We have travelled west out of weekend London to Hughenden Manor and are sitting in a gently undulating orchard on a picnic-covered rug. The trees cast their shade in irregular inkblots. The sky is aquamarine and cloudless. A far-off jet engine echoes faintly. Our daughter is dressed in a pink gauze skirt and satin-effect pink top and looks a Midsummer Night’s Dream. She runs giggling through a clump of dead daffodils, fists pumping. “Oh it’s a woodland fairy!” says a lady in a kindly tone. Unseen birds toot and trill.
The orchard is planted in perfectly straight lines, which aren't obvious unless you are sitting next to one of them. Then you can see the rank stretching away. Tags dangle from branches, revealing unexpected names like Laxton’s Fortune. Lane’s Prince Albert. George Cave. Families sit at intervals quietly appreciating being near to the earth. I lie down on my back and let the breeze play on my face and tweak at my hair. Suddenly I am between sleep and consciousness, half-remembering fragments of childhood and holidays as my daughter’s shouts ebb and flow in the air. All the while the birds sing.
After some time we decide to investigate the gardens and wearily raise ourselves up from the ground. We pass a group of majestic fir trees. One, its needles pointing downwards, looks like it is dripping wax onto the earth below. On the other side we are flanked by a line of Horse Chestnut trees which is occasionally broken, giving tantalising flashes of raking Chiltern hillsides and buttercup meadows.
We plunge into the coolness of the woods, where cowslips and bluebells quiver in the draught. Two daffodils are flowering in the damp chill under a holly tree. We come almost into the sunshine again and our daughter runs under the shade of a wide and ancient fir tree, its trunk skeins of plaited wood.
We cross a broken fence into the meadow and our daughter runs ahead singing stories and entreating us to follow. “Come with me on my train!” We follow until she tires and then all sit down on a fallen tree trunk. She stands on the slippery bark and starts telling another story. She slides and falls – not far – but continues on in her excitement, incorporating the tumble into her tale. I get up and haul her to her feet. She realizes that she has scraped her legs and her eyes fill with tears. I look into their brown depths and see my wife, my mother and my sister, as usual. And hurt and sadness she doesn’t yet know. I hoist her up onto my shoulders and we return up the hill towards Disraeli’s grand house.