Prologue to The Voice From the Garden

John was not a religious man. It pained his wife, a regular churchgoer, that he would not go with her and their daughters to the Sunday services at their local church, where her family was buried and the girls had been christened. His mother-in-law, in spite of a strict religious upbringing herself, would berate her daughter for giving him a hard time. John was a good man, she said, and that was all that mattered. That it should be he who had the experience which led to this book, and which was to have such a lasting effect on him, was therefore most unexpected.

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The Loch Rannoch region of Perthshire is beautiful, mysterious and remote. On the south side of the Loch lies Tay Forest Park, a surviving remnant of the ancient Caledonian forest. To the west is Rannoch Moor, a melancholy wilderness and the largest uninhabited area in the British Isles, surrounded by distant mountains, and to the south-east the soaring heights of Schiehallion, or The Fairy Hill of the Caledonians. In July 1973 John took his family to stay on a farm on the northern shore, An Slios Min, the Side of Gentle Slopes. They enjoyed walking and holidaying away from the madding crowds, although Rannoch was undoubtedly the most remote place they had yet stayed in. Today its many walking and cycling routes can be considered and assessed in advance via the Internet; in 1973 all that was needed was an Ordnance Survey map and tips from the locals to feel that you were the only person in the world ever to have walked there.

John may not have been religious in any conventional sense but he was very conscious and respectful of nature. He was an avid gardener, loved the countryside and was concerned that man should protect the environment years before anyone talked seriously about saving the planet. On holidays he would usually go for a dawn walk while his family slept, and describe to them over breakfast the creatures he had seen and rare birds he had heard while they slumbered. One day, when it was too wet even for them to soldier through the valleys and up the mountains, they visited the nearby town of Pitlochry, and by the time they returned to the farm the rain had stopped and a warm, clear evening was promised. While the rest of the family loafed around the farm and waited for the evening meal, John, restless at being denied a day’s trekking, took the dog and went for a walk.

Old photo of Rannoch Lodge in 1919

Rannoch Lodge, 1919

Nearly two hours later he returned. He was visibly disturbed, pale and shaky. He wouldn’t tell the family what the matter was but he said he hadn’t had an accident and he wasn’t ill. Eventually, after much coaxing, he told them what had happened. He and the dog, in the stillness of that summer evening, had walked along the quiet road from the farm when he noticed, leading off the road, a rough stony track running alongside a thickly wooded area. They followed the track for a few minutes and then came across a pair of tall, wrought-iron gates, the right-hand one of which was slightly open. Unable to resist exploring John went in, and he and the dog followed a narrow path up a steep wooded hill.

Five minutes later they arrived at a big wooden shed and almost immediately a large creature rushed out from underneath, startling them both. The dog chased on after it and John followed him, along the path up the hill, catching glimpses through the trees of the Loch down below, faintly glistening in the early evening sunlight. As they walked John noticed the dog becoming increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. Suddenly a word flashed into his mind – Pamela. He thought nothing of it and hurried on after the dog. It came again – Pamela. By now the path had become narrower and twisted and turned through the wood, and as it did so the word became more frequent and insistent in his mind – Pamela, Pamela.

And then they were at the top of the hill and in front of them was a large standing stone, facing a wonderful view across a wooded valley surrounding the Loch. As he stood enjoying the scene John realised the stone was the headstone of a grave, and as he peered closely at the front of it and tried to clear the lichen away from the words, he realised he was looking at a name, and that name was Pamela.

At that moment, he said, he was filled with an awful sense of depression despite the beauty of the place, and calling the still-agitated dog to him tried to find the path to return down the hill. Dusk was now falling and the feeling of depression was giving way to panic that he would never find their way out. Eventually he did, and in the fading light as he left the garden – for he realised that, for all its wildness now, a garden was what it had been – he saw that on the iron gates were two sets of letters: at the top OM and at the bottom PH.

John was never a communicative man at the best of times, so the family was surprised but gratified – for they were intrigued by what he had told them – when the next day he asked their host about the grave and who Pamela was. The farmer said she was Pamela Hambro, the PH on the gates, and he gave John and his family the little information he knew about her. He seldom walked near the garden, he told them: if he had his dogs with him, they would never move past the gates.

John refused to speak directly of his experience again, except to allude to it obliquely whenever discussions about life and death arose, his old scepticism less certain, more uncomfortable. He was my father, I a teenager on that holiday when I saw him troubled in a way that I had never seen before, nor since. The memory of what he told us stayed with me through my various lives until many years later, when on 2nd January – on what I thought was a whim but which turned out to be the eve of her birth – I decided to investigate what the farmer had said about Pamela, and to try to find out about this woman who had caused my father to question his whole philosophy. It would lead me through a life that started in the England of 1900 and ended in a different world altogether.