Time & Place: The hippies on the hill

Time & Place: The hippies on the hill

Historian Saul David grew up running wild with his cousins on the family
commune in Wales – until they all fell out over money

The Times/UK
October 10, 2004

I was brought up with a whole bunch of cousins in the Wye Valley
during the hippy days of the 1970s. There were about 30 children at
one stage, running around like savages at a place called Callow Hill,
near Monmouth, which was owned by my grandparents. They lived in the
big house, but my dad had five brothers and a sister, and they all
lived in various houses scattered on the hill.

I wouldn’t call it an estate because that’s a bit grand, but we had
a couple of hundred acres. My forebears were fantastically wealthy
Armenians who came to England from India in the 19th century and did
what foreign types do – they married into a penniless but well-bred
local family. My great-great-grandfather, who made his money in the
jute trade, had at one time 600 houses in London and within three
generations the money was gone.

We didn’t care. Life was wonderful. We roamed the woods and swam in
the ponds, we built dens and we had tree houses. The cousins were a
self-contained clan and, because the hill was up a long drive and
relatively secure, we were allowed the run of the place. It got a
bit Lord of the Flies at times, with the older cousins setting up
pretty brutal situations. My oldest cousin, Simon, who was basically
in charge, had a gang. Everybody wanted to join it because all the
older children were in it, but the only way you could be a member
was if you handed over your pocket money, which everybody did. The
saddest times of my childhood were when my cousins moved away.

The house we lived in was originally put up as a temporary place for
my father to work when he was an undergraduate. It was an outhouse
basically, but he moved in with his wife and started having children,
of which I am the fourth, and it grew organically over the years. When
my stepmother first saw it she described it as a series of potting

Life on the hill was like living in a commune. I went to school
because I liked it but nobody forced me to. You’d hardly guess it
if you met my aunts and uncles now, but at the time everybody bought
into the hippy theme. Some of the parents were all for educating their
children themselves, not that it lasted long, and Mum got very into
self-sufficiency at one point, with her vegetable plot and her farming
and her pigs. She was a bit of an amateur. Her butter was never quite
the thing and she had to put it in an old Anchor wrapper and pretend it
was bought or we wouldn’t eat it. It was the same with her bacon. She
was never adept at getting the hair off the pig, so there’d always be
little spiky bits on the rind, which gave us an indication that it was
Mum’s. She used to write “Danish” on the side but we were never fooled.

By the 1970s the place had got so shabby they chose to film the second
series of The Survivors there. That was a television drama about a
post-nuclear-type survival scenario and Callow Hill was ropey enough
to fit the bill. We were extras and from then on I was fascinated
with making television. I have just completed a series of historical
documentaries for Five.

I also made a BBC documentary about the Zulu war, as well as writing
a book about it, and that was influenced by my life at the hill,
too. One of the chief stories in Zulu concerns the battle of Rorke’s
Drift, when 140 British soldiers held out against 4,000 Zulus for 24
hours. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won, more than in any other single
action in British military history, and a lot of the soldiers were
recruited from Monmouthshire. It was local lore when I was growing
up and I always promised myself that one day I would write about it.

Now my father owns the big house, as he was the only one whose
finances allowed him to take it over, helped by my stepmother,
who just happened to have a few quid. There are no cousins there
now as there were all kinds of problems over inheritance. It was
idyllic when we were growing up but everybody fell out ultimately,
as my father and his siblings scrabbled over the last bones of a once
immense fortune. It was very un-hippyish. I don’t think inheriting
money is a terribly good thing for anybody.

Zulu by Saul David, Viking, £20. Interview by Cally Law