Friday, February 1, 2019



So take a walk. It’s a small village. You can do the whole tour in an hour or two.

If you start at the church and the Rectory, on opposite sides of the street, you can walk downhill past the Halliwells’ at the bend in the road and pass the gate that leads to the commons, where the bombs fell. The craters are probably no longer more then slight depressions in the grass. To your left is Guise House, perhaps the largest of several great old houses in the village. It’s said to be haunted by one of those “white ladies,” transparent presences that glide down the staircase in some of those old mansions. I don’t know when she was last seen, but her legend persists.
Back on the road, you follow it downhill again past, on your left, the Powage Press where they printed the P.N.E.U. letterhead we used, along with all the church leaflets, wedding invitations, garden party announcements and so on. Across from the press is the village hall, the site of every village of activity of importance, from council meetings to annual jumble sales and flower shows, from cakes sales and amateur theatrical performances to cub scout and girl guide gatherings. My father, as Rector, often presides over these events; and my mother, as the Rector’s wife, is often a prominent figure in the social activities of the village. Even my sister and I, as the Rector’s children, are, in our own small way, celebrities. Everyone in the village knows Flora and Peter. Everyone.
Just past the Village Hall, you find yourself in “the square.”  It’s actually more of a triangle than a square, but it’s undeniably the central hub of Aspley Guise. The main road from Bedford to Woburn Sands passes through the square, and the road from the railway station leads down into it. It’s dominated on one side by The Holt...

... home during the war, I later discovered, to a government coding school attached in some way to Bletchley Park. At one end of the triangle is a row of shops—a grocer’s, a butcher’s, a newsagent’s, where my father buys his cigarettes, or the tobacco with which to make his home-rolled brand, and a baker’s. On the third side it the Post Office and, in the center, the horse trough and a square, roofed shelter with benches for those wearied by their walk to sit for a quiet moment to wait for the bus to Bedford or simply to survey their surroundings.

Oh, and I’ve forgotten the two pubs, The Anchor across from the Village Hall and The Bell at one corner of the square. 

My father would frequent The Bell by preference, as I recall, for a pint of beer or a Guinness. We children were not allowed inside, but we could sit outside for lemonade and Smith’s Potato Crisps—called “chips” in America today—which came in a package that included, along with the potato chips, a small blue wad of wrapped paper containing a pinch of salt. (“Chips,” in England, as you likely know, were what’s called “fries” over here. They came, of course, with deep fried cod, in batter. Fish 'n' Chips. Nothing like it!)
Along the main road to Bedford was the driveway the led to the house where Hillary lived and, further, another view of Guise House and the commons. The only memorable landmark in the direction, was the house where an old lady lived who had a grey parrot with a soft pink neck that could dance and say its name, Algy. She would stand in front of the cage and wave her finger back and forth, repeating, “Dance-y, Algy, dance-y Algy,” and the bird would hop from one foot to the other obediently and say its name. I loved that bird.
Out the other direction from the square, where the main road led to Woburn Sands...

... you pass, first, the house where a pair of old spinsters lived who taught us a memory game involving a tray of many small, unrelated objects—a brooch, a letter opener, a thimble, a grain of rice—and you’d have to remember what they were and where they were on the tray. They lived next to Mrs. Whitmore and her sweet shop. Further on, to the left, was a row of modern brick houses, one of them the home of Mr. Young, my father’s churchwarden. Mr. Young, whose name was Arthur and whose wife’s name was Grace, was in the Home Guard and had a .22 rifle which he taught me to shoot, setting up flower pots in his terraced back garden for us to aim at. Then there was Winnie—I think she lived around here—who made elaborate, small-scale fairy gardens for us children with tiny figures made of colorful crepe paper. She was a sad soul, desperately skinny and always growing skinnier, and she died very young. Today she would have been quickly diagnosed as anorexic—but extraordinarily talented with that one special gift.
Walk a few yards further and you come to a fork in the road. Off to the left is The Spinney, a short lane, at the end of which lived Mr. and Mrs. Gates, an elderly couple who used to delight in having the Rectory children over for tea. Aside from the finger sandwiches and cakes, we loved to go there for two reasons. First, outside, beyond the immaculately kept rock garden was an immaculately manicured green lawn and, in the middle of the lawn, a gazebo, designed to turn in a circle on a single metal rail so that its open doors could follow the direction of the sun. Flora and I kept poor Mr. Gates quite busy, running round and round in circles to spin the gazebo like a carousel while we got dizzy inside. Then, too, in the drawing room, Mr. Gates had a special chair that would unfold—something like an airplane seat in business class today—into a single slope from head to toe, an irresistible and endless source of slides.
Continue on up the left fork and you come to the woods. Enter through the wide gate and follow the wide, sandy path to the top of the hill where the woods proper start. At the right time of year you’ll find the ground littered with chestnuts still in their prickly shells. Gloves are good for breaking them open and releasing those red-brown nuts inside. Take them home and put them on a metal tray in the oven for a few minutes and there’s a treat in store! At other times of year, early spring, the first snowdrops appear in clusters beneath the trees, and soon there will be carpets of blue bells, primroses, and cowslips—more than enough to pick and take a bunch home for your mother. Woodside Lane runs alongside on edge of the woods, and it’s here that my grandmother had her house, and here that Hank would run for those bags of sweets. The house seemed very grand to me, with plenty of overstuffed furniture and dark, polished wood. My grandmother could never have managed the place all by herself, and always had two maids to do the household chores and the cooking for her. Maisie is one name that comes back to me. The other… I forget.
If you walk the full length of Woodside Lane you end up crossing the main Bedford road to reach the golf course. From here it’s an easy walk back past the war memorial...

... past the gorse bushes, past the sandpit, and down the lane that leads back past the Rectory to the church. Walk downhill from there and you see the gates to Sir Kenneth and Lady Allen’s big house on the right...

.... where every year there is a big garden fete for the whole village, with three-legged races and sack races, lawn bowling, and all kinds of other competitive events. There is a picture in the family album of little Peter learning to shoot a rifle under the watchful eye of a military man. His dad, the Rector, stands close by with a big, proud smile on his face. Another picture, another year, reminds me of the children’s dress-up competition when I carried a black bag and wore a top hat and tail coat and went as Dr. Foster—the one in the nursery rhyme who “went to Gloucester/in a shower of rain./He stepped in a puddle/right up to his middle/and never went there again.” I won.
From there, if you had a bike—it would have been too far to walk—you could continue down the hill and cross the railway “level crossing” before following the road all the way down to the RAF base at Cranfield to watch the Spitfires taking off and landing… And then hop on your bike again and half-ride, half-walk back up the long, steep hill to Aspley Guise.
It’s true, I may be inventing some of these details, or misplacing or otherwise altering them. My mind is certainly filling in the many gaps in my memory. It has been, after all, some three quarters of a century since I lived there. Still, there you have it. That is some part of the village of Aspley Guise.

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