It’s a long story. In the early 1970s, I was in the States travelling on my own and stuck overnight in the Greyhound terminal in downtown Chicago amidst the smoking remains of recent terrible riots. (If all that sounds exotic let me say that until that time I had never travelled anywhere abroad.)
It was 3am, I was sat in the corner on my bag, very anxious, having recently been the victim of an attempted mugging and assault. I took out the only book I had with me which was John Masefield’s superb ‘The Old Front Line’ and, for some reason when I came to a few lines about the Crater the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
I returned to New York that night, next day flew to London and the day after that got in my battered old Hillman Imp and drove to the Somme. I didn’t know anything about it, didn’t have a map but headed for Albert. I got lost, went up a lane to some high ground to get my bearings, climbed a fence to a small ‘hill’ and to my amazement found myself at the Crater.
It had ‘called’ me over 4,000 miles in four days. In the following years I returned time and time again and invariably it was deserted. I found it a magical, poignant place, rich with memories and atmosphere.
Never thinking I would one day own the Crater, I decided to buy a tiny piece of the Somme battlefield, anywhere, simply just to own a ‘corner of a foreign field’.
I wrote over 200 letters to mayors, solicitors, newspapers etc, stating that I wished to buy a small plot of land on the Somme Battlefield. I went to a prestigious firm of solicitors in Westminster and they sent out the letter on their hugely impressive engraved letter heading – the thinking being that if someone thought I was both mad and rich it would cause something to happen but nothing ever did.
In the meantime I was regularly visiting Lochnagar, often travelling overnight on the ferry to save money and arriving at the Crater just before dawn. Then one day, to my amazement I got a letter from a notaire saying that he had seen one of my letters written over a year before and had in his office a farmer who wished to sell me a piece of land. It was Lochnagar. The farmer was in the office to get permission to fill it in, a fate that befell its sister mine, Y Sap two years previously.
The sale had to be done in utmost secrecy and took a long time but I consider myself enormously blessed and privileged to be its ‘steward’ for this stage of its life and, along with many dear friends to help preserve it for the next generation.