|Uncle Silas's cottage is gone. Long since in a state of dilapidation, it has been taken down and rebuilt as part of the adjoining cottage. Happily, nothing is lost.
The picture and the atmosphere built up by H.E. Bates remain, even after all these years.
The lane, at the top of which lies the cottage, is off the Rushden road at Sharnbrook, and it is unaltered. Narrow, steep, cobble-stoned, it has high grassed banks on either side.
The garden and cottages still answer to Bates's description: "A small thatched cottage on the edge of a pine wood, where nightingales sang passionately in great numbers through the early summer nights ... the fragrance of pines, which mingled subtly with the exquisite honeysuckle scent, the strange vanilla heaviness from the creamy elderflowers in the garden hedge.
"It was quiet there, except for the soft water whispering sound of leaves and boughs.
"The potato patch was at the far end of the long garden, where the earth was wanned under the wood-side, rows of fat-podded peas and beans and full-fruited bushes of currant and gooseberry. By the house, under the sun-white wall, the sweet williams and white pinks flamed softly against the hot marigolds, and the orange poppies flat opened to drink in the sun."
Uncle Silas's home - Bates's country. H.E. Bates has long since left his native Rushden; has travelled and written about the world over. But for us, Bates's country will always be North Bedfordshire. Places mentioned either by name or implication in his books of short stories: "Felmersham, Souldrop, Longleys Hill, Yelden-Open-Fields, Knotting Fox, Chellington, Solbrook (Sharnbrook), and Bedford itself.
"An' I knowed a chap in Bedford once, what had talking hens."
Places by implication: The big house with the cedar trees. The house of the paper-hanging story. The house with the high wall. How near do we get in our guessing-the-place game? Then there are the jumbled place names (Castle Hanwick), and the pubs, tantalisingly borrowed from one village to the other.
The Silas' cottage is gone, the stories (accepted as classics) live on with the now inseparable Ardizzone illustrations to join the ranks of the famous pairs - Dickens and Cruikshank - Alice and Tenniel.
Before leaving the cottage, one thing we have to tell. Mr C. Symonds, who lives in it, and was brought up in the remaining cottage tells us that there never was a cellar. But this spoils nothing, for us there will always be a cellar: "Stop omplodgin about boy! Nip down the cellar for a bottle of neck oil!"
Uncle Silas was characterised from H.E. Bates's great-uncle Joseph Betts, who lived all his life at Barleycroft, Sharnbrook.
In reply to criticisms that the stories are far-fetched, Bates counters that as a picture of country life of that time, they are understated.
Characters become rarer as town and country merge, and as standards of education become nearer to a common level. Silas, described as earthy, and as a lovable old reprobate, to Bates at least needs no justification. But one wonders if the now older author sees a narrowness in his early tilts at the established Church.