What Enid Blyton and Brambly Hedge don’t tell you about being Black in the British countryside | Books

What Enid Blyton and Brambly Hedge don’t tell you about being Black in the British countryside | Books

It all started with Brambly Hedge and those exquisite drawings of Mrs Apple’s kitchen at Crabtree Cottage: her shelves overflowing with homemade jams, woven baskets heaped with currants and rosehips, drying herbs strung up in bunches along wooden beams. I could only have been four or five when I read Jill Barklem’s books, but I already knew I wanted to sit at Mrs Apple’s table and taste her freshly baked bread and blackberry puddings. I longed to be young Wilfred, off on an adventure, gathering the blackthorn’s golden lichen, or Primrose, picking wildflowers and visiting the old harvest mice in the cornfield.

Later, adding The Famous Five and Children of Green Knowe into the mix only increased my envy. How come these children were allowed to run amok wherever they pleased, while I was restrained by city pavements and traffic? Growing up in suburban Catford, my only contact with the great outdoors came from playing on the swings in the local park or on summer holiday trips with my mother to see the gardens at the Horniman Museum. I think, secretly, my mother was a plant and wildlife lover too, having grown up in the Jamaican bush, but like a lot of Caribbean Londoners in the 80s, she learned not to be the outdoorsy sort, instead making do with growing a few flowers and vegetables in our small back yard.

As I grew older, my longing for a rural paradise also dimmed. The idea of the countryside still appealed but the thought of actually living there became inconceivable. My childish imaginings of a wholesome existence became tainted with something worryingly unavoidable and unpleasant. Again, it was hard not to listen to what books told me. Fay Weldon’s Puffball cautioned me of the strong dislike held by country folk of newcomers, particularly those from the city, as did Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, which also spoke of squalor and barbarism. David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green taught me about rural delinquency, poverty and lack of opportunity, and AS Byatt, much like her predecessors Austen, Eyre, Brontë and Hardy, laid bare the complexities of the ever-present rural class divide. David Dabydeen’s Disappearance showed me pervading post-imperialist rural attitudes towards anyone with visible non-European heritage, and explained wearily that the English countryside is no place for a Black individual such as myself. I began to think about the increasing fragility of my identity. In the safety of multicultural London, I didn’t have to explain who I was, but out there, in the rural unknown, would they treat me like a fellow Englishwoman or like an uninvited immigrant?

It wasn’t until I fell in love with the man who is now my husband that possibility made itself felt. He had grown up in a tiny village on the outskirts of Taunton in Somerset and gradually, through travelling back and forth to meet his friends and family, I came to realise that perhaps the countryside wasn’t quite as unwelcoming as I thought. There was a kindness that I hadn’t expected. But well-rooted fears are hard to shift, and my journey to the West Country took many years. Travelling first by way of Reading on a live-aboard narrowboat, which we cruised very slowly westward on the Kennet and Avon Canal to Newbury, next to Devizes, then on to Bradford-upon-Avon and Bath. Boat life turned out to be a useful precursor to rural living. Drifting on an expanse of water with no TV or shops for distraction gave me freedom, access to big skies and wide open space, and the indescribable pleasure of living enveloped by the colours and sounds of nature.

But with it, though I tried hard to ignore it, also came an alarming sense of alienation and detachment from urban society. This world, which I’d long coveted, was so different from the one I grew up in. Suddenly I had to do without simple things I’d always taken for granted – afro hairdressers and hair products, family, the camaraderie of other Black people and being able to buy plantain, breadfruit and all-purpose seasoning on the high street.

Avalon Marshes at Shapwick Heath nature reserve in Somerset, UK.
Avalon Marshes at Shapwick Heath nature reserve in Somerset, UK. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

It would have been easy to stop there. I mean, surely this was enough of an adventure? But now we had a child and the desire for stability and a garden became overwhelming. The boat was sold and, before we knew it, we were the startled owners of a damp, semi-detached cottage on the Somerset Levels. There was a lot for me to worry about – the fear of isolation, of racism, of being lost, alone, in the middle of nowhere. But any anxiety I initially felt was gently quelled by the beauty of the landscape. Here was Brambly Hedge made real, with the very same seasonal hedgerows I’d longed for as a child.

But life is rarely easy. The moment we arrived, my mother passed away unexpectedly leaving me devastated, and with her went my connection to London.

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Now I’m here, I’m able to see if the reality of countryside living has lived up to my childhood expectations. Absent are Blyton’s carefree, feral children roaming the woods and fields. My kids, both now nearing adolescence, are no different from their city-dwelling cousins, with their faces glued to screens. But, just like in the books, they have a grandmother who knits and bakes cakes, and a grandfather who takes them for horse and cart rides on a sunny day. And, I’m proud to say, they can recognise a staggering variety of birds, plants and animals.

I’ve come to cherish my new home but there is one thing I’ve still to get used to that the books failed to prepare me for: my loss of anonymity as a Black woman in an all-white space. Gone are days when I can walk around incognito. Here, I stand out everywhere. As a writer and avid people-watcher who likes the cosy security of a crowd, I’ve had to reluctantly acclimatise to being constantly observed. I don’t feel like a Londoner any more. I struggle to recognise my old neighbourhood now, so much has changed since I was a child there. But this sense of being untethered seems to have forced me to assert my right to feel, and be at home, wherever I’m standing, regardless of any opposing views – an ability I hope to pass on to my children. The West Country is where I’m currently standing, and it’s made me passionate about writing new stories that celebrate England’s changing rural population.

The House of Broken Bricks by Fiona Williams is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges apply.

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About the Author: Tony Ramos

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