My name is Lucy Fothergill and I was born on the 11th of July 1996. Coincidentally, the 11th of July is World Population Day. My mother, Joan, had been marvelling at the content of the Fresh Produce section of Didsbrook’s brand new Coop when her waters broke. Legend has it, my father, John, with the help of the store manager, bundled her into a trolley and pushed her across the cobbled market place to the Didsbrook Cottage Hospital. Shortly after they wheeled her in, I popped out, the World Population counter flipped over to add me and the population of Didsbrook rose to 651.
Didsbrook is a sleepy market town, which nestles in the bosom of a conservation area. It can be accessed either by train or by car, but there is only one way in, and one way out. It is a pastoral dead end. An idyllic haven, surrounded by rolling, untouched, countryside; one of the last remaining bastions of serenity in England’s green and pleasant land.
Life for the inhabitants of Didsbrook has changed little since their medieval forebears first embedded their pitchforks here. The tranquillity of their daily lives disrupted only by the shrill song of the Yellow Hammer and Corn Bunting floating on the breeze. Or the constant, gentle rushing of water from the Didsbrook Rise, a shallow, stony brook, meandering its way through the heart of town, on its way to feed the trout lake at Didsbrook Manor before joining the River Stoner.
The town and the lush pastures of the South Downs surrounding it are out of bounds to developers. There is one blot on the bucolic landscape, the Elmsmere Dairy. It was built during the 1990s, and it is situated five miles down the road from Didsbrook. It is tucked away at the bottom of a hill, so it can’t be seen from the town. The dairy is the closest any contractor has got to the township and it serves as a constant reminder of why the natural beauty of the countryside should be preserved. Despite, its ugly presence, it was a necessity. Didsbrook was in dire need of a pasteurising plant because the bovine population outnumbers its two-legged inhabitants by 5-1.
Growing up in the pastoral beauty that surrounds Didsbrook, was idyllic. My older brother, Tom, and I were like a pair of feral kittens, scampering over the unblemished countryside, climbing trees and falling over, returning home with scuffed knees. The only other children of our ages living nearby were Betty Hargreaves the butcher’s daughter, who was in the same year as Tom, and Kevin Harper, who was my age. Kevin was an odd child, awkward at school, rarely interacting with our peers. So, although Tom was happy to include Betty in our adventures, we always tried to give Kevin the slip, which wasn’t hard to do. He was overweight, and we knew we could out-jog him, so when we sprinted, we became specs on his horizon within seconds.
Didsbrook has always been considered to be a safe place to live which I imagine is why I have no memory of either of our parents laying down any rules about what we could or couldn’t do, or where we could or couldn’t go. The reality was that the only other living souls we ever bumped into, were four-legged Friesian cows, hundreds of them. So finding ourselves in the same field as the Holstein-Friesian bull from Frogs Bottom Farm, would have been the riskiest situation we could have found ourselves in. We did discuss such an eventually, but we agreed that, with the build of a Friesian Sumo wrestler, we would be able to outsprint him, just like we always did with Kevin. Fortunately, our theory never had to be put to the test.
In the summer holidays, Tom and I would disappear for most of the day exploring the woods and the South Downs beyond, our mother blissfully unaware that we had gone anywhere. As long as we rocked up for tea at around 6.00 o’clock, we could always rely on her to be there to dish it up. While we were eating, she would give us an animated account of her day on the yoghurt production line at Elmsmere Dairy, where my father was Plant Manager, before she rushed out for a rehearsal of the Didsbrook Amateur Dramatic Society, affectionately known as DADS.
For 500 years, Didsbrook has been lorded over by the well-known British banking family, The Strands and their family seat has always been the pile that is Didsbrook Manor. The house was originally built during the Tudor period and, during the 18th Century, Capability Brown was wheeled in to landscape the garden, and incorporate a trout lake fed by the Didsbrook Rise.
In 1970, the Strands in residence were the socialites and keen adventurers, Albert and Frederica Strand, known by their peers as Bertie and Freddie. By a sad twist of fate, they met with an unfortunate end in the Dardanelles, while retracing the final days of Uncle Alouishous Strand during World War I. So The Manor, as well as a shed load of money, was left to their only child, who had just turned seventeen, the vociferous Jocelyn, last remaining member of the Strand dynasty. And, as I would find out, she had one hell of a story to tell.