In the closing stages of my stay in The Wizard, we moved back to Crowborough.
Initially the coach parked up on Ashdown forest, the area so badly damaged only a few months later in the Great Storm of ’87, but we knew we couldn’t stay there long so after a few days we moved to a little-used car park on the very posh golf course which was conveniently close to town, without being anywhere residential.
This was in the couple of weeks preceding Christmas, and we were enjoying the luxury of hot showers and laundry done at parents’ houses, and the chance for our friends to visit us in our travelling home.
It also meant that we could walk into town to see friends and go to the pub during the festive season.
I remember a couple of times when the journey home was less straight forward than normal.
One was when I was on my own, everyone else having gone to see relatives, and I was returning from a bit of a session at a mate’s house, somewhat the worse for wear after partaking in some of our magical fungus wine.
I walked back to the coach, knowing that even with nobody else there, I could get in through a removable panel in the driver’s window, (any non-resident would have been dissuaded from trying this by the prospect of getting eaten by two furious dogs) but when I arrived I discovered that although I could remove the window panel easily enough – to be met by the delighted faces of Cara and Oddie, grinning at me through the opening – climbing up and into the coach was beyond me in my, um, uncoordinated state, shall we say.
After one or two unsuccessful attempts, I gave up. The dogs took this as a signal it was walkies time and easily jumped down to join me.
I remember sitting, leant up against the back of the coach, it was a beautiful clear night with millions of stars visible out here on the pitch dark golf course, the dogs came back from their wanderings and sat with me until sometime later the others came home and found me cheerfully watching the sky.
On another occasion, on new year’s eve, a whole load of us walked back from a pub in town to spend the night partying in the wood-burner cosiness of The Wizard.
We were making our unsteady way up the main road, in fairly treacherous conditions, as it had been snowing that week and the pavements were icy.
My friend and former flatmate, Dan, was as intoxicated as the rest of us, possibly more so. The way I remember it, as we passed the now-defunct Crest Hotel, Dan climbed onto the raised flower bed at the front of the hotel, which had a large lighted sign in the centre, surrounded by the shoots of small plants beginning to poke through the thick snow.
With obvious deep concentration, he then began to tramp along the front of the two foot high stone flowerbed, systematically stamping the shoots flat.
At this point, natural karma came to the rescue and Dan, not paying attention, walked smack into the sign, fell off the wall, and landed with an unhealthy crunch on the ice-covered tarmac.
Attempting to rise, he slipped over again, landing back on the same arm that he’d come down the first time.
He did, I believe, at this point vocally indicated that his night was not now going according to plan, and that he’d “broken my fooking arm”.
Being the bunch of sympathetic and caring friends that we were, this was of course met with gales of festive laughter and we continued on our merry, weaving our way to the party wagon on the edge of town.
All the way back, Dan complained – rather unnecessarily, we thought – about the pain in his arm, and we supportively ignored him.
Arriving st the coach, we proceeded to get into the swing of the new year festivities, but Dan seemed to be uninterested in joining in, and even went as far as upending one of the coach seats over himself like a tortoiseshell.
Thus protected from being trampled by the staggering revellers of the party, he remained there all night.
New year’s day dawned bright and beautiful – although I couldn’t say the same for the surviving occupants of the coach party – and the stragglers departed, taking the miserable and bad tempered Dan with them.
The hospital was en-route to town, so a couple of more sober, newly sympathetic friends took him to A+E, where they discovered, to the surprise of all but Dan, that he had indeed broken his arm and had it seen to there and then.
I’m sure he can laugh about it now, we saved time by laughing about it at the time.
The days on the edge of town, parked on that golf course, those were the final days of the good times in The Wizard. Snuggled up in the warm, with the smell of woodsmoke and the warm glow of paraffin lamps, it was impossible to tell that the landscape that we’d inhabited for those last few months would soon be changed forever in s single night by the forces of nature, but I could tell that a chapter of my life was coming to an end and I must return to the rat-race soon.
I stayed in the coach, in a much depleted state, after the owners had moved out, while I looked for a job back in my home town, probably for sentimental reasons, and wasn’t sad to move on.
It was a period in my life that I wouldn’t change for anything, a time that taught me independence, self sufficiency, and a love and respect for nature and the countryside that I never had previously, and which has only become greater over the years.
I’ve never again escaped the treadmill of working life in the way I did all those years ago, but I look back on that time as if it were yesterday, so intense was the experience, it will always be with me.
I urge anyone who has the opportunity to make such a break to do so without a second’s hesitation, you won’t regret it.