The Magic Apple Tree is best book about country life I've ever read, and I've read a fair many. Fellow bloggers have sung its praises for years, and well-deserved they are.
There is a mellowness in Susan Hill's writing that doesn't show up as often in the "book" books. Here she is writing simply about her life with her husband and daughter in the English countryside.
There are five hundred souls in Barley, and more than half of them are over sixty, quite a few well over eighty. It is a companionable village. ... It is only six miles from the city, and feels like a hundred and six, it is so peaceful, so thoroughly rural are its surroundings. There is no through traffic, it is well-shaped and has so many superb views, the houses are modest and pleasing, the size of the place is right, large enough to have some community life and yet not too large.This book is a tribute to English rural life, the sort of life we Anglophiles dream of. I wonder how much it has changed since publication of the book in 1982. My rural area has not changed too terribly much in those years so perhaps it hasn't either. Her village looks pretty wonderful on the website here!
The book begins with the magic apple tree.
Whether you stand at the top of the stone steps or at any of the windows, you cannot look from this cottage across to the fields opposite, or to your left, away and down the whole, flat stretch of the Fen, without also having the apple tree in your sight, it draws your eyes toward it and balances the picture, a point of reference for the whole view. It is only, perhaps, fifteen feet high, and a most beautiful, satisfying shape. ... the spirit of the place is in that apple tree.I wonder if it still stands. I felt this way about the big maple in front of our house, and though we had to have it cut down I still long for its presence.
She worries about the tree.
There is always a wind about here, we are so exposed on all sides ... There have been terrible nights when I have lain awake listening to the roar and boom, hearing branches groan and break ... One February night, a single blast of wind, the eye of the storm, took half our heavy wooden fence, the glass roof of a neighbour's greenhouse, a lilac bush beyond it, two chimney pots and an open garage door, it simply gathered them up into itself and flung them down again some yards away. But the apple tree still stood, resilient, indomitable as some small wooden ship on a stormy sea. After that, I did not worry about it.The name of the house is Moon Cottage. I do love how the British name their homes. Over here we name farms and ranches, but not homes, as far as I know.
Susan Hill writes of the reasons for their move to a country life.
All through my thirties, since marriage and, most particularly, since the birth of my daughter, I experienced a growing discontent and dissatisfaction with town life. I seemed to be only skimming the surface of things, to be cramped and hurried and tense. I noticed the smell and noise of the traffic more, and I worried above all about the influences of the city upon Jessica, of so much that was ugly and tawdry and meretricious, violent, distasteful, of all the getting and spending. I longed for more space around me, for growing things and time and all the sounds and scents of the natural world on my doorstep, for peace and quiet in which to do my own work, and to provide a counterbalance for Jessica to the time she would inevitably have to spend in the city. I wanted to give her a rich treasure-store of country memories, sights and smells, sounds and colours, on which she could draw for the rest of her life. A friend of mine, who has lived in a north of England city for forty years, feeds off a memory of running through fields, up to her waist in buttercups, on a day's outing to the country when she was six years old.Susan goes on to say that she actually dreamed about the house before she saw it or knew it existed. Magic, indeed!
It is not a "perfect" house.
It is not, even in the softest of summer sunshine, a beautiful house. It was once three poky labourers' cottages, built of that mottled Oxfordshire limestone, and once thatched, but now ordinarily tiled. It lies at right angles to the lane, facing uncompromisingly north.Yet, it was just what they wanted, with "two staircases, one on either side of the house, and endless nooks and crannies, oddly-shaped cupboards, sloping ceilings."
She does such a wonderful job of describing the house and the garden that this reader could picture them very well.
As with our house, they made changes but nothing very drastic. She is a firm believer in handling "an old house carefully". To
restrain the first urge to knock down and replace and add on, or even to restore; you need to settle to a place, give it time to speak to you, about itself, rub along with things as they are and see how they work. There has been so much lost, so much alteration and modernisation and ruination at the transitory whim of individual taste and fashion, so many excrescences have been added which are entirely wrong in style, so many plain, sensible features, walls, roofs, window frames, ripped out. ... When you buy an old house, you buy a small part of the past, a piece of history, and yet you do not become the owner of that, and never can, you have only taken it on trust for your lifetime, or more likely nowadays, until you move on and pass it to someone else, in a cash transaction.In the winter chapter she talks about "wildlife, festivals, food, and the garden". I'm so looking forward to reading about the rest of the year in this wonderful place.