Thursday, 1 August 2013

Signing off

And so I come to my last blog from Our Village.

I had hoped to write the blog once a week, for a year, but I’m finding that writing about the village is taking too much time away from living in it.

While the blog has attracted one or two complimentary comments over the last seven months, I don’t believe it is reaching many people on any kind of a regular basis, so I don’t think it will be missed. It is, after all, such a tiny grain of sand amongst so many others swept up by that vast ocean of an internet.

I have enjoyed the experience and I hope it has improved my command of language – which I can now apply to other writing projects.

Farewell! And thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Heat of the summer sun

Like the rest of the country, our village has been enjoying the long, hot summer days, with temperatures soaring consistently higher and higher to break all known records. Perhaps ‘sweltering’ is a better word for it, as far as humans are concerned; or maybe it depends whether you can relax and soak up the sun, or whether you have to work under its relentless glare.

Animals perhaps have to ‘endure’ rather than ‘enjoy’ the extremes of weather; and I’m afraid owners are often blissfully unaware of their suffering. I have cut back some of Tramp’s fur to help keep him cooler (but wouldn’t last any employment as a hairdresser). I didn’t have him shorn to expose his skin, as I have seen with other dogs, even those professionally groomed -- I would worry he would be burned by the sun.

Ignorance is one thing; uncaring cruelty another. A white Shetland pony is kept in a dusty paddock near the Old School House. I say ‘kept’ when really it has been abandoned there, forgotten by the little girl who, I suspect, is no longer gripped by ‘My little pony’’, nor any longer a victim of the marketing around it. Or maybe she just grew. When Tramp and I past it on our walk yesterday, the pony trotted across to greet us, as usual, swishing its tail to rid itself of flies and tossing its dirty, unkempt mane from its eyes.

As I stroked its nose and chatted to the pony, while Tramp sniffed around the grass verge, a large tractor and trailer lumbered up and drew to a rattling halt alongside us. I saw Young Sally was driving, with almost her whole upper body stretched to span the enormous black steering wheel, arms spread to their limit across the diameter. She had thundered through the village several times a day over the last week, and I knew she had some summer work helping to bring in the hay. She would wave joyously as she sailed by, high off the ground above our heads. She was in her element.

As she climbed down from the cab and said ‘hello,’ I saw Sally was carrying two large bottles of water. These she proceeded to empty into a plastic bucket on the ground just inside the gate to the paddock.

          ‘There’s no shade here for this little horse,’ she said, ‘and no-one’s bringing it water - even in this heat!’

          ‘Horses need a lot of water, don’t they?’ I don’t know a great deal about horses, and I'm not that keen on them.

          ‘They certainly do. A regular-sized horse can drink 10 litres a day. And this little thing has been drinking nearly that much every day this last week.’

          ‘But you shouldn’t have to bring it water. Why aren’t its owners looking after it? It’s so cruel!’

          ‘Yes it is. It could die without water.’

          ‘Should we tell the RSPCA do you think?’

          ‘Best to keep it among ourselves. I don’t want the owners to suspect me of reporting them, which they probably would once they heard I had been bringing water. Don’t worry, it’s all in hand. Old Norm is going to have a quiet word in the right ear.’

          I wasn’t so sure any word from Old Norm in any ear could be quiet, but I was happy to learn something was being done to address the problem, and hopefully shame the owners to either sell the pony or look after it properly.

          I learned some time ago that while country people in our village might appear to have a fairly cold relationship with animals, both domestic and wild, they can’t abide suffering. And so, smallholdings might raise pigs and sheep almost as pets, in relatively luxurious conditions and even giving them names – but once they are big enough they are led away to the slaughterhouse without any hesitation. Deer, rabbits and squirrels might be shot as pests, or to be eaten, but no-one from the village would admit to leaving any creature half alive to die slowly of their wounds. At the same time, our village is proud to help with the preservation of owl, butterfly and bat colonies, and outside experts are frequent visitors, especially those involved in plotting the habitats of adders and grass snakes inhabiting rough land.

          Young Sally climbed back up into the cab of the tractor. She called down to me, ‘See you in the pub later? One more load of bales should do it. Should have it all in by tonight.’ She suddenly sounded rather despondent at the prospect of the work finishing for another year.

          ‘Ok,’ I said. ‘I’m buying!’ It was the least I could do, given how she was looking after someone else’s horse. One good turn deserves another, after all.



Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The School Fete

If swarms of cyclists, cream teas at the shop and house sale signs aren't enough to signal the advent of summer in our village, you can be sure it has arrived once all the local event notices go up.

Throughout the summer months, these little signs mushroom at T-junctions, sharp bends in the road and in front of the Church and the village shop; the landlady even permits a select few on the pub’s grass verge. They urge you to attend all manner of summer events – steam fairs, gardens open for charity, summer fetes, mediaeval jousts, and fun dog shows - to mention but a few variations on a theme. For the more highbrow there are string quartets with Pimms, and Shakespeare in pub gardens; then open air evening performances of operas, or the 1812 complete with canons. You could fill every weekend with these events, and still be spoilt for choice.

Tramp and I went to our first summer fete last weekend, held on our village green in aid of the local school. The hot weather had brought everyone out, and we chatted to friends and neighbours we met as we took a leisurely stroll around stalls. The beer tent in the far corner acted like a magnet to the thirsty, a useful half-way point to cool down. Indeed, so popular was it that they ran out of beer later in the afternoon, and after a frantic ring-around, Brian volunteered to drive to the fete being held a couple of villages away to buy one of their surplus barrels (at a huge profit to them).

Each event followed fast on the heels of the one before throughout the afternoon. I felt for the children performing their country dances and sports displays in the central arena where there was no shade; and similarly, because of the heat, I couldn’t put Tramp, or myself as his escort, through the ordeal of the ‘fun’ dog show (and surely these shows are really for children with their pets?) Permeating all arena activities, and filling the brief gaps in between, were booming announcements given by someone who had evidently always longed to hold a microphone to his mouth, and who should never have been allowed within arm’s length of one.

We did our part, though, to help replenish the school’s coffers for the year, although I’m not sure what the money is needed for. I seriously doubt any child in the school’s entire catchment area is in dire need of books, pencils or crayons, or even an iPhone or iPad, or two. Besides buying tickets for every raffle we came across, we bought cakes at the cake stall and an ice cream at the ice-cream stand; we bought cold drinks and yes, a beer or two from the beer tent. We had a cream tea later in the tea tent. We bought sweets and plants; second hand books I shall probably never read; and a selection of cheeses – to go with the bottle of red I won on the bottle stall.

All good things must come to an end, and once I felt we had thoroughly investigated everything every stall had to offer, Tramp and I took our leave. As I wandered past the shop and the pub I noticed how eerily quiet they were – although the pub may not have opened yet for the evening, of course. It occurred to me that there were probably ten times as many people at the fete than would normally frequent both premises combined, on a single day – and that like me, they were all buying what both the shop and the pub sold every day of the week.

So rather than raising funds, the school fete really re-distributed what could otherwise be local business income – and then some. I wondered if the cheese had come from the shop in the first place.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Church Hall AGM

Last week we had the AGM for the Church Hall committee in our village. Tramp and I went along, to lend our support. Along with Marianne, we were the only residents to represent the ‘interested public’.

The Church Hall has had a fairly good year financially it seems, especially from being hired out for children’s parties and local club meetings. These were interspersed with the usual crop of the latest exercise classes that mushroom through the winter - yoga, Pilates and Zumba each enjoyed a predictably short run in our village despite the initial bouncy enthusiasm of the organiser.

Brian, as treasurer, soon turned to the Hall’s fund-raising events held through the year, and again, the news was of unparalleled profit. He distributed copies of the Profit and Loss statement and Balance Sheet to all those present as he spoke, delivering his report with a professional ease.

In our village, there is also a certain predictability to which fundraisers are held each year, and who holds each one. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say the assumed ‘rights’ to a particular event are jealously guarded. A few years ago, the youth club committee even threatened to sue the football club for threatening to run a second Easter egg hunt that year, a week before the youth club’s regular hunt. The football club backed down, and contented themselves with the fireworks display and bonfire in November which they always lay claim to.

Similarly, every year the local school runs the summer fete on the green, while the gardening club organises its late summer BBQ (this year they are ringing the changes, slightly, with a hog roast, but no-one is sure if this is a wise move). The cricket team tried a winter 'barn' dance last year in their pavilion, but with little success – just as they have been unable to rally enough men to field a team this summer, they found it difficult to encourage men to come to a dance, even one where a caller shouts the moves.

To raise money for the church, and to tap into the more moneyed classes whose social calendar spares little room for lowbrow village events, Judith and Donald have always arranged a summer opera evening, with Pimms, on the lawns of The Manor (or in their real barn if it is raining). Once the Manor is sold, if it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if a covenant wasn’t written into the contract binding the new owners to continue to arrange the opera night.

All these competing events through the year make it difficult to come up with new ideas for how the Church Hall might raise funds for itself. And so, at the AGM the fall back position was re-assumed - the quiz night, the autumn ‘party’ (avoiding the gender-divisive word, ‘dance’ at all costs), and the Christmas murder-mystery were all scheduled.

          ‘These events all brought a tidy profit last year,’ said Brian, ‘so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do so again this year.’      

That said, a vote of thanks was proposed and seconded to the outgoing committee, and duly minuted. The same committee members were then re-elected with unsmiling formality. Like our village’s social calendar, no real changes were made; but there would need to be a fairly drastic set of circumstances to justify any alteration to what has become the status quo. In any case, it meant that proceedings were over fairly quickly and we could all adjourn to the pub – having ‘phoned ahead, as usual, to make sure the landlady had opened up.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

First of the season

With the warmer weather the tell-tale signs of summer start to appear…

On our walks recently, Tramp and I have found the bluebells have all but faded in the woods, while nettles and brambles have fast gained ground. The bracken has started to stir, with new fronds unfurling almost every day. Along the lane, the hedge is alive with birds and the cow parsley sends up a heady scent.

And in our village pub, although the welcoming fire is still burning in the inglenook, drinkers have been spotted sitting in the pub garden. Outside the shop, June and George have put up the awning over the picnic table to shield cream tea customers from harsh sunlight. The drone of mowers can be heard most evenings, and isolated swarms of silent cyclists glide and swerve as one body, negotiating our winding, twisting roads at break-neck speeds. The cricket pitch has been mowed even though we don’t have enough players to form a team this season. And at the weekend, Tramp and I went to our first BBQ of the year – this one at Lawrence and Geraldine’s next door.

There’s nothing like a casual BBQ for catching up with several neighbours in one fell swoop. Like our roads, the conversation twisted and turned in its route from topic to topic just as it always does at any gathering in our village. First off the mark was a discussion of houses currently up for sale – the number is growing – and of course everyone had carried out in advance (as soon as a board went up) sufficient internet research to support firmly held opinions on respective asking prices, and whether the property in question could possibly fetch theirs. Geraldine even knew how many toilets each house has, as a valuable benchmarking criteria. No sellers had a whisper of an offer, though, so asking prices remained fairly academic.

The pub as a topic also had its usual airing. There had been a few changes to the list of those currently banned or recently reinstated after a banning. We all worried about the lack of customers and how easily people gave up going to the pub altogether, simply because of the landlady’s cavalier approach to consistent opening hours, or opening up at all. And as usual we all pondered the unanswerable question of what would happen should the landlady give up running the pub, for whatever reason. We came up with no answers.

The recent postings on the village Face book page also came up for discussion. Mothers still seem intent on divesting their children of their toys and ‘hardly worn’ clothing – some seem to be in a constant state of flux, ceaselessly ‘clearing out’ and, presumably, replenishing stocks at the same time. It’s mind-boggling, the amount of toys and equipment children in our village have to be disposed of. Then the hobby farmers always have weird and wonderful items to sell, or which are urgently needed. Lately it seems there has been a run on castration rings. None of us really wanted to consider how these worked.

About half way through proceedings, with the first round of charred burgers out of the way, Tramp disgraced himself slightly by relieving himself in Lawrence’s rose bed. (But at least he removed himself to a discreet distance.) This prompted a turn in the discussion to the contentious issue of ‘dog poo’ in the village, even on the green, and the reluctance of certain people (who remained unnamed, but who we all silently identified) to clear up after their hounds. The matter had been raised at the recent meeting of the parish council, it seemed, but no appropriate action had been determined upon.

The talk of dogs must have put Janet in mind of the recent conversation she had overheard in the shop last week.

          “Carol from New Cottage (which isn’t) said she saw a black puma, chasing around the football pitch!”

We were all struck dumb as we tried to absorb this news, while picturing a puma streaming past the goal posts.

          “A puma?” queried Lawrence, playing for time. “Are they the same as jaguars?”

          “That’s what she said it was. A puma! But it was getting dark at the time, apparently.”

          “Maybe it’s escaped from a zoo… or a private owner?” suggested Geraldine.

          “People really will certainly worry about their chickens and lambs now!” said Lawrence, ignoring the potential danger to human life.

We all then tried to think what Carol from New Cottage (which isn’t) might have actually seen. After much conversational to-ing and fro-ing, the most likely contender to emerge was a young, shiny-coated black lab, possibly chasing a rabbit. But we couldn’t be sure.

While the black lab idea was reassuring, this did bring the conversation down to the mundane. The topic turned to the seemingly heartfelt one of laundry, and starching and ironing sheets at that (even fitted ones)! I felt out of my depth and took this as my cue to leave.

Tramp and I wandered home, calling goodbyes as we left and ready to dodge bicycle swarms; happy in the knowledge of having helped resolve so many issues pressing on people’s minds, and to have caught up with our neighbours’ news. Or had we?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Youth of Today

Now that the longer evenings are well and truly with us, Tramp and I generally set off for our main walk of the day at around 6.00 p.m. Last night we came back past the Church Hall where young teenagers were lining up for Youth Club in a rather disorderly fashion.

The noise of course was astonishing, but it was driven by excitement and anticipation I believe, rather than any desire to misbehave. Two or three of the girls at the end of the queue spotted Tramp and two came over to stroke him, overpowering us both in their effusiveness.

          ‘Oh, he’s so lovely… so cute!’

          ‘Isn’t his fur soft! I just sooooo  love dogs!’

          They were playing to the gallery, of course. They were full-on, but hardly threatening. Eventually I managed to peel their arms from around his neck, and Tramp and I carried on our way.

          There is a lot of grumbling about young people in our village, as I’m sure there is in many others. At the last Church Hall meeting, scuffed paintwork looked like it might become a major issue, but Youth Club members had already volunteered to organise a working-bee to clean all the paintwork, which of course batted away any further objections.

Another recent complaints non-runner was the matter of the lad who had managed to break a window pane at the hall during a rather too boisterous game of table tennis. His father made him buy a new pane of glass from his pocket money, ready-cut to size, then he had to fit it. Finally he had to come back again and touch up the surrounding paintwork. He made an awful mess of it, and neither glazing nor interior design should probably feature in his career development plan, but that wasn’t the point.

This is really our village’s pathetic level of vandalism, if you can even call it that. Personally, I'd like to see a little more rebellion. Sam, the Youth Club worker employed by our Parish Council, often says that the worst he has to contend with is getting the kids to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And then only sometimes.

He adds, “Yet parents are always saying they won’t send their children to Youth Club because it’s too rough. Here, in this village! Too rough!!” Sam has worked in much harsher environments.

We did have a case of outright theft in the village, though, last year. The shop often sells the tickets for local fund-raisers – this time it was for a quiz night and fish and chip supper (from the mobile van that was booked especially – normally it parks up in the village every week, much like the mobile library). Walking home from the shop one night, Mrs Purton noticed a plastic container and a number of ‘Quiz Nite + Fish ‘n’ chip Supper’ tickets strewn in the ditch near her house. She immediately turned around and took them back to the shop – but the money for the tickets sold, of course, was not there.

I was in the shop myself at the time and it was easy to narrow-down the list of suspects - given Mrs Purton had not spotted the discarded tickets when she left home, and that there had only been one other customer in the shop within the critical time-frame.

“I bet you it was that young Douglas from up the lane,” pronounced June at the shop. “He’s been skulking around the shelves a lot lately, and today he had me go out the back for a packet of Cheese and Onion, which somehow we’d run out of. He must have taken the ticket box then.”

“He would have been casing the joint,” said Mrs Purton, obviously affected by an over-indulgence in crime thrillers since her retirement.

But the matter was easily resolved. June rang Douglas’ father then and there, and within twenty minutes he had extracted a confession and dragged him down to the shop to apologise. He still had the money, and he handed it over, right down to the last penny. Furthermore, he agreed to help clear tables at the Church Hall after the fish ‘n’ chip supper.

No more was said, but I suspect that a life of crime will not feature too prominently on Douglas’ future career path.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Missing Home

This week as I write, I am away from my village – and away from Tramp, while I stay with friends in a big city. I’ve savoured the sights, and the cuisine. I’ve worked diligently through the guidebook to leave no corner unexplored, no historical fact unacknowledged. I’ve felt the pace, loaded with anticipation. Now I’m ready to return home.

          I’ve walked along hard streets and now find I miss soft clay beneath my feet (even where it means dodging the quagmire churned by horses’ hooves). I’ve felt the texture of smooth granite and polished brass handles and I miss the roughness of a splintering fencepost and the cold, wet rust of a gate’s chain. I’ve wandered through department stores and clothes’ rails, and now I miss the brush of a stray leafy branch against my face.

          I miss the hammering of woodpeckers that you never see, the hedgerows alive with chirruping birdsong and the pad of Tramp’s soft footfall at my side. I miss the blanket of silence as night falls, broken by an owl’s cry or the impossible trill of a nightingale. Instead I’ve settled into the continuous growl and rumble of traffic, mingled with a screech of brakes or a distant call of car horns.

          And the bitter odour of engines rising from the street is no substitute for the freshness of clean Spring leaves after rain, its sharp greenness lingering above where the air is earthy and still, deep in the woods.
          Of course I’ve met some friendly people here, but I miss those I know in my village, and the time they take to greet and to talk about nothing of consequence, when considered at a city level. I’m looking forward to being among them with Tramp, enjoying the familiarity of home – something I could not feel it so intensely had I not been away.