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Ronald Blythe recalls seeing plough horses drink from his pond

THE artist John Nash, who lived in my old farmhouse, was famously addicted to ponds. There are two of them here, one fore and one aft. “Never pass up a pond,” he would say to me. There are many black-and-white photos of the cleaning out of the ponds at this time of year, disturbing the frogspawn and tadpoles. This was not a good thing to do. They were centuries-old horse ponds, surrounded by willows.

Every afternoon, at about 3.30, the weary plough horses of the farm, who had been at work since 7.30 in the morning, would come back from the fields to gulp down gallons of this fresh spring water before going back to their stables or to their meadow. It had gone on since time immemorial. Sometimes, I imagine I can still hear them, their great feet sploshing about in the mud, their soft mouths running with silver liquid.

The ponds are the overflow of the stream which descends to the valley and helps to create the River Stour. Both Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable painted this river, making it one of the most celebrated riverscapes in English art. Constable’s Haywain shows the axles of a timber wagon being cooled in it. The artist himself called this picture “Noon”.

As a boy, he walked along the Stour bank to visit his uncle and aunt in our village; I pass their imposing tombs on the way to church every Sunday. The horse chestnuts that a Victorian priest planted are beginning to bud.

Not much has changed since, except that there is nobody about. The countryside, once filled with toil, is now a place without a worker in sight. No man or woman or child anywhere. But I sometimes stare at the iron bridge that joins Essex and Suffolk in our village, and watch the carp and dace swimming beneath me, and the current pulling the surface of the river from Cambridgeshire to the North Sea.

Today is different. It is spring. Rabbits mate with impunity, and a gorgeous pair of pheasants are walking together. Apart from a telegraph pole or two, and birds strolling in my direction from Duncan’s farm, it might be 1850. There can never have been, in all the long history of rural England, a time like the 21st century, when the farming is perfect without anyone at work.

But April smells as sweet as ever, and in the Epistle of St Peter we are called strangers and pilgrims. Once, I found a young man with a scallop shell on his shoulder in the church porch. He was a pilgrim on his way to Walsingham; and again, in my imagination, I take a few steps towards Emmaus, that wonderful journey.

The orchard has been scythed early, and so has come up with Wordsworth’s daffodils: the little wild ones, which his sister Dorothy pointed out to him; and it seems — although it’s not true — that the birds are nesting already, and that everything is very forward.

The house itself seems warm and comfortable for this time of year. And the services go on, with small congregations making a pattern of life — the kind of life I’ve seen and lived all my life. And the house is isolated, so I don’t know what goes on; but now and again I can hear the bells if the wind is in the right direction.

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