But in the south-western quarter things are quite different. Here Surrey is astonishingly hilly and beautiful, and although it is too well-visited to feel 'remote', and you can never quite get away from people, it is spacious and 'wild' in places, in a managed, National-Trusty sort of way. I know this area quite well. My parents moved to close-by Liphook in early 1981. Dad had just retired, aged sixty - gosh, he was younger then than I am now! - and besides the amenities of pleasant local towns like Haslemere, Petersfield, and of course Liphook itself, there were picturesque country villages all around, full of decent pubs for decent lunches. Watching Mum and Dad live there gave me a taste of the sweetness of retired life when you have an adequate income, and illness is under control.
Their lifestyle, and the way they made it come about, told me that a successful retirement was like a successful business - you constantly looked about for new ideas, you made plans, you built up your capital, and you organised your schedule so that you could enjoy a succession of good times, one event after another. You diary was a vital tool. Days were full of meetups, people to contact, and places to be. Mum and Dad were active: they both bowled at the local club; a social life came with that club, including bowling holidays in sunny places; there were household projects galore; and plenty of holidays, including cruises. Sunny days indeed.
In 1987 or so, my parents took part in a BBC television documentary about retirement. I think it was called O'Donnell investigates...Age. Dad was approached and asked whether a camera crew could shadow my parents (and other couples) on one of those bowling holidays to the West Country. It would have been somewhere like Exmouth, Teignmouth or Sidmouth. So for a week they were filmed doing whatever they did, from breakfast to bedtime. Everyone was encouraged to do 'noddies', apparently a term meaning 'just talk to your friends, but exaggerate things slightly, so that your nods and smiles and lip movements and gestures are obvious, and will show up nicely in the camera lens'. A few club members, and Dad was one, were properly interviewed. Dad looked the epitome of a comfortably-off Retired Civil Servant: clearly in great health, bronzed, relaxed, thoroughly enjoying life. And Dad was a good talker, making clear and concise points with his quite posh voice, encapsulating the essence of what was so nice about a sunny retirement on a decent, index-linked pension.
Of course, when we eventually saw the programme, it became obvious that the BBC had had a secret agenda! Yes, there was Dad, and the rest of the bowling club, having a fantastic time. Dad's footage was not messed around with, and he came across very well indeed. Then cut to...some other pensioners, the ones trying to live on a meagre company pension...or poor souls on the poverty-line, surviving on the Old Age Pension provided by the State. Oops! The contrast was painful. The morals: by hook or by crook, get some money together for retirement; and don't trust TV production companies.
I took on board two big things from that episode:
1. A golden retirement was precious, and worth bringing about. I began to regard my Revenue job not as a career, but as an investment for the future, worth taking very seriously, so that I built up salary and years of service, the keys to a pension worth having.
2. There were plenty of people around who - through bad choices, or sheer lack of choice - would be stuck with a substandard pension. They deserved my understanding. It wouldn't do to feel in any way smug.
This said, I continued to admire Mum and Dad's lifestyle, especially when you considered that they'd built it up from almost nothing. Both came from ordinary families. Dad, for instance, had had a moneyless upbringing in rural Devon (see what I said about that in the eulogy I composed and read out at his funeral in the post My address at Dad's Funeral on Wednesday 3rd June 2009, dated 2 June 2009). Mum and Dad struggled financially until Dad got his promotion to Inspector of Taxes in 1963. Then things took off. New houses followed, first in Southampton (1963), then South London (1979), then Liphook (1981), with a final move in 2000 to the house I now live in.
While they lived at Liphook - a long period of about twenty years - I visited them often. Nearly always, it seemed, on sunny days. If I came over on a Sunday, Mum would cook a delicious lunch, and then we'd go for an afternoon walk. One favourite place would be Little Frensham Pond.
Actually the official name is 'Frensham Little Pond', and there is a 'Frensham Great Pond' nearby. Both are on Frensham Common. This is an area of undulating sandy heathland north-west of Hindhead, west of the A3, and in the furthest south-west corner of Surrey. It's very beautiful. Both 'ponds' are in fact lakes. They have sandy shores and are partly surrounded by woodland, some of it deciduous, some of it pine. The air is clear, and from the higher parts (such as near the Devil's Jumps to the south) there are wide views to be had. Photographically it is superb, at least in bits.
The other day it was bright and cheerful, and I decided to pay Little Frensham Pond another visit. I hadn't been there since 2009 (see my post Heavy metal on 28 September 2009).
I set off in late morning and stopped first at Haslemere, where there is a Waitrose, to buy a sandwich and a smoothie. I devoured these in Fiona, but it wasn't exactly a hassle-free experience. Waitrose itself was fine. It was the later arrivals at the car park.
I'd been very lucky: I'd seen an empty space straight off, and had slid into it without hesitation. It was a Saturday, and the car park was otherwise completely full. People arriving after me had to circle round, like sharks, waiting for a space to become free. If there was any sign that somebody might be on the verge of departure, these cars would top dead and wait to see what they did. It seemed at bit selfish, that: because nobody behind them could get past, and if one circulating car stopped, then they all had to.
And some seemed to think they had a divine right to hold up the rest. These were invariably owners of newish posh vehicles, whose drivers sat in a high-and-mighty position. Typically Range Rover drivers, and there are plenty of that breed in this well-off part of Surrey! They'd stop, and then glare intently at you in an impatient manner that said 'I'm Very Important and Well-Off and My Time Is More Valuable Than Anyone Else's. Hurry up and let me have your space, damn you!' I had one or two of such folk stopping just behind me, while I ate my sandwich and drank my smoothie, and listened to BBC4's Money Box on the radio. They clearly thought 'Aha! There's somebody in the driver's seat! Let's hustle them along.'
Well, sod you. I wasn't having it. I lazily listened, and lazily ate and drank. I fiddled with my hair and lipstick. I consulted my phone and may have yawned a bit. I didn't actually give them the finger, but it was a close thing. If any of these drivers had got out and tapped on my window, I had searing words ready for them. None did: a pity.
I will not be cajoled or bullied into doing anything I don't want to do. I owed them nothing. I was not a member of their club or caste. They could huff and puff as much as they pleased, I had half an hour and more left on my ticket, and they could swivel. I wasn't quite goaded into bloodymindedness, but my peace had been disturbed by arrogant people who needed a damned good thrashing! Only joking.
I was soon on my way in any case. The sun was still shining. The Pond drew me.
My goodness, it was cold and frosty there! And the sun was low already, brilliant but quite unable to warm things up. Everyone was well clad. The air was wonderfully crisp. I had my Alt-Berg walking boots on. I intended to walk up to a ridge, then descend, circumnavigate the Pond, and so back to Fiona.
The pictures will give you a flavour of the place. It always strikes me as odd that the Pond really has a sandy shoreline, like a beach. The paths hereabouts are sandy too. It was gorgeous being out on such a sunny day! You can see how bright it was, because I had to screw up my eyes:
Well, I got up onto the ridge. It separates the Little Pond from the Great Pond. Then I worked my way down and around the Little Pond. It was very much like it had been, not only in 2009, but all those years before, in the 1980s and 1990s. Slightly more manicured now, perhaps. Modern fencing. Pathways made a little more suitable for scooters and wheelchairs and buggies. New seats. One seat (on the eastern shore) had STRENGTH AND COURAGE carved on it:
Strength and courage. The chief things very old people wish for.
Then it was back along the edge of the Pond, stopping frequently to shoot the lowering sun and the darkening lake view.
A very special place. And what a feeling of continuity. This had been the haunt of my parents thirty years ago. Now it was my turn. I hoped that somehow I would still be able to come here, thirty years hence, and reflect on what it was to be young, then middle-aged, then old. Everything else about me would be completely insignificant.