Chapter 18

Copyright© April 2009 Texrep

They found the horses a little restless, seemingly eager to continue the ride. Abby led Jason over to the platform and used that to mount.

"Are we going back now?" she called to James who had taken the time to ensure that first Jason's and then Cassie's girths were still tight.

"No, we'll go a little further, up to the viaduct." Jason had already decided that it was time to walk on, and started before Abby was completely ready. She pulled sharply on the rein.

"Hey, I'll tell you when to go." She used a firmer voice than ever before, and Jason stopped and switched his ears back. James began to laugh softly.

"I'm glad you're getting him sorted. Now give him a good dig in the ribs." Abby did so, and Jason walked on again, his ears still switched back, as if awaiting another command.

It wasn't very far to the viaduct, the track gradually turned though almost ninety degrees to the left, and suddenly it was there. The valley was much narrower at this point, and the viaduct had been built to take the railway across to find easier gradients on the other side. The track was blocked. Heavy timbers fixed firmly to the rock portals, prohibiting their access. Although someone had broken down part of the timbering, and a narrow track wound its way across, indicating that some foolhardy souls had used it recently. James stopped and waited for Abby to stop alongside him.

"Is it safe?" she asked.

"Yes. You could walk across with care, but I wouldn't take a horse over."

"Why's that?"

"Well the structure is quite safe, but the deck has quite a few pits, I wouldn't want a horse to put a leg in one of those, probably break it. If you want we could walk out a little way, give you a tremendous view of the valley."

"If you think it's safe. That would be great."

Without thinking about it, Abby lifted her leg over the saddle and slipped to the ground. She led Jason a few steps, and looped his reins around a post, which stood conveniently from the side of the track. She looked again at the post and realised that it was an old rail. She remembered what Mr. Brasher had said, about the G.W.R., that it threw nothing away, but recycled it, she had seen that at Lills platform, with old sleepers becoming a platform deck, and now here, an old rail used for some other purpose, probably as a fencing post. James used a similar post for Cassie's reins, and waited for Abby to join him. Just as she was doing so, she remembered her camera, which was in the bag of essentials. She ran back, pulled it out of the bag, and joined James, with a cheeky grin on her face.

"Ready, Sir."

"Now be very careful," he said as he climbed over the blocking timbers, "the footing can be a little loose." Abby followed him over the timber, and they set out on the little track that previous walkers had made. There was weed and thistle covering most of the track bed and as they slowly made their way out, Abby noticed the pits, some of which seemed to be very deep.

"How have they come about?" She asked.

"I think it's where the waterproof layer has broken up, and the rain gradually washes the infill out of the piers."

"James is this safe?" a little alarm creeping into her voice.

"Oh it's safe enough, if you stay on the path."

His words failed to reassure her, but the view of the valley, which opened up as they moved further out overcame her fears. As they approached the middle, she forgot her fear completely, and opening her camera looked for somewhere to take some photographs. The view was such that she was spoiled for choice, so settled for firing off a series of shots; the whirr of the mechanism moving on the film accompanied her adjustment of stance as she panned slowly from one side of the valley to the other. She turned and looked up the valley, although the view was not quite as spectacular, she took another series of photos in the same manner. She finished by taking one of James, who had moved to one side, and was gazing reflectively down the valley. He didn't realise that she had taken this shot, until he turned and caught her with the camera pointing at him.

"Why spoil a perfectly good roll of film, with my picture?" He asked.

"Oh so I can show all my friends back in London, the Lord of the Manor." He grinned.

"You mean the Lord of the Muck heap."

"Oh no, in fact there's some of my girl friends who might think he's rather handsome; but those would be the ones without much taste, of course."

"Of course," His grin grew wider, "and you would have to tell them how distasteful it was for you, having to slum it down here."

"Absolutely, so distasteful, that I'm thinking of buying somewhere to live down here."

The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. Suddenly what had hitherto been just a thought bouncing around her head, became more of a reality. It astonished her, and James was astonished also. He recovered quickly.

"Well in that case you had better remember who owns the land around here, and how iniquitous, and tricky the Comberfords are in their dealings."

"James, you wouldn't take advantage of a poor innocent girl, would you?"

"Of course, as you know I do that every morning, before going and throwing a few peasants out of their homes."

"In that case, I'll just have to be very careful." They had started walking back. Abby looked around.

"The wind has died." There had been a persistent warm breeze all morning. James shook his head.

"No, it's the parapet." She looked at him.

"The parapet?"

"Yes, it diverts the wind upwards, and anything on top here is in the lee, you'll see, when we get back you will feel the wind again." His words were true, the moment they stepped out from the protection of the viaduct; Abby could feel the breeze again.

"How remarkable."

"They knew a thing or two, those Victorians."

The first part of the ride back down the valley was passed in silence. Abby wondering why she had blurted out the possible intention to live in the valley. James giving consideration to how he would react if that actually happened. This was not an emotional decision, but a practical one. It had always been his family's policy to keep the land intact. Apart from the railway this had been achieved. If Abby were to decide on residency, he felt that she would not want to be a lessor. There were some cottages available, but to rent; and much as he liked her, he would be unable to sell her any of the property. He would like Abby to be around, but refusal to sell might drive her away. Neither was a course he wanted to happen. The horses were allowed to set their own pace, and ambled quite contentedly onwards. When the track was wide enough they walked side by side, with their heads nodding together in their gregarious nature, their riders deep in thought.

They were well on their way down when Abby saw a furtive movement in the trees off to the left.

"James there's someone there."


"On the left, behind the tree." As she spoke the figure emerged from hiding. She felt James relax.

The figure stood and waited for them to draw abreast. James spoke first.

"Hello Woody, how are you today?" Abby tried not to look astonished as she took in the man. He could have been any age from mid-fifties to late nineties, dressed in a multitude of what appeared to be cast-off clothing, none of it clean. He was unshaven with a ragged beard that looked as if it had been hacked off with shears. The voice when it came belied the appearance, his speech being perfectly regulated with an accent that was only acquired at the very best Public Schools.

"Good Day to you Mr. Comberford," he nodded in Abby's direction, "Miss." He returned his gaze to James.

"Thank you for your enquiry, I am well. An excellent day for a ride." James introduced Abby.

"This is Miss Tregonney; Abby this is Woody."

"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Tregonney, would you be related to the Mr. Tregonney, who was the Station Master?

"I'm pleased to meet you, Woody, and yes, he was my Grandfather."

"A Gentleman Miss, he was a Gentleman." Abby smiled with pleasure. Woody then addressed James.

"Mr. Comberford, I have been asked for more Hurdles, would it be permissible to take the wood from the Lydcott stand?"

"Yes that would be fine," replied James, "would you like to look at Huish as well. I believe that could do with some thinning."

"I'll do that with pleasure. Good day to you Mr. Comberford, Miss Tregonney." Seemingly without disturbing a single branch the man vanished into the trees.

Abby searched the foliage for some trace of his passage, and astonishingly could find nothing to mark the man's path. As they nudged the horses to walk on she turned to James.

"Who was that?"

"That's Woody."

"Yes, you introduced me, but what is he? Who is he?" James smiled.

"No-one really knows. He's been around for something like forty years, but it could be more, as people in the valley rarely see him. He could have been there sixty or more years for all we know. We call him Woody, because he lives in the woods, and acts as a sort of unpaid Forester. He has no history, well none that anyone has been able to discover."

"He lives in the woods?" Abby was incredulous.

"Yes. There's an old Foresters cottage, it's a ruin really, but he's made a home of sorts in it."

"But his voice, it's perfect, now you don't get that kind of voice skulking around in the woods."

"Oh Woody's educated all right, quotations from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and Plato, he's got more literature in his head than most of us have in our houses."

"So why is he here?"

"As I said, no-one knows, I would imagine though that he's running away from something, or rather given the years he's been here ran, might be the correct word. He's got so used to the land around here that he can turn up most unexpectedly at times, and as you just saw demonstrated his movements are very difficult to detect."

"I don't suppose you charge him rent for the cottage," Abby asked with cynicism.

James laughed at the sally.

"No, as I said it was a ruin. He works for it though, servicing the woodland, and making Wattles. My Father once offered to pay him for the work, but Woody refused. He didn't want to become a statistic, presumably because he could then be traced. Woody wanted to lose himself, and stay lost. In that he has succeeded, to this day know one knows who he is, or where he came from."

"This place never ceases to amaze me. Oh and what is a Hurdle? I don't suspect it has anything to do with racing?" He grinned.

"When we get down to Sam's place I'll show you a Hurdle, or Wattle as it's sometimes called." The mention of Sam's place also brought him a solution to the problem of the excess food. "I know what to do with the leftover food."

"Oh yes, are we going to stop and eat another lunch perhaps?"

"No nothing as difficult as that; when we stop at Sam and Mavis's, you will have to occupy Mavis for a while, and I will get Sam to help me feed it to his pigs, we did eat all the ham rolls didn't we? It seems a shame about all that good food, but it is better than the look on Mary's face when we bring half of it back, and of course we will eventually eat the food."

The casual reference to the Pig's fate reminded Abby how pragmatic country people were about animals.

"How do you know that I shall be able to keep Mavis occupied?"

"There's no problem there. I shall announce that I need to talk to Roger about the Lower Penny Acre, and Mavis will promptly march you inside for a debrief."

"I would ask two questions. One, what or who is Lower Penny Acre, and two; what is a debrief?"

"The answer to your first question is a pasture down by the river." James answered. "Two, a debriefing, a question and answer session on what has happened today, Mavis asking the questions, and you doing the answering."

"Are our movements of so much interest?"

"Oh yes, to Mavis they are very much of interest." He had a big smile on his face.

Abby had become used to the friendly curiosity of people living in the valley, and gradually as the import of his words reached her, she too began to smile.

"Should I embellish the story a little? Descriptions of passionate scenes in the quarry or merely a little innocent hand-holding?"

"I don't somehow think that Mavis would believe anything like that, but a little innocent hand-holding would go down well."

"Damn and I always wanted to be a Femme Fatale."

"Oh I'm quite sure you could be that."

"Thank you kind Sir, I'm sure you meant that as a compliment." He grinned.

"Perhaps I did."

James and Abby left the track some way before the river crossing, and struck out through the fields, which took them to Gallow Farm. Abby was surprised that there was no reception until they had walked the horses into the yard. Roger was the first to appear, and upon seeing them; shouted in the direction of a small cottage, standing a few yards away from the Farmhouse.

"Mum! Dad! Mr. James and Miss Tregonney are here." He walked over and held Jason's reins while Abby dismounted. Abby realised that she had met Roger before, one evening at the Combe Inn, without knowing that he was Sam's son.

"Hello Roger, sorry to drop in on you unannounced."

"Unannounced?" His voice was incredulous, "Mum saw you going up the track earlier today, and has been on tenterhooks ever since, wondering if you would come by, needless to say all the best China has been got out, and washed, just in case. Dad has been going around like someone with a secret all day, as if he knew you were likely to call in."

Roger was not allowed to say anymore, as Mavis came rushing out, wiping her hands on a pinafore, which she was trying to take off at the same time.

"Abby, Mr. James, it's so nice you could drop by, come in, don't stand there, you will have some Tea won't you?"

"Hello Mavis, yes I would love a cup of tea." James winked at Abby, behind Mavis' back.

"Mavis I would like to have a chat with Roger about Lower Penny, may I join you in a minute?"

"Business, business, it's all you men ever think about." She looked at James accusingly, "I hope you haven't been boring this young lady with talk of farming and cattle all day?"

"Would I dare?"

"Humph, I wouldn't put it past you. Now come along Abby, and I'll put the kettle on." Abby looked at James who was grinning, and shrugged her shoulders, then followed Mavis who had set off at a determined pace for the cottage. Abby caught her up.

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