Again, while completing my latest book, Running UP The Down Escalator, I have had to cut some family substantial bits of text – but feel that some of them might be worth preserving online. In this section I tell the story of how our family came to live in Hill House, Little Rissington.
Once back in England, we found ourselves posted to Little Rissington, home at the time to the RAF’s Central Flying School. I still remember my reaction as we drove down the hill into the village for the first time—an intense shock, almost revulsion, at how green the landscape was.
The family took over a dilapidated Cotswold farmhouse, Hill House. Originally it had been two homes, later turned into one. It had been home to some of the largest local landowners. It was ours for £3,031 3s 3d—in days when thruppence apparently meant something. Underneath the oldest end of the house was a cellar, which one visiting expert said was older than the house, at some 400 years, and possibly hundreds of years older than that.
Finally, we felt rooted.
That said, it took decades for the family to be fully accepted into the village—though we played with local children from the outset. One memory, when Tim found a fox cub in our garden and handed it on to our friend Bryan Lane, who lived across the road, was of a battle royal between his mother, Mary, and the local hounds.
The local squire, Sir Newton Rycroft, was nationally renowned for his success in breeding hounds[i]—but they had an unquenchable appetite for fox. When they got wind of Foxy, housed in a cage behind the Lanes’ cottage, the rabid pack tried to pour through the narrow gap between two houses occupied by unrelated Laneses. Our Mrs Lane, who helped Pat in the house, stood four-square in the passageway, her apron fluttering, a female version of Leonidas in the pass at Thermopylae, fiercely clutching her broom and batting back hounds as if she were playing Test cricket.
Then, shortly after we settled in, a fourth child arrived in 1960, Tessa. And perhaps this is a good moment to offer a brief sketch of my siblings, who appear several times in the book. I love them all, clearly and sometimes dearly, but will exaggerate their main features as a cartoonist might.
Gray was born some sixteen months after me. I wasn’t particularly aware of any sibling rivalry, but my body still sports scars caused by accidents where I came off worst. A toe semi-severed by his spade on a beach in Northern Ireland, a dent in my head from when he was throwing breeze block down from a pile of the same, and another scar from when he turned an icy cold shower on me in the bath in Cyprus—and I cracked my head on the rim.
The more of my blood I saw, the less I liked it.
My brother was slightly taller than me, with Paul McCartney good looks, resulting in a somewhat chequered love life—including running off with his best friend’s wife indelicately soon after serving as their best man. Eventually, he married a Spanish-German girl, Christina, producing three children, before being divorced.
He worked a good deal in China in later years, another globe trotter, another outlier. Things we have shared include playing guitar, him quite well, me badly, but both with gusto. The other thing he and I have shared is an interest in delving back into the family tree, which has proven to be full of surprises.
Next, in 1955, came Caroline, who has preferred the stay-at-home life. She and Tessa were sent off as weekly boarders to a convent school in Gloucester. One way Caroline horrified the nuns, among many, was by getting up in the middle of the night to free caged rabbits, due for execution the following day for biology experiments. Unfortunately, many of the escapees chose not to take advantage of their unexpected release—and were easily rounded up the next morning.
The nuns knew immediately who the culprit had been.
Like me, Caroline seemed to attract animals. When she was still at the tiny village school in Little Rissington, a huge scarlet macaw dropped out of the sky, landing on her shoulder. It refused to be separated from her until the intertwined pair were taken back to where she had first met it, a couple of miles downhill in Birdland, alongside the Windrush in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.
Caroline has been a wonderful painter, her range extending from colorful still lives and vibrant landscapes through to mysterious portraits, examples of which make up perhaps a third of the art in our own family home. But she has also painted in a different vein, on large canvases mostly now stacked unseen in a room next to her attic studio. These are heartfelt, allegorical paintings flagging sexual abuse, female genital cutting and other subjects most people are unlikely to want on display on their living room walls.
Then came Tessa, arriving with a hole in her heart, which subsequently healed. I remember listening to it, my ear against her chest. It’s a striking fact that she has seen more dead people in a day than I have seen in a lifetime, to date. Among other things: she was a nursing sister at the Brompton Hospital; she married a surgeon eight years younger; then produced three sons, all born two months prematurely—though all now strapping young men. Sadly, divorce followed there, too.
Like me, Tessa was fascinated by Tim’s flying record—accompanying him on official trips, including one to Russia with Princess Anne. This was to celebrate the bravery of the Arctic convoy crews, for which Tim would be awarded the Arctic Star.
Less prominent in the book are Elaine’s two siblings, Christine, and Charles. He was involved in a car crash in the early 1970s that sadly damaged him for life. She combined music and archaeology, marrying late—to the humorist, Michael Green, some thirty years her senior. Best remembered for his The Art of books (Acting, Fishing, Rugby, Sailing and so on), he also wrote others, including The Boy Who Shot Down an Airship. That boy, he believed, was him.
He had fired an air rifle at the R101 as it passed overhead, he claimed, and was horrified when it subsequently crashed in France, killing most of those aboard.
Meanwhile, at the heart of the Hill House story, and an historic feature of our otherwise workaday village, was St Peter’s Church. Dating back to the thirteenth century, the church has long had close connections to the RAF base atop the hill.[ii] At over 700 feet, the airfield was built ahead of WW2—the highest in mainland Britain, often windswept and bitterly cold. As a result, national weather reports sometimes include readings from Little Rissington.
We witnessed wonderful air shows there, the sound of incoming Merlin engines echoing off giant hangars. And at one point I also enjoyed being taken up in a Tiger Moth biplane, looping the loop—with the Cotswolds hanging somewhere over my head.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the St Peter’s cemetery includes memorials and gravestones commemorating many lost aircrews, from around the world. For us, too, the church became the focus for family marriages (including our own), christenings and funerals.
But Tim insisted on not having a funeral—instead letting the dust settle, followed by a wonderfully uplifting memorial service.[iii] In his case, it was conducted by The Venerable Ray Pentland CB, honorary chaplain to the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. Happily, Ray did the service with a twinkle in his eye and some delightful situational humour. Tim would have loved it.
Representing The Prince of Wales and the Chief of Air Staff was Air Vice Marshal Simon Ellard. The honour guard bore the Standard of No. 1 Squadron, with which Tim was serving when he was shot down in 1940. But the biggest highlight, representing his time in Russia, involved the arrival of nine nonogenarian Russian veterans of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, a time when the Soviet Union was our ally.
They told hair-raising tales, in one man’s case of being recruited into the Soviet army at the age of 12. Or, this from a woman wearing a red partisan beret and who came from one of the first towns to be hit by Operation Barbarossa, of fighting as part of groups that were treated with extreme savagery by Nazi forces and their allies. She described how they responded in kind.
Despite ongoing tensions with Vladimir Putin at the time, these extraordinary people were spontaneously applauded as they entered the church, which was dressed with glorious flower displays created by our daughter Gaia.* The veterans’ medals, arrayed in chest-loads, were something to behold°.
At the reception afterward, our youngest daughter, Hania, told a somewhat typical story of Tim’s life as a father, grandfather and then, with Hania and Jake’s son Gene, great-grandfather. He had taught so many of us to drive, in the old Land Rover up on Little Rissington airfield. And he also taught any of us interested to shoot—rifles, shotguns, air rifles, bows, and arrows. But when it came to teaching Gaia to shoot a rifle, he chose to do so in his large greenhouse, out behind the barn.
Gaia: “What if I miss?”
Another highlight of the day was the flypast by a Hurricane Mk 1, R4118 UP-W, flown by Stu Goldspink—the only Hurricane from the Battle of Britain still airborne at the time. Stu had flown it across from Duxford, Cambridgeshire. After a display involving looping the loop a few times, the aircraft left with a final waggle of its wings, heading back east, the sound of its Merlin engine fading into the distance.
A moving celebration of the most important man in my life—and, I suspect, in those of a fair few others.
* Rather than have one eulogy, the family served up a five-part tribute, with me kicking off, then Gray, then Tessa (who accompanied Tim on so many of his diplomatic adventures, notably a trip to Russia), then Lydia Elkington (Gray’s daughter) and finally Gil Chambers (Tessa’s oldest son), reading one of Caroline’s poems—about Pat, Tim’s wife of 70-plus years.
° When, years ago, I couldn’t make a government-hosted reception, in London’s Mayfair, for Soviet air force officers who had flown with Tim, I asked Gaia to go in my stead. I asked her to thank the Russians—for such they were again—for their service in the Great Patriotic War. She said that they promptly pulled her to their chests, leaving her face imprinted with their rows of medals. The squadron’s Russian interpreter later sent Gaia boxes of Soviet propaganda, saying he wanted to give her something—and had nothing else to send.
[iii] John Elkington, A salute to Tim Elkington, https://johnelkington.com/2019/05/a-salute-to-tim-elkington