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Authors: Nicholas Rhea

Constable on the Hill

Constable on the Hill

NICHOLAS RHEA

The police house at Aidensfield in North Yorkshire occupies what is probably the most beautiful site in the country. High on an escarpment overlooking Ryedale, it surveys two valleys, one to the back and the other to the front, with its own finger of land neatly dividing them. It is a detached house, built of local yellow stone, and boasts a garage, an office and extensive views to the south, east and north, with moderate views to the west. It stands alone on its hill top, a sentinel for all to note and there is nothing around it save green grass, deciduous trees and oceans of fresh moorland air laced with the multifarious scents of rural England.

Looking north from the rear bedroom window, one sees the three white radomes of Fylingdales Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station, like a clutch of duck eggs sitting among the heather, the gorgeous autumn purple of those distant moors, and the lush greenery of Ryedale with its host of tiny communities. To the east stands the tiny Minster of Thackerston and beyond that, the coast; on a clear day, it is possible to imagine the North Sea off Scarborough but distance and blue hazes can confuse the eye and baffle the brain. Is that blue really the sea or is it just a blue haze? It doesn’t matter – it is attractive and therefore worthy of interest.

To the south is a smaller valley with a farm seemingly at one’s feet, for it lies just over the fringe of trees at the foot of the garden. Beyond are the wooded hills lined with rows of regimented larch and spruce trees. Down on the flat valley floor are more small communities of farms and people. To the west, the view is not so extensive, for the policeman’s hill continues to rise, taking its metalled road to the heights of the Hambleton Hills and then to Sutton Bank with its high-flying
gliders. From that supreme vantage point, one can look across the vast vale of York, described by Chevalier Bunsen as “the most beautiful and romantic vale in the world, the Vale of Normandy excepted”. The lower Yorkshire Dales lead skywards towards the Pennines which form a fitting and rugged backcloth to this land of castles and abbeys, rivers and roads, villages and heights.

This piece of England, called Romantic Ryedale by its inhabitants, is famous to those people as “God’s own country”. They worship the place. It contains everything for the country-lover: wildlife in all its forms, centuries of stirring history, folklore and legends, fascinating people, a local dialect, and a landscape comprising some of the most panoramic and impressive views in the whole of England. My police house commands one of those views.

It was to this area, therefore, that I came one summer day. It must be said that I had not come from choice, for I had been posted to Aidensfield as its new village policeman. With my wife Mary and my family of three tiny children, I had driven from our old home and arrived an hour or so ahead of the removal van with its meagre load of our sparse belongings.

After only five years of marriage and with five mouths to feed, we had very little furniture, but a lack of possessions was a great comfort to a policeman in a county police force. My liability to be posted to far-flung locations meant I did not buy objects like fitted carpets or expensive curtains. Instead, all county policemen acquired functional furnishings like tables which folded into corners, chairs which were easily portable, beds which were not four-posters and small square carpets that would sit anywhere and be complementary to almost any wallpaper.

On that removal day, we had packed a picnic and I reckoned we would arrive at our new house around
lunchtime
; we decided to picnic there. Over the final miles, I drove through Maddleskirk with its impressive Benedictine abbey, then found myself in Aidensfield. This is a beautiful village, built snugly into a steep hillside so that no northern wind can chill its homes. The southern sun warms them all and the spring daffodils bloom three weeks ahead of those in less
congenial climes, like my hill top. I passed through Aidensfield very slowly, looking at the squat parish church, the ultra-modern Catholic church, the friendly pub, the garage and the village shop, all within a hundred yards of one another. One or two people pottered along that peaceful street, and I wondered if they realised that the battered old Hillman cruising suspiciously slowly contained their new bobby.

Once up the steep hill at the distant end of Aidensfield, I turned right and there, standing magnificently on its own hill-top site, was that lovely police house. It was ten minutes to one, and the children were as excited as a three-year-old, a two-year-old and a one-year-old could be.

I steered the gallant old vehicle through the open gate of the police house and halted on the concrete drive. The house was empty, of course, the previous occupants having been moved out that same morning. Happily, the day was fine and dry, but many is the time policemen have moved house during rain or snow, to suffer the indignity of wet-footed removal men tramping all over clean floors. We were very fortunate to have such a lovely day in June.

The key, I had previously been told, would be concealed in the garage, under a half-full tin of paint. I found it, and from the attached label, saw it was for the front door. By now, the children were pottering about the spacious lawn, exploring their new territory with a curiosity that could lead to
problems
, but Mary decided to leave them there, took the key and together we approached our front entrance.

We were surprised to find a cabbage in a string bag hanging from the door knob. Mary looked at me for guidance and I looked at the cabbage. It seemed a good solid cabbage, but there was no note and no indication of its
raison
d’être.
Initially, I suspected some form of skullduggery, and therefore decided to examine the other doors before taking further action. Was it full of sneezing powder or water? Was it a plastic one? I advised Mary to keep well away from the object and made my way to the back door, leading into the kitchen. It was located in a passage, access to which was through an outer door next to the garage. This was not locked, so I opened it, turned towards the kitchen and found a brace of
wood pigeons hanging from that door knob. Then, on the office door, was a monster of a hare. As we would say in Yorkshire dialect, it was a “greeat awd ram-cat of a heeare”.

I knew of the age-old custom of giving presents to country policemen, but here was I, on my very first day at Aidensfield, with presents all around me, and not a single hint as to their origins. Having discovered the fur and feather, I accepted the cabbage for what it was – a useful gift. It was a lovely welcome. I unlocked the door and with due solemnity, carried Mary across the threshold and the children followed, shouting and running about the entrance hall and ground-floor rooms in sheer exuberance. They’d have to stop that caper when the van arrived.

To the right of the entrance hall was the door into my office; the office had a door leading into the garden but that was seldom used. Most of the callers came to the front door of the house. The office had a counter across the middle with shelves beneath it and in the centre was an official looking desk and telephone.

The house was in a state of complete cleanliness, thanks to the outgoing couple and we could move straight in. On the left immediately inside the door was the staircase and already two of the youngsters were scrambling noisily up the bare wooden steps. Jane was too young to attempt such feats so she accompanied Mary and me as we examined the house. The dining-room had a plain-looking electric fire and a window looking south; next to it was the lounge with a fireplace for coal blazes, and a window looking south. Those views were glorious, taking in an entire valley with conifers beyond, scattered farms below and the distant wolds of the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The kitchen was unbelievably tiny and there was an ancient coke boiler in one corner with a pantry beneath the stairs. The kitchen door led out into the back passage near the garage, where I’d found the pigeons. Upstairs, were two reasonable bedrooms, with windows looking south, plus a smaller one with windows looking north, and a bathroom – with windows looking north.

A big garden with soft fruit, vegetables and flowers sloped away from the house on its southern aspect, just beyond the
lawn underneath the lounge and dining-room windows. There would be about one-third of an acre of garden, much of it allowed to go to waste but about a quarter of which had been cultivated. Our June arrival meant we gained from the work of others – sometimes, you won, sometimes you lost! An attractive rockery edged the lawn at the front, but the lawn extended completely around the house which meant the children could gallop around and around in ever-decreasing circles. It was a marvellous way to tire them for bed and to occupy them as the men unloaded our belongings.

We enjoyed our picnic on the lawn, sitting on the shorn grass and gazing south across my new beat. I could see farmers working in the fields, cars moving in the distance with sun glinting from their glass, trees swaying in a gentle breeze and rooks soaring high above in the clear sky. There were the summer sounds of an unseen tractor, the constant hum of bees at work nearby and the voice of a skylark on high. We sat there for about an hour, thoroughly enjoying those precious moments of peace.

I was reminded of the words of William Shenstone who wrote:

Devoid of hate, devoid of strife,

Devoid of all that poisons life.

Then the removal men arrived.

It was evident that they had sampled some of the local ale
en
route
for they arrived at our house in a benevolent mood, albeit determined to be unpacked and away before five that afternoon. Because the road ran directly past my front gate, the driver, a squat man with two or three days growth of beard, decided he would reverse his vehicle into my gateway. This would enable our furniture to be emptied onto the concrete forecourt of the garage, and thus make it easier to carry indoors. I thought it a sound idea and moved my car into the garage beside my official motor-cycle. So far, so good. We decided that the carpets must be first into the house because once they were in position, the removal men would place the larger items wherever we decided.

The driver, whose name I never knew, began to manoeuvre his huge vehicle backwards towards my gate. It was a narrow
gate, even for the passage of a family car, and was most definitely not designed for the antics of reversing
pantechnicons
. The driver, however, seemed very confident that he could squeeze its bulk through the gap, while his mate, the thinnest man I’ve ever seen, leapt out and began to shout directions. By darting backwards and forwards, he
encouraged
the lumbering lorry to inch its way towards my gate posts. I issued the inevitable warnings, but the lorry hit both gateposts, as I knew it must; it did so in spite of the driver’s confidence, and in spite of the mate’s incomprehensible shouts. My yells were ignored.

It didn’t stop there. It came on. The rear wheels crunched across the remains of the posts and smashed the fallen gates into matchwood. Only when the rear was some twelve feet into my garden, did the driver stop.

“That’s better,” he said, leaping from his cab. “Now we can get cracking.”

“Look there!” I shouted, pointing to the mangled gates and their accessories. “Smashed … the sergeant will play hell with me … I’m new here.”

“Forget it, son,” said the driver. “We’ve moved every bobby into this house since it was built, and we always smash the gates down. It’s t’only way to get in. And it gets you a set o’ new gates every three years or so. Good logic that – the insurance will see to it. Good thing, insurance.”

“The insurance will see you all right,” said the thin one, and with no more ado, they got to work. They worked most efficiently, unloading our meagre, battered belongings and positioning them in the house under Mary’s instructions. She brewed the inevitable cups of tea and they dropped the inevitable mirror and crockery, excusing themselves by
saying
, “The insurance will see you all right.”

Somehow, a key to the wardrobe was lost, which the insurance would see to, and one of the bedroom windows got cracked, while they were manoeuvring a dressing-table into position. The insurance would see to that, I was told. They unloaded the larger items more quickly than we could
determine
their position so when a backlog occurred, they stopped and drank tea. That was when we made decisions about the location of our furnishings which would prevail until we left
this house with the assistance of another furniture wagon and its insurers.

Sometimes the lanky one, whose name I learned was Sid, would stop and admire a recently acquired piece of furniture. For example, after unloading our radiogram, the pair of them placed it on the ground, walked around it and Sid said, “You’ve come on since last time, eh?”

This pair had apparently moved us into our previous house, four years earlier, and now took an opportunity to comment upon the proliferation of children and the
acquisition
of new furniture and other belongings. During one of our many breaks for tea, and with the children getting in the way, I asked Sid how he’d remembered us from all the other policemen he’d moved around the North Riding.

“That bloody piano,” he motioned with his head towards the wagon. My piano was still aboard.

I laughed at the memory. The piano was gigantic with a solid iron frame. It was a Broadwood and therefore a useful instrument. It had been a twenty-first birthday present to me, having belonged to my grandparents. Because we could not accommodate it in our very first home at Strensford, it had remained at my grandparents’ home until we made our first move to more suitable premises. It had been impossible to get it into the Strensford police house because of winding steps and narrow passages. Upon our move from there, we had arranged for a local garage to store the piano overnight on the eve of our transfer; we would collect it the following morning. We did that. The ivory-toothed monster demanded every skill known to those strong men, but after much panting and heaving, they got it aboard their removal van, shut the tail-board and off we went. Upon our arrival at
Northallerton
, the piano was first off the lorry. The men placed it on the footpath outside that suburban house, and its wheels promptly sank into the macadam which surfaced the path. It sank the full depth of those small metal wheels; retrieval was messy and tricky and its marks remained for many years as a monument to our presence there. Getting it into that house had been a further problem; it sat outside in the rain until the very last minute, when finally, after much cursing and
debating
, we managed to inch it inside.

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