Monday 4 June
Fred and I hid our bikes behind the grain dryer and walked the rest of the way up the hill. On the slope the grass was tall and wet and I carried Fred on my shoulders to keep his trousers dry. It was a little before ten in the morning; the vale was bright below us, the sky grey and unpromising. It smelt like summer but the fields of green wheat carried a flinty wind. The day before we had watched some of the rain-soaked river pageant on the BBC; more rain was forecast for the afternoon.
At the top of the hill we found Terry (handyman and farm labourer who lives in a flat at The Manor), Christopher (ex-soldier and butterfly expert, lives in The Old Post Office), Tim (entrepreneur and writer, The Maltings) and Julian (car + real ale enthusiast, and Master of Ceremonies, The Old Vicarage). They had already started building the beacon.
Terry had pulled a trailer load full of wood to the top of the hill with his tractor. Julian had bought the wood from a reclamation yard in Devizes for £45; it was building waste and full of nails, but it was dry and it would burn well enough.
We worked happily together. Christopher was quietly in charge; Terry – who rides his bike to nearby Upavon to do his shopping and to visit the pub (currently serving Wadworth’s Red, White and Brew) – told us about the time he was run down by a car driving the wrong way around a local round-about, and how he went through its windscreen. There were four people in the car. Showing no ill-effects he shook his head at the memory, and turned to pick up some more wood.
When the beacon was built, and its hollow interior filled with straw ready to set alight at 10.26pm (the official lighting time for all “charities, organisations and individuals etc, including hospitals, clubs, pubs, Lions, Round Table and Rotary Clubs, Masonic Lodges, Caravan Club, Trinity House, commercial companies, Private Households and others etc.”), Terry drove home in his tractor and the rest of us walked back down the hill.
Outside the churchyard is a large commemorative stone set with a brass plaque that records the population of our village in the year 1000 (60), 1500 (120) and 2000 (60). We reckon we are 68 today, and almost all of us turned up at 4.00pm for the village’s official jubilee celebrations. Tables had been set down the middle of Church Lane, a union flag flew from the church tower and bunting hung across the avenue of chestnut trees. And in the midst of a cold spell, it was warm! Around lunchtime the temperature had flipped up a notch and the wind had fallen and by the time we blocked off the village square with chairs and the children were tearing around on scooters and bicycles and Julian, perched on the stone, led our first loyal toast the sun was on our backs and the prospect of a four hour street party was one of uncomplicated pleasure.
The cava flowed, there were crisps and several bags of toxic looking ‘onion rings’ which I thought delicious but a distinguished artist (Number 17) thought tasted like BO. Games began in the field behind the village hall: apple bobbing and three-legged races, egg and spoon. Initially the children took part, gradually the grown-ups took possession. A band from Trowbridge played, hamburgers and sausages sizzled on the barbecue, Dick (a pilot turned village oracle and cartoonist, Water Meadows) had us stand to toast the Queen and the band played the national anthem and we sang along and hip hip hooray’d. Official photograph. Dancing the conga into the field. Poetry reading. More dancing. Butter yellow sunshine, cricket in the field, football, Fleetwood Mac, the last sausages off the barbecue, a noisy progress through the village, change into winter clothing and straight out and a march towards the hill in sinking light eating strawberry bootlaces, picking up stragglers along the road, making way for the 4x4s carrying the infirm and the very drunk, the village relocated on to the hill, Christopher holding out for 10.26 precisely, just over a spur of hill our neighbouring village goes up in orange flames and a frenzy of bright sparks like climbing mayfly, our crowd heckling for retaliation, on the other side of the vale fires at Martinsell, Milk Hill, Etchilhampton, Devizes … at three miles their fireworks blushing like perfect roses, the orange roar of our beacon which suddenly throws heat in our faces and draws a black screen across the night so all we have left to look at is the scarlet and platinum and tiger-coloured sprites at loggerheads in the uplift. It is a fine beacon and we are all pleased. One final hip-hip-hooray. The heat, if you get close enough, dries the eyeballs and pinches our cheeks. We back off, slowly, watching it caving in.