime some months
later when we heard that the stupid woman had cut down all the fruit trees in the orchards,
and rented the empty land to a neighbour for grazing sheep. I still feel murderous, thinking
back to that act of ignorant destruction. All those irreplaceable apple trees, lost DNA,
depleted diversity. She only stayed for a short time, realising too late that rattling around in
a big house with a huge garden was not for her. She swapped it for a dinky cottage in
another village where she could enjoy her twiddly ornaments and have a few pots of Busy
Lizzies in the courtyard.
For many years all right, for the next forty years I fantasised about buying Orchard
House back, replanting the orchards, reclaiming my deepest roots. But since Ive never had
a couple of million quid to s pare, it remained a fantasy. Until, that is, I found my place in
Mgura. Very different, but close enough. Limestone, not chalk, but close enough; same
trees , same wild flowers, same sort of people, same-tasting water from the streams. Same
more diversity of flora and insects, same wildlife except that Transylvania has extra
wolves, bears, eagles, and lynx long lost to English forests. But close enough to feel like I
belong, that Ive come home.
After 30 years in cities, Im finally back where I began, among white hills, lush greenery,
big skies and profound peace. To me, this remote Carpathian village is cradle and
playground, refuge and source of energy. My indulged first decade is being replayed now as
I head for the third age; Im not trying to replicate life in River, but making a new life
coloured by old memories, here on the Hill.