It is the summer of 1939, and like the rest of Europe, the residents of the little idyllic Sussex fishing port of Bexham are preparing for war. Beautiful but shy Judy Melton, daughter of a naval war hero, her determinedly feckless friend, the social butterfly Meggie Gore-Stewart, seemingly demure Mathilda Eastcott, and Corrie Hogarth, the tomboy daughter of the owner of the local boatyard, are all in their very individual ways determined to play an active part in the defence of their country. Knitting socks and bomb-dodging is not what they have in mind for themselves while their husbands and brothers, fathers and lovers are away fighting.
But attitudes to women's roles in a warring world are difficult to change, and at first all four find it impossible to settle for the traditional kind of work that their families envisage. However, it is not just the young women of Bexham who are determined to find new roles for themselves - so are their mothers. In this manner the little Sussex village, facing as it does the coastline of Nazi-invaded France, finds its closely sewn social fabric gradually unstitch, inch by little inch.
Under the tree on the green the women of Bexham meet to look back on a landscape that has changed irrevocably, and which they have in their own ways helped to alter. None of them are the same, and yet, with the men returning from war, they are expected to slip back into their simple roles of mother, daughter, grandmother. This, more than anything perhaps, is their greatest sacrifice. Having been freed by war, they have now to relinquish that very independence that gave them the liberty for which they once fought.
Only the chestnut tree planted by Corrie at the edge of the village flourishes in the accepted manner, finally becoming the uniting symbol of all that has passed forever.