My country memories: Sheila Dillon

'I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties, one of the last wave of children able to live in almost complete freedom. I was brought up on the estate village of Hoghton in Lancashire, between Blackburn and Preston. My grandfather moved there during the Depression to be the estate carpenter. In the middle of the village, on top of a large hill, is a beautiful fortified Tudor manor house called Hoghton Tower, where the de Hoghton family have lived since the 11th century, and around which everything in the village ran.


'I remember one spring walking from my grandparents' house, through the fields and up to Hoghton Tower woods. I entered through a small wooden gate in a stone wall, pushing hard against the leaves from previous years that had piled up behind it. Once inside, I was surrounded by huge, ancient beech trees. I remember the pale colour of the early beech leaves and the carpet of bluebells at my feet that spread as far as I could see. The sense of enchantment was extraordinary. For me it was a solace, a place to escape to for peace and quiet, where my imagination could be at play. I went a lot on my own, but also with friends, and we would construct dens from the ferns growing in the wood. We were free to roam as far as the eye could see. It was about endless adventure and places that seemed dangerous to us.


'The freedom I had was perhaps due to the tight community we lived in. You felt safe because everybody knew who you were. My grandparents lived next door to two spinsters called Molly and Nelly Brennan. Their walls were whitewashed and their floors flagged - all things my grandfather disapproved of intensely - but just going round to their house and being part of their world, which was a very simple one based around the church, was wonderful. They both worked as maids in the Tower, and one day they showed me a secret passageway up to the house hidden among the rhododendrons. It was made out of old railway sleepers and couldn't be seen from the main path.


'From quite an early age I spent a lot of time on farms. I enjoyed wandering around, constructing a raft to go on the pond, jumping from the hay loft onto the hay, or chasing after the geese. One particular day the farmer's wife, Mrs Hindle, made our lunch, which included a memorable rice pudding. She sent us out to eat it in the greenhouse, and I have this memory of my sister and me sitting on a bench surrounded by the heady smell of geraniums, eating this blissful, warm rice pudding. The village had between 10 and 12 farms back then. It was a dairying area as the heavy clay was no good for crops. I started working on a farm at weekends when I was 13, collecting eggs, feeding the hens and helping in the dairy. Looking back, I do think my time spent there sparked my interest in food. It just soaked into me.


'My mother and grandmother were both good cooks, and at that time most of our food came from in and around the village. Chickens were from the farms and we were raised on raw milk. Things were expected to have a very good taste. My mother was thrilled by the seasons and she'd be very excited when the first new potatoes arrived. We'd always have a special meal of new potatoes, grilled bacon and frozen peas for some peculiar reason, with what she called "best butter". I remember that sweet, slight earthiness of the potatoes. Every year I try to find that wonderful taste again but only occasionally do I succeed. My mother worked full-time, but sometimes I'd return from school and she'd have made vanilla slices or chocolate éclairs, and that was truly thrilling to come home to. It was an expectation that food mattered, and it was always a great pleasure in our house.


'I do go back to Hoghton, but it feels so very different now. You never see children playing in the fields anymore - it has been totally transformed. Gone are the days when, aged six, you could leave the house in the morning with a sandwich and not be expected home until teatime. There's even a sign outside the woods now saying ‘Do Not Enter', but I don't pay any attention to that.'


Sheila Dillon is a food journalist. She is well-known as the presenter of BBC Radio 4's 'The Food Programme', but first worked on the show as a reporter, then producer. Her investigative work has won many awards.



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