Clay Lands Us In The Usual Mess (5 January 1973)
So the development corporation are determined to keep their new roads clean. I wish them luck; they have a big job on their hands – and feet – as all we older citizens of Bletchley know only too well.
Remember the mess when lorries were running through the town for the making of the M1? Remember the mess when the rail flyover was being built? Remember the mess when the new sewer was being laid in Bletchley Road – sorry – Queensway?
The usual messiness of development in these parts is due, of course, to the clay. Not just the grey-green Oxford clay that makes fletton bricks, but the yellow clay-with-flints that mostly overlies it. In fact, I never have known how many scores of feet you have to dig down before you come to anything else. And I don’t proposed (sic) to find out either; at least, not the hard way.
I had enough of the hard way shortly after we went into our new-built house on Bletchley Saints Estate on a snowy February morn in 1953 and found a bulldozer at the rear of the house busily converting the rough grazing land into a concrete slab.
Where the topsoil went I never knew – and don’t tell me it was underneath. But about 12 months’ later lorries brought some from the other end of the town and spread it anywhere round the house except the back so that in quick time this addition to Bletchley’s open forecourt system came to be much admired by Harold MacMillan and various other visiting nabobs.
Meanwhile, having failed to penetrate the slab by more than two inches with a fork, I went to work with a pick while my wife, who is the gardener, sat on the ground chipping the resulting clods with a chopper. One day I thought I was getting along famously with one bit that felt softer than the rest, when she pointed out that I was digging the pantry wall, not the garden. In due course I found a manhole and six months later a second one appeared. There might still be a third somewhere for aught I know. Nevertheless, I found this council house to be better built than all but one of the four private semis I had previously lived in during my then-seven years in the town.
But when the rains fell on this saintly estate, oh what an unholy mess. It did not penetrate the clay, but it covered the whole estate which a nasty greyish-yellow slime.
So beware. If you are going into a new development house in this district, always have a pair of wellingtons with you as well as a pair of shoes. Walk off the development in your wellingtons and when you seem to be at a safe distance don the shoes instead and pop the wellingtons into a carrier bag for use on the way back.
But one of the things I do like about the city boys is their determination to make Milton Keynes a city of trees.
I rarely think of trees but what my mind goes back to the late Mr. Fred French, successively of Newport Pagnell, Northampton, Bow Brickhill and Bletchley. What a whale of a time he would have had with the development corporation if he had lived long enough.
Mr. French was over 80 when he lost his life on the Watling Street one black night while cycling his usual 25 miles a day – it was about 50 miles a day until he was 75.
He followed the unusual trade or profession of a masseur. But then, he was an unusual man altogether. When he was 78 he told me he had never had a doctor.
He was anti-vivisection, anti-hunting and anti many other practices concerning animals, but he was also what in today’s jargon would be called an anti-pollutionist and preservationist of the first order.
Probably most of all he was a Man of the Trees. That is to say, he was a member of a small society calling themselves the Men of the Trees. He knew every lane and by-path from Hockliffe to Northampton and many were the letters he wrote to the press about the destruction of this or that coppice, thicket or individual tree.
Poor Mr. French. He was both before and behind his time. There were only five or six of us at his graveside in Fenny cemetery – and funerals are a thing I normally try to avoid.
But if the city boys plant any memorial trees at all, they should plant the biggest and sturdiest for Fred French.