St Johns Road (no apostrophe is applied) from Withycombe Raleigh rises from the village towards the Common and once past the once muddy farm lane that led to the old church of St John in the Wilderness, continues to a crossing with the Budleigh Salterton to Woodbury Castle main road.
To visit the church while taking this route, cow pats no longer need to be dodged on the black tarred cul-de-sac, merely the crammed cars attached to modern red brick houses, themselves also squashed together, but the latter between the old farm buildings and the walls of the church graveyard. One such red brick box, even replaces the formerly thatched stable building, where the farm’s cart horses and their sparkling accoutrements once used to nightly reside. The church, which one time provided Blitz sanctuary for the gold gilt emblems from the City of London, seems now plain and somewhat severe when compared with the recollections from my own boyhood, when in times long past, infrequently, and regrettably sometimes belatedly, I hand-pumped the organ’s then manual bellows.
Once again climbing St John’s Road from the church, no more new sprawl of bungalows or other modern cramped housing is yet to be found. At Seven Acre Corner, the mighty beeches on the edge of the Bystock Estate land, felled just before my own departure from Devonshire, for the education of doubtful quality at a Somerset boarding school and holidays in the cramped Home Counties suburbs, still remain un-replaced. An entirely pointless set of No Entry signs, however, soon emerge to break some small continuity with the past and blot the former glow worm abundant hedgerows, across from where the Bradbears’ bungalow once stood, now substituted by a more comfortable and not entirely unattractive, similarly wooden building.
Continuing to the cross roads of St Johns Road with the B3180 Woodbury to Budleigh Salterton road, on the corner of the Withycombe Raleigh Common, there once stood a splendid beech tree. At its height, in the mid-nineteen-fifties, where the main trunk became so slender, that in my judgment, it would no longer take the weight of a small pre-adolescent boy, I once carved my own initials MC, perhaps with those of another, which depending on the year of my highest ascent, could well have been either M.F., P.D., or S.O. This tree, once standing resplendent and isolated on a bank carefully and solely maintained by an anti-adder, leather-gaitered and booted labourer wielding his long-handled scythe, in September 2011, however, on a brief passing, this beech tree at first was seemingly nowhere to be seen, lost as it was in a mass of undergrowth, rising perhaps as high as some fifteen to twenty feet high.
By retracing one’s steps back down St Johns Road, by some fifty to seventy-five yards, rising from above the surrounding mass of twisted ivy, hawthorn and intertwined tendrils of knotted vine, some beech leaves may, however, still be briefly glimpsed. This sight is indeed a dreadful image of complete capitulation to the forces of unbridled nature and the main image that keeps returning to me of my recent return to my home country of England.
It was the last day but one of my holiday when I spotted this dreadful neglect. Up to that point it was the fate of another tree that I believed would most vividly remain with me following my brief return to my once homeland. I had travelled from Plymouth, through the Blackdown Hills then on into Somerset and Dorset, through Salisbury to Winchester, as far north as Banbury in North Oxfordshire and via South West London eventually returned to this spot in Devon. Along all that way the slow agonising death of England’s once wonderful crowning glory of conker trees was everywhere in evidence. It seems our horse chestnuts are now to follow the elms, nearly all now long-since disappeared. Yet, somehow, this slow strangulation of one solitary beech tree, with its personal links to my long gone youth, hit home even more deeply, perhaps as no outside agent could be blamed – individual selfishness and our own disinterest alone is killing that once fine tree. Fitting emblems all, however, for England as I found her in September 2011!